Turkey in the Neighborhood: MERI Forum 2014 | S3:P1


Session 3: Turkey in the neighbourhood
Date: 05/11/2014

Part 1: Intervention of Cengiz Çandar (Journalist, Turkey)
Part 2: Intervention of Şaban Kardaş (ORSAM)
Part 3: Intervention of Michael Werz (CPA)
Part 4: Questions & Answers Session


Transcription of Cengiz Çandar (Journalist, Turkey) 

Thank you. First, I have to express my happiness to be in Erbil because of the MERI Forum 2014. I have witnessed its inception. It’s less than a year ago when we met in Istanbul with Dr. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen discussing how a think tank can be formed in the Kurdistan region. As we are now witnessing, today less than a year later MERI is born in a very impressive environment with a very high level and impressive participation. I thank Dlawer Ala’Aldeen for being very efficient in establishing this MERI Forum. I believe that it will be one of the exemplary institutions that the Kurds are introducing to the Middle East in our times.

I just want to start my talk with a reference to a person which I have certain similarities with. His name is Joschka Fisher. He was the Foreign Minister of Germany. The similarity is that we are of the same age. He is 6 months older than me. Secondly, in our youth, although we are still young in many ways, we were both Marxist activists. So, we have a very similar background. Thirdly, as I think alike in many strategic issues, I would like just to refer to a very recent article published 3 days ago under the title “the Middle East: New Winners and Losers”. This is the title of his article in which he says that the Islamic State’s military triumphs in Iraq and Syria are not only fuelling a humanitarian catastrophe, they are also throwing the region’s existing alliances into disarray and even calling into question national borders. A new Middle East is emerging; one that differs from the First World War order in two significant ways. The first is an enhanced role for the Kurds and Iran. The second is the diminished influence for the region’s Sunni powers. These are his observations.

I made a reference to his very recent article because I share more or less his views. There are three issues we will be talking about. Firstly, I refer to the emergence of a new Middle East. We will be thinking, debating, discussing and commenting on a new Middle East. Secondly there are winners in this new Middle East. I know this requires a lot of debate, but I would argue that this is Iran. In addition, it is generally accepted that the Kurds are winners as if there is a consensus and as if it has become an indisputable fact. There is no reference to a specific name or a specific organisation or an institution or an entity like the KRG or Rojava, but there is a reference to the Kurds in general as a winning actor in the formation of the new Middle East.

The argument about losers refers to the region’s Sunnis powers. One of them is Turkey. The other – if they merit to be called a power – is Saudi Arabia. I have nothing against Qatar but some people should forgive me if I say that Qatar is not a power. It doesn’t have the ingredients to be called a power. Egypt could be a power but it is again because of a variety of reasons, on the losing edge of the emerging New Middle East.

But our issue here is to discuss Turkey and its foreign policy. So, then Turkey is categorised through its policy vis-à-vis the emergence of the New Middle East. Each one of the losing ends of the new Middle East equation has diminished influence as mentioned above. There is an interesting asymmetry yet in this qualification in the sense that inherently it means if there is a Kurdish rise then there is a Turkish demise or diminishing influence if we put it in milder terms. This shouldn’t be the case. With Turkey’s rise the Kurds should rise or with the Kurdish rise the Turkish position as a projecting power in the region should also rise. So, there is an asymmetry and if there is an asymmetry – which exists – then there is something wrong with the Turkish Foreign Policy (TFP). Can we measure the mistake if there is a mistake and I believe there is a mistake in the TFP in terms of the neighbourhood of course which happens to be our panel’s title?

It is a very empirical measure that I will be referring to. In 2008, we had the same political power in Turkey, Justice and Development party or AKP. Today’s Prime Minister was Turkey’s Foreign Minister, the architect of its neighbourhood policy and today’s President was Turkey’s Prime Minister at the time. That was year 2008 and Turkey nominated itself to become a member of the UN Security Council. The vote was carried out in 2008. Turkey received 151 votes and was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. That was a remarkable measure of success for the TFP. The international system was acting as a recipient of a functional and important Turkey through its foreign policy. This year Turkey again nominated itself to be the non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and the Turkish Foreign Minister went in person for lobbying to New York. The number of votes Turkey received was 61. It lost with a margin of nearly 100 votes. Six years ago it was 151. Now it is 61. The information that leaked to the Turkish media was that it was mainly Saudis and Egyptians lobbying against Turkey’s membership who are supposed to be Sunni power centres of the Middle East. They lobbied against another Sunni power centre at a time and in a period where this region is having dramatic and drastic sectarian conflict.

So, after highlighting this point, we can go back to what happened. There are two different phases of today’s government’s foreign policy performance. The first period was an uphill trend presumably a successful Turkish foreign policy that put Turkey at the international stage as an important emerging regional power and functional international player. What made it is the introduction of Turkish soft power. In that way, Turkey entered the Middle East game or moved into its neighbourhood. It departed from passive policies and adopted a proactive policy vis-à-vis the Middle East and the neighbourhood through the introduction of commerce, trade and in the political arena through mediation efforts. So, this is what was called the introduction of soft power.

The Turks in this region were registered in history ruling the region with their muscle for 400 years through a centralised imperial state system. Now there is a new Turkey coming back to the region through its soft power with goods, services and diplomacy. This did happen and could happen with a position of not asking any regime change in the region. That means that Turkey was ready to engage with whoever is in power, whoever is in government anywhere in the region. Baghdad fine, Damascus fine, Amman fine. Tel Aviv all right. With Cairo things went well.

So, the ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy that was coined by the architect of this Turkish opening the then Foreign Minister, incumbent Prime Minister, Mr. Davutoglu was a good phrase; it was a good music to many ears. No problems with the neighbours. If you accept the status-quo, then there are no problems with the neighbours. We had only problems with the Kurds in Turkey. There was no recognition in the way it had to be with the KRG, with Erbil. Other than Erbil there were really ‘zero problems with the neighbours’. The big change came with the Arab Spring. What is called in the international media as Arab Spring. With the Arab Spring the same government, the same architects of the Turkish foreign policy stepped in to sponsor the change. So, it was a very radical shift from engaging with the status-quo into changing the status quo, sponsoring the change. If that would be successful that would be the emergence of a new imperial Turkey in the new age. But it did not become successful. It turned out to be all problems with every neighbour except for the KRG. Since 2009 new relations have developed. So, with the exception of the KRG – just the opposite of what it was before the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy – Turkey moved into problems with everybody in the region which diminished of course its standing and its role. The time limitation makes me to accelerate and I will not be able to say what I intended to say. So, I will jump and maybe during the questions and answers we can deal with some issues. Let me just move very quickly to certain points.

The moment of truth came with Kobani in revealing the imperatives of the current Turkish foreign policy, because Kobani is synonymous to the emergence of Daesh or ISIS in the region. So, when we speak of the moment of truth we speak of ISIS and Kobani which revealed Turkey’s situation that is: 1. it revealed frictions between Turkey and its age long Western allies, above all the US. Turkey is the only NATO member country in the region and the most passive element in the region in dealing with the ISIS threat or a by stander in a way in Kobani. Can you imagine the second largest army in NATO bringing all its tanks sitting 500 meters from Kobani while the Kurdish people of Kobani are facing a threat of a massacre with a flood of refugees coming to the Turkish side of the border and every single television outlet in the world shooting the pictures as a live show of the fight in Kobani. This is shown every day in every news hour everywhere in the world. Millions of people see Turkish tanks deployed and smoke coming up to the sky from Kobani while the Kurds are fighting. At a certain point, the Americans entered the game – while before stayed aloof – by sending supplies from air not from land. The American weapons did not enter Kobani from Isikpinar gate. They were airlifted over Kobani and US is the boss, the chief of the NATO alliance which Turkey is a member of because there is no conversion of Turkey-American policies vis-à-vis Kobani and vis-à-vis ISIS. So, Kobani and ISIS have become the moment of truth revealing Turkey’s new picture of its foreign policy in the neighbourhood.

Number one as I said earlier, it revealed the frictions between its Western allies; above all with the US. Secondly, it created a very bitter perception among the Kurds vis-à-vis Turkey while there was a reconciliation process going on in Turkey. Therefore, jeopardising reconciliation, Turkey jeopardised reconciliation between its old Kurds as well as Syrian Kurds. In Rojava they became integrated with each other. Everyday literally, literally everyday there are funerals of the fallen YPG fighters in Kobani. Where are those funerals taking place? In Diyarbakir, in Van, in Hakkari, in Suruc, in the Turkish Kurdish areas. So, Turkish Kurds and Syrian Kurds have become an integrated whole and the Turkish Foreign Policy is creating a nightmare for the future of the Turkish-Kurdish relations as it is shown in the case of ISIS and the developments in Kobani

To conclude with, I am jumping to the conclusion. What has to be done for Turkey is a new paradigm shift of its neighbourhood policy in total; 180 degrees of what it is at the moment. That needs 1. Reconciliation with its own Kurds in order to promote unity. This will be the domestic dimension of Turkey’s new attitude 2. It has to promote unity between and among the Kurds, between KRG and PKK and PYD, between the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq all together. Until now Turkey is known to have a traditional divide and rule position vis-à-vis the Kurds not only its own Kurds but in general vis-à-vis the Kurds. So, not only has it to reconcile with its own Kurds but it has to promote the unity of the Kurds with the concept of Kurdistan in general. 3. Through this engagement and connection Turkey has to project itself as an emerging regional power which will act as a Turkish-Kurdish power centre. So, this will be the regional dimension of its foreign policy that will come up and all these will ameliorate its relationship with the Western system which Turkey is institutionally a part of.

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