MERI Forum 2014 | S3: Turkey in the Neighborhood (Part 2)


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 Şaban Kardaş (President, ORSAM)

I am pleased to be here attending this inaugural event. I am also very pleased to be here with Cengiz Bey whom I have been reading since my early years as a student and later as a university professor. I have some disagreements with him which I will save for the end of my presentation, especially the moments of truth because I am a close follower of his writing. He has been talking about very important moments of truth but sometimes they do hold but sometimes they don’t. So, I am a bit pessimistic whether Kobani is the real moment of truth in this big game that is unfolding in the Middle East.

Mr. Manis asked me to talk about the Turkish neighbourhood policy. I would also start briefly and share with you how I see it. Partly it will overlap with Mr. Cengiz’s presentation. I always to talk about the regional policy of Turkey also reminding the fact that Turkey is a multi-regional power although right now we are talking and focusing mostly on the Middle Eastern dimension of Turkish Foreign Policy. When we look at Turkey’s regional policies, we see some themes, principles that do appear not only in the Middle East but also in other regions.

We have to keep that multi-regional dimension. Of course when we apply that to the Middle East there are special characteristics of that regional policy and then sometimes that policy has been characterised as new-Ottomanism and sometimes mistakenly as ‘zero problems’ policy. This is I think one of the most fundamental misunderstandings and misconceputalisations of Turkey’s regional policies. The way I see it, the way I think that Prime Minister Davutoglu, framed the ‘zero problems’ principle when he was still a chief advisor, is the following. So, in his understanding Turkey is a regional power, not a normal regional power. He doesn’t like Turkey to be called a regional power. He instead prefers what he calls ‘merkez ulke’, ‘central power’. So, central power is a unique category which he thinks that Turkey does deserve but for long time Turkey did ignore. Now, it is time for Turkey to act like a central power and interestingly the ‘zero problems’ policy is only one of the principles that do make up a central power. It is again interesting that ‘zero problems with neighbours’ is the second principle and not the first. The first is balance between freedom and security at home and in the region and there are other principles too. So, this conceptual clarification is needed to understand the transformation of Turkey’s regional policy, the two phases you mentioned. I also agree because in the two phases we don’t see policy change. The policy is still the same, i.e. the central power concept but the principles that are highlighted are changing in the two phases because of the very nature of the region which we have to keep in mind.

So, what does this central power concept mean? It does mean that Turkey should reclaim its prestige position in the region; come back to the region with more extensive ties as Cengiz suggested with soft power but also with political instruments. For instance, the recent foreign policy initiatives of Turkey have developed what we call high level strategic cooperation councils which were initially developed in Syria, Iraq and later in Russia, Greece and with other neighbours. So, it’s not just a soft power strategy, it is also very much a political strategic approach where we see high level strategic dialogue. Economic power is one part of it. Usually, I used to see it as a sort of neoliberalism from the international relations jargon perspective of the region and regional order. In a sense Turkey was trying to bolster, crystallise and trigger regionalisation, regional level cooperation, and regional integration in the Middle East in the Balkans with the hope that Turkey will be central to it. So, this is the central power approach.

In a sense Turkey was trying to build a regional order and in that sense at the time until the so called Arab Spring Turkey was getting ready to act with the existing rulers. It didn’t see any problem in cooperating with them but still in the background Turkey did have this transformative vision about the political systems. In 2003 for instance, Abdullah Gul’s presentation at the time, Davutoglu’s speeches here and there between 2004 and 2005 speaking to different international and regional and Muslim audiences. They all had the notion of political transformation in the region but it wasn’t at the very forefront of Turkish Foreign Policy. Later when the Syrian uprising started, actually at one point Assad said well you know this Erdogan he kept saying when he visited Damascus to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood. Post facto we can say that even when Erdogan or Turkey was talking to Assad in the background the transformative vision was much there. I think we should underline that.

But still, overall, you had to work with the current regimes because they were in a sense credible and sustainable partners that could deliver in order to implement the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy. When you cut a deal you knew they would deliver. But after the Arab Spring and the following regional transformation, the problem is not just that borders are questioned but the rulers are losing their legitimacy and credibility and ability to deliver. This is the problem and this is where we move into a new phase. But still when we used to talk about ‘zero problems’, I wouldn’t agree with Mr. Cengiz characterisation that before 2010 Turkey did not apply the ‘zero problems with neighbours’ principle vis-à-vis the KRG. Actually it started after 2007-2008. If only Murat Ozcelik had been able to come here today. He was very instrumental when he was serving in Baghdad to initiate that policy. It is not the case that ‘zero problems with neighbours’ principle applied to KRG started after that. This started before that. In academic writings we did cover it as part of Turkey’s new foreign policy.

Overall, with the Arab Spring being the biggest challenge, Turkey is trying to stimulate a regional integration mechanism, regional order based on the regional actors. So, the paradigm I used in my own writings is regional solutions to regional problems. This was some sort of the gist and the…of Turkey’s neighbourhood policy before the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring started, I think that Turkey still wanted to go with the same rhythm especially in Syria. Initially, Turkey tried to solve it in dialogue with Iran but it did realise that it wasn’t able to deliver. After that, Foreign Minister Davutoglu I remember in early 2012 he visited Tehran, Moscow, Washington. Over time, Turkey realised that the regional divisions among Sunni and other actors where so deep that the regional paradigm was not able to deliver. Then, Turkey on its own lacked the capability to solve the region’s deep problems and this is what we see. Turkey is coordinating deeply with the West. The change of Turkey’s position happened in NATO; early warning systems as part of the missile shield project. Turkey’s invitation to NATO…batteries along the Syrian borders. We see that the regional paradigm the neighbourhood policy paradigm is affected by that. But still when the Arab uprising started Turkey acted with this what I called transformative vision that in the long run the transformation in the region will be good because there will be more representative regimes. Whoever comes to power probably will be closer to Turkey than the current rulers. So, Turkey was in a sense betting in the future and jumped into the business that supported the transformation.

But still again another point that I would like to disagree on with Mr. Cengiz is that support was not the main critical independent variable to explain the regional transformation. So, here I think in order to assess whether Turkish Foreign Policy is successful or failed or whether Iranian Foreign Policy or whether the Kurds are winning or losing, we have to look at the region’s transformation, the big tectonic transformation. Is it Turkey causing it or is it something external to Turkey? I think that the transformation is so deep that even if Turkey had stayed completely out of it, it would have taken place anyway. So, Turkey in essence is external to the transformation trying to respond to it, not shape it. So, most of the analysis that suggested that Turkey created a mess and now is paying the price does miss the fact that the transformation is so deep that it is beyond any single actor’s ability to shape it. So, when we do evaluate an individual country’s policy in terms of success or failure I think we have to keep that in mind.

So, what Turkey tried to implement was a transformative vision. It pursued the policy of engagement. I think that the most obvious reflection was in the case for instance the open door to the Syrian refugees. In the literature, we always teach our students in international security classes, refugees are a security threat. Turkey could have adopted a similar approach from day one. Instead of that, I know that Prime Minister Erdogan at that time said anybody who tries to cross should be allowed on humanitarian grounds. So, this is an engagement policy but it comes at a risk. Now, all the foreign fighters are responsible for this part of the Syrian story. I think that there are partly some risks that Turkey took by pursuing an active engagement strategy. I remember Cengiz Bey after the Reyhanli bombings; he said well there is a price to pay as a regional power. So, this is one approach I think that Erdogan also adopted very much. So, this was an active engagement policy. It did expose Turkey in certain aspects, but it was a risk that was taken because in the long run Turkey I think still considers that the transformation process might evolve into something that would be in line with Turkish expectations. But overtime especially the Syrian conflict and the recent phase of the Syrian conflict after Iraq you see that the regional transformation has been characterised by the security externalities more than the political transformation. This is what is putting pressure on Turkey’s engagement policy.

Now, we see suggestions coming from the oppositional parties, suggestions of a sort of isolation or containment which has been the Western policy to some extent. But personally the way I perceive it, Turkey will not go as far as containment or isolation but Turkey will have to maintain a very critical distance, still engaged but now more conscious and aware of the security externalities of the regional transformation. Now, the challenge in the region is deep as I said. Usually, when I mark my students’ essays, there is no fixed best answer. So, when I mark one student, he can get A in one class but the same student can get C in another class. Every evolution is relative. In order to evaluate Turkish Foreign Policy, Turkish success, Turkish failure, we have to keep in mind the context. The regional transformation is so deep. Now, we can’t use the normal criteria. We can’t use the criteria of 2010 to evaluate Turkish Foreign Policy of 2014.

We cannot use soft power because originally I was very critical when Mr. Cengiz was very supportive of AKP’s foreign policy. I was critical because they were talking too much about soft power. You cannot ignore hard power. Right now the problem is not that Turkey has given up soft power, the problem is that we lack enough hard power or other means to respond to the current challenge in the region which is very deep. Secondly, we do great at the end of the exam; not in the middle of the exam. So, I think this is also another important point. Are we done? Is the process over? Who is winning, who is losing. I remember Bashar Al Assad was interviewed back in 2012 by a Western journalist I guess: Mr. Assad do you think you made some mistakes? “Well let’s wait till the end of the game.” Well, I think Assad was smarter than most of us. It sounds so. We don’t know what the end game is. I think that regional transformation is a deep long-term game that is unfolding.

What we say today about the rise of Kurds, two days later it might be different. When I was here in April, everybody was talking about independence but in the last two days there is a completely different atmosphere here. In two months’ time, in two years’ time, we don’t know. So, this is a long-term game. We have to be provisional in our conclusions. There is no moment of truth that decides the fate of Turkey, the fate of Kurds or another actor. The game is still unfolding. We have to keep that in mind. Then, Turkey has not failed or succeeded. There are challenges. Turkey has been given hard tests. If I were in power, I might have acted differently but overall I think Turkish Foreign Policy gets a passing grade. So, there is still pragmatism. Turkey still affects the outcomes on the ground. You talked about the rise of the Kurds and the fall of Turkey’s sort of reasoning but we know the financial condition of the KRG, we know where Turkey stands on it, what contribution Turkey does to the financial, economic and the political independence of the KRG. We have to look at the real power distribution and the power asymmetries in the region. So, I think that Turkey is fine. There is a good degree of pragmatism to respond to the changing situation; Kobani is a good example. Turkey did make a contribution on conditions.

I think there is one more element which is the principled aspect of Turkish Foreign Policy. This is very tied to Egypt. In recent years Turkey has also tried to act in more principled ways, in more idealistic ways. I think this is good but this is sort of a liability in some sense. The principled approach is coming with a price that is limiting the pragmatism, especially in the case of Egypt or in the case of the impact of Egypt on Turkey-Gulf relations. That principled approach is sometimes limiting Turkey’s ability to move according to what the situation dictates but it is a matter of whether you can pay the price. The decision-makers still can. I think maybe we could have acted differently.

Comments are closed.