Turkish Foreign Policy: One Step West, Two Steps East

The Ottoman Empire encompassed a huge area at its peak. After the conquest of Constantinople the Ottomans went from strength to strength conquering further into Europe with victories throughout the centuries. In this time a foreign policy was instigated where the Ottomans strived to be the Caliph of the Islamic peoples and unite them under a single banner, as it was in the earlier days under the Abbasids and Ummayads.

The Kemalist government saw a change in foreign policy as the “sick man of Europe” undertook reforms in order to move closer to the West. Post-Kemalist governments also tended to become westernised and moved away from the traditional Ottoman sphere of influence. But since the coming to power of the AKP in 2001, a foreign policy of neo-Ottomanism has come to be once again with the Erdogan, Davutoglu and Gul triumvirate as the architects, despite AKP expectedly denying the claims.

A pasha from 1910 would not find the current circumstances unfamiliar: Western nations intervening in the middle east, a ‘Spring’ of thought and activity throughout Arabia and North Africa, and Turkey trying to regain its old role. The death of the last Ottoman royal family member recently does not mark a new era, but this year and current events do. Turkey has ironically become the ideal secular democracy for Islamic states and its gained influence in the Middle East is shown by new diplomatic ties and Turkey’s hard line pro-Palestine policy, including its persistence on the flotilla issue. It is wrong to think Turkey’s neo-Ottoman approach is on a diplomatic level alone: on an economic level, since 2000 Turkey’s volume of trade with other Islamic nations has nearly doubled.

The ‘zero problems’ with her neighbor’s policy once led Turkey to have strong relations with Syria including joint military manouevres – the same regime that it now takes an aggressive stance against. A Turkish jet shot down in Syrian airspace sparked a debate within Turkey as to how active they should be in assisting a victory for the Free Syrian Army. Though it is hard to not question the integrity of Turkey’s claim that the jet was unintentionally in Syrian airspace, Erdogan said “We are warning the Syrian regime to not make the mistake of testing the determination and capacity of Turkey”. These self-explanatory words follow the neo-Ottoman policy undertaken as Turkey tries to subdue Syria and attempts to position a Turkish “puppet” or an Ankara-friendly government there.

As the fight in Syria rages on, refugees continue to flood into Turkey. The US offers Turkey a larger influence in the future of Syria in the form of increased involvement in the ‘Crisis Working Group’ that is to be set up, but in reflection of Turkey’s whole foreign policy it seems Turkey has bitten off more than it can chew. Its support for the Free Syrian Army has created a vacuum in the Kurdish regions of Syria and, without dealing with its own Kurdish issue, may have invited a ‘Kurdish Spring’ to its Southern border. As put by Sinan Ulgen, head of the leading Istanbul think tank Edam, “The right policy response to this threat is for the Turkish body politic to finally and permanently address Turkey’s own Kurdish problem” but this solution means tackling a problem that has been ignored for years as it’s a large hurdle on Turkey’s quest for regional superiority.

The AKP dream of a dominant Turkey has entered the nightmare phase, with Turkish security threatened by a problem they created. Only time will tell whether Turkey will take on drastic reforms in an attempt to jump the hurdle that is the Kurds, or whether it will attempt to circumvent the hurdle entirely.

— Vahe Boghosian

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