The current crisis in Syria has seen a largely inconsistent and vacillating foreign policy response from Turkey. This has led many to argue that Ankara’s foreign policy, called ‘zero problems with neighbors’, has failed. However, Turkey’s approach to foreign policy, and the goals of a nation’s foreign policy in general, focus on long-term strategic considerations. In Syria, however, Ankara is facing a crisis that calls for short-term responses and thus declaring ‘zero problems with neighbors’ a failure draws with too broad a brush.
Since the end of the Cold War, and particularly since the ascent of the Islamist AKP government in 2002 Turkish foreign policy has changed significantly. The securitized perception of the bipolar world made way for a Turkey that began to remember its Ottoman past and thus its immediate neighborhood. Ahmet Davutoğlu was the architect of this new orientation, serving as a chief advisor to the AKP government before assuming the office of foreign minister in 2009. According to him, ‘you can change everything in foreign policy, economic capacity, technological capacity or military capacity, but you cannot change two things. Your geography, space, and your history, time.’
Consequently, he promoted a foreign policy orientation in which Turkey aimed to reach out to its neighbours, with which it previously had relatively cool-to-hostile relationships. This shift coincided with criticism of the previous focus on Ankara’s Western allies and a rediscovery of Islamic identity as well – both these changes led some to warn of ‘neo-Ottomanism’, a revived Turkish imperialist project. However, it can be seen as a strategic vision of Davutoğlu and the AKP government in order to gain regional importance as a central power. Throughout the 2000s this was rewarded by an increasingly positive perception of Turkey among Arabs, reaching 80% approval rating in 2010. For many Arabs, the ‘Turkish model’ seemed to show that democracy can be established in a Muslim society. Besides the positive perception, Turkey engaged with several Arab countries, seeking rapprochement after decades of scepticism during the Cold War. This is also true for Syria: Ankara and Damascus increased their political cooperation, addressing old issues such as Syria support for Kurdish insurgents and water distribution from Euphrates and Tigris. With this rapprochement, trade swelled and visa restrictions were lifted.
When the tides of the Arab Spring hit Syria in early 2011, Turkey, and other states, needed to adapt to the new security environment with short-term responses. Over the first few months of the Syrian crisis, Ankara tried to influence Bashar al-Assad to implement meaningful reforms and thus meet the demands of the masses. It was with disappointment that Turkey turned its back on the Syrian president when he did not give in, but instead continued to crush protests. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then imposed sanctions on Syria and for the first time called for Bashar al-Assad to step down publicly in late September 2011. Ankara simultaneously began to support both political and military opposition groups in order to topple the Syrian regime. The increasing radicalization and violence in the conflict, however, led Turkey to favor an international, US-led, intervention in Syria by early 2013, particularly after the use of chemical weapons in late August 2013. However, the deal brokered by the US and Russia stole the thunder from Ankara’s sails soon after.
Turkey’s foreign policy towards Syria, at first glance, appears wavering. However, this is mainly due to the nature of short-term responses to a changing crisis situation – and Ankara is all but alone in its seemingly indecisive stance. Short-term decisions often, besides exacerbating the cost of long-term goals through path dependence, are also costly both regarding material and diplomatic means that could be used elsewhere. Moreover, they can severely cut public support down, as the drop in the approval rate for Turkey in 2012 of only 69% suggests. Ankara still tries to make lasting decisions regarding the medium and long term, though, as the support for Sunni forces in Syria suggests – Ankara hopes that a Sunni, moderate and pro-Turkish government will emerge after the civil war. Both this goal and the possibility therefore are a product of the new foreign policy principles described above: the rediscovery of Turkey’s neighborhood and the historical pre-republic heritage, including Islam.
Besides Syria, Ankara’s relations with Iran further highlight its long-term objectives because, much like Ankara-Damascus, the connections with Tehran have seen significant rapprochement over the past decade. Tellingly, although Turkey and Iran find themselves on opposing sides in Syria, their relation is still close in other issues. Foreign policy principles, such as ‘zero problems with neighbors’, have an inherent long-term focus. Erupting crises like the current uprising in Syria require short-term responses; yet, that does not mean that the initial focus is abandoned. Consequently, calling the new Turkish foreign policy a failure is highly premature.