Turkey spent a decade de-emphasizing concerns with neighbors. Now, it’s surrounded by threats.
By: Serhan Ünal
Turkey’s foreign policy has been changing quickly since the end of the 1990s, the most significant feature of which is Turkey’s decreased emphasis on security matters in diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries. Thanks to the de-securitization of regional policy throughout the last 15 years or so, Turkey’s relations expanded rapidly with its southern neighbors, Iran and Syria in particular. However, this period is coming to a close and Turkish policy is increasingly based — once again — on issues of Turkish national security.
Classic Turkish foreign policy (1923-2002) had two major pillars to its Middle East policy — it either clashed with the neighbors to the south for a variety of reasons, or pursued a policy of non-interference in its intraregional affairs. As a result, Turkish-Syrian and Turkish-Iranian relations involved very limited cooperation. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey had few chances to take the initiative, instead acting in line with American policies for the region. In this respect, the Soviet presence and anti-American tendencies in Syria and Iraq, and later, in post-revolutionary Iran, prevented relations from expanding beyond the security domain. In regards to Turkish-Syrian relations, Syrian claims to Hatay province in Turkey, the access to and control of the Euphrates, and most importantly, Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) kept relations locked into a security-based framework. In terms of Turkish-Iranian relations, although there has been a fairly well-agreed upon border since the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab, increasing ideological differences between Iran and Turkey after the 1979 revolution have caused relations to deteriorate. Along other portions of the Turkish border, ongoing disputes over continental shelf boundaries in the Aegean Sea, Greek claims about the Turkish military presence in the North Cyprus, and the clashing views of Turks and Armenians on the events of 1915 have pushed security issues to the fore.
The shift in Turkish foreign policy is a recent phenomenon. Towards the end of 1990s, there emerged increasing signs of change within the Turkish foreign policy ethos. Numerous reasons can be proffered, such as the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s accession process to the European Union (EU), fundamental changes in Turkish domestic politics, a significant increase in the government’s capacity and aspirations, American intervention in Iraq, and the rise of “revisionist” Kurdish groups in the region.
When the Cold War ended, Ankara had a chance to break its self-imposed limits for closer relations with its neighbors. The enmity between pro-American Turkey and pro-Soviet Syria was healed to a large extent as both parties could escape from the ideological lenses of Cold War which tended to present their issues as security matters (although Syrian support to the PKK slowed down their reconciliation considerably). In a more relaxed atmosphere, decision-makers from all parties could come together and discuss the solutions without being pegged to global security regimes. Turkish relations with former Soviet republics have similarly benefited from the end of the Cold War; most notably Turkish-Georgian relations.
Another factor was Turkey’s insistence on EU membership, which contributed to a change in Turkish policymakers’ mindsets. Europe’s emphasis on soft power rather than coercion has been increasingly reflected in Turkish foreign policy as the membership bid proceeded. Turkish-Armenian rapprochement in 2009-2010, which stalled later, is a prominent example of this paradigm shift. As the process advanced and Turkey became a “candidate” country, Turkish diplomats could more easily take advantage of the country’s Europeanization during visits to their counterparts. Deeper internalization of democracy, more respect for human rights, and further integration with the international organizations were areas that strengthened Ankara’s position with other regional actors.
In 2002, radical alterations in Turkey’s domestic politics coincided with the Europeanization of the country. The conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) took office, ousting the classical elites and bringing some much-needed stability to the political arena. Although suspicions remain over the AKP’s sincerity in its efforts to Europeanize the country, the party did take large steps towards Brussels before the term presidency of the Republic of Cyprus soured Turkey-EU relations in 2012. In addition to the Europeanization efforts, the new government represented a shift in the Turkish ruling elite and the newcomers showed little hesitation in altering the traditional Turkish non-interference policy towards the Middle East. The newcomers’ policy was not a “hawkish” one, but rather was notably “dovish” during the first decade of 2000s. As the Turkish economy and Ankara’s reach to the south developed, the new elite in Turkey, with domestic support running high, felt increasingly self-confident, enabling the “Policy of Zero Problem with Neighbors” proposal at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
America’s intervention in Iraq created a power vacuum in the region, drawing Turkey’s reach further to the south. This vacuum also benefited revisionist Kurdish groups in the region, particularly groups in the north of Iraq. In all four countries — Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran — there are large Kurdish populations which have begun generating domestic security problems for each countries. As governments suffering from destabilizing Kurdish groups, Damascus, Tehran, and Ankara felt it necessary to cooperate to preserve the status-quo. This necessity served as a powerful motivation to hash out differences on some of the chronic security disagreements between the parties, and some were left unresolved. Yet as long as Kurdish threats were kept under control, the Turkish entry into political affairs in these areas contributed to a positive de-securitization of relations.
However, instability lingered; toward the end of this period, the regional atmosphere started to change negatively with regard to Turkey. With the start of the Arab Spring, Ankara started to project some signs of revamping its security. There are two reason for this: the stalled Europeanization efforts by Turkey, and the direct security risks posed by the Syrian civil war.
The trend towards de-emphasizing security matters in Turkey’s regional policy represented a pragmatic, and considerably more self-confident, era in Turkish foreign policy. It was enabled by a confluence of a regional power vacuum, an over-confident and new ruling elite in Turkey, an alliance of status-quo powers aligned against potentially destabilizing Kurdish groups, and improved perceptions of Turkey stemming from the EU membership process. Nevertheless, neither the steps towards Brussels, nor the stability in the Middle East lasted for long; the former stalled due to reservations in the accession negotiations and the term presidency of the Cyprus Republic, while the latter collapsed in the spreading Spring. The arrival of Spring blossoms also meant the arrival of 100,000 refugees for Turkey and a growing security concern. As Turkey is increasingly beset with these concerns, it will continue to rebuild its security architecture for the region.
Serhan Ünal is a faculty member at Yıldırım Beyazıt University, Dept. of International Relations, in Ankara/Turkey.
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