Turkey’s ‘precious absence’ in the region

A number of discussions have taken place on how an influential foreign policy could be implemented in a delicate time period. Turkey’s foreign policy has turned from strategic depth to precious loneliness. Some argue that Turkey remains lonely and alienated because it is addressing human rights violations alone, without the Middle East’s support. This does not attract worldwide support and regional countries face serious instability. This makes the implementation of its policies unlikely to succeed.

This term embodies a sign of a new approach for foreign policy-makers. The growing intolerance of any critical approach vis-à-vis the current foreign policy style, does not allow for healthy debate. For this reason, the decision-making bodies need to go through a process of self-criticism in order to spot the mistakes.

It seems a remark made by Republican People’s Party (CHP) Secretary-General Gürsel Tekin in May indicated that Turkey would deploy troops to Syria. This statement led to some criticism in government circles. The reaction of these circles suggested that Tekin’s remark was against realpolitik and that the moral foreign policy approach is, for the most part, right. The outcome of the criticism suggests that Turkey needs to consider realpolitik and morality as part of its foreign policy standards, and should avoid venturous moves. However, there is an interest to see how the government will react to the opposition. The government is alone and fails to use this approach in current political openings. To address this, a number of initiatives could be taken.

For instance, instead of recalling ambassadors or issuing messages of condemnation, a different style that is consistent with realpolitik should be adopted. Or a moral foreign policy should be developed by responding to the massacres by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Likewise, abstaining from labeling the Turkish schools abroad “terror nests” would contribute to realpolitik and a more moral foreign policy approach.

We lag behind what was done by Demirel and Özal

Turkey has strongly opposed the despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and Syria and the oppression of the people in these countries, but it has failed to make a positive contribution to the processes of change in these countries. The style of foreign policy has been questioned since the events that took place five years ago.

Turkey, which experienced a huge failure in the Middle East — shaped by violent leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad — still argues that it is dealing with a problem-free region. Our leaders argue that the circles exposing turmoil in this region are trying to give the impression of chaos. Everybody knows how widely the international media has covered Turkey’s attempt at becoming a leader in the region. Authorities argue that international media outlets are puppets controlled by global circles of evil.

It is apparent that Turkey is not ready for unpredictable turmoil in the Middle East. The region has become home to gangs and puppet administrations. The lack of proper diplomatic representation in the region weakens Turkey’s efforts at becoming a leader country. Precious loneliness is turning into precious absence. In other words, realpolitik and moral foreign policy are changing; Assad and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are referred to as oppressors, whereas the Saudi king is mourned.

The same Turkey sought to develop insincere relations in the Caucasus region. It failed to use the opportunities to expand its sphere of influence in this region. Turkey, which spent a lot of effort in the Middle East to become a regional leader, preferred a circumstantial partnership in the Caucasus; thus, despite ripe opportunities, Turkey was unable to become influential in this region.

The idea of establishing “ideal relations” in the Caucasus in the 1990s remains unattended to this day. The energy-based relations being kept alive today are products of the efforts from that period. In terms of relations with countries in this region, they still lag behind the efforts made by former Presidents Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel. However, the Caucasus is an important region that has assured the rise of the Ottoman state in the West since the 16th century, but it may also become a source of decline and collapse. It is surprising to see that a new policy style, which argues the inherited Ottoman legacy, ignores this. We hear today that the soccer diplomacy, initiated by former President Abdullah Gül to ensure a better engagement with the region through Armenia, is not endorsed by the decision makers and politicians now.

Turkey, which pays less attention to the region because of the failed initiatives, including the Caucasus Alliance, proposed in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, and the Turkish-Armenian protocols, will experience a problem of precious absence in the region as long as it remains content with the role of serving as a transit country in the field of energy.

The minimal interest in the region beyond the Caspian area will exacerbate Turkey’s precious absence in a zone that is open to the growing influence by Russia and China. Such a process taking place will undermine Turkey’s gains so far.

Three reasons for precious absence

Precious absence has become a major problem for three reasons. First, there is not a strong mindset that tolerates criticism of the pursued policies. Second, Turkey has been trying to develop a vision in the Middle East by relying on the expertise of theologians and linguists. The rushed attempts and efforts of the teams in seeking to create party organizations in the countries in the region by relying on the assumption that these countries take Turkey as a model have turned into complete failures.

Those figures who failed abroad still repeat the same arguments on TV, where they are presented as experts. It is evident that some of them have expertise in theology, sociology and linguistics and they are presented as experts in this market. These circles blame the West for remaining silent in the case of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi; however, they remain silent in case of violations by Saudi Arabia, so they show us how a moral policy should be devised.

Third, there is negative press on the Turkish schools abroad, regarding so-called “nests of terror;” this is in fact a witch hunt. Our politicians, who asked leaders of foreign countries to shut these schools down, were unable to get what they wanted; however, the erosion of the image of the country cannot be fixed in this process. Interestingly, even the strong reactions from Kazakhstan, Albania and Nigeria to these requests and attempts were taken as compliments. The joy felt by a former Islamist (but now an ardent supporter of the state) journalist noting that a religious site in Bosnia was saved from the so-called members of the “parallel structure” can be included in this category as well.

It is also interesting to see that a mindset which had up until recently viewed the flag as simply a piece of cloth, is now investing effort to preserve state security. In addition, it is also known that similar approaches have been exhibited in the same circles toward these schools. Like it or not, these schools make a major contribution to the image of Turkey abroad. Attempting to undermine these schools only erodes our foreign policy. This is not strategic depth. This means that Turkey’s image will be eroded swiftly in the region because of these initiatives.

In conclusion, it should be acknowledged that Turkish foreign policy is experiencing a state of impasse because of goals devised in reference to short-term expectations. It is evident (as also confirmed by foreign experts) that Turkey has been showing what strategic depth is not in its recent policies.

Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU

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