From Michael Reynolds
The past several days have witnessed not one but two momentous, even stunning, developments in Turkish foreign policy that are reverberating through the region. Both are the work of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former university professor who became Turkish foreign minister last year. Before that, Davutoğlu (shown on far right with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem) served for several years as the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor. In a manner perhaps befitting a university professor, Davutoğlu has aspired to give Turkish foreign policy a comprehensive and consistent conceptual basis. He laid out his vision in his book Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position (Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu). According to this vision, whereas in the past the Turkish Republic followed a policy of quasi-isolation and self-imposed quarantine from its neighbors, today it should instead seek to take advantage of the cultural and historical links it shares with other countries in its region. As foreign minister, Davutoğlu has been working tirelessly to put his stamp on Turkish foreign policy. The past week has offered two dramatic examples of Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation.
An opening to the East. The first of took place on October 10 in Zurich where the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers signed a protocol agreeing to open their border and establish diplomatic ties between their two countries. Up until recently, observers – Armenian, Turkish, and foreign alike – generally regarded the idea of a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement as sheer fantasy. Precisely because their histories are intertwined, the rift between the Armenian and Turkish peoples is deep and multi-dimensional, going beyond already contentious geopolitics to extend into the very hearts of modern Armenian and Turkish identities and the founding myths of the Turkish and Armenian republics. Attitudes on both sides are so sensitive that despite even lengthy and meticulous preparation by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministries, the signing of the protocol was almost consigned to remain the realm of fantasy right before it took place.
At the last minute both foreign ministers objected to the public statement planned by the other. The ceremony was saved only when, apparently at the suggestion of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the two foreign ministers compromised by agreeing simply to refrain from making any statements at all. Such is the fragility of the rapprochement. Moreover, to come into force, the legislatures of Armenia and Turkey must first ratify the protocols. Multiple constituencies opposed to the normalization of relations exist inside (and outside) the two countries, and they may well prove skeptics and nay-sayers correct.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that Davutoğlu was able to bring the two countries this close in itself represents a fundamental change in Turkish foreign policy. And whereas the likelihood of failure in these sorts of sensitive and politically charged undertakings typically deters most, Davutoğlu’s tack is to capitalize in these situations on the power of boldness combined with persistence to change first expectations and then reality. Simply by striving for seemingly unthinkable change, Davutoğlu reckons, one demonstrates that change is possible, and thereby one changes fundamental calculations of all parties. The fact that Davutoğlu was able to coordinate both American and Russian support for this Caucasian gambit reflects his exceptional diplomatic skills and the considerable momentum he has already generated for normalization. Turkey’s opening to Armenia will have an impact on everything from stability in the greater Caucasus and Caspian region through world energy supplies and the future of NATO.
An opening to the South. As momentous as Turkey’s opening to its east in the Caucasus might be, its opening to the south has the potential to change regional dynamics even more. For most of its existence, the Turkish Republic has enjoyed at best cool relations with Syria. During the 1980s and 1990s, Turkish-Syrian ties were outright confrontational as the two states sparred over such issues as Turkish control of the waters of the Euphrates and Syrian support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan or PKK) inside of Turkey. Relations hit a nadir in 1999 when Turkey threatened to invade Syria if it continued to provide sanctuary to the head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. This period of heightened Turkish-Syrian tension overlapped with the establishment of a security partnership with Israel that became one of the constituent elements of the regional balance of power.
Relations between Syria and Turkey began to improve slowly after 1999, while ties to Israel became noticeably more strained in the wake of Israel’s 2006 military operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon. But this week, what remained of the old architecture of regional relations came crashing down. First, in a pointed gesture, Turkey retracted its invitation to Israel to participate in the aerial war games known as “Anatolian Eagle.” Turkey has hosted the war games annually since 2001, and it has routinely involved Israel in them. This year, however, Turkey refused to allow the Israeli air force to take part as form of protest over Israel’s policies toward Gaza and in particular Operation Cast Lead.
The United States and Italy subsequently pulled out of Anatolian Eagle in protest. If this gesture was intended to cow Turkey, it failed. Lest there be any misunderstanding about Turkey’s motives for excluding Israel, Davutoğlu clarified matters on October 13 when, in what Turkish newspapers described as a “warning” to Israel, he demanded that the “human tragedy in Gaza” end and that “respect be shown to the al-Aqsa mosque, the Noble Sanctuary, and East Jerusalem, which are sacred to Muslims.” The day before, the Turkish foreign ministry on its website described the public interpretations and commentary of Israeli officials regarding Anatolian Eagle as “unacceptable” and chided those officials to use “common sense” in their future statements and actions.
No less significant than the content of Davutoğlu’s “warning” was the place where he chose to issue it, in the Syrian city of Aleppo at the first ministers’ meeting of the newly formed Turkish-Syrian High Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Whereas a decade ago common opposition to Syria served as a glue binding Turkey to Israel, today Turkey’s foreign minister issues appeals from inside Syria to Israel to heed the sensitivities of Muslims toward their holy sites in Jerusalem.
During his visit to Syria, Davutoğlu underscored that the opening up to Syria is neither a matter of tactics nor temporary, but is constituent part of the new Turkish foreign policy. Thus, for example, when he announcing the introduction of visa-free travel for Syrian and Turkish citizens, he described the occasion as a third common holiday for Turkish and Syrian citizens alongside the two major Islamic feasts Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha. Davutoğlu brought to Syria nine cabinet members and revealed a raft of projects ranging from educating Syrian students in Turkey through the removal of mines from the Turkish-Syrian border to the transformation of Aleppo into a major logistical hub for expanded Turkish trade with the Arab Middle East. The Turks hope to use Aleppo to meet Arab demand for Turkish foodstuffs.
There is a certain poetic irony to the Turkish dream of exporting food throughout the Middle East via Syria. Damascus’ Ottoman-era fame for its sweets gave rise to a Turkish saying that aptly summarized official Turkish attitudes from the 1920s through the end of the century toward all things Arab: Ne Şam’ın şekeri, ne Arabın yüzü, literally “Neither sweets from Damascus nor an Arab’s face,” which can be roughly translated as, I don’t want to have anything to do with the Arabs, even if they do have tasty sweets.
Instead, while in Aleppo Davutoğlu uttered an entirely different phrase to describe Turkish-Syrian relations: “A common fate, a common history, a common future.”
Israeli Anxieties. Needless to say, the developments of the past several days have thrown Israeli politicians and policymakers into confusion and no small bit of anxiety, with some urging caution and others hinting at forms of retaliation against Turkey ranging from ending Israeli arms sales to withdrawing support for Turkish lobbyists in America. At this point, however, it would seem that there is little to be gained from responding quickly in the hopes of either assuaging Ankara or deterring it from similar demarches. The Turkish-Israeli strategic partnership is no longer in crisis, but has essentially ended. Indeed, unconfirmed reports in the Syrian and Turkish media promise the conclusion of a formal Turkish-Syrian strategic partnership in the near future.
Not surprisingly, Davutoğlu’s criticisms of Israel and expressions of solidarity have met with great enthusiasm inside Syria. Without a doubt, the sound of cheering crowds in a country long known to the Turks as an obstinate and troublesome neighbor must deeply gratify Davutoğlu. That gratification will certainly only increase as others in the Arab world and beyond join in to hail the change in Turkey’s regional orientation away from Israel to the Arabs. Turkey’s expanded engagement with the Arab world may well turn out to be a boon for all involved, as Davutoğlu surely hopes. Turkey has a great deal to offer by way of its relative political openness and economic dynamism to the Arab world. If done correctly, Turkey’s engagement could help point the way for the Arabs to transform their societies into more open, competitive, and democratic ones.
But that will be no easy task, nor will it be a short one. Initiatives such as student exchanges and increased business contacts can help change societies, but they require decades to yield fruit and provide little gratification after their inception.
Turkey’s engagement also carries real risks if the course of influence runs in the opposite direction, i.e. from the Arab countries to Turkey. This was the reasoning behind the traditional Kemalist desire to keep all things Middle Eastern at arms length and under control. Turkish officials saw the Middle East as a cultural swamp from which Turkey must escape, not a realm of common culture in which it could thrive.
As Davutoğlu must recognize, the problems of the Arab world, and the sources of its misery, are greater and deeper than the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab countries are politically dysfunctional and most are economically moribund. There is little that they can offer the Turks aside from perhaps oil and gas and markets for Turkish consumer goods. In earlier eras, others such as Nasser and Saddam Hussein sought to expand their influence throughout the region by appealing to Arab sympathies against Israel, but their efforts did nothing but bring their own societies to ruin and leave the Arabs as whole worse off. Today, Ahmadinejad is attempting something similar with his backing for Hezbollah and routine denunciations of Israel. Yet, one need only look at Iran’s recent elections to answer the question of whether Ahmadinejad’s version of statecraft is serving anyone but himself and those close to him.
Israel’s policies are not above criticism, but if Davutoğlu truly aspires to have Turkey play the role of an effective regional leader, he will have to direct some of his criticism toward those entities, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, that celebrate violent confrontation with Israel over the development of their own societies. And he will have to do so soon. With Iran in determined pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, an enigmatic Obama administration sending mixed signals to the Middle East, and Hamas and Hezbollah mantaining their romantic commitments to violence, the sight and sound of Turkey closing ranks with Syria will not spur Israelis to step back and announce a “kindler, gentler” Israel to soothe its neighbors. Instead, it will only magnify existing fears among Israelis that their country does indeed face an unprecedented existential threat that only desperate action can solve. Better than most people, Davutoğlu should understand that precisely what Israel lacks is the sort of strategic depth Turkey possesses, and this has consequences for Israeli policymaking.
But does Davutoğlu understand this? Right now, the indications are that he does not, or at least does not care.