- DevelopmentInterviewsOther Issues
- January 9, 2010
- 6 minutes read
Turkey’s Strategic Depth Foreign Policy
Manuela Paraipan: What are your thoughts on the agreements signed by Turkey with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia?
Dr. Kerem Oktem: In the last year, Turkey has indeed signed a wide range of agreements and protocols with its neighbours to the East. These agreements can be seen as part and parcel of the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s policy of “Zero Problem” with Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood.
In principle, these steps of normalising relations and expanding free trade do coincide with the EU’s neighbourhood policy. Yet, we need to differentiate between the neighbours: Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia, for instance, is laudable. The protocols signed between the two foreign ministers in Zurich in October 2009 would open the borders as well as facilitate direct trade between the countries, even if they do not address the main issues of historical contention such as the dispute over the Armenian genocide. However, the protocols have not yet been ratified, and either one or both of the Parliaments might decide to go against their government’s expressed wish. A potential step forward, this “opening” could result in a new slump in relations.
The Agreements with Syria, Iran, and to a certain extent Iraq, are of a different nature, as they were concluded in time with a charm offensive of senior Turkish political leaders visiting all three countries. Prime Minister Erdogan demonstrated a particularly warm personal relationship with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran and Syria’s Bashir Al Assad, and the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did convey the same sense of friendship during visits to the Kurdistan regional Government and Iraq. The High-Level Strategic Cooperation Agreement with Syria and the subsequent introduction of visa-free travel further accentuates the importance Turkey’s foreign policy community assigns to the eastern neighbourhood, very much to the detriment of relations with her former strategic ally, Israel.
Manuela Paraipan: Do these accords signal Turkey’s ambition to be not only a key regional player but the most important one?
Dr. Kerem Oktem: Beyond the symbolics of these visits, however, the economy looms larger than anything. The three Arab neighbours, unlike Armenia, and unlike Israel constitute major markets for Turkey’s economic expansion. And at the core of the agreements with Iran and Iraq are in fact major deals for oil exploration and production. Syria has not only become an important importer of Turkish goods, Turkish companies have also come to play a central role in the liberalisation of the Syrian economy. Ultimately, while regional leadership is an important dimension of the emerging new Turkish foreign policy doctrine, aptly captured by the current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu as “Strategic Depth”, there are constraints and limitations to this goal, which the Turkish foreign policy community in Ankara seems to be aware of. In regional terms, Turkey new foreign policy rests above all on her soft power, in an environment where missiles launches and nuclear threats are a reality.
Manuela Paraipan: Is it possible to get to a point where Turkey is considered too Muslim for the secular Occident, too secular for the Muslim world and too much of an economic competitor for the Asian partners?
Dr. Kerem Oktem: By some, Turkey is already considered as too Muslim for Europe, most notably, but not exclusively, by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
Turkey – EU relations are heading towards a train-crash once again, and thanks to the unresolved status of Cyprus, this time it might prove to be the terminal one. Accession negotiations have come to a standstill and new chapters are vetoed either by France or by the Republic of Cyprus. Very few among Turkey’s political elites still believe in the sustainability of the membership perspective, and public opinion is increasingly despondent, with support for EU membership at 40%, down from 70%.
One of the most widespread misconceptions about Turkey is the claim that it is secular. The truth is that Turkey has never been a secular country. Until very recently, a unique arrangement was in place (laiklik) that subjected religion to the control of the state, and at the same time established Islam as de-facto state religion. It should hence not surprise that all Imams and religious personnel in Turkey are civil servants of the state. This arrangement, in which religion is part of the state apparatus is changing only slightly, yet the public presence of popular piety and the ruling party’s commitment to religious values is indeed a new phenomenon, and one that is welcomed emphatically by the Muslim publics in the Arab world.
While Turkey has recently become an economic powerhouse, it does not compete with its Asian neighbours over markets. Turkey’s eastern neighbours, with maybe the exception of Iran, do not produce goods, they are almost exclusively rentier economies. Turkey’s economic interests in the region, hence, are largely complimentary.
On the eastern front, hence, future tensions are not necessarily expected to arise from relations with Iraq or Syria, or even Russia, with which Turkey enjoys rather cordial relations, but from a further cooling of ties with Israel. Since the War on Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009, the AKP government has indeed taken a very vocal stance against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. Together with too enthusiastic an engagement with Iran, this could pose a risk to the future prospects of Turkey’s neighbourhood engagement.
Manuela Paraipan: Please describe in one word Turkey’s foreign policy, under AKP party, towards Israel, the United States and Iran.
Dr. Kerem Oktem: I will go for two: Contested Re-adjustment and Europa-fatigue.
Dr. Kerem Oktem (D. Phil, M.St. MMES, Oxon), Research Fellow, European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford University.