Turkey’s ‘Zero Problems’ Syria Dilemma

As long as the Syrian Civil War continues, Turkey will face greater political and security threats on its southern border.

turkey-syriaIn the first decade of the 21st century, Turkey carried out a multilateral and pro-active foreign policy strategy, known as “zero problems with neighbors,” towards the Middle East. The strategy of “zero problem” based on political and economic cooperation succeeded to create a peace and stability zone in the periphery of Turkey. It was realistic, pragmatic and result-oriented in practice.

With Syria, this foreign policy strategy brought impressive results. Syria became a strategic springboard for Turkey’s expanding role in the Middle East. Turkish-Syrian ties also contributed to Turkey’s national security, economic growth and regional influence.

In 2011, the turbulent political and social atmosphere in the Middle East and North Africa undermined Turkey’s “zero problems” strategy and forced the Turkish government to change its foreign policy. After Egyptian and Libyan regimes fell, Turkish decision-makers assumed that all authoritarian regimes would collapse by a chain reaction effect in the region. Thus new Turkish foreign policy aimed at overthrowing the Al-Assad regime and played a key role in rebuilding Syria.

In the early months of the Syrian uprising, the Turkish government began supporting Syrian opposition groups under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council (SNC). The Syrian armed opposition began forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Ankara allowed the Turkey-Syria border to turn into a free-passage zone. The security gap on the border facilitated Al-Qaeda linked radical groups and Syrian rebel fighters’ activities and arms transfers into Syria. Armed conflict in Syria resulted in full-scale war including urban guerrilla battle, massacres, mass migrations and humanitarian tragedies. It is clear that security gap on Turkey-Syrian border contributed to escalation of the Syrian crisis.

The Turkish government claims that Ankara’s foreign policy is based on idealist principles such as human rights, democracy and moral values. Therefore, Turkey supported democratic change in Syria and helped the Syrian opposition. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkish policy-makers held the Syrian government responsible for the crisis.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily criticized Damascus. Turkey rapidly ran out of all diplomatic sanctions against Syria and closed diplomatic channels with the government. The overthrow of the Assad regime became the sine qua non for the Turkish government. Turkey has rejected all international efforts to find political solutions which include Assad.

Over the past two years, the Turkish government preferred describing the Syrian crisis in ideological and sectarian rhetoric. Pro-government media launched anti-Assad campaigns emphasizing the Syrian leadership’s Alawite identity to manipulate Turkish public opinion.

Moreover Erdoğan said that the Syrian issue was not a foreign problem but a local problem for Turkey. To be sure, such political language provoked reaction in Arab world and led Arab political elites and nationalist groups to suspect Turkey’s expansionist intentions.

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Ankara’s ideological and sectarian rhetoric, and anti-Assad propaganda has so far failed to convince Turkish public opinion. Most Turks oppose the government’s foreign policy and potential military operation against Syria.

Turks believe that the Syrian crisis is not a Turkish problem and that Turkey has more important political and economic problems including the democratization process, raising economic welfare and the Kurdish issue.

In my opinion, idealist principles are not enough to understand Turkish foreign policy. In practice, Turkish foreign policy appears irrational, threatening and over-sensitive. These features cause damage to Turkey’s national security and influence in the Middle East. The belief that Turkey has been isolated in regional politics is widespread.

Turkey’s foreign policy advisers tend to ignore the critics. According to them Turkey is not alone in the Middle East. Even if this notion is taken at face value, it must be called “worth solitude.” But what exactly is “worth solitude?”

As far as I am concerned, this is the term which they created to legitimize Turkish foreign policy in the eyes of Turkish people. To be sure, this term refers to the importance of morality-based foreign policy. But it makes no sense on the political grounds of the Middle East. Current American and Russian diplomatic efforts prove that realpolitik has permanently guided regional powers’ foreign policy towards the Middle East.

These current circumstances show that “worth solitude” is not enough to solve potential political and security threats in Turkish foreign policy. As long as the Syrian Civil War continues, Turkey will face greater political and security threats on its southern border.

Turkey’s demand for international intervention in Syria has been postponed by the US-Russia deal on chemical weapons. Consequently we can say that Turkey should change its foreign policy strategy in response to the region’s shifting geopolitical realities and support the international community’s efforts. If not, a black hole in Syria will gradually absorb Turkey.

Yasin Atlioglu is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Nigde University, in Turkey. He graduated from the department of International Relations, Istanbul University in 2001. He obtained a M.A degree in 2006 and PhD degree in 2011 at the department of the Middle Eastern Political History and International Relations, The Middle East Studies Institute, Marmara University. He worked as a Middle East Expert at the İstanbul-based think tanks TACSS (TASAM) and BILGESAM from 2004 to 2011. His first book, Reform in Syria under Bashar Al-Assad (Beşşar Esad Suriyesi’nde Reform) was published in 2007.

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