Turkey’s foreign policy is in ruins, Reuters reported this week: “Its once shining image as a Muslim democracy and regional power in the NATO alliance and at the doors of the European Union is badly tarnished.”
We talked to interruptor Verda Ozer, a scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center and columnist for the prominent Turkish daily Hurriyet, to get a sense of what this means for one of the United States’s most important allies.
FPI: There is no shortage of conflict in neighboring countries. What are Turkey’s key foreign policy challenges and how should they be addressed?
First of all, since the current regional crisis is taking place along Turkey’s borders, Turkey is under direct threat and direct pressure. It is sharing a 900-kilometer border with Syria: it’s hosting almost 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 200,000 Kurdish refugees from Kobane. So far, Ankara has spent more than 4.5 billion dollars to this end. Additionally, Turkey faces a constant risk of attack in its territory. And despite these pressures and threats, there is an increasing expectation from the U.S. and its allies that Turkey commits more strongly to the coalition. This is the biggest challenge Turkey faces at the moment.
Another challenge is the PYD which is the dominant Kurdish party in northern Syria. Turkey is concerned that the PKK-affiliated organization might direct its guns against Turkey in due course since the PYD is supplied with arms right now by the U.S. This is why Ankara is urging the PYD to come to the same line as moderate Syrian rebels and the Kurdish Peshmerga of Erbil (northern Iraq) with which Turkey maintains good relations. However, at the same time, it’s clear that excluding the PYD puts the peace process in Turkey at risk and could harm Turkey’s relations with northern Iraq as well. This urges Turkey to change its attitude towards the PYD.
A new reality has emerged along its borders. The borders between northern Iraq, Turkey and Syria have already effectively become meaningless. The fact that Erbil has delivered aid to Kobane through Turkey is the best example of this. Turkey must recognize this new reality. In other words, Turkey will only win if it improves its relations with Rojava (Kurdish Syria), just as it has done with northern Iraq over the last decade. This will also enable Ankara to unite the Kurds in the region under its sphere of influence.
Turkey’s sour relations with Israel and Egypt are also problematic. The insecurity, instability and uncertainty in the region requires flexibility of countries, and new alliances. The current climate makes Turkey’s need for secure and stable regional allies more important than ever. The longer and deeper the war, the stronger this need will become — hence Turkey’s need to fix relations with Tel Aviv and Cairo.
Last but not least, there is an unprecedented strategic disconnect between Turkey and the U.S. Their respective strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria are completely different. The U.S. has made it clear repeatedly that its top priority is destroying ISIS, whereas Turkey’s priorities are toppling Bashar al-Assad and dealing with the PYD. This disconnect presents an impediment for Ankara since it limits Turkey’s cooperation with the U.S. It might also remove the opportunity for Turkey to become one of the power-brokers in Syria.
FPI: There’s been a lot of critique on Turkey’s policy toward ISIS, with many saying the government hasn’t cracked down on the group as much as it should. What is your take?
Since the emergence of ISIS, Ankara has argued that Syrian President Assad has tolerated and cooperated indirectly with ISIS. So why would Turkey support an organization which strengthens its enemy?
Moreover, Turkey has been trying to convince the U.S. to engage in a military operation against ISIS since its emergence in Syria and blamed Washington for its rise by not having attacked it militarily.
I think the main reason behind the mentioned allegation is the fact that Turkey has not taken strict measures with regard to the transit of the jihadists through its borders. However, Ankara has recently tightened the border measures. This reveals that Turkey is willing to face its mistakes. Yet, criticizing Turkey for not having taken strict measures is not the same thing as claiming that it is directly supporting ISIS. It is also worth remembering the insensitiviy of the European countries on this matter. They have only now started sharing intelligence with Ankara on their nationals who leave their homeland and cross over Turkey to join ISIS. Just very recently, Germany declared that about 4,500 German citizens have left Germany to join ISIS.
Furthermore, Ankara has always argued that Syrian rebels should be supported much stronger and systematically. Yet Washington has not been on the same line. Even the moderate rebels, officially supported by the West, share a broad base with the radicals. Therefore it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two camps. Plus, there is also frequent cross-over between the moderates and radicals which enables the cross-over of arms as well. This is why it is almost impossible to control the last stop of the arms delivery. This is one of the reasons why Turkey has been blamed for supporting radicals.
The gap between how Turkey and the U.S. define “moderate” and “radical” has also spurned these allegations. Turkey has argued that leaving rebels on their own and/or banning them would radicalize them and push them closer to ISIS. Hence, unlike the U.S., Ankara preferred to be in touch with them. In short, Turkey might have recognized the gray elements on the ground, which are beyond the black and white elements recognized by the U.S. since Turkey shares 900-km border with Syria.
That Turkey is trying to stay out of the emerging anti-ISIS coalition, and does not verbally attack it, has also caused these allegations. Yet the Turkish hostages who were held by ISIS and now the risk of an ISIS-attack in the Turkish territory, not to mention to the sleeper cells around the country, would be enough to explain its stance. Just remember that last week, packets of yellow powder were sent to five Western consulates in Istanbul.
It is also worth remembering that the U.S. is also staying away from a ground operation due to similar concerns. The U.S. and its closest ally, the UK, are still against a ground operation although their citizens have been beheaded by ISIS.
FPI: In light of recent developments in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, where does Turkey’s perennial “Kurdish question” stand?
There have been fears that the fate of Kobane could wreck the domestic peace process which the AKP government initiated two years ago. Many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds have reacted with violent protests to show their solidarity and empathy with Kobane and to protest Ankara’s failure to intervene. Just two weeks ago, almost 40 people were killed, with Diyarbakir, in Southeast Turkey, at the center of the bloodletting. The Kurdish political party, the HDP, argued that “the fall of Kobane would be the fall of the peace process.”
However the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan urgently sent a written message calling Kurds to stop violence and continue with peace talks. Upon that, the HDP also started speaking positively about peace negotiations. The Turkish government also made it verbally clear that it would stick to the process. Moreover, Ankara immediately shared the draft roadmap aimed at accelerating the peace process with the HDP, signaling its desire to expedite the process.
We also need to remember that Ankara has accepted to open up a corridor to Kobane both for humanitarian aid and also for the transit of the Kurdish peshmerga through its territory. Although some Turkish officials are still arguing that PYD is equal to PKK and hence a terrorist organization and that it is equally as dangerous as ISIS, the moves Turkey has made recently signal that Ankara has started slowly changing its attitude towards the PYD.
I actually expect the peace process to emerge even stronger out of these incidents. Kobane has been “face-off time” for the government in terms of facing the weaknesses of the peace process. But it seems to have drawn the right lessons, and is determined to pursue it until the end.
FPI: Whether internal or external, what is the most pressing issue facing Turkey right now?
As I tried to explain above, the regional developments, i.e. the refugee crisis and the uncontrollable advance of ISIS along Turkey’s borders.
The most pressing domestic issue for Turkey is the Kurdish question. The AKP government has boldly initiated the peace process with the PKK which has been Turkey’s most existential and detrimental problem for more than three decades, having cost about 40,000 lives. Since the start of the process, guns have been mostly silent.
Yet Kobane has revealed that the government needs to accelerate the process and also to change its mindset towards the Kurdish question. Turkey has been approaching its Kurdish issue from a traditional, nation-state perspective, making a distinction between Kurds inside and outside. It has been only in the last five years of the AKP governance that Ankara improved its relations with northern Iraq, in other words “Kurds outside.” Yet it is still trying to exclude the Kurds in Rojava (northern Syria). In this sense Kobane’s siege has been a breaking point since Ankara has realized that it is not possible to make that superficial distinction anymore. Having observed the violent protests organized by its “own” Kurds expressing their empathy with their cognates in Kobane, Turkey has found itself on a new track.
The other pressing issue is the democratization process. The AKP government has implemented many revolutionary reforms so far such as democratizing civil-military relations, recognizing Kurdish rights and initiating the peace talks, lifting the ban on headscarf and making religious people visible. The government, to a large extent, has also rooted out the “deep state” — the shadowy military elite which governed Turkey from behind the scenes for decades. In other words, it has normalized the country in many ways. Yet the path to full democracy is long since Turkey still has many democratic shortcomings especially in the judicial branch and on freedom of expression.
Another great challenge in Turkey is polarization in society. Turkey has always been a country suffering from Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious dichotomies. These polarizations still exist. The peace process on the Kurdish question has raised nationalist sentiments among nationalist circles whereas normalization with religious segments has triggered so-called “secular” sensitivities. These social fault lines pose a serious threat for the social fabric and stability of the country.
FPI: Any further reading (or film) recommendations for those interested in learning more about Turkey?
I would strongly recommend the novels of the Nobel Prize-winner Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, which present a unique blend of Turkey’s physical, sociological, cultural and political aspects. You could easliy get addicted to the way he thinks, feels and writes.
The novels of Elif Şafak, Turkey’s most popular author, also shed light on Turkish culture. She describes the complexities and uniqueness of the Turkish society in an ambrosial way.
If you’re interested in Turkey’s history, I would recommend “Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey” written by Sibel Bozdogan and Resat Kasaba. The book focuses on Turkey’s political, cultural and institutional transformation since its foundation. It’s a must read.
“Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey” by Deniz Kandiyoti and Ayse Saktanber is a great entry-point into Turkey’s cultural and social complexities. Since it includes various articles by leading scholars in different fields, it is quite multi-disciplinary as well.
As for movies, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, is my favorite Turkish director. His movies deeply analyze the human condition, but within a Turkish context.
FPI: Any advice for fellow and upcoming female interruptors?
Follow your intuition and do what you’re passionate about.
When Hillary Clinton was recently interviewed by Christiane Amanpour, she made two points which really hit me: “It’s important for you to take criticism seriously, but not personally,” she said. This is a life-saver.
The secnd point: Don’t let yourself be dragged down by other people’s opinions, because what you think about yourself, what you say to others about yourself really does affect how you present yourself and eventually who you are. So basically: it is actually only you who creates the positive or negative. Stay positive.