Why did Erdoğan’s Middle East policy miss goals?
Turkey is about to enter a new stage of politics with the presidency of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as the next PM he preferred to see.
The pair highlighted Turkey’s name in international politics over the last few years more than ever, but not necessarily always in the best way.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy with the ideological framing of Davutoğlu has been based on reviving links with the Islamic world, not only for opening up new trade routes there but also to resume a new solidarity spirit, assuming an Ottoman nostalgia there.
The nostalgia was not everywhere but the spirit was high during the rise of the Arab Spring with the ideological and political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the “Greater Middle East” as the Americans like to call it. But when the fall of the Brotherhood-led rise came quickly, the influence of the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu couple was not as before.
Yes, the way that they carried out the foreign policy, especially the “West against Islam and Turkey” and “Precious loneliness” rhetoric brought points to Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), regardless of failing to fulfill all the foreign policy targets.
There are of course exterior factors to that result – global and regional factors – but there are interior factors, too.
Three key institutions for such ambitious targets lacked necessary capabilities. This is partly because of insufficient financial and human resources and partly because of the culture and perspective they have developed since Turkey joined the Western military alliance NATO and delegated almost all strategic thinking and decisions to that body. Those institutions are:
1) Turkish Foreign Ministry: For decades the primary focus of the ministry has been the West, particularly the United States and items continually on Turkey’s agenda, such as Greece and Cyprus. The European Union came into the picture after Turgut Özal. Even the “brotherly” Turkic republics, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, could not shift Turkish attention to its east and south.
The Muslim region was kept at an arm’s distance, mostly for ideological reasons. Young diplomats who were tipped to climb up the ladder have always been sent to Western posts while those who do not belong to an inner cultural circle were posted to Asian, African and Arab capitals; Russia, Iran and Israel being the exceptions. Even then there were not enough diplomats who spoke Russian or Persian, let alone Arabic. So when the AK Parti took the government in 2002 to realize its opening up to the Islamic world – from Southeast Asia to Africa – the human resources were not up to it. Not in quality but also in quantity; there were and are simply not enough diplomatic personnel to fulfill the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu targets. Plus, the attempt to close the gap by taking use of the education and business network of Fethullah Gülen (Erdoğan’s erstwhile ally, a moderate Islamist scholar living in the U.S.) in difficult regions turned into a fiasco as the two became arch enemies last year.
2) The Turkish Armed Forces: Despite being categorized as the second biggest army in NATO, the Turkish military is mainly a defensive force; it has no assault-only aircraft for example, and no assault missiles. It is highly politicized having staged three coups and a few lesser-intensity acts of interference into government affairs during the Cold War; those staged after the Cold War was definitely over, like the one in 2007, no longer worked. It allocates an important part of its budget, training and focus on internal conflicts, such as the Kurdish unrest that has continued for decades and has links with Iraq, Syria and Iran. And its technical capabilities are not as competent as it should be for such a large NATO army in such a critical area.
For example, when Davutoğlu as foreign minister had been pressing for a no-fly zone against Syria, everybody knew that it was not only a U.N.-related political matter. Turkey did not have its own capabilities to impose one; the government was practically calling on the U.S., but that did not work as Barack Obama did not respond according to Erdoğan’s priorities. In summary, the muscles of the military were not enough to fulfill the regional political needs of the Erdoğan governments. Plus, the probes and court cases under the AK Parti to curb political adventurism within the military had the side effect of ensuring that it did not use initiative even in its daily routine.
3) The National Intelligence Organization (MİT): Turkey actually has a century-old tradition and expertise in covert operations. But as Turkey became integrated into the NATO system, its intelligence service turned inwards since 1952, with a strong domestic role against the “Communist threat,” leaving most of its foreign intelligence (and covert) operations to its Western allies, mainly the Americans and Germans. Almost all training and culture have been shifted to the American system; the names of key phrases like “case officer,” “desk officer” or “dead-drop” have started to be used as they are in English, even without needing to be translated into Turkish. It would not be wrong to say that the Turkish intelligence service was made to forget about the culture of foreign covert operations. So when Erdoğan started to ask MİT for new missions to the east and south of Turkey, beyond the scope of the Kurdish and Cypriot problems, the system started to stumble. And the Arab Spring caught its new chief, Hakan Fidan, not completely ready amid the transformation he was conducting. When Erdoğan asked him for special operations regarding Syria and Iraq or Egypt and Israel, it was observed with bitter experience that the service was not quite up to the missions; at least not yet.