Ankara goes back to square one

Ankara goes back to square one

A popular theme for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles generally is to criticize previous governments for their timidity and passivity in foreign policy and to compliment themselves for making Turkey an active player in the world.

They have also convinced their grass roots supporters about this. AKP supporters unquestioningly parrot what they hear from above. The reality, however, is different and shows that Turkey is not exactly at the center of diplomatic activity in the major crises, which is currently keeping the international community occupied.

Turkey is nevertheless physically at the center of these crises. To the north it has the situation in Ukraine from which it cannot dissociate itself from, and to its East, in Iraq and Syria, it faces a growing threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In both cases it is seen to be timid and largely passive.

Turkey’s geostrategic place on the map is being used differently today by the AKP compared to a few years ago. In the past, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu used this location to argue that a rapidly developing Turkey would be the most proactive country in helping the region overcome its problems and assist in shaping its future.

Today the same location has pushed the AKP government from its ambition of being a proactive regional player. Instead it has become a reactive player that is trying to ward off negative fallout from events beyond its borders, which it has no control over.

The argument AKP circles use in explaining this fact also has a familiar ring to it. It is said that Turkey’s sensitive place on the map and the risks that this poses for the country make it necessary to tread cautiously. In other words it is back to square one.

AKP supporters may not see it, but this represents a reversion to the policies of former governments who Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have continued to criticize for allegedly acting timidly and passively in the face of major regional events. AKP supporters still fail to see that Turkey’s position is actually worse than it was before.

It is true that Ankara acted extremely cautiously and timidly with regard to regional crises in the past, but this was a natural outcome of its highly volatile neighborhood.

Yet Turkey had an advantage then provided by what was referred to as “active neutrality.”

In other words, it tried to keep channels of dialogue open with all sides as an aspect of its overall security policy, even if this did not always please its Western allies, as in the case of its ties with Iran or even Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. It was also talking to Israel then, of course.

That advantage was lost under the AKP government. Today Ankara’s channels of meaningful and functional dialogue with regional governments are few. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are rarely seen much in the Middle East anymore, which contrasts sharply with the situation a few years ago.

Despite all the hard talk from the AKP, Turkey does not have the capacity to help the Palestinians in Gaza, its kindred Tatars in Crimea or the Turkmen in Iraq and Syria either. In all these cases it gives the distinct impression that it is waiting for others to do the job. This seems to be the case with regard to the Turkish hostages held by ISIL too.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu repeated the line of his predecessor on Syria and Iraq – in a recent interview with the Anadolu Agency: – and employed the hackneyed “We told them this would happen but the West did nothing” argument.

This, of course, means nothing in policy terms, and also does not cover the fact that Ankara is also guilty of misjudgments concerning the recent crises. The main thing to consider here is how are Erdoğan and Davutoğlu going to make Turkey a country whose word is listened to, the way they want?

Until they can do that, all they say is hollow rhetoric designed to only please their own constituents.