As Turkey prepares for new CIA director’s first visit

As Turkey prepares for new CIA director’s first visit

There is a popular Turkish saying: “The fire burns where it falls.” It basically means that nobody other than the victim can truly understand the pain suffered.

The silence of Turkey’s ruling elites on U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban immigration from seven Muslim majority countries made me recall this saying. I bet former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is craving to voice a reaction against Trump, as he is the theoretician and practitioner of the notion that Turkey should be the voice of all oppressed people in the world and especially of all Muslims, from Rohinya to Romania. But even if Davutoğlu was still in power, he would not have been able to utter a word against Trump for a simple reason: Turkey’s national interests dictate that its leaders remain silent on the issue.

But obviously what matters most is how Turkey’s ruling elites define our national interests. For at least a decade until recently, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been critical of how its predecessors, Turkey’s republican secularists, have defined the country’s national interests. They have condemned past foreign policy practices based on that definition. 

Trying to avoid being dragged into the Middle Eastern conundrum and refraining from taking sides in various clashes in the region have not been legitimate policy options in the eyes of the AKP elites. They have believed that Turkey’s historic, cultural and religious ties dictate a more proactive policy, endorsing a “values-based” foreign policy because Ankara deeply feels the pain suffered by Muslims in Palestine, Muslims in Libya, and Muslims in Syria. Well, it seems that is not the case any longer.  

Currently, the pains suffered by Turkey are so great that the suffering of others no longer carries the priority. The fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the fight against what the government calls the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) involve existential threats. And the U.S. could be either a source or a solution of both issues. 

Turkey expects the Trump administration to reverse Barack Obama’s reliance on Kurdish forces (read this as the PKK) to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. It also wants Trump to extradite Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey accuses of plotting the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

It is not yet clear what the Trump administration will do on both fronts, but the Turkish government wants to make a fresh start with Washington. Ankara is seeking direct communication lines in order to convince the new administration before it shapes its decisions. 

It is thus only natural to try avoid any crises that could rock the boat between the two capitals. That explains the silence not only of the government but also of the pro-government media on Trump’s immigration ban, a controversial and demeaning decision against the Muslim world.

Ironically, the foreign policy pursued by the “old Turkey” administrations, ferociously criticized by the current rulers for being “passive and indifferent” to the Muslim world, would have shown a calm, calibrated reaction, instead of remaining silent and it would undoubtedly condemned Trump’s ban. 

Yet we did not hear a single word about the ban following the phone conversation between Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ironically, while Erdoğan has criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for using the term “Islamic terrorism,” Ankara’s efforts are concentrating on appealing to Trump by capitalizing on his desire to fight against “radical Islamic terrorists” (in his own words).

“We will fight ISIL, forget the Kurds,” Turkish officials will tell the new CIA director Mike Pompeo during his visit to Ankara later this week. An understanding on those lines might require Turkey to live with Bashar al–Assad and abandon Syria’s opposition forces. 

Would this mean an end of the Turkish government’s famous “values-based” foreign policy? Well, maybe there is nothing more valuable than your own life. After all, the fire burns where it falls.