Turkey’s soft power diplomacy in times of coronavirus
Turkey’s ruling elites might have a hard time accepting that it is not enough to be right to have the moral upper hand in diplomacy. They might think that they are right in whatever policy decision they take pertaining to regional and international issues. But if the majority of
Turkey’s interlocutors do not think like Turkey, then they have to find a way to work with them, rather than yelling at them all the time.
In view of its stormy relations with a lot of countries, Turkey currently needs friends. It needs to use every occasion to improve its relations. Especially if such occasions come at a low cost.
Let’s take the case of coronavirus (COVID-19) that has unleashed an unprecedented crisis on a global scale. Turkey was among the rare countries where COVID-19 has reached the country at a later stage, almost two months after officials in China confirmed they had identified a new virus.
Almost two weeks before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Turkey, alarm bells were ringing in Italy, whose healthcare system has started to give signs of overstretch.
Turkey could have used this golden opportunity to lend a helping hand to the Italians. It seems the Italian public was overwhelmingly moved when China last week sent a group of experts and medical supplies at a time when the country went under total quarantine.
This would have left an unforgettable mark on the Italian public opinion, which has not been harboring positive feelings about the Turkish government for some time. The government in Rome has not been exactly friendly either, not to say outright hostile. The Italian government stepped up criticism against Turkey especially in autumn when the Turkish army launched a cross-border operation into northeastern Syria. The operation was aimed against the YPG, which Turkey says is the Syrian wing of the illegal PKK. But, as elsewhere, this was perceived by Italy as an offensive against Kurdish groups fighting ISIL. Let’s not forget that this is a country which hosted the PKK’s currently jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, for a few months in Rome after he was forced to leave for Syria in 1998. Relations between Rome and Ankara had seen an unprecedented low, but recovered when Öcalan left Italy and even has seen a honeymoon in the 2000’s thanks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s special relation with his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi.
But 2019 was almost reminiscent of 1998, according to those familiar with the relations. Italian reaction to the operation in Syria, which included an arms embargo, had come at a time when relations were already strained due to the Italian parliament’s decision last spring to recognize Armenians’ claims of genocide.
Ironically, while they come at loggerheads in Syria, the two countries found each other in the same camp in the Libyan theater.
Turkey’s strong support during the last days of 2019 to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, which included military assistance, was highly appreciated by Italy, which had higher stakes in Libya compared to Turkey. That, however, has not totally warmed up relations.
The Italian government’s track record in 2019 might have left a bitter taste in Ankara.
No doubt the pro-PKK groups have gained a lot of supporters from among Italian opinion leaders. But Turkey’s ruling elites should be aware that Italians do not have deeply rooted negative feelings against Turks. So, it would have been an immense public relations campaign had Turkey sent medical assistance, even symbolically, to Italy.
Turkey’s President Erdoğan has called the Italian prime minister on March 17 to express his condolences. Better late than never. But who in Italy knows about this conversation? Had they been informed? Would that mean anything to them? A tangible gesture would have worked wonders, especially at a time when Europeans are passing from a stress test in terms of the solidarity they have been building after World War II.
So far, they appear to have failed the test.