What happened to ‘zero problems’?
As the tension between Turkey and the al-Assad regime - the genocidal tyranny in Syria - reaches new heights, a number of Turkish commentators are questioning the wisdom of Ankara. They are particularly criticizing Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkish Foreign Minister, and asking what happened to his vision of “zero problems with neighbors.”
However, although I always find Ankara’s wisdom questionable - there have even been times when I have claimed that such a notion does not exist - I believe that Turkey’s policy toward Syria is actually worthy of praise.
Here is why. Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” vision was mainly an effort to get rid of Turkey’s internal dynamics, which have made the country suspicious and hostile to its neighborhood, if not the whole world. For decades, Turkish kids were taught in school: “Turkey is a country surrounded on three sides by sea, and from four sides by enemies.” Similarly, the Turkish foreign policy elite was focused on protecting absurd “red lines” - such as that there are no people on earth called “Kurds”- rather than understanding political realities and adapting to them.
The Davutoğlu vision has worked, at least to some extent. Turkey lifted visas with dozens of countries, boosting travel and trade. Ankara’s old enemies, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, gradually became its friends. And Syria, a country that Turkey had considered yet another enemy for a long time, turned into the shining example of “zero problems.”
Yet all of this was before the Arab Spring, a historic epoch that Ankara, like everybody else, did not foresee. At first, the Turkish government openly supported the chain revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but that was not too difficult as the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes were unfriendly to Turkey anyway. In Libya, however, Turkey had both good relations with Gadhafi and a great amount of investments. So, would Turkey rush to support the Libyan opposition, or rather try to be the neutral party that “speaks to all sides”?
Ankara tried the latter option in the early months of the Libyan revolution, but the sobering protests it received from the Libyan rebels came as a wake-up call. Then, very quickly, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu raised their support for the opposition and became one of the key friends of the Libyan Revolution.
The same pattern was repeated in Syria. First Turkey, as a party that could talk “with all sides,” tried to persuade the al-Assad regime to engage in a peaceful transition of power. Davutoğlu visited Damascus again and again to convince the regime to stop killing unarmed protesters and accept their legitimate demands. But the leopard did not change its spots, and the regime proved to be monstrous.
The rest is the history of Turkish denunciation of the al-Assad regime and Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition. As a Turk, I feel proud that my government acted in this way. I would have been utterly ashamed had it chosen to maintain “zero problems” with a genocidal regime, as countries like Russia, Iran and China are doing these days.
Finally, there is the rise of Syrian Kurdistan, for which Ankara is again being blamed at home. But the fear of outside Kurds is a policy of the “Old Ankara” that Davutoğlu has abolished. In other words, Turkey’s good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan might be extended to Syrian Kurdistan, which will be in need of the friendship and not the enmity of Turkey.
In other words, the world can change and Turkey can be on the right side of history, despite taking risks. Davutoğlu gets that. For that he deserves not criticism, but support.