The paradox of Turkish foreign policy

The paradox of Turkish foreign policy

The Turkish media naturally highlighted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s flattering remarks concerning Turkey’s role in Syria and her promise of support against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after her recent visit to Turkey. But in fact she used very cautious language, and also emphasized the U.S.’s concern about post-al-Assad Syria and “extremists” such as al-Qaeda, as well as the PKK. 

In Turkey, there has not been a debate over or even recognition of the existence of al-Qaeda in Syria. Even the killing of a Turkish Islamist lawyer (by al-Qaeda militants) on the Syrian battlefield is not being talked about. Turkey is known to support Syria’s Islamist opposition, while Clinton emphasized the importance of different groups being represented in a post-al-Assad regime, and brough up the gender issue. She clearly supported Turkey in its struggle with PKK, but did not mention Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. It seems as though the U.S. and Turkey, as allies, chose to talk about their common points and avoided those on which they have differences of opinion. 

Turkey is firmly in the Western camp now, but its Syrian policy is in tune with U.S. policy only to the extent that the two will work together for the fall of al-Assad. Since this is the most urgent task, at the moment the rest does not seem to matter much. Nevertheless, unless Turkey considers the importance of the post-al-Assad scenarios the U.S. and its other Western allies consider desirable, Turks may find themselves with a lesser say in Syria’s future, or worse may find themselves an antagonistic position toward their allies. 

Post-Saddam Iraq has lessons to offer concerning the complications of regime change, and post-Mubarak Egypt has become another lesson. Although that was a rather different case of a popular uprising, not a military intervention, and the transition was much milder, no one wanted to encounter unintended consequences. That is why the power of the army has not been challenged, even though it goes against the principles of an uprising in the name of democracy. The case of Syria may be similar, but Turkey has not prepared itself for any negotiated transition, other than by hosting the last-minute opponents of al-Assad, such as Manaf Thalas, who were been among the darkest personalities of the regime until very recently. Besides, Turkey’s Syrian policy takes a Sunni line, and that is that!

As such, it will not be surprising if Syria’s Christians, Alawis, Kurds and other minorities, as well as secular Syrians, do not trust Turkey in the future power-sharing conditions. It seems that the greatest potential for tension in the region and disagreement among allies may arise around the prospect of Kurdish autonomy. The U.S. and Turkey’s Western allies know this, and it seems as though they think of Turkey mostly as a liaison with the armed fighters, who happen to be Islamists at the same time. It is rather risky policy for a neighboring country to be in this position. On top of everything, relations with Iran are also deteriorating.

In fact, the main problem is the paradox that Turkey does not want to face up to: On one hand, Turkey is in the Western camp and a NATO country, and as such it should accommodate itself to the new global order and global perspective of the Western world. On the other hand, the present government has regressed to classical nationalist politics. Under the circumstances it has created an awkward position for Turkey, because the natural allies of its nationalist politics are Iran and Syria (since all three agree on centralized, unified nation-state politics), yet they are now “enemies.”