This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 13/05/2011
Today, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself trapped between his friendships with unpopular Arab and Iranian leaders, and public opinion in the countries now crossing into democracy, a public that is readily poised to accuse Erdogan of double standards should he continue to be hesitant and undecided. The Turkish Prime Minister is thus aware that there can be no escape from reformulating the identity and the nature of Turkey’s desired regional role. However, he is not certain when it comes to the ultimate fate of the events in Syria, Libya or Iran, and therefore wishes he could somehow postpone taking a decision. Erdogan, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are all closely monitoring the Arab Spring which made change mandatory for Turkish foreign policy, and made the reconsideration of the doctrine embraced by the three men imperative, a doctrine of ‘zero problems’ in the relations, or friendships, with the neighboring Islamic nations.
The factors that dictate how Turkish regional and international policy should be redrafted are completely different from what they were, when Turkey’s neighboring countries enjoyed a certain degree of stability guaranteed by authoritarian rule and tyranny. Back then, the leadership in Turkey could well turn a blind eye to the violations perpetrated by its friends in power in Libya, Syria and Iran, in the name of stability. Erdogan was thus able to ‘ride the popular wave’ as a hero who challenged Israeli arrogance and compensated for the shortcomings of Arab leaders. But today, Erdogan finds himself having to choose between his personal and political ties with the authoritarian leaders, and the peoples who are rising up against them and who are openly calling on him to cease protecting these leaders.
With regard to Libya, Erdogan made his position clear after much hesitation, taking measures as a result, and calling on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to step down. As regards Syria, Erdogan began sending important signals, albeit he continues to be hesitant, as he awaits the developments on the scene and the positions that will be adopted by other parties. These latter do not only comprise the Arabs or Iran, but also the European nations, the United States as well as China and Russia. What is taking place in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring has reshuffled the Turkish cards, both in the east with the Arab nations, Iran and Israel, and the west with the Obama administration and also with the European Union.
In truth this could prove to be in Turkey’s interests, and not just for the benefit of the Arabs. The policy pursued by the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey was built on premises that are at odds with the principles of supporting democracy, and bordered on overconfidence, triumphalism, and a push for excessive clout and influence. This nearly drove it to near arrogance at the domestic level, perhaps somehow weakening afterwards because the Turkish people are divided over the ideology of the ruling party and its long-term goals.
At the domestic level in Turkey, there is a sense of restlessness because of the near-overturning of secularism in Turkey. But there is some measure of reassurance that the rebellion against secularism will not turn into a coup against it, not just because of the makeup of the Turkish people, but also because the Turkish army would not support an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Turkey.
The geographical position of Turkey affords the country some protection from fundamentalism, as Turkey is in need of both the West and the East. Iran’s model of theocratic autocracy is not tempting for the Turks, who take pride in democracy in a Muslim country. Also, Turkey is comfortable with both its European and Asian spheres, and the government of Turkey today seeks to export the Islamic democratic model as though it is desirable and valuable goods. Then there is the elections factor, which will be settled next month. The ruling party is concerned by potential surprises resulting from the Arab Spring or those resisting it, in Syria and Libya in particular. The party’s victory is almost guaranteed, and hence, the last thing it needs is something that would put that in jeopardy.
But the matter does not involve only discrediting stances or principles, or burning the Turkish flag as happened in Benghazi, before Erdogan’s government took the decision to close the Turkish embassy in Tripoli and call on Gaddafi to step down. It also involves the economic aspect, and the tremendous financial losses incurred in Libya and perhaps even Syria. This is in addition to the need to tighten belts until the Arab region has overcome its difficult transitional phase. This is not to mention the competition with countries such as France, so that the ‘pie’ does not end up being completely in its hands, whether in Libya or elsewhere.
In fact, Turkish exports to Libya had reached up to two billion dollars annually, with nearly 20 thousand Turks active in Libya in construction projects under contracts with Gaddafi’s government. The problem lies not just in not knowing ‘when’ Gaddafi will step down – and at what cost-, but also in the fierce competition with France, which does not want to lose its share of the pie in Libya as it did in Iraq, when the Bush administration excluded it and kept all the spoils to itself. Ankara feels that is it more worthy of benefiting from this than France, but it fears that its hesitation may have led to strengthening France’s foothold in Libya, while Erdogan and his government were discussing the merits of siding with the rebels against Gaddafi.
But relatively speaking, Erdogan finds himself in a better position with regard to the situation in Libya compared to that in Syria. There is international consensus against Muammar Gaddafi, and NATO is at the helm of a military campaign against him. Furthermore, the Arab Gulf states and the Arab League had been the first to take action, which led to stern stances on the part of the UN Security Council. But even under these circumstances, Erdogan was late to make a decision, although Abdullah Gul was clear and ready from the beginning, according to several sources.
Erdogan’s confusion as to how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clear. True, he sent him several public messages stating that he was making a mistake and that Turkey will not be able to provide him with cover if he continues to use of force against the protesters. And true, Erdogan has told several Arab and Western officials that he was fed up with Bashar Al-Assad’s unwillingness or inability to implement necessary reform or to contain the protests through concessions, not through bloody repression. And certainly, Erdogan would like to be able to convince his two friends, Gaddafi and Assad, either to anticipate events and comprehensively reform their policies, or to understand matters and take the necessary decisions, either to step down or to bring others into a partnership in power – if it is indeed not too late.
Today, Erdogan does not have a magic wand to change the mentality of his friends the rulers as he wishes. That is why he finds himself frustrated, and yet not in a position that would give him the luxury of time, either to elude taking a decision or to ‘ride the wave’. The “street” which gave him the momentum of leadership he boasted of is the same “street” which is now putting him under scrutiny, and holding him accountable. It is not enough today for any regional leader to use the challenging and the antagonizing of Israel as a means to compensate for their shortcomings at the domestic level, as does Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or to gain popularity that would enable them to achieve regional influence. The priorities are different now, even if the Palestinian Cause remains present in the Arab mind. The criteria for judging those seeking leadership have become quite different.
Erdogan and Turkey’s leaders are well aware of this, and that is why there are significant indications of changes taking place. Following are a few such signs and their broad highlights:
* The Turkish Prime Minister was among the first, if not the very first, to hasten the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, in a step some considered to be exemplary boldness and sound interpretation of the political scene, while others considered it to be a political step to exploit the vacuum in regional leadership engendered by ousting Mubarak.
* Regardless, the Arab Spring in Egypt started a new chapter in Turkish-Egyptian relations, one that perhaps contributed to the Turkish and Egyptian advice to the Hamas movement of taking the path of reconciliation with Fatah and working with the Palestinian Authority towards a new regional and international strategy.
* Such Turkish and Egyptian advice would not have been welcomed by Hamas had the Arab Spring not come to Syria and shown both Hamas and Turkey that leadership was beginning to slip away from Damascus and that such a process could not be stopped. The regime in Damascus has chosen “power” over “reform” and resolved to believe that the Arab Spring was just a fad.
* Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tested the limits of his influence with both Gaddafi and Assad. He has finally understood that it is difficult to speak the language of democracy with those friends who were brought up on dictatorship. He has also understood that the cost of his relationships with authoritarian leaderships at a time when peoples are demanding democracy would be quite high for him, for his party and for Turkey.
* Erdogan has also had a taste of wrongly expecting to win regional roles for himself through the Syrian gateway. He had maintained his close friendship with Assad at a time when Syria was in a state of complete isolation, following the American invasion of Iraq and in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Erdogan gave Assad a lifeline and exerted a lot of effort to bring him out of isolation, even at the expense of Iraq and Lebanon. Later he wagered on playing the role of mediator between Syria and Israel, before deciding that it would be better for him to play the Palestinian card, in view of what it gained him in terms of popularity at the level of the Arab street.
* Erdogan’s relationship with Syria represents a major test for him and his party, regardless of the relationship between Turkey and Israel. It is the Syrian question then that will test the commitment of Turkey and its ruling party to democracy. The Syrian question will also test how sincere the relationship between Erdogan and the Arab people is, a people which had been marginalized in times of strong relations between rulers, and which today has become a public opinion to be taken into consideration as it observes, scrutinizes and judges. The Syrian question, and not just the Libyan question, also provides a margin for reshaping relations with Turkey and Europe.
* Restoring the relationship with Israel is not excluded in Turkey’s thinking, albeit not by renouncing fundamental principles. The Turkish government realizes the importance of the Israeli element in its relations with the United States, yet it also realizes the importance gained by Turkey’s regional role and its effect on the Turkish-American relationship. Indeed, there are indications of shared messages to Israel, from regional, American and international actors, signifying not confrontation but rather the policy of moving forward with or without it. And that is a message that is of the utmost importance.
* The regional role played by Turkey today does not go through the Syrian-Israeli gateway, nor does it go through challenging Israel for the purpose of domestic containment or through a Turkish-Syrian-Iranian partnership to drive Hamas towards defiance. Ankara realizes that this is a new role for it to play, one that requires it to tear up many of the cards that used to be fundamental in the Turkish doctrine as envisioned by the Justice and Development Party.
* The relationship with Iran’s government and with Iran’s people is also part of the new formula. Indeed, Erdogan had in the past made sure to give Iran the space to use pretexts and elude challenges, as well as protection from pressures and requirements. Today the situation is different. There are indications of another spring on the Iranian scene. And Ankara is trying to prepare itself for another surprise, one that could do away with the very basis of its old policy.