Turkey Needs to Build Trust

December 14, 2015
In a world of contradictions foreign policy is no exception. The West, for example, always takes care to wave the democracy flag but can become oblivious to democratic values in its dealings with Middle East tyrannies. Russia constantly underlines that it is up to the people of Syria to determine their own future but becomes less generous when the question becomes the people of Ukraine determining their future. Nevertheless, they all somehow try to make their contradictions less conspicuous; devise ways and means to justify them; draw attention to what is doable and what is not and thus bridge the gap between words and deeds. Turkey understandably cannot be the exception to the rule. But discrepancies between what it says from one day to the next and between what it says and does are turning Ankara into an “unpredictable partner” at best.

On December 1, President Obama held a press conference in Paris on the occasion of the UN Conference on Climate Change. Referring to the Turkish-Syrian border he said that “… there’s about 98 kilometers that are still used as a transit point for foreign fighters, ISIL shipping out fuel for sale that helps finance their terrorist activities…”

On December 9, John Kirby, State Department’s Spokesperson echoed his President:
“…I mean we’ve talked about this 98-kilometer stretch… which still needs to be closed off because it’s – because it provides avenues of sustenance for ISIL. Yes, they use it to – for smuggling purposes, particularly oil. They use it to – for access of foreign fighters back and forth, and other supplies. And so yeah, I mean, it’s kind of all of that. And that’s why we’re working with the Turks to see what we can do to help close that 98-kilometers stretch off. And again, I would point to what we said before. I mean, the Turkish Government realizes the importance of this stretch of ground as well, and we’re working hard with them to see what we can do to close it off. But it’s not just about oil. It’s about all the ways that ISIL can sustain itself inside Syria…”

In response Ankara has said all along that she regards ISIL as a terrorist organization, that she is fighting it but it is not possible to seal off the border. Yes, Turkey condemns ISIL as a terrorist organization. And, sealing off the 900 kilometer border with Syria may present certain difficulties. However, a porous border combined with Ankara’s Assad obsession has led the world to believe that Turkey, with an “ends justify the means” approach, has been tolerant of ISIL, if not supportive. If one is to assume, however, that the Turkish government has indeed been fighting ISIL, then the current picture becomes a huge diplomatic failure. The government is doing its very best but nobody is appreciating the effort. This ambiguity harms our interests because it creates an increasingly visible crisis of confidence between Turkey and our partners. If we are unable to seal off the border on our own, we should explore what can be done in cooperation with our allies as we did when the Patriot batteries were deployed on our southern border in 2013 in response to another threat.

We also seem to suffer from contradictory interpretations of national sovereignty. We have downed a Russian warplane for violating our airspace, yet calls by the Iraqi government to withdraw our forces from the north of the country appear to upset us. We defiantly tell Baghdad that the purpose of our presence there is to train local forces to combat ISIL as requested by the Governor of Mosul and we are going to stay there. Turkey’s record on matters regarding the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of our neighbors had been impeccable and this had earned us their trust. We need to restore that trust. And the way to do it is to show in words and deeds that we are not part of the sectarian conflict which has engulfed the region. Only that will make us a credible regional partner for all. The presence of Turkish troops in Iraq was not a problem in the past.

Turkey’s foray into the Syrian conflict has been costly. Our relations with the US, Europe, Russia and perhaps even China have become problematic. Our relations with the countries of the Maghreb, Egypt, Israel, Iraq and Iran are at an all-time low. Our government-to-government links appear to have been replaced by government-to-group links. How the Ankara reconciles the reality with its neo-Ottoman fantasies boggles the mind. On October 2, 2015 President Obama told the press that the Russian intervention in Syria may get them into a quagmire. Only time will tell. But Turkey surely has been in that quagmire for quite some time.

What Turkey needs to do is amply clear: Turkey needs to extract herself from the Syrian conflict; she needs to restore confidence with her allies and regional partners; and, she needs to be patient and more cool-headed to put behind the worst episode in our relations with Russia. Unfortunately, there is almost no chance of this happening, but it is worth repeating.

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