Time to Get a Grip

August 20, 2018

When President Obama’s visited Turkey in April 2009 he underlined Turkey’s “strong, vibrant, secular democracy”. Turkish-American relations appeared to have reached their peak. As Turkey started to move away from the democratic path relations started to sour not only with the US but also the EU. Then came the Syria ordeal. Turkey was at the forefront of those who were after regime change. President Obama’s decision not to enforce his redline in Syria caused resentment in Ankara because it showed that even the Obama administration, unlike Ankara, had not written off President Assad completely.

On September 30, 2015 Russia launched its military intervention in Syria. On November 24, 2015 Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 for having violated Turkish airspace for seventeen seconds. Moscow expressed deep disappointment because their friends in Ankara rushed to NATO before offering some explanation to Russia. President Putin vented anger over the incident and the loss of a pilot. Moreover, he directed far-reaching accusations against the Turkish government for having links to the Islamic State. Moscow wanted an apology, compensation and punishment of those responsible. In response, Turkish leadership said that more than enough warnings had been issued for airspace violations. And, it totally rejected ISIL-related accusations as slander. It was a full-blown crisis.

The Gülenist coup attempt of July 15, 2016 created new tensions with both the US and the EU.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) leadership was upset because European governments had failed to rush to its support within hours if not minutes, and the European capitals believed that government’s reaction must conform to the rule of law. Some even suggested that the accession talks should officially be suspended or ended.

In March 2017, Turkish-German relations were strained over the arrest of a Die Welt correspondent in Turkey and the cancellation of two meetings in Germany which were to be addressed by Turkish ministers in the context of the political campaign for Turkey’s constitutional referendum. Germany criticized the Turkish government for what it perceived as repression of the press and the Turkish government reacted by saying that the correspondent in question was a PKK terrorist. It also directed accusations at Germany for harboring terrorists and its lack of respect for democratic practices. The Netherlands followed Germany in not allowing Turkish Ministers to hold campaign meetings triggering a second crisis.

By this time Turkey’s relations with Moscow were revived to some extent. And, as of the end of 2016, Ankara joined Mr. Trump in Obama-bashing to gain his favor. Such hopes were short-lived. Today, Turkey’s relations with Washington are at their lowest point in decades with a long list of problems. Moreover, Ankara’s former Gulf allies in Syria have now joined forces with Washington and Israel in forming an anti-Iran block. Thus, Ankara is now trying to balance off the downturn in relations with Washington by putting its relations with the EU back on track. On the surface at least leading EU countries appear to be responding positively not because of their affection for Ankara but contagion concerns. Ankara would be wise not to present this as the forming of an anti-Trump coalition.

In brief, Turkey’s foreign policy in the last decade has been volatile, going from one extreme to the other with an unnecessarily aggressive and rhetorical public discourse. This has led to speculation on Turkey’s pivot to the North, to the East, to the Middle East, even “shift of axis”. The EU, Russia, China and North Korea also have problems with the Trump administration but they emphasize diplomacy. After the Singapore summit even Kim Jong Un is refraining from rhetoric.

The JDP holds the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II in greatest esteem perhaps for his survival instincts in foreign policy as well as his embrace of pan-Islam. He acceded to the throne on September 7, 1876. By this time Ottoman Empire’s demise was a foregone conclusion after decades and decades of misrule, capitulations and utter failure to catch up with contemporary developments. Abdulhamid II reigned for thirty-three years. He was a despot. He undertook some reforms but never embraced constitutional rule he had reluctantly launched with the inauguration of the first-ever Ottoman parliament on March 19, 1877.

In foreign policy he did his best to play a balancing game between the major powers only to gain respite. At the end of January 1878 when Russian troops reached San Stefano, today’s Ataturk airport, Great Britain sent its fleet to İstanbul and Russia had to agree to an armistice. In his remarkable book titled “The Ottoman Endgame”, Sean McMeekin describes the foregoing in these words: “By a miracle, the Sick Man of Europe had been saved in his deathbed.” But, not for long.

Republic of Turkey is not the “Sick Man of Europe”. This is exactly why Lord Kinross’ book carries the title “Ataturk: The Rebirth of a Nation”. Turkey’s War of Liberation and the reforms which followed inspired peoples and won the respect of the world.  Today, Turkey is a member of NATO, the Council of Europe and G20. Could we have done better? Surely. Nonetheless, the country has come a long way. Today, Turkish people are not after survival but internal peace, security and prosperity. They wish to pursue happiness. Should Turkey return to the democratic path, invest heavily in secular education, adopt a progressist agenda and prioritize diplomacy over confrontation sky would be the limit. We may not be able to defy realities and become a global power, but we can be a peaceful, prosperous country of consequence, a regional power whose friendship sought by all. We should be happy that Qatar is a friend but worry if Qatar is our only friend.

A delighted President Assad is probably saying, “You partnered with Washington and others for my overthrow and now not only that partnership but also your broad relationship with the US is in tatters”. Ankara and Washington shouldn’t prove him right.
















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