How We Lost Our Way

May 3, 2021

During my years at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I sometimes asked the ambassadors in Ankara how they viewed their job in our capital since they usually stressed Turkey’s location as a unique observation post for the broad region. Many said, “never a dull moment”. I always responded that I was hoping for the day when the answer would be “boredom”, and we laughed. Because, while Turkey’s geostrategic location is an asset, it comes at a price. The end of the Cold War was a relief. But with the wars in Yugoslavia, the Caucasus and the first Gulf War, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of three major conflict areas. There was a refugee flow from Bosnia to Turkey. Our trade with Europe was disrupted. The Iraq-Turkey oil pipeline remained closed for years. Our trade with Iraq and the Gulf suffered. Energy projects in the Caucasus became more complicated. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the Arab spring created new challenges.

Since then, as Turkey tried to manage regional crises and wars, we started focusing on immediate problems, neglecting how we got here. Our priority became the agenda of the day, with even the recent past becoming history.

To put President Biden’s April 24 statement in perspective, one has to look back.

Turkish parliament’s decision of March 31, 2003 refusing “full cooperation” in the invasion of Iraq was a lasting disappointment for the US administration, particularly the Pentagon. Although President Obama, a strong critic of the invasion, assumed office in 2009, this sentiment remained. By contrast, Turkey’s refusal of full cooperation with the US enhanced Ankara’s standing in the Middle East, made it popular on the Arab street. Moreover, it made a positive impact on leading members of the EU, facilitating the launching of Turkey’s accession process.

Soon after the invasion, on July 4, 2003, came the “hood event”. A group of Turkish military personnel operating in northern Iraq were apprehended, led away with hoods over their heads for interrogation by the US military. The incident was also a lasting disappointment for the Turkish public opinion, particularly the military.

Nonetheless I believe that all in all, the balance sheet of the year 2003 was in our favor save for those lasting disappointments.

Less than a decade later came the Arab spring. The same Justice and Development Party (JDP) government ignoring the lessons of the invasion of Iraq, joined hands with Western powers and some Arab states assuming a leading role in the regime change project in Syria. At the time few had heard of the PYD/YPG.

Involvement in this “project” marked the beginning of Turkey’s foreign and security policy downturn.

In October 2015 Russia intervened in Syria. On November 24, 2015, Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 bomber for having violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds.  Following the incident, President Putin directed harsh accusations against the JDP government.  This led the Turkish side to immediately deny the charges and react with its well-known bravado only to apologize soon after. The incident put Turkey’s trade and tourism with Russia, projects undertaken by Turkish contracting companies at risk. On 19 December 2016, Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was assassinated by an off-duty Turkish police officer with dubious links at an art exhibition in Ankara. The murder was another blow to Turkish-Russian relations. Thus, in December 2017, Turkey and Russia signed a deal for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries.

The signing of the deal and the delivery of the batteries to Turkey led to a confrontation with Washington. Ankara has said since then that it has the sovereign right to provide for its defense needs. Indeed, but my impression is that the deal was the price Ankara had to pay to put its relations with Moscow back on track. Because we still do not know exactly against what threat the S-400 were purchased. Russia? Ukraine? Bulgaria? Romania? Greece? Georgia? Armenia? Azerbaijan? Iran with whom we have enjoyed peace for the last four hundred years? Iraq or a debilitated Syria? Besides, had our NATO allies not sent their Patriot batteries to Turkey in time of need? If we did not face an immediate threat, why could we not wait and see if the difficulties faced in the purchase of Patriots could be resolved?

In brief, the JDP government made strategic mistake by getting involved in Syria. The downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber and the murder of Ambassador Karlov led to a crisis with Russia. We then purchased the S-400s. The deal and Washington’s support to the PYD/YPG led to a crisis in relations with the US.

Sadly, most of the countries which partnered with Turkey in Syria in the beginning eventually opted out of the regime change project. Turkey’s refusal of full cooperation with the US in the invasion of Iraq had enhanced our standing in the region and with the EU, whereas our more than full involvement in Syria only led to our diplomatic isolation.

But this was not all. For years, Ankara and Washington called their relationship a “strategic partnership”. The reality is that Washington has one or perhaps two strategic partners. Number one is Israel, and number two the UK.

As Ankara became outspoken in its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, relations with Israel and the Gulf states suffered. In May 2010, a Turkish NGO organized a flotilla to take humanitarian assistance to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli maritime blockade. Israel warned them that it would not allow this, but the organizers were determined. The Turkish Government chose to let the initiative run its course. On May 31, 2010, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) boarded the flagship of the flotilla “Mavi Marmara”. Nine Turks lost their lives in the incident taking the Turkish-Israel relationship further down. These developments eventually stripped Turkey of the support of the powerful Jewish lobby in Washington.

One must add to the foregoing Turkey’s democratic decline.

In early April 2009, Mr. Obama visited Turkey on his first overseas trip as US President. The following is from the speech he delivered before the Turkish parliament:

“This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Atatürk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”

We know that Senator Biden was a leading adversary of Turkey throughout his political career. But had Turkey remained on the democratic path would President Biden, as Mr. Obama’s Vice President and his Democratic successor at the White House, have gone ahead with his April 24 statement no matter what? Would he have contradicted President Obama so blatantly? I doubt it.  This could at least give Turkey’s friends in Washington a good chance to push back against his decision.

Resetting our relationship with Washington would be a major task. But what needs resetting is more than that.

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