Turkey’s Middle East Policy Coming Full Circle

December 6, 2021

The so-called “Friends of Syria Group”, now history, held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012.  On April 1, 2012, it met for the second time in Istanbul.

Later that month in 2012, Turkey’s Foreign Minister delivered a major foreign policy speech in the parliament. Emphasizing the genuine desire for change underlying the Arab spring, he declared that attempts to explain the current developments with plans imposed from abroad and external conspiracies were primarily an insult to the honorable peoples of the region.

He said:

“The Friends of the Syrian Group represents the conscience of the international community and it was formed as a result of our determined efforts… We organized the second meeting in Istanbul with the participation of 83 countries and international organizations. It’s clear that these eighty-three nations did not come here to say ‘let’s keep the Assad regime in place’… As Turkey, we shall continue to direct and lead the massive wave of change in the Middle East. The peoples of the region see Turkey not only as a friend and a brother but also as the leader of a new and powerful vision to shape the future, create a new regional order… Lastly, I wish to stress the following: The new Middle East is being born. We shall continue to be the owner, the leader, and the steward of this new Middle East.”

The contrast between the foregoing and today’s realities unmistakably shows that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foray into the Syrian conflict has been the worst strategic blunder in the history of the Republic. But today, all our failures are pinned on external conspiracies and “higher minds which are determined to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power.”

At odds with all regional powers for a decade, with the exception of Qatar, Ankara can no longer claim to lead the Middle East. And with Turkish democracy in sharp decline, it can no longer inspire peoples aspiring to a better future.

But now Ankara’s policy, more than before, puts the emphasis on maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria rather than regime change. Accordingly, like some other Arab countries, it is moving closer and closer to admitting that it has no other option than resuming diplomatic relations with Damascus. With millions of Syrians displaced and mostly settled in Turkey, and billions of taxpayers’ money invested in a cause that is no longer attainable, this adventure has also resulted in yielding Turkey’s regional security to the overpowering interests and agendas of Russia and Iran, not to mention the US.

Thus, Ankara is now trying to restore relations with regional countries.

After Oknins’s release, President Erdogan spoke with President Herzog of Israel and Prime Minister Bennett. Readouts of the calls were issued by both sides. Since the Turkish President’s office does not routinely publish readouts of his calls with foreign leaders, the call with President Herzog was no doubt considered important.

On November 24, the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan paid an official visit to Ankara, at the invitation of President Erdogan. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the two countries signed ten agreements in the fields of energy, environment, finance, and trade during the visit. “We had fruitful discussions focusing on ways to strengthen relations between our countries,” Al Nahyan said on Twitter. In Turkey, with the exception of pro-government media, the visit and the agreements signed were attributed to Ankara’s desperate search for foreign funds. The Crown Prince must be congratulated for his choice of timing, finding the most opportune moment to start “repairing” the relationship.

At the end of November President Erdogan visited Turkmenistan where he also participated in the 15th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) summit. On the way back, when asked about the future of relations with Egypt and Israel, he said: “We will take these steps gradually within a certain timetable. We will take steps similar to the one taken between us and the United Arab Emirates.”

In brief, AKP’s Syria and Middle East policy appears to be coming full circle. If the change were to continue, Turkish people would say “better late than never” and turn to their daily worries. The cost of the last decade including the incalculable toll of our involvement in Syria, the emergence of an anti-Turkey bloc in the eastern Mediterranean, money lost in trade, the decline of our global image will soon disappear from our agenda. Pro-government media would highlight our momentous diplomatic achievements. Because the Turkish people are spellbound by the dramatic loss of the value of their currency, hence their income. On October 14, Aljazeera quoting a Bloomberg analysis reported that the Turkish currency is on track for its ninth straight year of depreciation, having lost more than 80% of its value since the end of 2012, the most in the developing world after the Argentine peso.[i] And on Saturday, the Washington Post’s Gleg Miller and Liz Sly, in a special report titled “Assad’s tightening grip”, said that the Syrian currency has lost 85% of its value since the start of the war, a decade ago.[ii]  

Could the AKP government be really serious about a course change in foreign policy? Looking at its determination to continue with its current “monetary policy” and its unwillingness to ever change tack, I doubt it. Regardless, if it were to do so someday, it should consider:

  • avoiding rhetoric, bravado, and overreach,
  • matching words with deeds,  
  • promoting dialogue,
  • putting the emphasis on rebuilding trust,
  • ensuring transparency in domestic and foreign policy, and
  • stopping the use of foreign policy to advance domestic interests.

Mr. Hoshyar Zebari, a close colleague of Masoud Barzani, leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had made visits to Ankara before the US invasion of Iraq and we sometimes agreed sometimes did not. After the invasion, he became Iraq’s foreign minister. On his first visit to Turkey in his new capacity, he told Minister Gul that having full access to the files of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was now in a position to say that we had all along been very consistent and transparent in what we said on regional problems, that we had never engaged in double talk. Whether we always agreed or not was another matter.

This is what earned us trust and friends regardless of disagreements.

When a Syrian foreign minister visits Ankara, whenever that may be, would he/she express a similar view? I am sure he/she would have lots to say about our relationship, but not that.


[i] https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/10/14/turkish-lira-falls-out-of-favour-with-local-investors-again

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/assad-syria-business-government/

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