Seven years ago, Ankara was partnering with Western countries and some Gulf states for regime change in Syria. Leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) were claiming that this was going to be accomplished within months if not weeks. Seven years later, those partners none of which shared a 910-kilometer border with Syria are no longer with us. Yes, the U.S. is still there but now we are on very different paths. Despite our failing economy, JDP leaders proudly announce that so far Turkey has spent 40 billion dollars for the four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. This is only the tip of the iceberg if one were to look at the political/economic/security losses we incurred as a result of our involvement in the conflict.
Today, Turkey’s current partners in Syria are Russia and Iran. In 2017, the three countries reached an agreement to create “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Two years later, Idlib has become the last terrorist stronghold with tens of thousands of fighters. During his joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on July 4, President Putin said:
“… I am particularly concerned that militants are infiltrating Libya from the Idlib zone in Syria, and this is a threat to everyone because they can go anywhere else from Libya. So let us not forget about this. We are ready to pool our efforts, including with our Italian friends, to help resume dialogue between the warring parties in Libya and to help the people of Libya to restore the normal operation of state institutions…”.
Turkey and Russia aren’t on the same page in Idlib. So far, they have managed their differences. However, once the S-400s are delivered Moscow can say “mission accomplished” and start talking business in Syria. And, it has more than enough tools to convince Ankara that it is time to take a more conciliatory attitude towards Damascus. Russia is Turkey’s principal natural gas supplier. Every year millions of Russian tourists come to Turkey’s southern shores for holidays. Turkish contracting companies have been active in Russia. And, Russia remains an important export market Turkish fruit and vegetables.
So much for the JDP’s adventure in Syria.
Last week, six Turkish sailors were released by forces loyal to Libyan commander Khalifa Hafter. However, his Libya National Army (LNA) imposed a ban on commercial flights from Libya to Turkey as well as a blockade on Turkish ships. Turkey supports Libya’s internationally recognized government in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA). But the ground is shifting. The problem is that we are involved, just like in Syria.
On June 5, 2017 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar, closed the only land border, and imposed an air and sea blockade. Ankara immediately got involved by siding with Qatar and sending more troops there.
Turkey has a surprisingly far-reaching relationship with Somalia ranging from health, education, livelihood creation, municipal services and infrastructure to military training. Turkey has its largest embassy compound in Mogadishu. In 2017 Turkey opened its biggest overseas military base in Somalia. Turkey is Somalia’s largest foreign investor. It is the number one country providing foreign aid to the war-torn country, half a billion dollars since 2011. Helping a country in need is a good thing. But why is Turkey so involved? Could it be that some “strategist” decided that Turkey needs a bridgehead in the Horn of Africa?
In the last decade, the JDP leadership has criticized Turkey’s Republican foreign policy as passive, faint-hearted. Unfortunately, JDP’s “new” foreign policy of neo-Ottoman adventurism is already on the rocks. In varying degrees, we are at odds with all major powers and all regional countries. The exception is Qatar, home to the largest US military base in the Middle East and ten thousand American military personnel. Yet, the government’s narrative of our current troubles is still based on dark schemes, conspiracies by external powers trying to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power.
What needs to be done is obvious.
We need to scale down our involvement in regional conflicts. We need to prioritize diplomacy and peace-building over involvement in proxy wars. We need to rebuild our relations with regional countries.
With or without Russia’s “encouragement”, we need to admit that President Assad is to stay there for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for Ankara, no settlement of the Syrian conflict will be a return to the past. Nonetheless, we need to accept, beyond rhetoric, that Syria’s future can only be determined by the Syrian people.
Last but not least we need to rebuild our relations with Turkey’s traditional allies. And, the first step in this direction can only be returning to the democratic path.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.