The Last Exit

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That Turkey has a strategic location is an axiom of our foreign policy. Although this is generally presented as an asset, it has always been a double-edged sword since we border on conflict areas, prominently among them the Middle East. In the past, we believed that non-involvement in regional problems particularly inter-Arab feuds, doing our best to control damage and to promote stability served our interests.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had severe consequences for Turkey’s security, trade and economic relations with the region. Later, the US invasion of Iraq, the Arab spring, the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic state threw our immediate vicinity into turmoil.

Calling the past “Turkey’s decades of submission” and claiming that today’s “new Turkey” is a global power, the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) chose to get involved in regional conflicts. Thus, we became more than a country bordering on the Middle East, we became part of it. It is only logical, therefore, that we should be prepared for trouble.

In broad terms, the Iran nuclear deal was the only positive regional development of recent decades. However, Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its anti-Iran stance seem to pave the ground for yet another conflict, more regional chaos and divisions within the West like the invasion of Iraq unless President Trump again surprises the world by opting for a bilateral with his Iranian counterpart. After all, the difference between the positions taken by Tehran and Pyongyang on denuclearization are too obvious to ignore.

On May 4, in a statement on the JCPOA, the High Representative of the European Union and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom said that they take note with regret and concern of the decision by the United States not to extend waivers with regards to trade in oil with Iran.

The next day, President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said the US is sending an aircraft carrier and a bomber taskforce to the Middle East in response to “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” by Iranian regime forces. Secretary Pompeo’s unscheduled visit to Baghdad following Mr Bolton’s statement must have put the Iraqi government on edge. It is worth remembering that the people of Iraq have not seen peace for the last forty years.

Finally, in a move which provoked criticism from many capitals, Iran announced that it will no longer respect all the limits placed on its nuclear research activities under the JCPOA.

In brief, more trouble for the Middle East is brewing and Turkey will again, unfortunately, get its share. The problem is, even without rising Iran-US tensions, we already have a full agenda:

  • Our leaving the democratic path has darkened Turkey’s global image and marred relations with the West, particularly Europe. (Whether the Europeans are consistent supporters of democracy is another matter.)
  • Our relations with Washington are at an all-time low.
  • Our relations with Moscow were steadier and more balanced in the past.
  • Our S-400s/F-35s predicament is still with us.
  • Our relations with regional countries are at an all-time low.
  • Our involvement in the Syrian conflict continues to negatively impact our foreign and security policy interests. A crisis in Idlib is looming.
  • Our economic challenges are more than huge.

And, the clock is ticking.

The first step to addressing such a daunting agenda is national unity and political consensus at least on the fundamentals of democracy and statecraft. Yet, with no common ground on anything, Turkey remains as polarized as ever. A rerun of Istanbul’s municipal election was the last thing we needed. This means that, barring unforeseen developments, we have another six weeks of tension before us until the rerun on June 23.

In recent years, “the last exit” has become a popular expression of our political jargon. It has been used widely in the context of elections to warn the electorate that unreserved support for the JDP would only take us further away from the democratic path. Until the last municipal election, these calls went unheeded.

With earlier “exits” now behind us, the June 23 Istanbul election has indeed become Turkey’s “last exit” not only for democracy but also internal peace and stability without which none of the foregoing problems can be resolved.

Turkey has two options: having a fair campaign, holding a flawless, transparent election meeting the highest democratic standards or moving further down to another league. And the responsibility to make the choice rests fairly and squarely with the JDP leadership.