Foreign Policy Blogs

Turkey: Year in Review

Summary of Turkish foreign policy in 2011

2011 was in many ways a milestone in modern Turkish history. First, the Arab Spring not only shook the Western influence in the region, it also ended the post-colonial period in the Middle East, marked by authoritarian-suppressive regimes, which in their way mirrored and reflected their perception of their countries experience with post-World War I imperialism and colonialism. In that sense, Turkey returned back to the Middle East for the first time since the Middle East slipped away from its fingers with the 1916 Arab Revolt, at a time when the countries of the Middle East are rising against the by-products of their separation from the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey’s return back to the Middle East game of course, brought with itself endless references to an improperly defined ‘Ottoman past’ and rather unfortunate taxonomy of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ (traditional ‘Ottomanism’ has never been associated with foreign policy in Ottoman imperial history; it defines a constructed citizenship identity during the Tanzimat period. In that, neo-Ottomanism is really a nonsensical term). Many Turkish government officials and over-excited Western observers portrayed this as a sensationalist ‘Turkey reconnects with its history’ and-or ‘rise of the Ottoman Empire’ themed analyses, which didn’t really explain what kind of Ottoman experience we are talking about and which aspect of its Ottoman history Turkey really connected with.

Looking at Turkey’s foreign policy in 2011, one observes unprecedented Turkish popularity, not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Caucasus and the Balkans, every country or group constructing Turkish influence in a different (and sometimes conflicting) way. In that, 2011 will go down to history books perhaps not as Turkey’s discovery of its past, but rather its invention of a constructed marketing idea in foreign policy, which sells in Kosovo as well as it sells in Bengazi. If we were to survey the Arab Spring countries about why they thought Turkey is so popular, they would identify Turkey with the thing that they desire, and not necessarily with what Turkey really offers to the region.

The ever-elusive concept of the ‘Turkish model’ has become a successfully created brand that is currently being mass-consumed via the Arab Spring. And nobody can really define what that ‘Turkish model’ is. Marketing genius.

The Most Unexpected Event

Earthquakes in Van. The first one took place on October 26 and took everyone by surprise. Turks demonstrated excellent cohesion by launching numerous aid campaigns, but as the relief efforts dragged on, government’s capacity to coordinate aid efforts took a lot of flak by the people in the region. With the secondary earthquake of November 9, some of the buildings that were deemed ‘safe’ by the government collapsed as well. Together with the government’s reported reluctance to deal with the local Kurdish mayor and officials to deny the Kurdish BDP any political success, which seriously disrupted the governments effectiveness in transferring aid to the remote villages and towns, the ruling Justice and Development Party’s popularity took a plunge. Even though the government consistently claimed that it has been successful in relief efforts, daily media broadcast of the continuing humanitarian situation around Van made the public think otherwise.

One must remember that the 1999 earthquake in Izmit had exposed Turkish state agencies’ inability to deal with a disaster, creating a series of political events that had led to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002. Earthquakes and other natural disasters have the power to expose a government’s power and a state’s capacity to protect its citizens; in that they can damage the popularity of a government to a great deal. While Turkish PM Erdogan was making heated speeches about how the world failed to deliver in Somalia, his government’s inability to deal with Turkey’s own disaster had restrained his ability to pressure foreign governments in the Somalian case.

People of the year.

I’d nominate two. First, Professor Barry Buzan of the London School of Economics, whose Regional Security Complex Theory explains the post-Arab Spring dynamics of the region and the rise of historical and cultural ties as the primary determinant of regional affairs better than any other theory and approach. His work is surprisingly neglected in the American scholarship and it is difficult to understand why. Second, I’d perhaps nominate Professor Gary A. Fuller, who had introduced the idea of the Middle East youth bulge back in 1989 and published a CIA manuscript in 1995 on how this poses a long term challenge to the United States. He argued that if the population growth in the Middle East continued with the 1989-95 pattern, by 2010, the region would fall to unemployed youth demonstrations in a domino effect. He effectively predicted the Arab Spring 21 years in advance.

Forecast of 2012

If systemic influences remain the same, I expect more Turkish involvement in the Middle East. There may be an assassination attempt against Assad in 2012. Some trigger-happy circles might want to get rid of the Syrian situation in a quick way by plotting an assassination of Assad, without properly calculating that the regime will still fight for its survival even if he’s gone.

I also expect an Israeli action against Iranian nuclear sites. This perhaps won’t take the form of an explicit air-strike but assassinating or kidnapping nuclear scientists, cyber attacks against the computer network controlling Iran’s nuclear reactors (especially the one in Qom) are likely actions.

I also expect growing pressure on Turkey to act in Syria without a substantial NATO backing, given the fact that especially European members of NATO don’t really want to commit financial resources on military adventures while their economies are in crisis. This might quite surprisingly bring Turkey and Israel together as allies, but Turkey will most certainly stand back from any action involving Iran.

With the American withdrawal from Iraq, Iran will push for influence in the Shia south and Kurdish north. Turkey will also prioritize cutting Iranian-Syrian link, as well as pursuing a non-sectarian policy in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. This will often take the form of supporting Sunni-Arab and Kurdish groups and fighting a proxy war with Iran through militant organizations. This effectively will bring back the Ottoman-Safavid heritage of conflict in Iraq and will likely take a sectarian Sunni-Shia confrontation.

Finally, I expect U.S.-Turkish relations to reach a new high in the first half of 2012. With the growing security challenges in the Middle East, which target Turkish and American interests and a withdrawal from Iraq, there will probably be an unprecedented level of cooperation between Ankara and Washington. Last week, US Congressman Robert Wexler commented on Turkish PM Erdogan’s speech about Syrian sanctions by: ”I felt like listening to the US President”.

Turkey and the US is on the same page with many issues in the Middle East currently and I expect this trend to continue in 2012.

Turkey: Year in Review



Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

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