Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Akin Ünver on Turkish Foreign Policy Challenges

Akin 2

Photo Courtesy of Al-Jazeera

Akın Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and an energy and political risk consultant. Dr. Ünver is a widely recognized expert on Turkish foreign policy and Kurdish issues. He is the winner of 2010 Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) Social Sciences Award and a former lecturer at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department. His works have appeared on Foreign Affairs, The Diplomat, Yale Journal of International Affairs, Foreign Policy Association, and Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Dr. Unver’s forthcoming book Defining Turkey’s Kurdish Question: Discourse and Politics is set to be published by Routledge Middle East Series in early 2015. He sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss Turkey’s current foreign policy challenges and the situation in Kobane.


Is Turkish foreign policy in a “post-Zero Problem” phase? Would you say that the current phase is in disarray or in an early stage of evolution?

The qualifier “post” implies a response, a new perspective offered to the term it precedes. Post-structuralism for example, critiques and contextualizes structuralist theory, whereas post-Marxism posits a number of critical counter-arguments to Marxist theory. I don’t see such new perspective, or a lesson learned from the “Zero Problem” phase that would warrant such ontology.

A bit stranger is the fact that the foreign policy circle in Ankara – which restricts itself into an increasingly smaller number of like-minded scholars – posits a rejectionist stance toward “Zero Problems.” Rather than diagnosing the approach and remedying its shortcomings, the reflex has rather been about denying the use of the approach to begin with. It sounds similar to how the Communist theory had responded to the fall of the USSR, rejecting the assertion that the USSR was a communist country — “This is not true communism, this was something else.” In the Turkish case, such denialist approach prevents the foreign policy decision-making intelligentsia from altering and tweaking the shortcomings of their mainstream approach, and prevents proper debate from emerging in critique of its shortcomings. So to answer the question, I don’t think Turkey has yet realized that the way zero-problems was implemented needs significant revisions that it is now in a “post-Zero-Problem” phase.

You’ve been critical of President Erdogan’s key foreign policy decisions over the last few years and described them as failure. What have been President Erdogan’s key foreign policy failures and what do you mean by “Ankara’s mismanaged Machiavelism”?

The greatest asset and strength of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire have been their multiple identities. A culturally multifaceted and multidirectional identity has long allowed Turkey to steer difficult and diverse set of regional and international challenges. It was the Ottomans’ ability to master gunpowder (an eastern technology) together with adopting the institution of military/administrative conversion (devşirme; essentially a Byzantine and Roman practice) that allowed them to conquer Constantinople, expand into Europe and hold the Iranian Safavid Empire at bay in the East. It was Mehmed Ali Pasha, an Ottoman soldier of Macedonian Greek origin that would take over the governorate and Khediveate of Egypt in 1805 with his Albanian troops, launch a rebellion that would bring the Ottomans to its knees and be stopped only by the intervention of Mustafa Reşid Pasha – whose cunning statesmanship enabled the intervention of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia; all practically saving the Ottoman Empire from collapse.

Neglect, disregard or ridicule of any component of Turkey’s diverse past, practically means taking away a foot of the tripod that is Turkish foreign policy. Therefore, I think the main critique I posed to what I would call “Pax Erdoğanica’ was his attempt to “normalize” Kemalism’s historically confined premises, not by striking a balance or negotiated middle ground, but by dictating its complete opposite: Islamism as the primary lens to define friend or foe in international relations. While the AKP’s foreign policy cohort was quite accurate in their diagnoses of why Turkey’s old approach was no longer working, Erdoğan’s hands-on approach to all policy areas effectively neutralized a very vibrant and diverse debate within the AKP as well.

The critical date was June 12, 2011 – Turkey’s general elections in which Erdoğan’s AKP got 46.6 percent of the votes. This victory gave Erdoğan sufficient mandate to purge the party of competing voices. He basically followed Nasser’s power-centralizing practices in Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s: purging of technocrats with expertise, training and experience, replacing them with more mediocre party loyalists. Those new cadre of loyalists – especially in the foreign policy decision-making – would share Erdoğan’s view of Islam’s role in Turkish foreign policy.

Such model of religious approach to international affairs in Turkey’s experience, crumbled with the Arab Spring revolutions and the re-emergence of the region’s sectarian tensions. “Pax Erdoğanica” changed its focus this time to cooperating with Sunni powers, yet this fell apart as well due to Ankara’s increasing reliance on its intelligence services as the main medium of foreign relations. Conducted by a cadre of political appointees with little training and background in in-field intelligence, these decisions backfired in a domino effect. Not only did this conduct raise suspicions, but such intelligence work was conducted in a very “unintelligent” way.

If Anatolian Agency opens up a five-story tall “agency headquarters” in Cairo, with 120 “reporters” in it, it makes it dead easy for Sisi’s Egyptian intelligence to identify, track, and counter-spy on every single Turkish intelligence asset in Egypt. Similar amateurish mistakes proliferated sharply after 2011 and made what I would call “mismanaged Machiavellism” a regular habit; basically trying to play a power game without proper tools, assets and strategy – and failing at each one of them. Therefore in 2010, photos of Erdoğan were the gold-standard of political legitimacy in the Middle East – yet by late-2012, Turkey had only two allies in the region: Qatar and Hamas. So by late 2012, political appointments of 2011 had taken their toll on Turkey and I believe there can be no other definition of a foreign policy failure than this. Think of it this way; Turkey made three absolutely vital, high-risk decisions since 2011 – Morsi, Assad and Kobani – and all of them failed colossally. Countries don’t have this kind of luxury to fail in such big-stakes policy gambles, especially in the Middle East.

The Kurds versus fighters from the Islamic State is the most recurring theme in the daily news coming from Turkey with such fluid dynamics. What is the extent of cooperation between the Kurds in Syria and their brethren in Northern Iraq? Do they view Ankara through the same lens?

Masoud Barzani is Ankara’s main ally in the Kurdish question. In contrast to Talabani’s socialist project and his ‘canton experiment’ in Kurdish Syria, Barzani has established close working relations with Erdoğan as Turkish companies have contributed greatly to the reconstruction of the KRG.

Turkish Islamists have long advocated that Islam is the only glue between Turks and the Kurds, thus as long as one side advocates secular-nationalism or leftist ideologies, Turks and Kurds could never stay in the same political entity. This is the foundational understanding between Erdoğan and Barzani. As long as Barzani espoused Erdoğan’s Islamist view, supported Turkey’s Kurdish peace process in a way that strengthened Erdoğan and kept his distance from other leftist Kurdish experiments, Ankara would remain Barzani’s best friend and his Peshmerga salaries, reconstruction and infrastructure projects would keep flowing in from Turkey.

In today’s terms, the threat of ISIS unites all Kurdish factions yet this unity differs in the way it translates into operational cooperation. The allocation of KRG Peshmerga to relieve Kobani, for example, works better with Ankara’s strategy than it does with that of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). PYD is deeply suspicious of Peshmerga motives in this context and believes they are Ankara’s Trojan horse to disrupt Kurdish gains in Kobani. Regardless of the extent of ISIS threat, Ankara can and will continue to draw a wedge between different Kurdish factions.

How serious is the ISIS threat within Turkish borders and do you think this is a deciding factor for Turkish inaction against ISIS, or there are other factors that weigh more heavily in Turkish decision making vis-à-vis ISIS?

The true extent of threat ISIS poses to Turkey isn’t on the borders and it isn’t military. ISIS’s gains in Syria and Iraq have significantly increased the popularity of the jihadi movement in Turkey. Many supporters of ISIS in Turkey have faint idea about how Sharia law is exactly practiced, or what the Caliphate really means. Few of those know that the last Ottoman caliph Abdulmecid Efendi was an avid painter, a well-traveled polyglot and a true Renaissance man. Islam, since its transformation into a state in the form of a caliphate, has developed a dual identity: urban high-Islam and rural-Sufi traditions. Wide chasms over how Islam is interpreted exist not perhaps spatially—across different geographies, or temporally, across different centuries—but between different socio-economic classes. That’s why Islam is interpreted and practiced so differently. On the one hand by conflict and post-conflict societies as well as poverty-level sociologies, and on the other hand, between urbanized, middle-to-upper class sociologies that don’t see a military threat toward their countries.

As a growing economy with a recently urbanized and large lower-middle class, Turkey is particularly vulnerable to the appeal of a radical group like ISIS. Emerging economies are dependent on foreign capital flows, and with the mixed record various countries have had in bouncing back from the recent global financial crisis, FDI-dependent countries like Turkey will be particularly vulnerable to such right-wing radical movements. Unfortunately, ISIS is ideologically the most troubling and geographically closest to Turkey. President Erdogan’s ruling AKP party has to think the electoral backlash of head-on targeting a group like ISIS, but most importantly, Ankara is worried about the long-term sociological impact of jihadi ideology in Turkey. AKP may be an Islamist party, but an ISIS-style jihadism would be considered dangerous for the kind of middle-class transformation project AKP seeks to accomplish.

In the face of ISIS’s onslaught in Iraq, Iran was first to come to the aid of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Northern Iraq, whereas in Kobane, the Kurds have been desperately seeking Turkish military and logistic assistance. Given the longstanding Turkish-Iranian trepidations about Kurdish autonomy and prospects of Kurdish independence, what do you make of the sharply different policies by Iran and Turkey toward the Kurds?

To be fair, it is difficult to convince Turkey’s nationalist-conservative electorate to throw their political support behind saving a Kurdish town outside Turkey and aiding a Kurdish group like the Syrian PYD, which carries too much PKK baggage. Kobani was technically not Ankara’s problem, and it would be tough to sell the idea to an AKP voter in Yozgat or Kastamonu. Iran did fight with the PKK in the past, but PKK never posed an existential threat to Iran in the way it did to Turkey. This is the first and the most visible dynamic. If you are the chairman of the AKP, you have to make a choice between aiding Kobani – which would have intangible and dubious returns – and watching your electorate during the time of a major leadership change and preparations for important general elections in 2015.

Second reason why Iran aided Kobani is the ‘Shiite crescent’ argument. By Assad losing territory in northern Syria, Iran’s access to Lebanon and Hezbollah is narrowed geographically and this is a problem for Tehran due to logistical and operational reasons. Among other things, ISIS threatens the northern flank of the Shiite Crescent and Kobani was thus a major strategic outpost that needed to hold. Turkey would have no such grand strategy gains from saving Kobani – with the exception of perhaps saving its own derailing Kurdish peace process. Ankara believed that even if it saved Kobani, the collapse of its peace process with the Kurds would be inevitable. AKP had already lost the Kurdish votes in the Presidential elections and Kobani also did not have the domestic-political impact that it would otherwise possess.

Thus, saving Kobani would be a purely humanitarian concern for Turkey. Once Turkey opened a supply corridor into Kobani, it would inevitably become a combatant power in the eyes of ISIS, which would require military presence along the entire Turkish-Syrian border to counter possible retaliatory attacks by ISIS. It was not a rewarding gamble to make for Ankara; it was much better to let two militant groups weaken each other, without any Turkish involvement. Despite all these dynamics, I still personally favor Turkish aid to Kobani; first, because a conflict with ISIS is inevitable – and second, saving Kobani would enable Ankara to start the next Kurdish peace process from an advantageous position.

Are Washington and Ankara still at loggerheads over the future of the Assad regime and how ISIS should be dealt with? Has anything changed since the U.S. airdropped weapons for Kurdish fighters in Kobane?

I think strategically, Ankara and Washington converge; ISIS is a threat, so is Assad. Methodologically they differ greatly. For Washington, ISIS is the main threat, whereas Ankara believes ISIS is a product, not a reason. Washington finds the ISIS threat too imminent, whereas Ankara believes such self-imposed urgency by Washington prevents it from thinking long-term. Ankara believes ISIS is here to stay, given its social base in some Iraqi and Syrian provinces, and thus it should be managed and directed rather than destroyed outright – Ankara also doesn’t believe that ISIS can be destroyed by air bombings. What Ankara believes is that Assad has to go, or at least squeezed into southern Syria so that he can never attack or threaten Sunni and Kurdish gains in northern Syria. Only when the Assad threat is gone can ISIS backtrack – or so is the view in Ankara.

But what we infer from U.S. airdropping weapons to Kobani is that Washington doesn’t find Ankara’s version of events convincing – and is willing to override Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to that end. Frankly, since 2011 Ankara has produced its fair share of erratic and misjudged policies and significantly – and I think unnecessarily – annoyed a significant number of countries in its immediate neighborhood. At a time when the Arab countries—together with Iran—see benefit in countering ISIS militarily, the U.S. doesn’t find much operational logic in Ankara’s thinking. Ankara has single-handedly exhausted its entire diplomatic capital to assert its positions in the last two years.

Therefore, Turkey’s “long-term management” argument is not wrong, but its repetitive mistakes since the Arab Spring created an air of mistrust and lack of confidence in Turkey, which is the reason why Turkey is now alone on a large number of issues, including ISIS, with little regional or international support.