Turkey: Ideology in Foreign Policy

By Baskin Oran – AL Monitor – 5.8.2013 – Following the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Turkey based its foreign policy on ideological concerns to gain regional allies, yet ended up damaging many of its ties in the region.

While Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries to make peace with the Kurds of Turkey, he still issues dire threats to their Syrian extensions because his “Islamist ideology” dictates so. This, of course, submerges our peace process.

Foreign policy is a field that can’t carry the weight of ideology. I learned this late in life, but many still haven’t. Even those who oppose ideology in foreign policy sometimes don’t detect the ideology that lurks in the background.


Throughout the history of our republic, foreign policy was guided by “nationalism” and “Westernism,” the ideological twins of “Ataturk nationalism.” Nationalism meant secularism confronting the “Islamic syndrome,” and Turkism meant challenging the Kurdish syndrome. The “Kurdish syndrome” lasted until the 1990s, until we finally realized we could not eradicate the Kurdish phenomenon. The 1926 and 1932 accords with Iran and the 1926 agreements with mandate powers France and England were all signed to suppress the Kurds. They were followed by the 1955 Baghdad Pact, the border accord with Iraq in 1979 and the Hot Pursuit Agreement of 1984. “Westernism,” blended with the Cold War, dominated foreign policy as long it kept the Kurds in check. Our friendships were based not on rational analysis but on ideological affinities: with Pahlavi Iran to confront the Mullahs and the Kurds, and with Hashemi of Iraq because of Kurdish fears. Secular Turkey always stayed distant and cool to its neighboring Middle East.

The AKP era

When the AKP came to power, it first gave priority to rationalism instead of ideology in foreign policy. It joined with Brazil to reconcile the United States with Iran in their nuclear struggle. It used the same approach to assist Syria in its problems with Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu built an amazingly close relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Relations with northern Iraqi Kurds became first class. Turkey, which could talk both to Iran and Israel, became highly respected. After the 2009 “One Minute” episode at Davos, the Egyptians idolized Erdogan as a hero.

But then ideology took over again. Erdogan, in parallel to his increasingly tough line in domestic policy, thought that as an outcome of the Arab Spring the Middle East would be saturated by regimes similar to the AKP. He became overly ambitious, discarded the soft power and launched a campaign to topple the Syrian regime. For him, the Arab Spring meant disposing of Baath regimes — which were Arab versions of Kemalism — and empowering “moderate Islam” through the ballot box by eliminating the military/civilian authoritarian monopoly, as the AKP did in Turkey in November 2002. But the results were not what the AKP expected. As much as the Ottoman state was successful with its hard-line policies in the region [for example Cemal Pasha in Syria and Lebanon], the AKP couldn’t do any better in achieving “strategic depth” in those former territories and new neighbors with a tough-line approach.

Why does he like Morsi?

After the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi came to power in June 2012, and an ideological honeymoon with Egypt began. Similarities were striking. Like Erdogan, who resisted the military’s efforts to restrict his powers in collusion with the Constitutional Court, Morsi too retired military leaders opposing him and emerged stronger. That wasn’t all. Like Erdogan, Morsi too became overconfident. Instead of trying to be a founder of a democracy coalition, his became a Muslim Brotherhood rule that did not tolerate anyone. The results of this are known. Although it was the clearest manifestation of a military coup, the world did not move a finger. Turkey was left alone in denouncing the coup.

Why did Erdogan display such a disproportionate reaction to the toppling of the Morsi regime — which he saw as an ideological replica of himself — and decide that Gezi and Tahrir were one and the same? If we are to say it was because of his dislike of coups, then what about his warm relations with President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan? Can we say he feared the possibility of a coup in Turkey? This is not true. The reason was crystal clear: Erdogan feared being ideologically isolated in the region. Instead of erasing his fears by reverting to democratization internally, he tried to do it by recruiting ideological — that is, Islamist — allies outside.

Why doesn’t he like the PYD?

Let’s come to our neighborhood. Assad, worried about his seat and life after the Arab Spring, gave up listening to Erdogan’s advice. He was instantly dismissed from that warm relationship. But despite the AKP government’s extraordinary, exceptional and out-of-the-box efforts, Syria’s Alawite-based regime still reigns. This negatively affected our relations with Iran and Russia. If Assad had been toppled, the Free Syrian Army — which incorporates elements such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra — would have set up a Sunni Islamist administration and completed the chain while Morsi was in power.

While waiting for that chain to be completed, Syrian Kurds — the weakest link of the Middle East Kurds — got organized under the PKK extension PYD and started to construct their own chain. It was becoming a Kurdish Spring. Erdogan, through the writings of his chief adviser Yalcin Akdogan, declared the PYD to be a “national security issue” and warned that Turkey cannot accept such fait accompli.

Why not? What kind of a national security issue is this? Will the PYD — representing Syrian Kurds — invade Turkey? Say what? Is it because Turkey is surrounded on three sides by Kurdish administrations? You must be joking. The Iranian Kurds are not even on the agenda. Relations between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds are strong enough to drive Baghdad crazy. Syria/West Kurdistan [Rojava] Kurds are simply an extension of the PKK we are negotiating peace with. So?

All this panic is not because Syrian Kurds are Kurds, but because they are against the “Sunni Islamist FSA.” What is happening in Syria is a replay of the Morsi event. Erdogan, who is attempting to make peace with the Kurds of Turkey, is pouring threats on their Syrian extension because his Islamic ideology dictates it. By doing so, we are not impeding Kurdish autonomy but shooting down our own peace process. The AKP, while dragging its feet since the beginning of 2013 on the grounds that “the first phase is not completed,” is intensifying its pressures on freedoms. Turkey, whose best friend is Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, appears to be moving from “Kemalism is against Kurds” to “Islamism is against the peace process.” Now that it is cornered, the AKP is bound to come up with some new ideas. The train is about to leave the station. Perhaps the partisans who will be appointed to higher levels of the foreign ministry with recent legal gambits will catch it.