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Turkey's Foreign Policy: From 'Zero Problems' To 'Nothing But Problems'

For years, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and his Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu (left) pursued a policy of not antagonizing their country's neighbors. However, this all began to unravel around the time of the Arab Spring.
For years, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and his Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu (left) pursued a policy of not antagonizing their country's neighbors. However, this all began to unravel around the time of the Arab Spring.

For years, former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's policy of "zero problems with neighboring countries" was a flagship concept of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A few years ago when a wave of protests inside Turkey started against the government and the Arab Spring began in the Middle East and northern Africa, everything went wrong. Ankara started to have problems and even serious conflict with almost all neighboring and regional countries as well as with big powers.

Today, there is almost no "country of immediate interest" for Ankara that Turkey has no problems with.

But that "zero problems" policy worked for some time. And it worked quite fine

As of 2002, when the AKP came to power, the EU and accession talks were still top of Turkey's foreign policy agenda. The still new "Islamic-conservative" government of Erdogan was increasingly considered both in Washington and European capitals as a "model" to act as a "bridge" between Western democracies and the Muslim world of the Middle East.

There was a thaw in Ankara's relations with Armenia and Greece. With respect to the Cyprus issue, unlike the previous, rather obstructive, approach of the northern Turkish Cypriot government, Ankara was leaning more toward EU policies aimed at the ultimate unification of the divided island.

'Boost Trade With Everybody'

Ties with Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria were very good and even Erdogan himself had established a decent personal relationship with Assad.

With Georgia and Iran there were no major problems. Turkey even offered to mediate between Iran and the United States on the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

Russia had become a "close friend" and the increasingly cordial relations between the two maritime neighbors occasionally raised eyebrows among Turkey's NATO allies.

Relations with Iraq were a little more complicated because a Shi'a government was sitting in Baghdad while the Turkish government consisted of devout Sunni Muslims. Also, a semi-independent Kurdish regional government was acting in a quite sovereign way across the Turkish-Iraqi border. While both Turkey and the northern Iraqi Kurdish government were interested in increased trade and investment, Ankara was still careful enough not to undermine the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Ankara gave every indication that the Erdogan administration was simply not interested in causing problems or interfering in other countries' affairs.

"Boost trade with everybody" seemed to be the mantra of the Turkish government under the "moderate Islamists" of the AKP.

When speaking about all the countries he visited, Erdogan himself mainly cited increased volumes of trade with those nations and talked about major growth in business and investment involving these partners.

This continued until sometime around 2013 and then everything started to fall apart.

What Went Wrong?

Yes, something went wrong, but we cannot say what exactly.

Interestingly, however, everything started in 2013 when a group of rogue prosecutors revealed a bribery scandal and abuse of power by the AKP, involving some ministers and relatives of government officials.

Erdogan and other AKP leaders rejected the allegations although they were later reiterated by American prosecutors investigating the case of an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was accused of breaching U.S. sanctions on Iran and bribing Turkish officials.

Erdogan reacted swiftly, in his favored role as a victim.

He accused the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen of heading an "international plot" and "parallel state" that was intent on overthrowing the AKP government. His rhetoric against internal opposition and foreign countries -- especially Western governments -- became much sharper.

Everybody outside of the government and his AKP party was now being viewed as part of this "plot." All allegations of wrongdoing were denied by Erdogan and the ruling AKP. And soon all prosecutors investigating the allegations were arrested themselves and the defendants were quietly acquitted.

Arab Spring

The period 2012-13 was also the time of the so-called Arab Spring movements, which erupted in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Erdogan clearly sided with the Islamic opposition movements in these countries who were trying to lead demonstrations for civil and human rights in Arab lands.

Erdogan strongly supported individual Islamic groups' campaigns against their governments -- regimes that the Turkish leader had been on good terms with for so long. However, very much to Erdogan's dismay, the groups he backed so strongly did not succeed in Syria and they also failed in Egypt after the pro-Islamic government they established there proved to be short-lived.

Erdogan started to actively support, even with money and arms, rebel groups against neighboring governments, including Syria and Iraq. His support did not exclude backing radical, armed Islamist groups.

The increasing confrontation with Syria and Russia on the one hand and the Sunni-Shi'a confrontation in Iraq on the other, pushed Erdogan toward a more aggressive, sectarian, and pro-Sunni policy and rhetoric. This new, assertive approach alienated Turkey, both from its own Alevi minority as well as Shi'a Iran and also brought Ankara closer to its old, wealthy allies in Saudi Arabia.

Western Concerns

At the same time, Western countries became increasingly concerned about Turkey's more radical and aggressive approach to human rights and press freedoms. They were also worried about how Erdogan began concentrating legislative and judicial powers in the hands of the government and taking a more controlling attitude toward the media and business.

Eventually, the West became openly critical of Ankara -- and of Erdogan's penchant for an oriental style of authoritarian, one-man rule, in particular.

All those years of not interfering in other countries' internal affairs and preferring a "friendship and trade first" policy went up in smoke in just a short space of time.

Of all those neighbors and countries who were friendly in the past, one remains even closer to Turkey today than at any time previously: Saudi Arabia.

Otherwise, from Washington to Berlin and Moscow, from Tehran to Baghdad and Damascus, you can hardly find a government in Turkey's immediate neighborhood and beyond that has "zero problems" with Ankara.

Recently, when he was asked about long-time EU applicant Turkey's chances of joining the bloc, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country would probably not be ready to join "until the year 3000" based on its current rate of progress.

This gave Erdogan the perfect opportunity to react and accuse Western countries of "plots." However, the Turkish president added a new element to his "Western plot" when he claimed a day later that the West was "jealous" of Turkey and "of our dams, bridges, and metros."

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.