Is the recent surge in Kurdish separatist terror the result of Turkey’s mismanagement in foreign policy? Turkey is debating this question as the number of dead among government forces reached 30 since the beginning of May.
The initiatives taken by the government to make Turkey a regional power under the guidance of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu are seen by many commentators as the main reason behind the country’s increasing isolation from its allies in the West.
In May, Turkey’s vote in the United Nations Security Council along with Brazil against the new round of sanctions to dissuade Iran from continuing its uranium enrichment project brought Ankara’s relations with Washington to an all-time low. In the words of Hurriyet columnist Eyup Can, the relations with the U.S. are worse than the period when the Turkish parliament rejected the stationing of American troops on Turkish soil prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Can who is not among the avowed critics of the government, claims that Ankara has pinned its hopes for improving relations with Washington to the demise of “the government of fanatics in Israel.”
A war of words has been continuing between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel since the eventful televised panel in Davos in January 2009 when Erdogan had a row with the Israeli President Shimon Peres scolding him “You know how to kill people!”
Then came the Israeli raid on the Turkish ship “Mavi Marmara” carrying humanitarian relief material to Gaza, resulting with the death of six of its passengers, all Turkish citizens. The incident exacerbated the confrontation between Turkey and Israel that resulted in the withdrawal of Israeli personnel training the Turkish military in operating unmanned Heron spy planes bought from Israel to be used against the Kurdish insurgency.
Erdogan’s repeated assertions that he does not see Hamas as “a terrorist organization,” also contributed to the shift in international opinion along with his over friendly policies towards Iran, that Turkey is increasingly moving away from its Western allies. The “no” vote at the Security Council on June 10 sealed this image.
On June 17, Philip Crowley, the spokesman of the U.S. State Department said the joint anti-terror meeting between American and Turkish experts scheduled to take place in Istanbul was “postponed to a later date because the American side is unable to attend the meeting.”
The next day came the massive attack by a sizeable force of PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) terrorists on a Turkish military outpost on the mountains near Turkey’s border with Iraq and Iran leaving 9 soldiers dead.
Three days later, PKK struck again, this time in Istanbul with a remote-control bomb targeted at a military bus, killing four.
Davutoglu under friendly fire
While some newspaper commentators started to express doubts that Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s way of conducting Turkey’s foreign policy may not yield the desired results, namely “0 problem with neighbors,” “opening to the West and East simultaneously,” or making “Turkey a regional power broker for peace,” the most scathing criticism came from an unexpected quarter: Akif Beki, a press advisor to Prime Minister Erdogan until 2009 who then became a columnist in the daily Radikal. “It is time to talk about the ambition of the foreign minister for diplomatic victories. He thinks he has to turn every issue he is handling into a big story of success. He is forcing every occasion and he feels compelled to show up at every picture. The result is a foreign policy focused on showing off,” wrote Beki.
“The latest example is from the meeting of Turkish-Arabic Business Forum. He said Jerusalem will become the capital (of Palestine) and we will all go and pray at the mosque of Al-Aqsa. This is enough to thrill the Arab audience, but I find such comments problematic. There is no place for populism in foreign policy,” observed Beki.
In the last six months, the Erdogan government managed to bankrupt its foreign policy targets, Milliyet’s political commentator Kadri Gursel writes listing failures.
“Last December, before the U.S. President met with Prime Minister Erdogan at the White House, the Obama administration was keen on finding out answers to three vital questions: The first was ‘What will you do about Iran?’ They got their answer through the “No” vote at the Security Council. The second question was ‘What is going to happen with the protocols signed with Armenia?’ The Armenian opening has been put in the deep freezer. Third question was about relations with Israel. The answer has already been given through the Gaza ships. Iraq, the Kurdish question, Iran, Armenia, Israel… The AKP government was able to bankrupt its foreign policy within six months. There is no hope in Cyprus anyway, EU perspective has collapsed already and if you say Afghanistan, Turkey’s contribution there is marginal. Prime Minister Erdogan has spent all the capital of “model partnership” with the U.S.”
For observant eyes, there are other signs of the chill between Davutoglu and the U.S. Last week the Turkish foreign minister was at a five-star Istanbul hotel to receive the “Public Service Award” that the Woodrow Wilson Center in the U.S. had bestowed upon him. There was no single official from the U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey to attend the ceremony.
It is not only the Turkish commentators who have trained their guns on Turkey’s foreign policy. The Western media that generally supported the government of Erdogan until recently, there is a marked change of attitude towards Turkey. One of the most caustic comments came from The Guardian’s influential columnist Simon Tisdall who entitled his article “Turkey’s ‘Zero problems’ policy is a flop.”
“A surge in violence pitting Turkish forces against Kurdish separatists along Turkey’s south-eastern border with Iraq has underscored how far the Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has to go in resolving the “Kurdish question”.
But the renewed fighting also poses a larger question: to what extent the policy espoused by Erdogan and his high-profile foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, of “zero problems with neighbors” is producing tangible, lasting results. On a range of fronts, high ambitions are colliding with intractable realities on the ground,” says Tisdall.
“For his part, Davutoglu says western countries should not worry. Rather, they should welcome the fact that Turkey was ‘playing an increasingly central role in promoting international security and prosperity.’ Close relations with the EU and Nato were ‘main fixtures’ of Turkish policy while bilateral ties with the US remained of ‘vital importance’, he said in Foreign Policy magazine.
Such assurances may miss the point. From a western perspective at least, the problem is not that Erdogan and Davutoglu want a bigger role for Turkey and are increasingly ready to go it alone. The problem, more often than not, is that when they do, they mess up,” concludes the British journalist.