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The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy

Executive Summary

Amid recent upheaval in the Middle East, American policymakers have often turned to Turkey as an important partner that shared many U.S. interests. This perception of Turkey is based primarily on history. For the half-century of the Cold War, and for a decade afterward, Turkey was a stalwart U.S. ally. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle continue to treat it as such. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration accorded significant importance to Turkey as a “moderate Muslim” country. President Barack Obama has courted and developed a closer relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan than perhaps any American president has with a Turkish leader.

More recently, however, Turkey became far less static and much more complex and unpredictable than many American observers and policymakers appreciate. Turkish foreign policy—in particular toward the Middle East—has endured a broad, historic shift during Prime Minister Erdoğan’s decade-long tenure. This fundamental reorientation of Turkey’s worldview has been difficult to detect, because it has been overshadowed by rapid policy swerves that, on the surface, seem hard to reconcile within a unitary framework. But it is precisely this volatility, combined with Turkey’s importance for the Middle East, that makes understanding the roots of Turkish conduct vital, not only for a realistic U.S. approach toward Turkey but also for U.S. policy toward the entire region.

Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk helped found the Turkish republic 90 years ago out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey generally oriented its foreign policy toward the West. A secular state with an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population, Turkey sought to be considered part of that more modern, liberal, and secular grouping of nations. At the same time, it tried to avoid becoming embroiled in Middle Eastern conflicts as, according to Kemalist historiography, it was the factionalism and ungovernability of that area that doomed the Ottomans. This approach to the world remained constant throughout the Cold War, when Turkey became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and for some time thereafter. Indeed, in the 1990s, Turkey developed particularly close relations with the Jewish state of Israel.

The ascent to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, marked a break from the traditional tenets of Turkish foreign policy. For its first three years in power, the AKP government, led by Prime Minister Erdoğan, focused on internal reform and European integration. But, during this time, it also began laying the groundwork for an activist policy in the Middle East. Although foreshadowed during the fleeting moments when previous Islamic parties held power, the AKP’s pursuit of interaction with regimes shunned by the West departed significantly from the policies espoused by the Kemalist establishment. 1 Initially, this activism was cautious, at least according to the AKP’s narrative. Turkey’s leaders touted its regional outreach as a boon for its traditional Western partners and positioned themselves as a bridge between East and West. Ankara, the argument went, could talk to regimes the West could not or would not engage with—and could influence them toward greater tolerance and democracy.

But, by 2007, the AKP government had soured on Europe and consolidated its position at home, while focusing much more on the Middle East. Led by Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan’s foreign policy advisor and, since 2009, foreign minister, the AKP reoriented Turkish foreign policy away from the West. Instead, the expansion of Turkey’s role and influence among Muslim and Middle Eastern nations became the centerpiece of its foreign policy. This engagement with the Middle East has been dizzying, marked by several policy swings.

From 2007 to 2011, Turkish foreign policy was driven by Davutoğlu’s strategy, known as “zero problems with neighbors.” It involved reaching out to numerous Shi’a and Sunni Islamic regimes that were shunned by the West—from Syria and Iran to Sudan and Hamas—as well as neighbors such as Iraqi Kurdistan and, more abortively, Armenia. Two elements of this policy were striking and differed from the pre-2007 period: first, rather than serving as a moderating force, the AKP government displayed a tendency to side with Islamist causes against the West and to espouse a form of pan-Islamic solidarity; and second, Ankara developed a profound and visible hostility toward Israel.

However, from 2011 until late 2013, as the Arab Awakening erupted and turned into a Sunni Islamist struggle for power—successfully, at first, in Egypt and Tunisia, less so in Syria—Turkish policies shifted. Although its hostility toward Israel continued, if anything escalating, Turkey shifted away from pan-Islamism and toward a distinctly sectarian, proSunni approach, centered on support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates across the region. This represented a further break with traditional Turkish foreign policy. For nearly a century prior to this Turkey had eschewed overt intervention in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern countries. This new activism was most visible in Ankara’s regime-change policy in Syria, but equally present in its involvement in Egyptian affairs between 2011 and 2013.

These individual twists and turns in Turkish foreign policy were shaped by a number of factors, including the AKP’s domestic consolidation of power; the weakening of the Turkish military and judiciary; the European Union’s reluctance to embrace Turkey; the Iraq war; the rebellions in Egypt, Syria, and Libya; and Erdoğan’s often erratic and prickly personality. But despite the pendulum swings in its conduct, there is an underlying consistency to Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP. The embrace of the Middle East and the pursuit of an active role for Turkey in the region represents a historic shift. But neither the direction nor the magnitude of this reorientation can be adequately accounted for by the various constraints, opportunities, and unforeseen events Turkey has faced over the last decade—or even by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s temperament.

Indeed, it is the AKP’s religious ideology that best explains the substantive basis for the change in Turkish foreign policy. This ideology has been the least acknowledged and most The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East | 8 underestimated factor in expert analysis and policy discussion of Turkey, not least because Turkish leaders have vigorously denied its role in their decision-making. Yet it seems to be the most important element explaining Turkish foreign policy, providing a vision, a set of goals, and an underlying motivation to Prime Minister Erdoğan’s actions and rhetoric. Always present, not always visible, Islamist ideology has become an increasingly important driver of Turkish policy as the AKP consolidated power over the years.

The AKP’s ideological underpinnings trace back to the Milli Görüş movement of Turkish political Islam of the 1960s. It has two major ideological elements: one is historical nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire; the second is the more modern inspiration drawn from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. The Ottoman nostalgia makes the Turkish Islamist movement Sunni orthodox to its core. It led to its opposition to Turkey’s European orientation and to its Westernization. In addition, while the AKP variety of Turkish Islamism is certainly more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood’s—in fact, the AKP only emerged when the reformers split from the Milli Görüş movement—AKP leaders share several of the Brotherhood’s key tenets. It is from the Brotherhood and its leading thinkers that it draws its pan-Islamic and anti-colonial, as well as strongly anti-Zionist and often outright antiSemitic, worldview.

Moreover, the Brotherhood influenced the Turkish Islamists’ views of Iran. Thus, the Sunni orthodox nature of the Milli Görüş movement was mitigated by admiration, shared with the Brotherhood, for the Islamic revolution engineered by Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this regard, Turkish Islamists are far closer to the Brotherhood’s pan-Islamism than to the virulently anti-Shi’a Salafis of the Gulf.

Yet the ideological origins of the AKP did not figure prominently in its rise to power. Indeed, the AKP rejected any description of itself as Islamist. Instead, it cast itself in the tradition of European Christian Democratic parties—as a conservative democratic party that, while influenced by its members’ Islamic faith, would not undermine the secularism of the Turkish state. This disavowal of its Islamist heritage stemmed in part from the AKP’s need to defend itself against Turkey’s secularist institutions. The Constitutional Court, for example, had previously banned the AKP’s predecessors—the Welfare Party and the Virtue Party—and had attempted to outlaw the AKP just ten days before the 2002 general elections that would bring the AKP to power.

Following its initial electoral victory, the AKP’s hold on government was still tenuous and could easily be threatened by Turkey’s secular establishment. Its ability to act according to its ideology was, therefore, somewhat constrained. Although it initiated tentative openings to the Middle East, during this period the AKP largely hewed to the foreign policy of its predecessors and, in fact, its embrace of Turkish candidacy for EU membership helped it win the grudging acquiescence of much of the secular elite. But as Erdoğan and the AKP consolidated power over the years, they were free to accord ideology a greater role in domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, no other factor can fully explain Ankara’s behavior on the Iranian nuclear issue, its preference for Hamas over Fatah in intra-Palestinian politics, or its embrace of the Sudanese regime of Omar Al-Bashir. The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East | 9

Subsequently, the unexpected opportunity presented by the Arab Awakening buoyed—and to some extent shifted—the ideological nature of the AKP’s foreign policy. When the region was governed largely by secular, authoritarian regimes, the AKP’s ideological inclinations were expressed through its “zero problems with the neighbors” policy, based on romantic, pan-Islamic and Ottoman sentiments. This was in turn informed by the belief that Turkey’s Ottoman past provided it with a strategic depth in the region that previous governments had failed to utilize. However, the rise of Sunni movements—primarily the Brotherhood—to prominence across the region presented a historic opportunity for the AKP to support the very Sunni Islamist movements that were closest to its own worldview. While doing so put it at odds with Iran, most notably, it was a temptation that the AKP could not resist.

This study reached its conclusions after close examination of Turkish history, domestic policy, Turkey’s interactions with other nations, the actions and rhetoric of its leaders, and the pronouncements of Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, with the latter offering an intellectual framework for Turkish foreign policy. Specifically, these findings are based on case studies of Turkey’s relations with four countries/entities: Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Israel/Hamas/Palestinian Authority.

Turkey’s courting of Iran is a prime example of the AKP’s erstwhile pan-Islamic worldview, leading it to overlook a long history of geopolitical rivalry and divergences of interest. As Ankara tried to inject itself as a mediator in the diplomatic conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, it rapidly appeared to side with Iran in a form of Third Worldist solidarity against Western powers. Turkey’s support for the Iranian regime led it to keep silent as Tehran violently put down pro-democracy protests following its 2009 presidential election. The relationship soured, however, as Turkish and Iranian policies naturally diverged, and their leaders found themselves on different sides of the Syrian conflict, as well as on Iraq and other issues.

Ankara’s policy toward Syria reflects several elements coursing through its foreign policy at different times. Pan-Islamism coupled with a quest for a greater Turkish role in the Middle East led Prime Minister Erdoğan to embrace Bashir Al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime, ignoring international pleas to condemn and isolate Syria as a chief sponsor of terrorism and for its role in assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Assad’s brutal response to an initially modest protest against his regime in early 2011 made Ankara’s heretofore close relationship with Damascus increasingly untenable. Gradually, Erdoğan turned against Assad and fully embraced the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist elements of the violent opposition to Assad, at the expense of all other forces in the Syrian opposition and at the expense of ignoring the concerns of Syria’s minorities.

Turkey’s approach to intra-Palestinian politics and growing hostility to Israel clearly reveals the impact of the AKP’s religious ideology on its policy. Ankara early on showed its preferences for Hamas—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian affiliate—over Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, in spite of the latter being the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinians. Despite the fact that Hamas was considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States, the AKP displayed a clear The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East | 10 preoccupation with the group—most notably with its warm outreach to Hamas after the group’s 2006 electoral success as well as with a frenzied reaction to both the 2008 war in Gaza and the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hostility to Israel, on the other hand, grew in direct proportion to the AKP’s consolidation of power, which neutralized the main supporter of Turkey’s alignment with the Jewish state: the military. With time, this hostility took on an increasingly overt anti-Semitic edge, as Erdoğan and his associates alleged world Jewry’s control over the international media and financial markets, as well as a Jewish conspiracy to undermine Turkey’s rise, most recently during the 2013 Taksim Square protests.

Egypt is also a clear example of the role of ideology in Turkish foreign policy and perhaps the most clear-cut display of Turkey’s sectarian drift. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s vigorous intervention during the Egyptian revolution stood in marked contrast to his silence when the Iranian regime crushed the Green Revolution two years earlier. When the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi subsequently took power, Turkey invested heavily, politically as well as financially, in building a strategic partnership with Egypt. Conversely, Ankara’s hostile reaction to Morsi’s ouster only served to isolate Turkey, putting it at odds even with the Arab regimes that joined its support for the Syrian opposition.

The fluctuations in Turkish policy, and its disavowal of traditional Turkish non-involvement in the Middle East, have not served the country well. Its initial outreach to neighbors was generally a failure. When Ankara sought to use the political capital it had been accruing in Damascus, it discovered that it in fact had no leverage with Assad. Instead, “zero problems” was quickly replaced with acrimony in Armenia, Syria, and Iran.

The more sectarian approach Turkey adopted next is not faring much better. In spite of its efforts at regime change in Syria, the Assad regime is gaining, rather than losing, ground. Meanwhile, the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Ankara’s response to it, has further diminished Turkey’s standing in the region. And in the aftermath of the government’s crackdown on the Taksim protests, Turkey’s relations with Europe are chilly at best, with hopes for European Union accession quickly vanishing.

Now, Turkey seems poised to swerve yet again. Recognizing the isolation that has resulted from its sectarian drift, Ankara appears to be reviving its “zero problems” approach. In the last months of 2013, Turkey has taken steps to mend fences with Iraq’s central government, reached out to Kurds in Syria, and tentatively moderated its rhetoric toward Egypt.

Making sense of this latest dizzying turn, the form it might take, and what future shifts might come in Turkish policy requires understanding the similarities, not just the differences, in Turkish conduct under the AKP. Ankara’s foreign policy has been driven by an overarching ambition for regional dominance, underlined by historical nostalgia and religious solidarity. The swerves in its policy, rather than demonstrating fickleness or discontinuity, are a reflection of the sectarian ambivalence of the AKP’s strain of political Islamism. The Roots of Turkish Conduct: Understanding the Evolution of Turkish Policy in the Middle East | 11

Turkey, however, has always remained one step behind quickly evolving events in the Middle East. Whether in backing NATO intervention in Libya or coming to terms with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt, Ankara’s policies have been slow to catch up to regional dynamics. On the few occasions when Turkey sought to shape the direction of events, it quickly faced limitations to its influence. It could neither convince Assad to meet protesters’ demands nor the Muslim Brotherhood to moderate its governing style, ultimately losing standing in both Syria and Egypt. As long as Turkish foreign policy remains reactive, it seems doomed to stay on the roller-coaster trajectory it has followed over the last decade. Comprehending the ideological underpinnings of Turkey’s aspirations can help American policymakers better track the ebb and flow of Turkish policy and project its next swerve. It might also demonstrate that Turkey shares fewer common interests with the United States than many observers realize.

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