Ambassador Yakış is a former foreign minister of Turkey.
Turkey's attitude regarding developments in the countries affected by the "Arab Spring" varied according to the approach of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) and its perceptions of the countries in question.
In Tunisia, Annahda, a political party that originated from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) tradition, emerged as the strongest political movement after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Annahda has an ideological affinity with the AKP, which also has Islamist roots. There is, in addition, a deep-rooted tradition in Tunisia to regard Turkey as a source of inspiration for various reforms. Turkey was, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, referred to by some as a role model. This concept did not acquire much content as time went by, however.
In Libya, Turkey hesitated at the beginning to get involved in the crisis and even wanted to keep NATO out of it.1 Seeing, however, that "a coalition of the willing" was going to intervene with or without Turkey, it made a swift change and participated in the operations with six aircraft and five ships.
When the mainly Shia population of Bahrain wanted to follow the example of the other Arab Spring countries and protest against its Sunni ruler, Saudi Arabia formed a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention force, composed mainly of Saudis, and repressed the demonstrations with a ruthlessness comparable to the methods used by the ousted regimes in the other Arab countries. The international community adopted a double standard and kept silent; Turkey went along with this consensus.
Turkey's reaction to the events in Yemen was restrained; it was viewed as a distant country and of low priority on the international agenda. The fact that Saudi Arabia stepped in as the main actor may also have played a role in Turkey's lack of enthusiasm for getting involved more deeply.
Drawing lessons from the Libyan example, Turkey did not want to be late in supporting the anti-regime demonstrations in Egypt. It became the first country to invite President Mubarak to step down. Another reason for this hasty move was Turkey's expectation that the Muslim Brotherhood would become an important player after the fall of the regime. Before the beginning of anti-regime demonstrations in Egypt, relations between the MB in Egypt and the AKP were superficial. As the MB emerged as the main actor in the demonstrations and the country's political developments, however, AKP-MB relations gained more substance.
When Morsi was ousted by the army on July 3, 2013, Turkey was the first country to call this military coup by its right name. It became the harshest critic of President Morsi's removal, calling it an "unacceptable coup,"2 on the assumption that Morsi would soon be reinstated. This turned out to be inaccurate. Each brutal act of repression of the pro-Morsi demonstrations was strongly criticized by Turkey. Prime Minister (PM) Erdogan claimed that Israel was behind the coup and that he had evidence of it.3
On August 16, 2013, both Turkey4 and Egypt5 reciprocally cancelled a joint naval exercise scheduled to take place in the Mediterranean. This was followed by Turkey accusing the Egyptian military regime of committing massacres. Egypt responded by striking Turkey's emotional foreign-policy issue: Adly Mansour, the interim president, announced in a tweet that Egypt would recognize the Armenian genocide.6 The escalation continued until Egypt decided to expel the Turkish ambassador and downgrade diplomatic relations to the chargé d'affaires level.7
Turkey and Syria were enjoying excellent relations when the crisis suddenly broke out on March 15, 2011. The general expectation was that Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly and, whichever way the crisis evolved, the MB would dominate Syrian political life afterward. To Turkish foreign policy makers, siding with the opposition looked like investing in the immediate future of Syria. This assumption turned out to be wrong as well.
Turkish leaders did their best to persuade Assad to initiate a transition to democracy. PM Erdogan sent Foreign Minister Davutoglu to Damascus with a tough message demanding an end to military operations. This visit was probably Turkey's last chance to revive a relationship that had been the foundation of its ambitious new foreign policy.8
PM Erdogan's disillusionment with Assad pushed him to burn all bridges with Syria. Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus on March 26, 2012,9 and recalled its consul general in Aleppo on July 23.10 After that, the tone of Turkey's calls for Assad to step down became harsher, and all official channels between Turkey and Syria were cut.
Gradually Turkey became more involved in the crisis, providing concrete support to the opposition. It started with innocent initiatives, such as extending protection to the members of the opposition. Then Ankara provided a venue for a meeting in Antalya of various Syrian opposition groups on June 1-2, 2011, called the "Transition in Syria Conference."11
Turkey's involvement intensified after the establishment of the Free Syrian Army on July 29, 2011. The Israeli insiders' newsletter Debka Files reported that, during Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Istanbul on August 13, 2011, Turkey and the United States decided to supply the Syrian rebels with 20 T-62 combat tanks, to be funded by Qatar and sent to Syria through the Turkish harbor of Iskenderun.12 The BBC claimed in a report of August 4, 2012, that those who wanted to join the Free Syrian Army were receiving military training from Turkish instructors at a military camp to which the media had no access.13 There have been similar claims by Turkish and international media citing names of places or persons and dates. Turkey has persistently denied allegations that the Turkish border is used for such traffic.
Turkey became further involved in the Syrian crisis with the establishment in Istanbul on August 23, 2011, of an umbrella organization called the Syrian National Council, a coalition of anti-government groups trying to streamline the opposition. Turkey is also among the 20 states that have recognized another umbrella organization, the Qatar-based Syrian National Coalition, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Kurds live in many parts of Syria, heavily concentrated in the northeastern province of Hasakah, where they constitute a majority of the population. They are better organized than many other ethnic or sectarian groups in Syria. Out of 12 Kurdish political parties in Syria, the most important is the Partiya Yeketiya Dimokratiya (Democratic Union Party, PYD). This party has inextricably close links with the PKK14 terrorist organization in Turkey.15 When the Assad regime withdrew its forces from Hasakah in mid-2012, the gap was immediately filled by the PYD. This action was particularly important because of the province's geographical proximity to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) area of Iraq, as well as the provinces of Turkey that are inhabited by Kurds.
In stark contrast to the al-Qaeda practice of holding sharia courts in regions that it controls, the PYD introduced an important reform, allowing the first-ever civil marriage to be performed in Syria on December 2, 2013.16 On December 26, 2013, the PYD also announced plans to create a transitional government in the areas with a majority Kurdish population.17 These developments indicate that the Syrian Kurds have become key players and likely will remain so after the current crisis. They may even impact developments beyond the Syrian borders.
In an effort to bring the fighting to an end, the first Geneva Conference on Syria was held on June 30, 2012. Participating countries agreed on the need for a "transitional government which would include members of the present Syrian government." However, Secretary Clinton said that President Assad could not remain in power. This statement was immediately opposed by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.18 A second conference, Geneva II, was held on January 22, 2014. Both Turkey and the United States encouraged the opposition to participate, meaning that they withdrew their precondition of Assad's immediate departure. This was a welcome readjustment in the foreign policy of both countries.
Turkey's relations with Iraq started to sour when Turkey refused to extradite the vice president of Iraq, Tariq al Hashimi, who was sentenced to death in absentia. Hashimi first fled to the KRG area of Iraq and from there to Turkey. On April 19, 2012, PM Erdogan accused Iraqi PM Maliki, who had ordered the arrest of Hashimi, of fanning tension among Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds through his arrogant behavior toward coalition partners.19
Turkey and Iraq are also in conflict over the shipment of oil and gas extracted in the KRG area of Iraq. Iraq's energy reserves are estimated at 143 billion barrels of oil and 127 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Kurds currently control some 12 billion barrels of oil and 22 trillion cubic feet of gas, a significant quantity for a population of about five million.
The natural resources of Iraq are the common property of the nation. The constitution provides that, due to the Kurds' proportion of the population, 17 percent of the oil and gas extracted in Iraq must be given to the KRG. The KRG government claims, however, that the central Iraqi authorities do not convey this amount to them. The KRG plans to reach a production capacity of 1 million barrels of oil per day by 2016. This would generate revenues of around $35 billion per year at current prices, compared to the current Kurdish share of the national budget, around $12 billion.
Clearly, Kurdistan's oil and gas could be the foundation for a viable economy.20 The KRG wants to export the oil extracted in its region through the unused capacity of the existing Kirkuk-Iskenderun pipeline. It will keep an amount equivalent to its share of 17 percent of the entire production of Iraq and give the remainder to the central authorities. This arrangement is also attractive for Turkey. It would utilize a pipeline that crosses its territory, receive royalties for it, meet its future demand for natural gas, diversify its sources of energy, and contribute to Turkey's becoming an energy hub.
The sticking point is that the central authorities in Bagdad do not want to permit a regional government to sign an agreement with a foreign country. Turkey is aware that signing an agreement with a regional authority, in the face of open opposition from the central authorities, will contradict a longstanding policy: preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq.
Despite this uncertainty, oil started to flow, on an experimental basis, during the second half of December 2013. If Baghdad and the KRG sort out their dispute, assets of $35 billion per year (with the capacity to grow to $50 billion or more in the near future, when the export of natural gas is added on) will be put at the disposal of the central authorities in Baghdad, the KRG, the oil companies and Turkey.
THE CURRENT PHASE
In Syria, every option is worse than the others. If Geneva II fails, the loss of human life will continue, and the country may bleed to exhaustion. Both the regime and the fractured opposition have long been aware that an outright victory by one side is out of the question. Therefore, efforts at present are focused on seizing as great a role in post-crisis Syria as possible.
The Assad regime made a clever move on the chemical-weapons issue, bringing Syria back from the brink of attack by U.S. cruise missiles to becoming a negotiating partner of the international community. This secured the continuation of the Assad regime for some time to come.
The ongoing clashes will widen the ethnic and sectarian divide. If the fighting cannot be stopped, the present low-intensity conflict may turn into a full-scale civil war. In this case, the Alawis may look for a safe haven in which they would constitute an uncontested majority. In the early 1920s, the French Mandate authorities had attempted, and failed, to create such a place in the Autonomous Republic of Jebel Alawi in Lattakia and its environs.
The Kurds have already established de facto self-rule at the municipal level in the northeast of Syria. They will do their best to maintain it and push it forward when the circumstances are favorable. What looks certain is that they will not settle for anything less than what they already have.
The Druze are more or less homogeneous in the south around the Jebel Druze.
Since none of these ethnic or sectarian groups have demanded independence so far, a federal structure may emerge after the crisis, but the disintegration of the country cannot be ruled out entirely if the civil war intensifies. The greatest threat for the future of Syria, and the Middle East in general, is the implantation of al-Qaeda-linked groups. Their practices in the areas under their control made the Assad regime appear a lesser evil both to many Syrians and to several other countries. This will encourage Assad to run in the 2014 elections. The Russian Federation (RF), for one, will insist on his right to do so, and if a tenable substitute for the regime cannot be found, the international community may grudgingly agree to it.
The military coup in Egypt is being challenged by a determined and unrelenting MB. They have a strong case in demanding the reinstatement of a democratically elected president. However, more often than not, the might of the military and the national interests of the external players weigh more heavily than lofty principles.
The military regime has already announced a road map. The new constitution, removed of the Islamic articles, was approved in a referendum on January 14-15, 2014.21 Presidential elections were initially planned for mid-2014,22 but the interim president, Adly Mansour, said on December 23, 2013, that it is not unconstitutional to elect the president before the parliamentary elections. This would allow the president to influence the outcome of the elections. The interim regime has already labeled the MB a terrorist group, outlawing its activities and criminalizing membership. Opinions vary on whether these measures will produce the expected results.23 The MB is deeply rooted in Egyptian society; any democratization plan that does not take this fact into account will be misconceived.
The military coup in Egypt has implications beyond its borders. In Syria and Tunisia, the MB know that their rule may also be interrupted, Egyptian-style. The future of political Islam may also be negatively affected, as an MB government is, in a sense, a concrete form of political Islam.
Domestic politics in Iraq became complicated after the U.S. withdrawal in November 2011. In the March 7, 2010, parliamentary elections, Iyad Allawi's party, Iraqiyya, won 89 seats out of 325; Maliki's won 87. Article 73 of the Iraqi constitution provides that the largest bloc in parliament (the Council of Representatives) gets the first opportunity to form a government. However, the Supreme Court ruled that a coalition formed after the election could also meet that requirement. Maliki formed his government on the basis of this perverse interpretation.
After the U.S. withdrawal, political disputes among the major blocs in parliament intensified; security forces arrested 600 Sunnis for involvement in an alleged coup plot.24 Nearly 8,000 Iraqis were killed in ongoing violence in 2013, more than double the figure for 2012. The increasing death toll deepens the sectarian divide and pushes the country closer to disintegration.
Iraq tolerates Iranian use of its airspace for arms deliveries to Syria and cooperates with Iran to keep Assad regime in power. However, Iranian influence in Iraq is constrained Maliki's need to cooperate with Sunni Iraqi tribal and political leaders. Furthermore, Maliki may not like to be any closer to Iran than to the Gulf Arab countries.
The Russian Federation has vested interests in Syria. It had already launched initiatives to re-enter the Middle East long before the Arab Spring, when the image of the United States was very negative after its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and the revelation of the atrocities in Abu Ghreib prison. The Syrian crisis created a favorable environment for the RF's return; Syria was the locus of the Soviet Union's interests in the Middle East. Furthermore, the only Russian naval base outside its own territory is in the Syrian harbor of Tartous.
The military coup in Egypt and the events that followed it have also provided the RF with opportunities to return to the Middle East. The USSR had been Cairo's major ally until Anwar Sadat in 1971 expelled that superpower in favor of the other one.
It is not yet clear how the U.S. shift of its strategic focus from the Middle East to Asia will work in practice. Pulling soldiers out of Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be regarded as a shift. The United States has the means to be involved in a region without necessarily sending soldiers. Even if shale gas decreases the importance of the Middle East as an energy source, the region will continue to be important for the maintenance of world peace and the security of Israel.
The EU's ability to contribute to the shaping of the Middle East may remain limited because of the divergent national interests of the member countries.
An important regional player will be Iran, primarily because the nuclear deal made it a U.S. negotiating partner. If the nuclear deal succeeds, Iran's isolation will be eased. Partial lifting of economic restrictions will bring Iran more money, which will be used to buy equipment to produce more oil, and more oil will bring still more money.
Second, after the Assad regime started to look like a lesser evil for the international community than the al-Qaeda-linked opposition in Syria, Iran and the United States found themselves in the same boat — in search of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis. Washington and Tehran may therefore cooperate in the future to fight what the U.S. media calls "Sunni extremism."
Third, like the RF, Iran also has vested interests in Syria. It has already extended its influence to the eastern borders of Syria, and it has a strong presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah. The missing link in this geographical chain reaching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean is Syria. Iran will do its utmost to remain present there.
Fourth, the Syrian crisis and domestic political developments in Iraq are pushing the Middle East towards a dangerous division along sectarian lines. If this happened, Iran would become the natural leader of the Shia region, strengthening the Alawite (Nusairi) minority that is now in power in Syria. Such a scenario is a threat to the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Syria.
Fifth, Iran has been able to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. It was able to achieve this goal even when the United States and Iran were not on the best terms. Now it can play a similar role more easily. Furthermore, Iran is an oil-rich country; it has already acquired nuclear technology; it has strong diplomatic and national traditions developed over 2,500 years. It has the means to assume important roles in the region.
Saudi Arabia has been drawn into the Middle Eastern imbroglio for two basic reasons. First, the danger of a Sunni-Shia divide threatens Saudi security because of the strong Shia community in its oil-rich Eastern Province. Second, the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organizations fighting in Syria will have to find new jobs for themselves once the Syrian crisis is settled. Saudi Arabia will most probably use its financial power to contribute to the shaping of the Middle East in line with these two foreign-policy imperatives.
What about Turkey?
The policy line that Turkey has followed so far in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Israel is likely to limit its freedom of action in the shaping of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
In the Syrian crisis, Turkey chose the right side of history, siding at the beginning with the civilian population, who were subjected to disproportionate repression. The international community, with few exceptions, was also taking the side of the people. At that stage, of course, the policy was based on the assumption of an early fall for the Assad regime; it did not materialize. Furthermore, when it became clear that some of the weapons provided by the international community to the opposition forces were ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups, Western countries grew reluctant to continue supplying them. Turkey was slow to join in.
Turkey could have kept its channels of communications open with Syria. Using language harsher than necessary with the leaders of a neighboring country may become a liability. If Assad stays in power for the foreseeable future, Turkey's relations with Syria will be dogged by these statements, and Turkey's role in Syria will be limited.
In Egypt, Turkey did the right thing in calling the military coup a coup, but was, again, isolated; many countries, for reasons of national interest, preferred to stay neutral or paid lip service to the opponents of the coup.
The present military administration will most probably take all necessary measures to discredit the Morsi regime in order to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from coming to power again anytime soon. Once in power, it will be tempted to bring to justice the perpetrators of the present military coup and the bloody repressions that followed it. For Turkey, this means that strained relations are likely to persist as long as the present ruling team or another one ideologically close to it remains in power, if no other remedial action is taken.
Egypt is an important country in the Middle East and in the Arab world at large. Turkey could be more effective by cooperating with Egypt in whatever it plans to achieve in this region. It will be much more difficult to do it without this cooperation and almost impossible if Egypt opposes it.
In Iraq, despite recent initiatives to mend relations, Turkey does not see eye to eye with PM Maliki. The Hashimi and KRG oil issues continue to have negative effects. Since the majority of the Iraqi population is Shia, the sectarian divide may also become a negative factor if the region becomes divided along sectarian lines. A stronger emphasis on the decades-old secular principles of Turkish foreign policy may help Turkey play a more positive role in both Iraq and the region at large.
Turkey has a major interest in improving relations with Israel, driven at present more by emotion than the national interest. There is no compelling reason preventing rapprochement, which would help Turkey play more active roles in the region.
At the time this article was drafted, Turkey did not have a resident ambassador in three important capitals in the Middle East: Cairo, Damascus and Tel Aviv. This necessarily limits Turkey's ability to become a regional player.
To conclude on a positive note, the recent "Kurdish opening" is worth mentioning. Turkey recently launched an initiative called the "democratization project." Its basic aim is to take an additional step towards recognizing the Kurdish identity and according some cultural rights to Kurds. The government took the bold, risky, but right decision to cooperate with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned terrorist organization PKK in drawing up a project to push forward the "Kurdish Issue."
Over 60 "wise people" from all parts of Turkish society were designated and provided with the means to visit various regions of the country to both share and gather information on this subject. On the basis of these findings, a project was drafted that Ocalan supported. His statement of support, in Turkish, was translated into Kurdish and read out in the eastern city of Diyarbakır, inhabited predominantly by Kurds, to an audience of record-high attendance. The project is now on the parliament's agenda. It does not, of course, aim at satisfying the aspirations of the last extremist Kurd who will not settle for anything less than an independent Kurdish state. However, if the process gains the support of the mainstream Kurdish population, this will be a great achievement.
The project also has implications for the Syrian Kurds; the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the PYD, is almost a branch of the PKK in Syrian territory. Therefore, a project that enjoys the support of PKK leader Ocalan is not likely to be opposed by the majority of Syrian Kurds.
There is another domestic political development that has an indirect impact on this subject: the corruption scandal that broke out in Turkey on December 17, 2013, involving a minister and the sons of two cabinet ministers. If PM Erdogan feels bruised by this scandal, he may wish to push forward this "Kurdish opening process" with a view to attracting more Kurdish votes. He may also do the opposite lest anti-Kurd nationalists vote against him.
If this process succeeds, it will be a major game change for Turkey's Kurds. And it will rid Turkey of a conflict that has cost more than 30,000 lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. It will ease Turkey's relations with the KRG, in northern Iraq, where terrorists are still hiding out in the Qandil Mountains. It will solve Turkey's problem with the Syrian Kurds, who have close connections with the PKK. It may change the entire power balance in the Middle East.
If the project fails, PM Erdogan's charisma as a political leader will be tarnished; he has put all his weight behind the project. This is an important factor for Erdogan, who is planning to put forward his candidacy for the presidential elections in autumn 2014.
Turkey has the biggest army in NATO after the United States. It is a secular country with a predominantly Muslim population and is engaged in negotiations for EU membership — a first for a country that is both European and Middle Eastern. However, if Turkey does not recalibrate its foreign policy according to new realities, its future role in the region is likely to face many constraints.
1 CBS News, March 21, 2011.
2 Reuters, Cairo, November 23, 2013.
3 Hürriyet Daily News of August 20, 2013 claims that Erdogan's evidence was a comment by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who said: "If Muslim Brotherhood arrives, I will not say democracy wants it, so let democracy progress. Democracy is not only elections. It is also values."
4 Today's Zaman, August 16, 2013.
5 SINA English, August 16, 2013.
6 Raymond Ibrahim, Islam Translated, August 17, 2013.
7 Hürriyet Daily News, November 23, 2013.
8 BBC Middle East News, August 9, 2011.
9 Telegraph, March 26, 2012.
10 Times of Israel, July 23, 2012.
11 AFP, June 1, 2011.
12 Debka File, August 14, 2012.
13 BBC, August 4, 2012.
14 Partiya Kerkeran Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers Party).
15 Al Monitor, Anberin Zaman, July 21, 2013.
16 Al Jazeera-America, December 20, 2013.
17 Richard Hall, Independent, November 12, 2013.
18 BBC News online, June 20, 2012.
19 Reuters, April 19, 2012.
20 INSIGHT Turkey, Volume 15, no. 1.
21 UPI Top News, December 30, 2013.
22 Africa Report, December 16, 2013.
23 Daily News Egypt, December 22, 2013.
24 U.S. Congressional Research Service, Report.