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Neo-Ottomanism in Tatters

Turkey’s self-righteous grandstanding is isolating it internationally, writes Dr. Adil Rasheed, Senior Research Fellow (West Asia Asia) at the Center for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI.

It was one of the most successful foreign policy resets, until it backfired on Turkey in the face. In utter disregard of wary Kemalists, the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) decided to enter the treacherous waters of Middle East politics after nearly a century, in order to achieve ‘strategic depth’. After initial success, the policy boomeranged and today the country finds itself at the brink of international isolation, having squandered much of its political goodwill and geostrategic gains.

Until the outbreak of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, Turkey was conducting an effective ‘zero problems with neighbors’ strategy. As part of its plan to become a major global player by 2023, the Recep Erdoğan-led government employed soft power to carve its area of influence in the Balkans, the Middle East and Caucasus (the erstwhile ‘vilayets’ of the Ottoman empire). Over the years, Ankara seemed to have mastered the technique of ‘equidistance’, i.e. the refusal to take sides in regional disputes.

As a result, Turkey expanded business relations and trade links with Arab states, lifted visa restrictions on neighboring countries, and helped mediate some of the region’s toughest disputes between Iran and the US, Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas and even Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Everything ran smoothly for Erdoğan until the ‘Arab Spring’ erupted in 2011. Ostensibly, the uprising stood for the very ideals espoused by Turkey’s ruling party, viz. Islamic liberalism and democracy. In its wake, the AKP leadership confronted the dilemma of either continuing with its incremental, goodwill-building, non-interventionist tack in the Middle East or of taking on a more assertive, self-righteous role, by riding the revolutionary wave and projecting itself as the patron of democratic Islamism, thereby promoting its imperious, ‘neo-Ottoman’ agenda.

The question was resolved without much difficulty. The AKP decided to project Turkey’s ideological ‘support’ for the revolution, with the aim of emerging as the new, popular hegemon of the region. Not surprisingly, Ankara threw its weight around Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed former president of Egypt. When Morsi was removed from power, Erdoğan publicly criticised the new government in Cairo, which eventually led to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two sides.

In another break from past practice, Ankara squabbled with several Arab and Gulf countries, not only over the Egyptian issue, but also over its dogged support for Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. Turkey’s already strained strategic partnership with Israel worsened, as Erdoğan blamed Israel for plotting Morsi’s ouster.

The Syrian crisis came as another test for Turkish foreign policy. Having initially forged a close partnership with the Assad regime, it took some time for Ankara to speak out in favor of the popular opposition following the military onslaught of civilians. Even more enigmatic has been Turkey’s current role in the US-led international campaign against the ISIS. The country remains inexplicably on the sidelines and has refused to let the US use its airbases for strikes, unless it also attacks the Bashar Al-Assad regime and creates a no-fly zone in Syria.

For its part, the US has expressed concerns over reported influx of foreign fighters into ISIS-held territories via Turkey, as well as the alleged smuggling and sale of oil by the extremist group in Turkish blackmarkets. The military inaction of Turkey in coming to the aid of Kurdish fighters in the border city of Kobani, besieged by ISIS fighters, has also hurt Ankara’s cause, regionally and internationally.

Turkey’s growing international isolation is further illustrated in the recent UN General Assembly vote over the non-permanent member’s seat in the Security Council. In spite of being highly confident of winning support, Turkey lost its bid to Spain and New Zealand. It should also be noted that Turkey’s relations with the European Union have also suffered, ever since the AKP’s crackdown on civilian protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June 2013.

Thus, after being on top of the game for over a decade, the ruling AKP seems to have lost the plot. The extent of its present state of delusion becomes evident in statements emanating from its top brass. For instance, one of Erdoğan’s principal foreign policy advisers Ibrahim Kalin, has reportedly tweeted that even if Turkey had become internationally isolated, this was a “precious isolation,” implying that it is based on ‘principled positions’. Perhaps, the time has come for the AKP to clear its head and desist from self-righteous grandstanding that is neither in its own interest, nor that of the region.

Dr Adil Rasheed is Senior Research Fellow (Middle East) at the New Delhi-based United Service Institution of India.

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