Turkish Foreign Policy During the Arab Spring and in the Age of ISIS
In the article “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest,” Ziya Önis argues that understanding Turkey’s response to popular uprisings in the Middle East is predicated on the tension between Turkey’s foreign policy mired in ethical rhetoric and the careful negotiation of its economic and strategic interests. The era immediately preceding the Arab Spring saw a rise in Turkish economic and diplomatic ties in the Middle East that hinged on a jargon-based set of principles from the AK Ruling Party. These principles put forth during a period of relative peace and stability, could not predict the uncertainty that would come with the uprisings in 2011 and, as such, were greatly tested as events in the region developed. While Önis provides a provocative argument in accounting for Turkish backpedaling and light-treading in terms of how to act in the cases of Libya and Syria, the article does not move beyond the period in which it was published: 2012. Since the time of this publication, the rise of ISIS in the region has presented another unique challenge to numerous key foreign policy concepts for the Turkish administration and arguably has exposed the government’s lofty liberalist rhetoric as contradictory and relatively empty of meaning in terms of actions regarding the extremist Islamic State organization. Looking at A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map, I will examine key terminology used in Turkish foreign policy, how these concepts were problematized in the cases of Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring and how they continue to be problematic for Turkey in the era of ISIS.
With regards to policies aimed at Libya and Syria, Önis cites the key dilemma confronting the Turkish as being “whether to encourage reform (especially in the Syrian case) by putting pressure on the ruling authoritarian elites or support rising opposition movements, which started to seriously challenge the existing regimes.” (46) For the Turkish, this would bring together several contradictory concepts that had emerged in the era prior to the Arab Spring and that had helped to usher in the “new” rhetorical era of the AK Party. On the one hand, the Party was espousing the principles of Zero Problems with Neighbours, (meaning the resolution of existing conflicts, equal security, economic integration, political cooperation and a relationship through security, stability and mutual development), economic interdependence (to promote stability and diplomacy as the first stop in conflict resolution), win-win policies that would promote more peace and cooperation, and finally, partaking in their own version of the greater Middle East project to facilitate democratic development in Muslim countries (Yesiltas, Balci,14,18,20, 30). On the other hand, despite these active foreign policy standards, the Turkish also wanted to promote security for all which meant that no external partner was an enemy, regardless of their religious or cultural background, as well as a hands-off approach that respected national autonomy (Ibid, 21). In the case of Libya, this hands-off approach made the Turkish reluctant to act “as an active force for regime change,” particularly because the two countries were intimately tied in terms of trade and investment (Önis 52). Deposing Muammar Qaddafi would threaten those interests, the economic interdependence of the two countries, and would deal a blow to the “zero problems” policy. Furthermore, despite the calls for democracy in Libya being particularly in line with Turkish rhetorical interests, the NATO initiative would undermine the peaceful cooperation and soft power diplomacy that Turkey wanted to employ as part of their political model. As a result, though Turkey technically signed off on the British- and French-led NATO initiative, it did so reluctantly, after much foreign criticism and, finally, in a passive manner.
In the case of Syria, Önis points out that prior to the Arab Spring and conflict, the relations between the two countries represented a kind of Golden Age in the AK Party era for increased trade relations, a permeable border and a shared cultural affinity. However, the uprisings against the Assad government and the rise in violence between the government and its populous put Turkey in a precarious position. Should they continue with their interests in Syria and implore Assad to reform for the sake of short-term economic stability? Where the AK Party foreign policy concepts of soft power, rhythmic and shuttle diplomacy, mediation and facilitation, as well as being a model country, would all lend themselves well to reconciling issues in Syria, these efforts were not successful (Yesiltas, Balci). According to Önis, support for Assad waned as it became apparent that he would neither reform, nor would he stop the escalation in violence against opposition groups in the country. Turkey has since taken to openly supporting anti-Assad fighters in Syria and the relations between the two countries are all but destroyed.
The rise of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya has presented yet another unique challenge to Turkey’s lofty ideals in terms of AK Party foreign policy. Arguably, the brutal human rights violations, extreme violence and seizure of national resources across the region would make ISIS a target for Turkish condemnation. However, the sheer power of ISIS and its swift rise has made concepts of pre-emptive, proactive and vision-oriented diplomacy on the part of a Turkey relatively moot points. In a contradictory fashion, Turkey has actually started supporting and supplying ISIS in their endeavours throughout key geostrategic points in the Middle East. Seen as contrary to many liberal democratic and secular principles, the support of ISIS is an activity that can actually be somewhat accounted for in the AK Party dictionary of foreign policy concept terms – something very disturbing, to say the least. Despite Turkish assurances of their refusal to deal with ISIS, principles of security for all (regardless of background), maximum regional cooperation, the emphasis on creating a basin of peace through soft power would necessitate engaging with ISIS eventually, on equal terms, despite terror tactics, authoritarianism, human rights violations and so forth. This might help explain Turkey’s reluctance to engage with ISIS in a military sense (despite having the second most powerful military in the NATO grouping and arguably some of the post imminent reasons to prevent the spread of ISIS) and might also explain the lack of policing and enforcement for the restriction of ISIS oil as it is “smuggled” into Turkey for global exportation across the still-permeable Syrian border. It is not my opinion that this is desired or intentional but rather that the political rhetoric associated with the AK Party era in Turkey has created a situation in which Turkey is bound to respond as a key global actor but is bound by how they deal with regional threats and conflicts in a very particular way.
In conclusion, key facets of Turkish foreign policy under continuing AK Party leadership have been problematized in light of mass disturbances to the region of the Middle East. These have lead to negotiations, reversals and sometimes blatant contradictions of Turkish diplomatic principles. In the future, issues regarding the hypocrisy of idealistic foreign policy principles in light of continuing humanitarian problems with regards to domestic politics will need to be discussed.
Tony Cartalucci. “”Islamic State” (ISIS) Supply Lines, Influx of Fighters and Weapons Protected by Turkey in Liaison with NATO.” Global Research: Centre for Research on Globalisation. 29 Nov. 2014. Web. http://www.globalresearch.ca/islamic-state-isis-supply-lines-influx-of-fighters-and-weapons-protected-by-turkey-in-liaison-with-nato/5416899
Klein, Aaron. “Turkey ‘providing Direct Support’ to ISIS.” WND Politics. 9 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.wnd.com/2014/10/turkey-providing-direct-support-to-isis/>.
Vali Nasr, “Iran, Turkey’s New Ally?” The New York Times, December 29, 2013
Ziya Onis, “ Turkey and the Arab Spring: Between Ethics and Self-Interest,” Insight Turkey, Vo. 14, No. 3, Summer 2012, pp. 45-63.
Liam Stack, “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters,” The New York Times,
October 27, 2011.
Sara Westfall. “ISIS Energy Security.” Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. 26 Dec. 2014. Web. <http://www.ypfp.org/isis_energy_security>.
Murat Yesiltas and Ali Balci, “A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map,” SAM Papers, No. 7, Center for Strategic Research, May 2013, pp. 1-35.
“‘IS’ Supply Channels through Turkey | All Media Content | DW.DE | 26.11.2014.” DW.DE. Web. <http://www.dw.de/is-supply-channels-through-turkey/av-18091048>.
“UBCMUN IPC – ISIS Convoy Captured Carrying Equipment Manufactured in Turkey.” UBCMUN IPC. Russian Times, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. <http://ubcmun.org/ubcmun-ipc—isis-convoy-captured-carrying-equipment-manufactured-in-turkey.html>.
“Turkey Deals with Iraq, Not with ISIS, Says Energy Minister.” DailySabah. 11 Aug. 2014. Web. <http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2014/08/11/turkey-doesnt-take-isis-threats-seriously-says-energy-minister>.
 Liam Stack, “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters,” The New York Times,
October 27, 2011.
 Cartalucci, Tony. “”Islamic State” (ISIS) Supply Lines, Influx of Fighters and Weapons Protected by Turkey in Liaison with NATO.” Global Research: Centre for Research on Globalisation. 29 Nov. 2014. Web. http://www.globalresearch.ca/islamic-state-isis-supply-lines-influx-of-fighters-and-weapons-protected-by-turkey-in-liaison-with-nato/5416899; “‘IS’ Supply Channels through Turkey | All Media Content | DW.DE | 26.11.2014.” DW.DE. Web. <http://www.dw.de/is-supply-channels-through-turkey/av-18091048>.; Klein, Aaron. “Turkey ‘providing Direct Support’ to ISIS.” WND Politics. 9 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.wnd.com/2014/10/turkey-providing-direct-support-to-isis/>. “UBCMUN IPC – ISIS Convoy Captured Carrying Equipment Manufactured in Turkey.” UBCMUN IPC. Russian Times, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. <http://ubcmun.org/ubcmun-ipc—isis-convoy-captured-carrying-equipment-manufactured-in-turkey.html>.
 “Turkey Deals with Iraq, Not with ISIS, Says Energy Minister.” DailySabah. 11 Aug. 2014. Web. <http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2014/08/11/turkey-doesnt-take-isis-threats-seriously-says-energy-minister>.