Turkey’s location in a strategic part of the world is a “blessing and a curse,” Professor Gülnur Aybet said this week at a major panel discussion in Central London. Speaking under the heading of “Turkey in a Changing Middle East”, Prof. Aybet explained the Republic’s foreign policy to the audience. The discussion was one of a series — “Turkey Today” — organised by the Turkish Presidency in Britain, the US, Germany and Argentina.
Aybet is a senior advisor to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a member of the Presidential Security and Foreign Policy Council in Ankara. She often makes the case that Turkey is an exception in the Middle East, pointing out that foreign military bases, border disputes, sectarian wars, proxies and different patronage links with the US and Russia have fuelled conflicts in the region, but not in Turkey. The seamless web of factors causing chaos in the region do not apply to her country, she claimed.
This argument is a hard sell given that Ankara has been deeply entrenched in the conflict in neighbouring Syria for years. Nevertheless, the professor made a strong case for viewing Turkey in such a positive light, not least because it is host to four million Syrian refugees. Understandably eager to sing Turkey’s praises, she pointed out that there are 200,000 Kurds amongst the refugees. Overall, hosting so many people is something that no Western government could tolerate, she stressed. “Moreover, the Kurds are not the enemies of Turkey,” she insisted, “but terrorists are.”
Prof Aybet’s remarks were punchy and appeared to be intended to explain why Turkey is on the verge of launching another military operation against Kurdish forces in Syria even at the risk of clashing with US troops. Ankara has repeatedly accused its NATO partner of helping to create a security threat on Turkey’s southern border. At times, it has expressed outrage at the Trump administration over its arming of Kurdish militias called the People’s Protection Forces, or YPG. Turkey has designated the group a terrorist organisation because of its links with Kurdish militants who have waged an armed insurrection inside Turkey over three decades, at a cost of 40,000 lives.
Expressing dismay over the US President’s arming of groups which are also listed in the US as terror organisations, Aybet said that America, having crated a dangerous vacuum in the region by failing to tackle the Syrian crisis adequately, is playing a destabilising role through its support of the YPG. She revealed that during several high level meetings with US officials, assurances were given that the military hardware given to the YPG would be returned once the fight against Daesh ended. The US explanation was met with incredulity in Ankara which had not, she insisted, been shown any mechanism or agreement to this effect.
Turkey’s role in Syria has been described as confusing given its closeness to Russia and Iran, despite being a NATO member with the desire to join the EU. Speakers on the panel at the Naval and Military Club in London’s St James’s Square countered such criticism by emphasising Ankara’s “compartmentalisation” approach to its foreign policy. While cataloguing the poor treatment of Turkey by Europe, the speakers said that the government in Ankara had no option other than to look at every foreign policy issue on a case by case basis.
Indeed, Ankara’s priority in the region is fostering relations with all countries therein, even those with which it may not always agree. Turkey’s role in the Astana peace process and its intervention with Iran to prevent the breakup of Iraq through the Kurdish referendum in summer 2017 were seen as an example of its pragmatic realpolitik relationships. As a former imperial power in the region, said Aybet, Turkey is well aware of its history and the factors that shaped it, and benefits from the fact that it does not share the common regional trauma of uncertain borders drawn by outsiders and the creation of nation states out of tribal realities.
Turkey was praised for steering itself through several crises in the Middle East by managing relations on four fronts: global powers, regional powers, local actors and international forums. Situated in a changing landscape, often violently so, Turkey is dealing with the fallout from waning US interest in the region; the Arab uprisings; the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran; the latter’s subsequent efforts to increase its influence; the rise of China; and the Syrian war, as well as the ongoing instability in Iraq. In the midst of all of this, Turkey is balancing its realpolitik, state-to-state relations with soft power reaching out to what Erdoğan calls Turkey’s “moral hinterland”.
It is this, the speakers stressed, which is significant in Ankara’s foreign policy. The notion of a “moral hinterland”, they said, is a key feature of Turkish identity. Historians of modern Turkey explain the emergence of this belief following the demise of the USSR, when the Turks realised that Turkic and other communities across the ex-Soviet Union were expressing kinship with them, ranging from the Kyrgyz on the Chinese border to the Christian Gagauz Turks in Moldavia. The old Communist order had reduced contact between Turkey and these communities to a trickle, one historian explained in the 1990s. The close linguistic, ethnic, cultural, historical and religious ties quickly led the Turkish government and general public to express keen interest in rejuvenating relations with these communities.
These new relations have served Turkey well. It was amongst the first countries to have diplomatic ties with the central Asian former Soviet republics. These close relations increased Ankara’s importance to the West. Politicians have stressed Ankara’s indispensable role in building bridges between the West and Central Asia.
With the West having a keen interest towards inculcating values such as secularism, pluralist democracy, human rights and economic liberalism within the former Soviet republics which had Islam as the official religion, Turkey’s role was vital. The west feared that Islam, which was repressed under the Communists, would make a strong comeback in a politicised form. The transition they feared would eventually lead towards hostility towards the West. These concerns made Turkey, also a Muslim majority country, even more crucial to the West because of its ability to serve as a reference point and an example of a country that was able to transition to modernity while remaining an ally of Europe. Aware of its unique role, Turkey adopted a strategy to mobilise its cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties with the former Soviet republics, and its political and economic success was viewed as hard evidence of the advantage of following the Turkish model.
The Middle East is undergoing a messy emergence of a new balance of power in which Turkey is playing a pioneering role in managing the seismic political changes of our time, the panel concluded. Turkey has navigated the stormy waters of the region wisely, they said, while successfully maintaining “equidistant relations” with all parties in the region. It is the only NATO member that is a guarantor of the Syrian peace process, for example, and with Ankara playing an effective role in rebuilding Afghanistan following the devastation of the US led invasion, the panellists called on the West as it goes through its own period of fragmentation and internal conflict to check it’s archaic prejudices against Turkey and work with Ankara to build “interlocking institutions” to create stability in the region and around the world.
Aside from Prof. Aybet, the panel speakers were Assoc. Prof Dr Hasan Basri Yalçin, a faculty member at Istanbul Commerce University Department of Political Science and International Relations, and Dr Claire Spencer, a former Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme and Second Century Initiative at Chatham House. The programme was chaired by Lady Olga Maitland, the President of the Defence and Security Forum.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.