During a town hall meeting organized as part of Barack Obama’s 2009 visit to Istanbul, a Turkish student expressed his disappointment with the president’s inability to implement substantial changes to U.S. foreign policy. “Moving the ship of state is a slow process,” Obama explained. Not so in Turkey. Since the spring of 2011, Ankara has performed a remarkable volte-face. A country that engaged and appeased Middle East dictators for the better half of the past decade now urges them to undertake democratic reforms -- or risk regime change. There is just one problem: If Turkey is serious about exporting democracy, it will have to do a much better job of nourishing its own.
Turkey’s renewed focus on the Middle East began in the 1990s but hit full swing with the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. Trade with the region boomed, visa restrictions with neighboring countries disappeared, and feel-good bilateral visits abounded. (By his own account, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, billed as the architect of Turkey’s renewed engagement with the Middle East, visited Damascus more than 60 times in the past eight years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, vacationed in Turkey with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his family.) Things were going so well that a 2010 free-trade agreement among Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey immediately bred talk of a Turkish-led Middle East union.
Doing business with authoritarian regimes always involved a trade-off, however: Pushing economic interdependence, AKP officials foreswore any talk of meddling in their neighbors’ internal affairs. In the interest of stability and expanding commercial links, Turkey repeatedly looked the other way in the face of authoritarianism and human rights violations. Ankara downplayed the genocide in Sudan, made no mention of Syria’s dismal human rights record, and ignored the violence that followed the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Where most Western governments at least paid lip service to the need for democratic change in the region, Turkey gave precious few hints that it was uncomfortable with the status quo. Erdoğan himself saw nothing wrong with accepting a human rights award from the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in late 2010.
But the Arab Spring left this approach in tatters. Suddenly, the AKP government awoke to find that what it had valued most -- stability in its neighborhood -- could no longer be served by pampering the region’s autocrats. What the Turks (and everyone else) realized was that the Arab world was bound to go up in flames without fundamental reforms. Assad and Qaddafi were hardly placed to deliver them. Another realization soon followed: “Zero problems with neighbors,” the guiding principle of the AKP’s foreign policy, may have reaped economic gains, but it was not so useful at effecting political change.
The deterioration of Turkey’s once-prized relationship with Syria, in particular, laid bare the limits of Ankara’s previous approach. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had expected their friendship with Assad to translate into political leverage. It did not. As Syrian tanks rolled onto the streets of Hama, Turkish pleas for an end to the violence went largely ignored. Erdoğan should have learned his lesson: The same scene had played out in Libya only months earlier. Erdoğan had been convinced that he had Qaddafi’s ear, only to be rebuffed by the Libyan strongman.
Lately, AKP policymakers and pro-government media have been struggling to rewrite the narrative of the past few years, insisting that Turkey had been on the side of democratic change all along. In his February 2011 speech calling for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, Erdoğan boldly proclaimed that “not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world, the [AKP] has shown no fear or hesitation in siding with the oppressed and the victim. It has always taken a position against the status quo.” Erdoğan’s speech not only marked an attempt to revise history; it also heralded what has since become a genuine overhaul of Ankara’s foreign policy. One year later, “zero problems” is out; in is a policy that is more assertive, willing to take sides, and ready to take risks.
Today, Turkey no longer hesitates to play hardball with its neighbors. During a September 2011 trip to Cairo, Erdoğan disappointed many of his admirers in the Muslim Brotherhood by publicly praising the virtues of secular rule. Having belatedly endorsed outside intervention in Libya, he warned earlier this year that the situation in Syria is “heading toward a religious, sectarian, and racial civil war” that “must be stopped.” In late January, the Turkish leader scolded Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for stoking sectarian conflicts. Two weeks later, Bülent Arınç, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, lambasted Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon for remaining silent in the face of the bloodshed in Syria. “If they do not raise their voices,” he said, “then they have to remove the word ‘Islam’ from their names.”
Particularly with regard to Syria, Ankara’s new posture has involved more than just words. Turkey, which shares a 550-mile border with Syria to its south, has made it clear that its doors are “open to all Syrians who want to flee from oppression,” as Davutoğlu put it last month. Refugee camps inside Turkey are already home to over 16,000 Syrians, with many more expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Ankara has provided a haven not only for refugees but for scores of Syrian activists and leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army. Earlier this month, government officials said Turkey was weighing the possibility of arming the rebels, setting up humanitarian corridors in Syria, and even deploying troops.
Even if it implies a commitment to a more principled foreign policy, Turkey’s decision to throw its lot with the Arab revolutionaries also reflects the realpolitik of the “zero problems” era. Without a doubt, the images of bloodied protesters in Cairo, Homs, and Tripoli have galvanized Turks, both on the street and in the government, to make the case that dictators who turn their guns on their own people have no right to govern. Whenever possible, however, Erdoğan’s government has done all it can to hitch its newfound enthusiasm for democracy to Turkish interests. After all, when it came to Libya, with $15 billion worth of Turkish contracts on the line, Ankara initially opposed outside intervention. When it shifted course, dispatching five navy ships and a submarine to help enforce the arms embargo against Qaddafi, evacuating and treating wounded fighters from Benghazi, and committing $300 million to Libya’s National Transitional Council, Turkey made sure to capitalize on its aid. By the time of Erdoğan’s triumphant visit to Libya in September 2011, a month after the rebels’ capture of Tripoli, Turkish companies were in pole position in the race for new contracts -- and had received assurances that old ones would be respected.
If Turkey’s support for regime change in Libya was anchored to economic interests, then its support for the Syrian opposition is more bound to geopolitical ones. Having calculated that Assad’s days are numbered, Turkey wants to reap strategic dividends should the opposition take power. When the time comes to draw up a post-Assad Syria -- and to accommodate the aspirations of the country’s Kurdish minority in particular -- Erdoğan will be waiting on the doorstep.