Insight Turkey 4th Annual Conference
Panel III: Turkey and the Arab Awakening
Chair: Marina Ottaway (Wilson Center)
Stephen Larrabee (RAND)
Kilic Kanat (SETA DC)
Ufuk Ulutas (SETA Foundation)
Ramazan Yildirim (Ru’ye Turkiye)
Stephen Larrabee discussed how the Arab Spring undermined Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. He argued that prior to the Arab Spring little attention was paid to the aspiration of society, as Ankara focused on developing relationships with neighboring governments. The Arab Spring led Turkey to shift its focus to the democratic pressures in society, particularly in Syria. Mr. Larrabee stated that Turkey made several miscalculations: Ankara underestimated Assad’s resilience; it overestimated Turkey’s ability to shape developments in the Middle East; and it underestimated President Obama’s reluctance to pursue a more robust policy in the region. He then explored Turkey’s relations with Iran, Egypt, Iraq and the Kurds. Mr. Larrabee said that Turkey’s foreign policy collapsed and instead of good relations with all neighbors, Turkey has strained relations with nearly all of its neighbors, with the exception of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. He concluded that while Turkey’s foreign policy was successful at first, it was undermined by the Arab Spring because Ankara based its new relationships on regimes rather than considering broader societal changes.
Ufuk Ulutas proposed that it is difficult to discuss the Arab Spring because the process is ongoing and multifaceted. He outlined how various countries viewed the Arab Spring: Russia saw an opportunity to reintroduce itself to the Middle East; the US has not decided what the Arab Spring is and therefore has acted indecisively; the EU has yet to define what the bloc is, resulting in a fluctuating and variant policy; and the Gulf saw the uprisings as an existential threat. For Turkey, the Arab Spring presented advantages and disadvantages. Mr. Ulutas argued that the uprisings provided a venue for Turkish soft power but also demonstrated the limits of that soft power. He asserted that when protests turn into violent conflict, soft power is no longer effective. Mr. Ulutas defined the Arab Spring as a popular trend that, in principle, aims to transform old regimes to allow for more popular input in decision-making. He deduced that the Arab Spring process is ongoing and therefore conclusions on Turkey’s “zero problems” policy should be avoided.
Ramazan Yildirim examined the Islamists movements of the Arab Spring, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He stated that the Muslim Brotherhood was a political movement but regime repression turned the organization into a religious identity. While the Islamist in the Middle East has struggled, the AK Party in Turkey has been leading democratic reforms. After discussing the constitution process and issue of sharia in Egypt prior to Morsi’s overthrow, Mr. Yildirim described Egyptian-Turkish relations as an exaggerated love-hate relationship. He noted that many reforms are underway in different countries, with success in Tunisia and an indication that quick change will be difficult in Egypt. Mr. Yildirim concluded that the Arab Spring allowed the Islamists movements to become legal political parties that can be successful if they do not encounter serious obstacles.
Kilic Kanat was the final speaker and shifted the focus back to Turkish foreign policy before, during and after the Arab Spring. He said that the AK Party accelerated the late-1990s project of developing a neighborhood foreign policy by utilizing economic integration and conflict resolution. Mr. Kanat argued that Turkey stood on the right side of history in the Arab Spring but the current phase has several implications. First, he asserted that there is an increased level of disappointment and frustration with the West in Turkey, especially regarding the reaction to Egypt and Syria. Mr. Kanat stated that US inaction inevitability created the same problems that were used as reasons against intervention. Second, a changed geostrategic environment with new security threats has created problems for Turkey, especially from Syria. Regarding the future, Mr. Kanat suggested that every nation will continue to revise its foreign policy towards the region. In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan is committed to resolving traditional problems in Turkish foreign policy, i.e., Cyprus, Armenia, and the Kurds, and Erdogan’s recent statement on the Armenian issue is a major step. Mr. Kanat concluded that the US and Turkey will no long talk about a strategic partnership; instead, selective cooperation will arise where the two nations will work together on areas they agree on and find other partners in areas of divergent interests.