It is a well-known and often used quote that when Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, was asked what he thought about the French Revolution he responded with “it is too early to tell.” Although later this quote was challenged by some, it portrays something important regarding the nature of revolutions.
It is difficult to judge the outcomes and evaluate the process of revolutions when they are still taking place. As such, at this point in time it is also too early to evaluate the consequences of the Arab revolutions for Turkish foreign policy. We are not sure at which phase the revolutions in the Middle East actually are right now; however, from the way they have developed thus far we can probably say a few words about the initial impacts.
First of all, probably one of the most significant outcomes of the Arab awakening was the growing unease and frustration of Turkish public opinion regarding Western policies in countries like Syria and Egypt. Although many argue that the principal reason for the growing skepticism of the Turkish public toward the foreign policies of the EU and the U.S. is the Turkish government, the truth is that what Western governments failed to do in Syria and Egypt played a more crucial role than what the Turkish government did over the last three and half years.
The Turkish public watched in shock when the U.S. insisted on not using the “C word” after the Egyptian military overthrew a democratically elected government, took over power, criminalized the ruling political party and its members, and restricted basic rights and liberties in the country. For the Turkish public this was a well-known process that occurred multiple times in its own recent history and was by definition a classical military coup d’état. However, after a few months of deliberation, the U.S. decided to describe the incident as a “restoration of democracy by the military.” The Turkish public’s disappointment at Western countries increased when the Egyptian military used force and killed hundreds of people in the streets of Cairo and in Rabaa Square.
In addition to Egypt, when the Assad regime in Damascus started killing civilians and was allowed to commit crimes against humanity on its own people and no meaningful action came from Western governments, public opinion in Turkey was once again shocked by the selective adoption of standards and principles. Later when Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, the Turkish public was again astonished to see that he was allowed to remain in power after such a horrendous crime.
Secondly, the Arab awakening seriously impacted the strategic environment in the Middle East and in turn caused changes in the strategic environment of Turkey, which resulted in a transformation of Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East.
One of the most significant changes took place regarding Turkish foreign policy toward Syria. Since the beginning of Turkey’s Middle East opening in the last years of the 1990s, Syria was considered one of the most important pillars of this policy. Successive Turkish governments invested heavily in Syria and considered it a gateway to the Middle East. However, with the Assad regime’s use of force against its own people, Turkey sacrificed its 12 years of investment and asked Assad to step down.
The increasing level of violent conflict in Syria also created a major security threat for Turkey. On the one hand, there was the emergence of black spots in Syria which became a hotbed for extremism and could export further insecurity to Turkey. On the other hand, with the spread of the conflict to Iraq especially through ISIL and increasing destabilization there, gray markets also emerged that could challenge economic security and the emergence of illicit economic activity on Turkish borders. Under these circumstances, Turkish foreign policy has had to retune its foreign policy toward its southern neighbors to protect its national security and contain a possible spread of violence to its borders.
The geopolitical complexities of the Arab awakening were not limited to the developments in Syria. In this period, Turkey’s relations with Iran and Gulf countries were also impacted by regional developments. Perhaps more significantly, Turkish-U.S. relations in the region also went through ups and downs in this period as a result of the region’s changing politics.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on May 5, 2014.