9 November 2009
There are some that accuse Turkey of deviating from its Western foreign policy to that of the East. First of all, as President Abdullah Gul said in his speech at International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) this week, we should not look at Turkey’s current trade relations or official visits to understand Turkey’s direction. We have to look at the values of Turkey to assess whether there has been a change in the direction. In the last seven years Turkey has made great reforms and transformations. For example, the Kurdish policy of the Turkish State has changed dramatically, even mentioning the term Kurd in Turkey was taboo in the 1990s, but now there is a Kurdish State TV channel, TRT 7 (TRT Ses). These developments have not only been in Kurdish broadcasting, but many other fundamental rights have been given to the Kurdish people as well.
With matters concerning Armenia, Cyprus, relations with Greece, and many other problematic issues, Turkey has changed its policies and Turkish laws have been liberated and made more democratic. Turkey’s economic relations with regional and neighboring countries have increased as well. After Turkey’s application to the EU for full membership, much progress has been made and the EU countries have confirmed Turkey’s progress from a relatively backward country to one that has begun to comply with EU standards. It is clear that Turkey is not leaving the West; Turks have developed much more due to a desire to join the West, the EU. Turkey is increasing its economic relations; it is not trading in its Western values for those of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
The Main Objectives and Lasting Effects of the Zero Problem with Neighbors Policy
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the current government’s policy of zero problem with neighbors aims to foster cooperation with the region: the Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East. Following cooperation, its next objective is integration of the region, but when we say integration we mean economic integration not political. Some argue that since Turkey is improving its relations with Iran, Syria and Iraq, it means they are shifting their direction towards the east, but this is not true, Turkey wants cooperation and economic integration, it does not desire to turn away from the EU or the West in general.
People are asking Turkey why it is developing its relations with Syria and Iran, but before questioning Turkey’s relations with these countries we should understand that Turkey is not a lucky country. Our neighbors are Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Greece. If Turkey was France, which has neighbors like Spain and Germany, its foreign relations could be easier but our neighbors are maybe the most problematic countries in the world. We have to ‘tame’ them and even change them, and of course Turkey’s direction is not towards Iran or Syria. If we look at Turkey’s values like liberal democracy, transparency, free liberal economic market, human rights and all other western values that the current and previous government focused on and accepted, we can see that Turkey is trying to reach the standards of the EU and the West, not the Iranian understanding of values.
Turkey’s policies are quite different than the Iranian understanding and approach, these two countries have always been competitor countries in the region, but we have to have cooperation with Iran; Turkey is not the neighbor of the United States or Germany, Iran is our neighbor, Syria and Iraq are our neihbours. Thanks to the new Turkish neighbor policies, millions of Iranian tourists come to Turkey every year. Similarly millions of Arabs and about 500.000 Israelis come to Turkish resorts every year. All these Middle Eastern people travel and absorb and see the Turkish way of life. They are changing and influenced by the Turkish model, and not just because of travel, but due to exposure to Turkish broadcasting as well. Arabs and Iranians watch Turkish soap operas, they are learning Turkish so that they can understand these soaps and the most popular soaps are Turkish in the region. The influence is apparent because in Saudi Arabia for example, some men applied to the courts to ban Turkish series’ because they argue that these programs are influencing society.
Turkish culture, tourism, and economic relations between these countries, all social and economic relations are changing the society in the region. We say it is the soft power of Turkey; it is perhaps the only country that can change the Middle Eastern societies because Turkey was the ruler of this region for centuries, and the Turks unlike the Americans and othe outsiders can understand these peoples. Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, and Iraq were all under Ottoman rule and there are many Turkish people amongst the peoples of the Middle East and both sides are Muslim and know each others culture very well. I think the U.S and EU countries cannot understand the Middle Eastern culture or politics, but Turkey can. For instance, during the Bush era in the United States, they thought that if you change leaders, you can change the regime, change the borders and create a new democratic Middle East but it did not work. Saddam is gone but terror came to replace him. There was not terror under Saddam; Iraq was a terror free state during his time. The 9/11 attacks were not carried out by citizens of Iraq, but the U.S. still attacked Iraq and nothing has changed, maybe it has put Iraq in a much worse situation.
Turkey is against military attacks against any Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, because Turkey argues that we need soft power, we need to gain the hearts and minds of the people. Any attacks in the Middle East will also harm the Turkish economy and our interests. This is why the Turks are trying to solve the conflicts and problems in the region.
Turkey was the moderator or facilitator between Israel and Syria, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, between the various sects in Iraq and even between the United States and Iran. Turkey is trying to solve all the regional problems because the Turkish leaders know that if Turkey cannot, those problems will overflow into Turkey, like the Kurdish problem; Northern Iraq has become a base for the PKK terrorists who are attacking Turkish targets. So Turkey is not changing its direction but perhaps discovering the region and trying to further its good relations with the region. Turkey is improving relations with the Middle East, Caucasia and the Balkans but not at the expense of boosting its relations with the West, because a stronger partner is better than a weaker partner for the United States and the EU.
Neo-Ottomanism is not possible because the world is a different place and if any resemblance of Ottoman policy were initiated then all the former states in the region would be against Turkey. Turkey should unite the regional countries and change the surrounding region; it should democratize and liberalize the region, especially the Muslim countries. Some of them are so backward in education and in where they position women in society, their economic development and so forth. Turkey has to change these societies and not by imposing something as the empire did. First, Turkey needs to solve the problems and then it should make cooperation and integrate, this ensures equal relations. This understanding can be named ‘Neo-European Unionist policy’ because this is the EU spirit. Turkey is following the EU experience, not the Ottoman experience.
Relations with Israel under the AKP
There are some Israelis and Jewish people that have thought the AKP (AK Party) was an Islamist party and that they were against relations with Israel, but this is not the case. The previous Israeli ambassador to Turkey gave a lecture at the USAK a few years ago and he argued that Turkey’s relations with Israel peaked during the AKP administration. Economic relations reached over 10 billion dollars, and tourism, direct investments and trade have developed further and those cannot be compared to past relations between Turkey and Israel. The AKP is not against Israel, or against the West, they have complied to EU regulations in almost all dimensions with Israel, but at the same time, Turkey has decided to solve its problems with its neighbors.
The Neo-Cons, some of the Jewish organizations, some of the pro-Israeli think tanks in the US, and right wing extremists in Israel have accused Turkey of being anti-Israeli in the last 3 or 4 years. After the Lebanon war and the Gaza conflicts, Turkey harshly criticized Israel because in both cases more than 1.400 people were killed by Israeli forces and many were women and children. Perhaps 100-150 were militant while the rest were civilians. Turkey harshly criticized Israel and said their way of combating Palestinians is not effective and their efforts are only creating more terrorists but terrorizing the region. Israel creates these problems and Turkey like the whole of the region is paying the cost. It is ironic that some Israeli experts are now accusing Turkey of being anti-Semitic although Turkey is maybe the best country in terms of anti-Semitism records. During Ottoman times, Jewish people took shelter here, Sephardic Jews came to the Ottoman State, they were a main component of the empire and when the empire was collapsing Turkey and it’s minorities cooperated together. There were some Jews who were against having a Jewish State because they had the protection under the Empire, a safe haven. They declared that they had a Jewish state and a country that protected them and during the 20th century, you cannot see any anti-Semitic political current in Turkey. Israel accuses all critics of being anti-Semitic but this is not good for Israeli interests. Turkey believes that friends need to criticize each other sometimes in order to maintain both parties interests. We are not enemies.
We also see some extremist groups in Israel organizing campaigns against the AKP. They organize secret reports and secret gatherings that argue the U.S. should support a military coup in Turkey because they claim the current political party here cannot develop strong Turkey-Israeli or Turkey-U.S. relations. They have waged a dirty campaign in Washington to create a gap between the Turkish and U.S. administrations and the Turkish State is well aware of these dirty campaigns. For example, the Jewish group MEMRI is translating Turkish speeches and Presidential reports in order to manipulate American society. They translate words with a quite different spirit. If the Prime Minister says we are friends of Israel that is why we are criticizing them, they translate it into we are criticizing Israel because Israel deserves that. They apply dirty tricks to manipulate American politics.
Last year, after the Davos crisis, a high ranking Israeli general accused Turkey in all policy areas, including our policies with the Kurds, Armenians and Greeks, all issues that Israel supported during the 70’s 80’s and 90’s so what happened in 2009? Nothing has changed but the problem in Israel is that some politicians and military personnel are very emotional. I understand they are under fire, they are surrounded by some hostile Muslim countries and since the 1920s, they have been in hot conflicts; this environment has had negative effects for them and maybe they cannot think with a healthy mind frame, but if they continue to behave towards Turkey in this way, and undermine Turkish-United States, EU and Israeli relations, this behavior will cause long lasting damage in relations.
Language edit by Stacy Maruskin, USAK