A Turkish winter after a blustery Arab Spring

A Turkish winter after a blustery Arab Spring
6 min read
05 Mar, 2016
Comment: Despite Turkey's admirable support for democratic movements in the Arab World, liberties at home have been curtailed, threatening hopes for freedom in the region, says Naveed Ahmad.
Turkey was amongst the first countries to back democratic revolt in Egypt [Anadolu]

Turkey is Europe's first line of defense against many challenges ranging from human smuggling to religious extremism. The constitutionally secular country has a predominantly Muslim population and aspires to become a pivot of the Islamic world, but despite this Ankara is also maintaining its bid for European membership.

With both of these aims in mind, Turkey appears to preserve its Middle Eastern and Central Asian identities without compromising on European characteristics.

Though so much has changed adversely for Turkey since 2011, it ceases to be any less relevant to both the turbulent Middle East and crisis-hit Europe. With near and far neighbours on the precipice of a dramatic democratic transformation - or summer of discontent - Turkey projected itself as a model Muslim-majority country with a promising economy and stable democracy.

Five years on, its "zero problem" policy with neighbours has shrunk to academic idealism. Ankara does not have normal diplomatic relations with Cairo, Damascus and Tel Aviv. Its relations with Iran and Iraq have hit a new low due to regional geopolitical concerns and conflicting interests.

Conservatively speaking, Turkey's ability to act as a regional player remains significantly hampered.

Hopeful beginnings

Before the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Turkey was involved in new diplomatic and economic relations with its neighbours. It was even considering visa-free travel with its erstwhile rival, Armenia. While Ankara was opening embassies in various African countries, it was envisioning new trade routes and energy pipelines with Syria and Iran.

Turkey was amongst the first to back democratic revolt in Egypt, which later resulted in creation of the Muslim Brotherhood government. After the overthrow of Morsi's government, Ankara remains opposed to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's regime calling it illegitimate and dictatorial.

Today, this upfront policy has resulted in reduced trade and marginal military-to-military cooperation with the Arab world's most populous nation.

Sisi hastily welcomed Russian intervention in Syria's war to the dismay of Turkey.

Following a harsh encounter with Israel's former President Shimon Peres in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan developed a closer and more personal relationship with Palestinian resistance outfit Hamas.

Israel's excessive use of force against Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying supplies and activists at the behest of a pan-Islamic Turkish NGO, further enhanced the country and its leaders image within the Arab people.

After a hiatus of five years, Ankara and Tel Aviv are mending ties, thanks to backdoor mediators and perplexing regional situation. However, the relations are unlikely to be the same again.

Efforts by Saudi Arabia and the US to create a detente between Cairo and Ankara have only been successful in muting some of Erdogan's more angry rhetoric against the Egyptian ruler. Meanwhile, Sisi hastily welcomed Russian intervention in Syria's war to the dismay of Turkey and even his Arab allies.

Trouble in the neighbourhood

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian policies deepened of political rift in Baghdad, and snowballed the war-torn country into constitutional crisis. In December 2011, Iraq's Sunni Vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi fled to Istanbul after an arrest warrant was issued against him on charges of running death squads.

A diplomatic row erupted between Turkey and Iraq after Erdogan declared Maliki "self-centered" and accused him of stoking sectarian and ethnic tensions in the country.

The controversy over oil supplies from the Kurdistan Regional Government to Turkey, and then to Europe, further fueled the flames. Baghdad and Erbil had agreed to resolve the oil issue on the condition that the KRG will pay 17 percent share to Iraq. However, this deal could never be realised.

However, Erdogan probably never expected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be so difficult to deal with. In 2009, the two countries held joint military drills. The Syrian ruler had even agreed to begin a reconciliation process with the Muslim Brotherhood - which was banned in 1960s and exiled in Syria 1982 with membership of the group being a capital offence. 

Erdogan probably never expected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be so difficult to deal with.

After the fall of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak following popular uprisings, similar anti-government protests began in the Syrian cities of Daraa and Damascus, sparking paranoia within Syria's ruling family.

A fruitless final meeting between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Assad exposed the limits of Turkish influence on Syria. Today, not only is Turkey home to 3 million Syrian refugees but also hitting headlines after terror attacks have taken place across Turkey from Diyarbaker to Ankara and Istanbul.

The reconciliation process with the Kurds has transmuted into a bloody war, with the later banking on US and Russian political and diplomatic support. Turkey's "zero problems" foreign policy has multiplied itself by zilch.

Strong opposition

Even former ally Russia is hostile to Turkey, which a Russian fighter jet crossed into Turkish airspace from Syria and was shot down. To add insult to injury, Russian ships often sail through the Bosphorus without hoisting Turkish flag, a naval courtesy in practice for about a century.

Under the pretext of attacking the Islamic State group in Syria, President Vladimir Putin's airforce have spared no opposition group in its bombing of Syria. Moscow's support for the Syrian regime has made Assad appear stronger and Erdogan weaker.  

Moscow's support for the Syrian regime has made Assad appear stronger and Erdogan weaker.

Russia is also dispatching military hardware to Turkey's historical enemy Armenia, while Ankara's European rivals Greece and Bulgaria have repeatedly said Turkey has been reluctant to stem the tide of Syrian refugees moving into its territories, and on to Europe.

The UN states that over 3,000 refugees are arriving in Greece on daily basis. Greece has warned that at least 70,000 refugees are likely to be stranded at sea in March alone.

At home in Turkey, the courts are subordinate to the ruling Justice and Development Party government. For example, if a legal decision is not Erdogan's liking, the executive rejects its implementations. The president's has also refused to obey the court's decision to release two journalists is the most recent example of the government's contempt for the judiciary.

Zero tolerance

The "zero problems" policy for its neighbours has been remodeled as "zero tolerance" against media freedoms. For instance, journalist Sevgi Akarcesme received a suspended sentence after someone commented on one of her tweets which the Turkish government perceived as insulting to Erdogan.

Ankara complete lack of tolerance to any form of dissent, state security's use of brute force, and laws amended to suit the government are the norms now in Turkey. These restrictive measures are all contrary to the spirit of the Arab uprising that Erdogan supported during the first two years of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Paradoxically, Sisi and Erdogan's restrictive measures seem mutually borrowed and applied in synchrony. Erdogan's Turkey is awaiting for a gigantic shift in its political and constitutional landscape: from a quasi to a full-scale presidential system. The last thing Turkey needs amid such turmoil and threats to liberties is the concentration of power into one person's hands. While parliamentary checks and balances are eroding, the leaders seem unfit to keep the country together.

The Arab uprisings that the Turkish government passionately supported and even now still thinks it backs was all about decentralisation of authority through democratic means. This model is set to evaporate into thin air.

Arabs might take another decade to realise their dreams for self-empowerment; Turkey must hear the call of its own national conscious. Though Syrian refugees have become a powerful bargaining chip for Ankara today, possible membership in the European Union is a figment of Turkey's imagination.  If Turkey continues to tread down this bumpy road, there won't be a model for the Young Arabs to follow in its backyard.

Naveed Ahmad is a Doha-based investigative journalist and academic with special focus on diplomacy, security and energy issues. Follow him on Twitter: @naveed360

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.