Turkish foreign policy too Islamist to succeed

With Turkey increasingly embroiled in conflicts with its regional neighbours, it is no longer enough to talk about a crisis in its foreign policy; what we are witnessing is its collapse.

Turkey has for a long time lacked a conventional foreign policy. Looking at its behaviour in conflicts such as Syria and Libya, Turkey’s policy is based on proxy militias and paramilitary groups. The conventional diplomatic corps have been tasked with providing PR for this war doctrine.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) follows an Islamist paradigm that colours its world view. But the Islamist perspective is in many ways faulty, and it has been clear from the beginning that its flaws would lead Turkey’s foreign policy down a dead end. Bad policies lead to bad outcomes.

Just as Iran has shown since the revolution of 1979, the ultimate destination for an Islamist foreign policy is becoming an anti-Western revisionist state. But to exist as such requires either great power status like Russia’s, or the resolve to continue on the same course no matter the consequences as Iran has done. A revisionist foreign policy invariably reduces international trust in a country and brings it hardship.

Not only the AKP, but all of Turkey’s religious sects and congregations should understand that there is nothing to be gained by permanently tying religion to your country’s foreign policy.

The only result of basing Turkey’s international politics on religion is in attracting support from various impoverished countries, but they would line up to praise whoever in Turkey gave them money.

One of the AKP’s prime enemies, the Gülen religious movement blamed for a 2016 coup attempt, has already experienced the kind of disappointment that a religion-based foreign policy leads to. The movement invested 30 years and vast sums of money in countries around the world, but when the Turkish government moved to crush the Gülenists after the coup attempt, not one of those countries spoke out to defend them.

Those Western countries that have extended protection to members of the movement have done so regardless of their religion, and afford the same protections to individuals at risk for reasons inimical to the movement’s beliefs, including gays and atheists.

Similarly, the AKP’s close relations with Qatar are entirely unrelated to Islamism, and in fact rest on thoroughly secular and pragmatic foundations.

The basic point here is that the AKP, by running an Islamist foreign policy, is actually aiming to consolidate its regime at home, and despite its disappointments abroad, this Islamism has actually brought it some domestic success.

The second factor behind the AKP’s foreign policy failure is one of physical power. Turkey simply is not strong enough to succeed in the objectives it has set itself abroad over the past five years.

As such, Turkey is always constricted to moving in the space that the great powers like the United States and Russia allow it. But both Russia and the United States can rein in Turkey whenever they want.

One example is Turkey’s Syria policy. Since Turkey supports Syrian rebels against the Russian-backed Damascus government, Moscow was never going to allow Ankara to succeed, and we have seen this in the northern province of Idlib, where Syrian and Russian forces continue to pound opposition held areas and also killed eight Turkish military personnel stationed there so last week.

As much as Russia might appear respectful while engaging with Turkey on Syria in public, away from the cameras Moscow will have left Turkey in no doubt that it is calling the shots.

What is worse, and even more difficult for Ankara to swallow, is that Russia is trying to instrumentalise Turkey in its own foreign policy. One of the reasons that Russia has become so influential in the Middle East over the last seven years is that Turkey has come under its sway. The influence Russia has over Turkey must sometimes come as a shock to even those wielding power in Moscow.

Since Turkey’s foreign policy has collapsed on a macro level, we are left with tactical responses to problems. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pledge to respond in kind after the Syrian government shelled his troops last was one such example.

But of more interest was the decision to extend some $33 million of financial aid to the military of Ukraine, which is at war with pro-Russian insurgents in the western Donbass province. What next? Is Turkey going to cooperate with Ukraine in an operation to reclaim the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014?

A final, critical point that must not be ignored is Ankara’s long use of migrants, around 4 million of whom reside in Turkey, as leverage over the West. Now Turkey itself is feeling the pressure, as hundreds of thousands of civilians in Idlib flee the Syrian government offensive to seek safety on Turkey’s border. In essence, Russia is doing to Turkey what Turkey itself has done to Europe. We can only hope that Ankara gains the insight to see what is taking place, and makes the effort to stop being used by Russia.