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Ahmet N. Bigalı, Ismail Yaylacı: Turkish Policy toward the Middle East

Thursday, 21st May 2014 Ahmet Necati Bigalı, Ambassador, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Prague  Ismail Yaylacı, Assistant Professor, Istanbul Şehir University Chair: Vít Beneš, a Researcher at the Institute of International Relations

Ahmet Necati Bigalı

Ahmet Necati Bigalı, the Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey in Prague, made a few brief remarks on Turkish foreign policy. Since its foundation, Turkish foreign policy has been guided by the principle of "Peace at home, peace in the world". Over the years, however, the foreign policy gained a new character.

Turkey, due to its geopolitical situation, is influenced by the development in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. After the decades of the war in the region, the world witnessed the Arab Spring. Mr. Bigalı defended the opinion that Turkey played a positive, influential and supportive role during the Arab Spring. According to him, the current situation in the Middle East became more complicated with the emergence of ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). ISIL and foreign terrorist fighters pose a serious and imminent threat to the security of Turkey, and they are the greatest threat that Turkey currently faces. The advance of ISIL clearly demonstrated the necessity that the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters should be handled with a wider security perspective.

Turkey has designated ISIL a terrorist organization since 2005. Turkish authorities exerted all their efforts to counter it. More than 14,000 people have been included in the "no entry" list since the Syrian crisis erupted 4 years ago. The Ambassador reminded the public that it has to bear in mind that Turkey takes immediate actions to counter terrorism. Nevertheless, there still remains the question why those people haven’t been detained in their home countries in the first place.

Mr. Bigalı also mentioned the geographical situation of Turkey and the challenges rising out of it. Considering Turkey's border with Iraq and Syria (which is about 1,300 km2 in total) as well as the issue of foreign terrorist fighters, Turkey inevitably faces many challenges lately. As he commented, the situations in Yemen, Palestine, Libya and Egypt should also be mentioned in this regard. As it is surrounded by a certain number of Middle Eastern countries, Turkey approaches the Middle East with comprehensive political and inclusive solutions. Turkey's approach is based on the vision of a "secure and stable Middle East where the energy and trade interconnect, a region which does not make headlines with deadtolls" as the first point. The developments in Syria and Iraq as well as the spill-over effects in the greater Middle East should be elaborated with a view to having an integrated approach toward them.

Mr. Bigalı underlined that Turkey obviously does its utmost to invest in a common future in the region and puts a lot of effort into liberalizing trade, lifting visas, and expanding investments. As Turkey is the 3rd largest donor of humanitarian aid in the world, it is extending its help throughout the region.

In the last section of his talk, Mr. Bigalı pointed out that Turkey will undoubtedly continue to work for a better future for everyone in the Middle East.

Ismail Yaylacı

Mr. Ismail Yaylacı firstly outlined the fundamental principles of the Turkish policy and the pillars of the policy in the Middle East. In his following speech he dealt with the following topics: the question of democracy, relations with Israel, Iran, Syria and Egypt, and sectarianism. Mr. Yaylacı focused on the last 13 years of Turkish foreign policy, as during this time period, the foreign policy was controlled by the current ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Mr. Yaylacı touched briefly upon the Turkish foreign policy of the 90s. Turgut Özal, the former president of the Turkish Republic, declared that "Turkey should leave its former passive and hesitant policies and engage in an active foreign policy" just at the beginning of the 90s. And in the late 1990s, Turkey actually became more active in its foreign policy during the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ismail Cem's tenure, as he was an active figure in international politics at the time. Thus, activeness in foreign policy, in sum, is nothing new for Turkey. During his lecture, Mr. Yaylacı also emphasized that Turkey wants an independent foreign policy.

Mr. Yaylacı claimed that Turkey has emerged as a major actor in the Middle East since the rise of the AKP. In the light of the AKP, Turkey itself is becoming more autonomous, as the AKP provided a sense of self confidence, and this can, indeed, be seen in Turkey's economic success. In connection with this, he also addressed the GDP per capita growth rate in Turkey – as the GDP per capita has increased significantly.

Economic success (and self-sufficiency) encouraged the Turkish government to increase its self confidence on the world stage. Turkey's foreign policy toward the Middle East also became significantly diversified after the victory of the AKP. This was a change from Turkey's past foreign policy, as Turkey's main focus on the Western alliance and Euro-politics during the Cold War was a reason for it to neglect, in a way, the foreign policy in the Middle East. Also, during the Cold War, while some viewed Turkey as the bridge country, some saw it as a country torn between two civilizations. Yet this changed in recent year.

Mr. Yaylacı raised the question of what changed in the foreign policy toward the Middle East when the AKP came to power. In his opinion, the answer is that Turkey gained a concrete and clear vision.

With its rising independence and diversification, Turkey should be taken into account together with its own "liberal" foreign policy in terms of facilitation of the visa regime and the trade regime, economic integration, and conflict resolution. In the sense of conflict resolution, Turkey thus adopted a new foreign policy which was named "zero problems with neighbours" as one of the well known principles of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey has since aimed for a high level of political dialogue and diplomatic meetings, and humanitarian and development assistance in the region.

In his opinion, in the AKP's era, the signs or indications of an independent foreign policy can be seen in many fields. Mr. Yaylacı mentioned 3 examples in this context. First, when American troops were about to pass through the south-eastern part of Turkey in order to attack Iraq, the Turkish parliament rejected the option of allowing them to do so, even though the Turkish government was in favour of it. However, the Turkish government took all the responsibility for this in order to avoid an intervention in Iraq and provide security for the Iraqi people.

However, the American government harshly criticized Turkey for its refusal to let American troops use its territory and held Turkey responsible for what they viewed as its sudden uncooperativeness. Secondly, the AKP wanted to incorporate Hamas into the political process in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thirdly, Turkey embraced Syria and did take a proactive position regarding the Arab Spring. And it has the same approach to Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy, as Turkey welcomes Iran's program. Turkey is currently at odds with Iran, but it supports the programme and wants Iran to be included in the picture.

Nonetheless, there have been some contradictory arguments about Turkey's alleged neo-Ottomanism. Some argued that Turkey is currently trying to recover the Ottoman Empire. Turkish foreign policy makers rejected that claim, however. Mr. Yaylacı stated that if the slogan "a common destiny-a common history-a common future", which Ahmet Davutoğlu asserted, represents Turkey's real policy, Turkey currently has nothing to do with neo-Ottomanism. The only relation to Ottomanism is, that the government would like to use the motive of its ottoman past in the regional integration, but not in a sense the critiques presume.

As to the question of the relation with Israel, Mr. Yaylacı stated that Turkey's approach was about normalizing the position of Israel when Israel attacked Gaza in 2009. A year later, 9 Turkish citizens have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Since then, the Turkish-Israeli relation has been bad and never got better.

As for Turkey's relation with Syria and support of Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Yaylacı said that Turkey tried to embrace Syria. It even tried to improve the Syrian-Israeli relations. Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad were close to each other before Assad killed thousands of his own citizens. The Turkish approach in the pre-Arab Spring period was based on peace advocacy and democracy promotion. When the Arab Spring happened, people started to demand their rights. And Erdoğan urged Assad to listen to the voice of people.

Mr. Yaylacı then stated that with respect to Turkey's activities in the area of providing security in the region, Syrian refugees should be mentioned. UN agencies reported that those out of 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey who live in refugee camps have the best services and live in the best camps compared to the services and camps for refugees in other host countries. Turkey has spent approximately 5 billion dollars on the Syrian guest community on its territory. Yet, most of the refugees do not live in camps and even those who do are not legally refugees. They are under temporary protection, which means once the conflict ends, they have to return home.

Mr. Yaylacı then moved on to analyse the relations with Egypt. Egypt is a core issue for the assistant professor, as he focused on it in his research. He started by describing his own experience in Egypt from when he was there in 2013. According to his observation, 80% of Egyptian people would vote for Erdoğan if he could be a candidate for the presidential position in Egypt. In addition, he talked about the interaction between the two countries; in his view, it is obvious that the policy makers in Egypt established a connection between their country's demonstrations and the Gezi Park demonstrations in spite of the fact that the main sources and origins of the respective demonstrations were different.

In case of Egypt, Erdoğan told Mubarak to listen to his own people, when the Arab Spring came, and to step down. Turkey has no zeal for democracy, but it supports people. Now, Turkey is the only country harshly criticizing Sisi. But as the Egypt is home of ¼ of the Arab population and has a great influence in the region that is exactly why the democratic reforms in Egypt were curbed. Turkey on the other hand supports democracy. It has criticized the Western double standard: democracy at home, autocracy abroad. The remarkable and noteworthy essence of the current ruling political party in Turkey is that the AKP defines its own interests and identity in and through democracy. That is why Mr. Yaylacı finds it to be a success story.

On the topic of the sectarianism, Mr. Yaylacı thinks that sectarianism is not the fundamental source of conflict, but only a clue as to the geopolitical interest of states as the driven force. Iran and Saudi Arabia use it, as their power is seemingly in playing the sectarian game. The sectarianism came with the iraian revolution, then came Saudi Arabia reaction, but the last event in the escalation of this tendency was he fall of Iraq. Maliki with his de-baathification programme “Shiitized” the country. Turkey warned him against this, but he did not listen. In the end this persuaded some Sunnites to support the ISIL movement.

Turkey is one of the few countries which are not using sectarian divides and not looking at the Middle East through sectarianism. It even urged the Iraqi Sunnites to engage politically, not militarily. Mr. Yaylacı remarked that Turkey's social and religious culture has been influenced by Sufism, which emphasizes tolerance in the core of its culture, as it can be seen in the Ottoman history. In this context, indeed, sectarianism is not the motivation behind Turkey's relation to the region. As a supporter of the ruling party in Turkey, he briefly mentioned a slogan from one of its election campaigns: "Turkey would prefer being alone to being wrong."

Mr. Yaylacı concluded that Turkey plays an important role in the Middle East, which is likely to grow even more important. Turkey definitely will contribute to the regional stability and have an anchor strategy there. And we can only hope that the problems in the Middle East that we can witness now are only birth pains of better Middle East to come.

Interview with Mr. Yaylacı:

Who is at present Turkey´s main partner in the region?
As I said in the lecture, Turkey has a good working relationship with Iraqi Kurdish regional government. As a state Turkey has very parallel views and visions of the region with Qatar for example. Qatar is one of the closest allies of Turkey in the Middle East but even thought I would name Qatar as the closest ally of Turkey in the region, I would still say that despite the tensions with Iran and Saudi Arabia over different issues, for example with Iran over the questions of Syria and Iraq basically and Yemen and with Saudi Arabia over the question of Egypt and the Arab Spring in general, still, Turkey doesn’t have bad relationships with these countries.

You see for example Erdoğan in the last months, if I am not mistaken he went to Saudi Arabia and he went to Iraq. Turkey has the capacity, despite all these tensions, to speak with those actors. Still, what comes from these discussions, it is another question. At least there is no animosity between them. But the closest ally would be Qatar, and Turkey maintains good relations with Iraq and Kurdistan. I should also add that with Maliki no longer in office, the new Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi has closer relations with Turkey, at least he doesn’t show a kind of sectarian biased that Maliki was showing.

We often hear that Turkey under Erdoğan is slowly Islamizing. What is your point of view on that?
I don’t think Turkey is going through some Islamization period. Actually if you look at the Islamic critics of Erdoğan, they would say he is secularizing the country. There are groups that are actually criticizing Erdoğan precisely for that. What I think, aside from what they say, is that AK Party, the current government, is normalizing the relationship between religion, society and state. Before the AK Party, the Kemalist state in Turkey, the official ideology in Turkey defined religion as the existential threat to itself.

How do we know that?If you look at what is called “the red book of the state” that names the biggest threats to national security, what the state called the religious reactivism, was the biggest. Basically meaning you were viewing religion as a security issue, securitizing religion, and Islam in particular. And that understanding of secularism in Turkey, Kemalist understanding, was an authoritarian one and it was decided this way. If you look at official books, for example if you look at court documents, the verdicts and reasoning of the court of cassation for example; the Court basically argued that you cannot implement a western kind of secularism in Turkey because that is a Muslim country, there is differences between Islam and Christianity.

Christianity has completely reformed itself and secularized. But Islam has demands for politics and religion in society and law, so that secularization should be an authoritarian one. You see that in official documents. What AK Party says is that it calls for, and I quote, democratic secularism, meaning a kind of secularism that is in peace with people's faith. You know, when we talk about secularism, there are various practices of secularism. The kind of secularism you have in the US, the so called role of separation model is very different from for example the French kind of secularism; laicite. There is different practice in the Great Britain, different in Denmark, different in Turkey. It was practiced as an authoritarian one in Turkey.

You could only compare Turkish secularism to the Stalinist period, and you cannot compare it to French secularism which is generally known as the most secular state, because France wasn’t banning headscarf in universities, Turkey was. So Erdoğan changed that and basically put that relationship on a normal track. But Erdoğan himself is a devout muslim. He is not shy about that. He says this. And at one occasion he said he would like to see a religious youth.

A lot of his critics say: “He wants to create a religious youth, he is Islamizing.” I don’t think that was going on. I think, if there is a state and that state will have some interaction with society, the AK Party, this current government, has put a healthy framework for that relationship regarding the question of religion. A lot of outside observers say:” Look at that, this is a religious guy, he has been ruling the country for 13 years, and probably he is Islamizing the country.” Well, he is not. He is not Islamizing the state. You know when he went to Egypt in September 2011, he said to Muslim Brotherhood people; you should better put secularism in your constitution. If he is secretly Islamizing the country, why in the world would he say that in Egypt? I do not agree with that proposition.

Another argument here is that Erdoğan is changing the Kemalist reforms, but we don’t talk here much about Turgut Özal and his reforms, and his attitude to turn more toward West and toward the European Union. So how do you see Erdoğan's policy on that?
If you look at Erdoğan’s discourse, he claims to follow the legacy of three people in Turkey. First, Adnan Menderes, the head of the Democratic Party who was hanged by the state, he was prime minister and there was military coup and he was hanged. Second is Turgut Özal and the third is Necmettin Erbakan. These are three figures that Erdoğan speaks as his almost fore-fathers, his predecessors. Turgut Özal was a very key figure; his reforms have radically, deeply transformed Turkey, not only Turkish economy but also the politics and society.

For one, he is the leader who liberalized the economy. And hat liberalization opened the possibility of what people in Turkey call “the Anatolian tigers”, devout middle class people who are doing international small to medium size production, who are selling this to abroad. The importance of that is that it created a society which is independent of the State financially and economically. That is not dependent on the state. That means they can forge an opposition to the State. That is something that you didn’t have much in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak because it was the state distributing grants during that time. But Özal is also criticized precisely for bringing that neoliberal economy because that is when what the people call the crony capitalism or market fundamentalism came to Turkey. But he also was a devout Muslim individually.

People say he was the first president ever in Turkey who is known to express religious feelings. And, as I mentioned in my talk, he is also the one who spoke about a more active, more assertive foreign policy. He himself is a Cold War person, he was raised up during Cold War and with the end of the Cold War he saw a lot of opportunities that’s why he initiated an opening toward Turkic people in the Central Asia for example, he paid a lot of visits to the post-soviet Turkic states.

He was a close ally of the United States; he joined the coalition in the first Gulf war. So Turgut Özal definitely put his mark on the Turkish history and in a way, much of, not everything, but much of what Erdoğan is doing, or at least he represents it in this way, is a continuation of what Turgut Özal has started. In terms of democratization and civilization for example, the civilization of politics. There was an incredible military tutelage over politics, political field. And it was only with Turgut Özal that that started to shrink. And when Erdoğan was finally, ultimately successful in sending military to its barracks, he represented this a continuation of what Turgut Özal started in the eighties-nineties.