Turkey’s Dilemma: I got 99 problems, but I used to have "Zero Problems"
For the past ten years, one of the central features in Turkey’s foreign policy is the “zero problems with neighbors” approach. The no problems with neighbors policy was established for the purpose of promoting stability and providing an environment for a more prosperous Turkey. In the past, Ankara stood on the side lines when it came to its neighbor’s domestic affairs and instead, focused on nurturing relations and building business relations. Dr. Helin Sari Ertem, a lecturer at Sehir University stated, “The government’s goal is to rank among the top 10 world economies; Economy was the driving force of the New Turkey.”
Ankara played as a mediator in the region, facilitating talks with perennial foes Israel and Syria, “Ankara wanted to maintain a balanced relationship within the regions,” Dr. Helin Sari Ertem added.
Turkey’s no problems with neighbors was apparent when it ignored Libya’s former President Muammar Gaddafi’s human rights violations, and criticized the West for getting involved. Turkey was focused on maintaining stability, “As long as there is stability in the region, Turkey can strengthen its relations with neighboring governments,”Dr. Mehmet Ugur Ekinic, an expert on Turkey’s foreign policy at SETA explained.
However, in the wake of the Arab Springs, Turkey’s zero problem policy took a turn. Dr. Mehmet Ugur Ekinic adds, “The Arab spring was an opportunity for the region to foster a more democratic environment. However, the results put Turkey into a new position within regional politics”. Turkey struggled to keep the stability and export its democratic system to its neighbors. The turbulent geopolitical situation forced Turkey out of its zero problems with neighbor’s policy. Dr. Helin Sari Ertem adds, “Regional challenges arose post Arab Spring, Syrian crisis, Daish threat (ISIS), and the continuing stalemate with the PKK (The Kurdish nationalist organization.”
By far, the most central piece in Turkey’s departure from the zero problems policy has been the Syrian crisis. Ankara worked on building alliances with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, following the regimes use of indiscriminate violence against his citizens, Turkey could no longer stand on the sidelines. Dr. Mehmet Ugur Ekinic explained, “Immediate threats caused Turkey to take a side in certain issues, as a result cannot be a wholly impartial medication in certain conflicts.”
Furthermore, “The Turkish government presented a model of Islamic democracy. However, the situation in both Syria and Iraq has heightened questions of regional security and the future transition. As the civil war progresses in Syria, it creates security risks and heightened cultural complications for Turkey,” Dr. Mehmet Ugur Ekinic explained.
By lending support to Assad oppositional groups, Turkey reiterated its position in the region, but destroyed its relations with the Assad regime. By taking that stand, Turkey completely abandoned its zero problems approach, and became a major player in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey hoped to maintain its “no problems with neighbors” approach, however, its policy was no longer feasible in a region facing violence and instability. Turkey had to reposition its place in the region, take a lead, and abandon its neutral stand. “Turkey was caught between idealism and realpolitik,” said Dr. Helin Sari Ertem. Despite wanting to take a moral stance in Syria, Turkey still has to keep its realpolitik stand of its economic relation with Iran.
It is still early to decide if Turkey’s new approach towards the region is a success or a failure. Judging by proximity to its neighbors, it may become problematic in the future if all ties with its neighbors deteriorate. Turkey may find itself refocusing its efforts towards the European Union again. However, as an Islamic democracy, Turkey can’t afford sitting by the sidelines and ignoring the human rights violations occurring across the border. Turkey must set and lead by example.