Seminar| Turkey's Middle East Policy

OxGAPS hosted a seminar delivered by Dr. Bezen Coskun entitled “Turkey’s Middle East Policy.” The seminar was chaired by Emre Caliskan (Research Associate, OxGAPS) and examined Turkey’s recent foreign policy primarily with regards to the Syrian conflict, relations with the various Kurdish groups in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, as well as its relations with the United States. The talk began with the allegory of Turkey’s foreign policy as a “Jenga tower,” a play on the typical use of games such as billiards to understand foreign affairs, though Coskun warned of oversimplifying the situation.

Coskun traced Turkey’s contemporary foreign policy back to the early 2000s with the election of the AK (Justice and Development Party) in 2002. With an expanding economy and new political leadership, Turkey’s influence in foreign affairs reached a peak in 2008-2009. The country held a seat at the UN security council for the first time since 1961, enjoyed considerable soft power in the Middle East through Turkish cultural exports and respect for its pro-Palestinian position, and was seen as an exemplar of democracy and modernity in the Islamic world by the West. This was, however, when Turkey’s “Jenga tower” reached its apex, and its growing height (increasing ambitions) left its position less and less secure. It began to experience serious difficulties after the 2011 Arab Spring took hold in Syria. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister at the time, had enjoyed close personal relations with Bashar al-Assad and tried to negotiate Assad’s removal. However, Erdogan’s underestimation of Assad’s strength and subsequent support for armed opposition was a major mistake in Turkey’s Jenga game and has caused no end of difficulties for the country.

Coskun moved on to look at the city of Kilis in south-western Turkey as reflective of the troubles Turkey was facing. The city has become increasingly militarised with tanks on the street and soldiers very visible. There are huge divides between different Syrian groups who have fled the civil war to find refuge in Kilis and from the city’s outskirts, it was possible to see the Syrian conflict spilling out. The city has also suffered from an increasing number of suicide bombs bringing about loss of life and even greater instability.

Turkey’s involvement in Syria has had knock-on consequences in its relations with other powers in the region. Turkey-Russian relations have deteriorated significantly. Relations were once built on strong trade links and even had strategic importance because of the Blue Stream gas pipeline which runs from Russia, through Turkey, and into Europe. Following Turkey’s shooting down of Russia’s jet in November 2015, positive relations have dropped off and Russia now has an almost total trade and tourist embargo on Turkey. Coskun thought that continuing conflict seemed likely, though Turkey’s status as a middle power meant it was extremely unlikely to risk an open conflict with Russia.

The Turkish state has turned from supporting Syrian Kurdish groups against the regime to classifying them as a terrorist group and carrying out direct military strikes against the group. This is part of a wider worsening of Turkey-Kurdish relations (for example, the ending of the PKK ceasefire) which has been partly responsible for the increased numbers of suicide attacks which have killed over 200 since June 2015. The US recently warned against its citizens travelling to south-eastern Turkey because of rising instability, linked to the conflict with Kurdish groups.

Coskun ended by looking at the impact of these foreign policy shifts on the everyday lives of those living in Turkey. The general economic conditions are growing worse with prices for basic goods such as food rising quickly. Surveys point to increasing dissatisfaction among Turkish citizens who view terrorism as the greatest challenge facing Turkey, followed by unemployment and a weak economy. The state response has led to increasing militarisation, particularly in the south-east of the country: checkpoints on the road, more security checks at transport hubs, and counter-terrorism training for tourist guides. These measures are beginning to impose restrictions on individual liberties with curfews and limits on freedom of speech. Overall, Coskun concluded that the normalisation of “extraordinary” security measures was becoming more dangerous than the actual threat of terrorism and was extremely worrying.