THE HAZARDS IN TURKEY’S NEW STRATEGY
By JUDY DEMPSEY
New York Times
Oct 24 2011
BERLIN – When fighters from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
killed 24 Turkish soldiers in the eastern province of Hakkari, the
Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, immediately ordered
10,000 soldiers to cross into Iraq and find the militants. “This is
an operation to get results,” Mr. Erdogan said.
Besides provoking one of the largest ground operations against the
Kurdish fighters in recent years, the resurgence of the group, known
as the P.K.K., shows the difficulties Ankara now faces in adjusting
a foreign policy that was based on its ambitious “zero problems”
strategy in the region.
“The zero problems strategy in practice meant dealing with autocratic
regimes. So when the Arab Spring happened, it exposed the fundamental
flaws of that policy,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Center for
Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent research group
“The zero problem policy was over-optimistic, almost naïve in the
belief that difficult problems could be solved easily,” Mr. Ulgen
Turkey may now be paying the price for its belated defense of human
rights in the region, most notably in Syria and Iran. Ankara is abuzz
with speculation that these countries may have been behind the P.K.K.
Syria and Iran are accused of supporting the P.K.K. right from the
beginning in 1984, when the P.K.K. started fighting the Turkish state
to have the 20-million-strong Kurdish population recognized as a
minority within its own autonomous Kurdish region.
When Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was elected in 2002,
it developed a foreign policy aimed at realigning the country’s
role in a highly volatile region consisting of the Caucasus and the
That zero problems policy was designed by Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu in order to build strong economic, political and social
ties with Turkey’s immediate neighbors.
In practice, that policy meant shifting away from Turkey’s traditional
reliance on the United States and its close military ties with Israel
to a regionally based strategy aimed at Turkey becoming the main
player in the neighborhood.
As a first step, Ankara improved ties with the Syrian regime. Human
rights played no role between Damascus and Ankara even though Ankara
has used that argument to champion the rights of the Palestinians.
Nothing came of an initiative to mediate between Israel and Syria on
the Golan Heights. The lack of success was due to Israel’s bombing
of the Gaza Strip in 2008-9, which angered the Turkish public, as
much as to Ankara’s overconfidence in its diplomatic overtures.
There were attempts, too, at negotiating a solution to the Iranian
nuclear program, which is worrying the United States in particular.
Again, Ankara paid scant attention to the crackdown on the Iranian
opposition, much to the disappointment of civil society movements
in the region. This damaged Turkey’s foreign policy credentials,
according to analysts. Its Iran initiative proved to be unsuccessful
As for Turkey’s attempts at normalizing relations with its neighbor
Armenia, with whom diplomatic ties were severed in 1992, the zero
problems policy has not lived up to expectations, either.
After secret talks in Switzerland, in 2009 a protocol was signed with
the hope of restoring diplomatic ties and reopening of the borders.
The thaw ended soon. Azerbaijan, which traditionally has had very
close ties with Turkey, was from the outset suspicious about any
breakthrough. The Azeri authorities feared they would lose leverage
over Armenia if restoring diplomatic relations between Armenia
and Turkey was not linked to the resolution of the conflict in
Since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh has been held by Armenia. The ethnic
Azeri population has fled the enclave, while ethnic Armenians have
mostly fled Azerbaijan.
As a result of Azerbaijan’s conditions, the talks have stalled.
Instead of trying to maintain the momentum even at the risk of poorer
ties with Azerbaijan, Mr. Erdogan backed away.
“Turkey should have remain focused on the Armenian issue, which,
after all, is its immediate neighborhood, instead of broadening its
foreign policy,” said Richard Giragosian, director of the independent
Regional Studies Center in Yerevan, Armenia.
“Turkey did not have the capacity for resolving the conflict with
Armenia,” said Tom de Waal, a specialist on the Caucasus at the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Turkey
wanted to run before it could walk.”
Then came the Arab Spring.
Suddenly, Turkey realized that it was running a serious risk of being
shunned by the newly emerging democratic forces because it had paid
so little attention to human rights in its zero problems policy. It
quickly reinvented its strategy.
Turkey was one of the first countries to aid Libya’s rebels, providing
$300 million in cash, and it was one of the first to call for the
resignation of the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
Its change of heart with Syria and Iran is even more radical. Turkey
is now openly criticizing the Syrian regime. Its relations with Iran
are also strained, especially as Ankara agreed last month to deploy
part of the U.S. missile defense shield on its territory.
If Turkey continues to pursue a foreign policy anchored on human
rights, it can win respect and support in the region. But no such
policy can work, say analysts, if Turkey excludes the Kurds from it.