Turkey’s Strategic Vision and Syria

The Washington Quarterly

Article | Summer 2012
Turkey’s Strategic Vision and Syria

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Summer 2012 issue of The
Washington Quarterly


For most of the 20th century, Turkey chose not to get involved in Middle
Eastern affairs. During the past decade, however, in a remarkable departure
from this Kemalist tradition (based on the ideology of the republic’s
founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), Ankara has become a very active and
important player in the region. Under the Justice and Development Party
(AKP) government since 2002, Turkey has established closer ties with Syria,
Iran, and Iraq, assumed a leadership position in the Organization of the
Islamic Conference (OIC), attended Arab League conferences, and contributed
to UN forces in Lebanon. It has also mediated in the Syrian – Israeli
conflict as well as the nuclear standoff with Iran. Ankara’s diplomatic
engagements with Iran and Hamas have led to differences with the United
States and Israel, leaving many wondering if Turkey has been turning away
from its Western orientation or if it was just a long overdue shift east to
complete Turkey’s full circle of relations.

Fundamentally, analysts make a major mistake in analyzing Turkish foreign
policy when they speak of a “pro-Western” versus “Islamic” divide in
Ankara’s strategic choices. This is an understandable fallacy. Turkey’s
population is almost fully Muslim, and the AKP, a political party with
Islamic roots, has won consecutive election victories. Many policymakers,
analysts, and scholars thus equate the notion of Turkish divergence from
the West or the fear of “losing Turkey” with the idea of an Islamic
revival. Moreover, this is exactly how some members within Turkey’s
Kemalist establishment the military, the Republican People’s Party (CHP)
founded by Atatuürk, and the judiciary describe some AKP policies in the
Middle East. While the growing importance of religion in Turkey should not
be dismissed, such an analysis gives superficial credibility to the fallacy
of an “Islamist” foreign policy in Turkey.

But how then should Turkey’s current foreign policy be characterized and
understood? To answer this question, one has to look first at the three
grand strategic visions that have driven Turkish foreign policy:
Neo-Ottomanism, Kemalism, and more recently, Turkish Gaullism. The common
denominator of these strategic visions is that they transcend the erroneous
narrative prevalent in Western media focusing almost exclusively on the
dichotomy between Turkey’s Islamic and secular factions. In particular, the
way in which Turkey has handled the continuing implications of the 2011
Arab awakening helps to clarify Turkish grand strategy, or its continuing
balancing act among these three strategic visions, as Ankara has faced a
more challenging strategic environment, most specifically in its estranged
relations with Bashar Assad’s Syria.

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