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Turkey’s Strategic Visions and Syria 30 avril 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) 30 April 2012, p. 15

Ömer Taspinar 

Where does Turkey’s Syria policy fit in the larger framework of Turkish grand strategy? To answer this question one has to first look at the three strategic visions that have been driving Turkish foreign policy in the last few decades.

As I previously outlined in a Brookings Institution analysis paper, there are mainly three grand strategic visions in Turkish foreign policy: Kemalism, neo-Ottomanism and Turkish Gaullism. The common denominator of these strategic visions is that they transcend the erroneous narrative prevalent in Western media that focuses on the dichotomy between Turkey’s Islamic and secular factions.

Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism are more familiar concepts than Turkish Gaullism. For instance, it is well known that there are clear differences between Kemalism and the neo-Ottoman inclinations of activist Turkish leaders such as Turgut Ozal and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Where neo-Ottomanism favours an ambitious policy in the Middle East, Kemalism opts for modesty and caution in this region. Kemalism tends to narrowly emphasize national interests and national sovereignty and portrays neo-Ottomanism as adventurist and ideological. A most fascinating paradox between Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism has emerged in Turkey’s approach to Europe and the United States. While Kemalism is increasingly nationalist and resentful of the EU and the United States, neo-Ottomanism is relatively more enthusiastic about EU membership and good relations with Washington – mainly in terms of complementing its active engagement with the Muslim world. This divergence concerning the West is perhaps because neo-Ottomanism doesn’t blame America and Europe for promoting « moderate Islam » and a Kurdish agenda in Turkey. After all, neo-Ottomanism is more open to multiculturalism and it is at peace with Turkey’s Muslim identity. As such, it favours a moderate version of secularism compared to Kemalists.

Turkish Gaullism, which has emerged as the dominant Turkish foreign policy trend in the last few years, combines common characteristics of Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism. Turkish Gaullism manages to unite neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism in a very strong common denominator: national sovereignty. Both neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism share a strong sense of patriotism and attachment to the Turkish nation-state. At the end of the day, both neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism share a state-centric view of the world and Turkish national interests. In that sense, both Kemalism and neo-Ottomanism share Turkish nationalism as a common denominator. Turkish Gaullism builds on such commonalities and unites Kemalists and neo-Ottomanists in a « Turkey first » grand narrative.

So where does Turkey’s Syria policy fit in this framework of Kemalism, neo-Ottomanism and Turkish Gaullism? The short answer is that Ankara’s Syria policy has elements of all the trends outlined above. The willingness to engage in grand diplomacy by organizing conferences and the urge to take the lead in regional efforts by hosting the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council are clear examples of neo-Ottoman activism. On the other hand, the caution displayed in terms of avoiding unilateral action (military or humanitarian), the reluctance to unilaterally establish a buffer zone or a safe haven within Syria, the fear that Assad may use the Kurdish card against Turkey by helping the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the emphasis on international law, multilateralism and international legitimacy before taking any action are vintage Kemalism. Finally, Turkish Gaullism is also on display in the grand narrative of independence and pursuit of national interests. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu often underlines that all steps taken by Turkey vis-A -vis Syria are in pursuit of its own national and security interest without any pressure or directives coming from the United States. Turkey is also trying hard to maintain a sense of « grandeur » and influence over Syria and the region as we have witnessed in the speech delivered by Davutoglu in Parliament last week, when he argued that Turkey will continue to be the inspirational leader of Arab democratization and liberation efforts. With some dose of neo-Ottoman glory, such narrative of influence was vintage Turkish Gaullism.

At the end of the day, the unfolding tragedy in Syria clearly displayed the limits of Turkish influence over its neighbour. Simply put, Turkey did not have the power to alter the behaviour of Bashar al-Assad. Having developed illusions of brotherhood and influence, Prime Minister Erdogan took it personally. Much of Turkey’s Syria policy stems from such a sense of betrayal by Assad. The rest can be explained by a mixture of Kemalism, neo-Ottomanism and Turkish Gaullism.

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