Turkey has lately moved to the epicenter of world politics, and rightly so. The jury is still out on whether that is a good or a bad thing and that is because of its handlings with regard to the Islamic State (IS) crisis in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, Turkey’s indecisiveness and belated actions in the face of the potential fall of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane and the advancements of IS more generally, bring to mind the Turkish foreign policy of the past.
Through the delay to take action or the refusal to allow Western allies to use its military bases, Turkey demonstrated a well-known reluctance to engage regional security problems, a suspicion toward Western powers, and a pro-status quo tendency. These were the very features that characterized the foreign policy of Turkish Republic for the most part of its history; a doctrine very much influenced by the founder of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and the military-bureaucratic establishment. Similarly, Turkey’s opportunism, namely, its wish to be on the right side of history without being willing to play its part, draws parallels between today and 1945 when Turkey joined the Allies of World War II only a couple of months before the end of the war and after its outcome had already been decided.
One could be then led to believe that Turkey, under the rule of Justice and Development Party (AKP), hasn’t changed much when it comes to foreign policy. This, however, would not be the case. The reality on the ground is more complicated and points to the fact that Turkey is increasingly demonstrating revisionist tendencies and policies. From this perspective, proclamations by AKP leaders that depict Turkey as being a rising regional (super)power and a country that rightfully claims the leadership of the region due to its Ottoman past, are put to practice.
Given that a revisionist state is one that tries to change the geopolitical status quo for its own benefit, one could safely argue that Turkey is a revisionist state. However revisionism should not be confused with expansionism. An expansionist power is revisionist, but a revisionist power is not necessarily expansionist; International Relations theory provides many examples of non-expansionist strategies of revisionism. In that sense, Turkey is a revisionist power that tries to influence regional developments in order to expand its political control (but not its territories) over the region and thus consolidate its hegemony, but does so in a tacit way. Two cases in point are Turkey’s stance towards Syria after 2011 and its stance towards the crisis between IS and the Kurds of Syria – specifically in the fight for Kobane.
During the course of the Syrian civil war, Turkey threatened Syria with war and the creation of a no-fly zone while calling for international intervention and the overthrow of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. These alone show Turkey’s intentions for regime change; a revisionist strategy by definition and one that Turkey has never adopted before. But because the gap between Turkey’s aspirations and capabilities has also surfaced amid this crisis, Ankara has been trying to “bandwagon for profit” (to borrow Randall Schweller’s term) on other actors (e.g. the United States) to achieve its own revisionist ends. A regime change in Syria could entail the emergence of a pro-Turkey government akin to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood – an ideal scenario for Turkey.
The same logic applies in the case of Kobane and the struggle of the Syrian Kurds against IS. Ankara’s opportunistic and arguably deliberate delay to support the Kurds of Kobane, despite pro-Kurdish demonstrations in Turkey, stemmed from its insecurities regarding the emergence of a Syrian Kurdistan and the repercussions it might have for a potential Turkish Kurdistan.
However, Turkey took advantage of the international outcry about Kobane and utilized it for its own benefit. On the one hand it is essentially blackmailing the West that it would only get involved in Syria if the strategic plan of the anti-IS coalition has the goal of not only exterminating IS but also overthrowing Assad – “bandwagoning for profit” is again at play here. On the other hand, it allowed Iraqi Kurdistan fighters (the Peshmerga) to enter Kobane through its territories. The Turkish government is thereby empowering the “pro-Turkey” Iraqi Kurds instead of the Syrian and Turkish ones that could potentially pose a threat. Thus, Turkey is dealing with its external and internal problems and ambitions without actually taking direct action. It is rather trying to change the geopolitical status quo by either using regional players or by selectively jumping on the Western bandwagon.
Turkey’s strategy is obviously, yet tacitly, revisionist. This should be taken seriously into account by Washington and other Western actors. The fact that Turkey and the US are so often at odds over geopolitical issues in recent years speaks for itself, not to mention that we are probably witnessing the first time in history that the US is so suspicious about Ankara’s intentions. Geopolitics has changed and so has Turkey. At a time when Iran seems to be making a foreign policy shift, it would be unfortunate for everyone if Turkey were to replace Iran and become an untrustworthy pole of instability. As such, the time is perhaps ripe for the US and the rest of the Western allies to reconsider their approach toward both the region and Turkey itself.
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The above article was first published by The GW Post.
A follow-up article will address Turkey’s revisionism in Eastern Mediterranean.