How Turkey Went From ‘Zero Problems’ to Zero Friends

And lost its leverage everywhere.


Not so long ago, Turkey seemed to have found the elusive formula for foreign policy success. Its newly-adopted philosophy, “zero problems with neighbors,” won praise both at home and abroad as Ankara reengaged with the Middle East following a half century of estrangement. It expanded business and trade links with Arab states, as well as Iran, lifted visa restrictions with neighboring countries, and even helped mediate some of the region’s toughest disputes, brokering talks between Syria and Israel, Fatah and Hamas, and Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Just a few years later, in the wake of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, that once-reliable formula is starting to look like alchemy. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has now burned his bridges with the military regime in Egypt, squabbled with Gulf monarchies for refusing to stand by deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, and started a war of words with Israel for having a hand in the coup that removed Morsy from power.

For a fleeting moment, Egypt was the centerpiece of Turkey’s foreign policy in the Arab world. When Erdogan visited Cairo in September 2011, after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, he arrived to a hero’s welcome, feted not only as the first major world leader to call on him to step down but as a regional power broker. That has now all changed: Turkey and Egypt pulled their ambassadors from each country amidst the dispute, and Erdogan publicly slammed the new government in Cairo. “Either Bashar [al-Assad] or [Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi], there is no difference between them,” he said last week. “I am saying that state terrorism is currently underway in Egypt.”

This week, Erdogan dragged Israel into the dispute, saying that Israel was “behind” the coup in Cairo. The evidence for this perfidy, his office would later confirm, was a 2011 video of former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy discussing the Arab Spring.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shot back at Erdogan on Wednesday, saying that “everyone who hears [Erdogan’s] hateful words and incitement understands beyond a doubt that he follows in the footsteps of Goebbels.” Not to be outdone, an Egyptian government spokesman slammed Erdogan as a “Western agent.”

Such disputes have left Turkey watchers wondering if Erdogan’s bombastic approach is undermining his effectiveness. “Turkey did the right thing” by deploring the Egyptian coup, a former high-ranking Turkish diplomat told me, but found itself “on the wrong side of the international community.”

Ankara should have thrown its weight around well before the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, the diplomat added. “Turkey put too much emphasis on the success story of democracy in Egypt and did not see properly the wrong things that were being done by the Morsy regime.”

The truth of the matter is that it was always only a matter of time before Turkey’s heralded “zero problems” policy foundered. Having zero problems meant keeping your nose out of other countries’ domestic affairs, and even cozying up to regional strongmen. That was possible so long as the regional status quo held: Turkey kept mum on post-election violence in Iran in 2009, for instance, and nurtured an alliance with Syria’s Assad before the bloody revolt in that country. And in Libya, Erdogan had been only too happy to ignore Muammar al-Qaddafi’s dismal human rights record, if that was the price to pay for Turkish businessmen to ink construction deals with his regime.

By blowing the regional status quo into oblivion, the Arab Spring forced Turkey out of this policy of non-interference. Ankara has struggled with the notion that it could not bend the region to its will: In Libya, before it ended up helping unseat Qaddafi, Turkey argued that the West had no business intervening against him. In Syria, it has broken completely with Assad, embroiling itself in a conflict that shows no sign of ending. And in Egypt, of course, it is setting itself on a collision course with the most populous state in the Arab world.

The extent to which Turkey has since ditched its softly-softly approach to the region has been surprising. One of the commandments of “zero problems” was what Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to as “equidistance” — that is, the refusal to take sides in regional disputes. This was always something of a myth, particularly when it came to the Israeli-Palestine dispute, where the government seldom missed a chance to bolster its regional and Islamic credentials by slighting the Israelis. But in the wake of the Arab Spring, equidistance appears to have gone into the gutter.

It’s not only in Egypt where Turkey is now seen as a partisan actor, rather than a neutral problem-solver. In Iraq, it has openly defied Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, accusing it of fomenting sectarian strife and going behind its back to negotiate oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers the country’s north. In Syria, it has lent unqualified support to the anti-regime rebels, letting them operate freely on its soil, turning a blind eye to their atrocities, and reportedly criticizing the United States for branding the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group.

The former Turkish diplomat said that Ankara was right to support the demise of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but deplored the ham-fisted way that it went about it. “Turkey was right to side with the people against the dictator, but it could have stopped there,” he said. “By burning all bridges with the regime, Turkey lost its leverage with Assad.” And when the international community, wary as the rebels’ ranks swelled with jihadists, shied away from lending further support, “Turkey, to use a football term, found itself offside.”

Erdogan is struggling with a new array of foreign policy challenges in other parts of the world, too. Turkey’s image in the West took a beating this summer with the protests in Gezi Park. Erdogan’s decision to put down the demonstrations with riot police, tear gas and water cannons undermined his relationship with the European Union: In late June, in the midst of the post-Gezi crackdown, Brussels decided to postpone a new round of accession talks with Ankara until October. Erdogan himself, meanwhile, has come under scathing criticism in the American press.

Turkey has done virtually nothing to undo the damage. Instead, officials have accused Western countries of orchestrating the protests and various “dark forces” — including what Erdogan cryptically calls the international “interest rate lobby” — of bankrolling them. The prime minister’s new top advisor, Yigit Bulut, has no qualms about calling the European Union “a loser headed for a wholesale collapse” while Egemen Bagis, the very minister responsible for the accession talks, quipped, “If we have to, we could tell them, ‘Get lost’.”

While Turkey’s foreign policy struggles in the Middle East may have been inevitable, its isolation elsewhere seems self-inflicted. Today, the country risks returning to the mindset of the 1990s, when tensions abounded with Arab and European countries, conspiracy theories poisoned the political debate, and Turks  — convinced they were a country under siege — repeated faithfully, “The Turk has no friend but the Turk.” Erdogan, it seems, has taken his country from “zero problems” to international headaches as far as the eye can see.

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.