This article was published in Arab News on March 19, 2018.
Turkey must overhaul its approach to Arab nations
Turkey’s relations with Arab countries have reached a record low. Relations may of course deteriorate between countries from time to time when their national interests collide, but in the case of Turkey and Arab countries, there was no threat to the interests of either side.
In Egypt, Turkey stood against Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s military takeover, which was understandable because Turkey has suffered a lot from military interventions. The mistake was in Turkey’s insistence in not recognizing the new leadership even after it had established its authority in the country. Turkey had to take into account that Egypt is the unchallenged leader of the Arab world. When the region faces its worst crises, these two countries can take action to alleviate the effects and contribute to their solution.
Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have soured not because of reasons directly related to bilateral ties, but because Ankara is part of an intra-Arab conflict. Its traditional foreign policy was to avoid direct involvement in such conflicts and, thanks to this policy, Turkey had accumulated great prestige among Arab countries. It now wastes this prestige prodigally.
In the Syrian crisis, Turkey has persistently picked the wrong options since the outset. First, it presumed in late 2011 that the regime’s fall was imminent and suffered the consequences of ill-advised policies. Second, when Western powers became aware that arms they were supplying were ending up in the wrong hands, they stopped the supply. Turkey, meanwhile, was slow in following this decision and became a “highway” of arms supply to extremist factions and for the passage of terrorists going to Syria. Eventually, Turkey became one of the most important recruiting grounds for Daesh.
Third, in the north of Syria, Turkey took the right initiative by inviting Salih Muslim, the representative of the Syrian Kurds, for talks. But it failed to discuss with him Ankara’s issues with the Syrian Kurds — instead it asked Muslim to cooperate in overthrowing the Assad regime.
Even if Ankara starts to mend relations with its former allies now, it will still take decades to bring them back to the levels reached before the recent deterioration.
The fourth mistake made by Turkey in Syria was its military operation in Afrin, which reportedly aimed to set up an administration where all ethnic groups would be represented proportionally. The idea is appealing but it is the Syrian authorities, with or without Bashar Assad, that will govern Afrin after the crisis. Therefore, Turkey should cooperate with the Syrian authorities during this operation.
In Iraq, when Turkey made a deal with the Kurdish Regional Government to pump oil to its Mediterranean terminals, the Iraqi central authorities opposed it, saying the export of Iraqi oil requires their approval. Turkey disregarded this objection and responded by using less-than-diplomatic language about Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
Turkey also deployed a military detachment in the Bashiqa base in northern Iraq with the consent of the KRG authorities, but the central government opposes this presence. This is another thorny issue that casts a shadow over Turkey-Iraq relations.
In Tunisia, when the Ennahdha Party was about to come to power, its leader Rached Ghannouchi said it was going to be inspired by the moderate Islam as practiced in Turkey by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Six years later, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid an official visit to Tunisia, he greeted the crowd by raising his hand and showing four fingers as a sign reminiscent of the Rabaa Square in Cairo, where 800 to 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed in 2013. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi responded by saying: “Tunisia has no other symbol but its flag. Neither Rabaa nor any other symbol.” Turkey has always been held in high esteem in Tunisia but, six years on from the Arab Spring, it became a country where its president was snubbed.
Mutual confidence between nations takes decades to establish, but can be lost with one unfortunate incident. If Turkey starts to mend relations with Arab countries now, it will take decades to bring it back to the level before the recent deterioration. Therefore Turkey has to immediately engage in a serious overhaul of its policies toward Arab countries.