From Armenia to Syria: The Breakdown of Turkey’s Neighbourhood Policy


Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) has heightened over the last few months, with the Turkish military fighting one of its toughest battles in years. There have been more than 700 deaths in the last 14 months – one of the highest casualty rates since the PKK took up arms in 1984. A key reason for this escalation has been Ankara’s ill-defined policy towards Syria. Ankara is facing a growing security challenge along its southern border with Syria. Turkey’s Kurdish problem will now only be solved when the Syrian crisis is solved.

Unfortunately, “Turkey’s zero problems with neighbours” policy, the brainchild of Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has pretty much collapsed. It is a tragic outcome for a policy which only a short time ago Turkey was being celebrated both by Turkey’s leadership and the international community. Relationships with former foes, Syria, Iran and Iraq had considerably improved; efforts for rapprochement with Armenia were underway; while Turkey was putting itself forward to mediate in numerous different conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Turkey was trying to be everything to everyone; have an impact everywhere. Ankara failed to prioritize and spread itself too thin which led to the unraveling of the policy. Today there has been an almost total reversal. Neighbors have once again become enemies; tensions have increased in the southeast of the country but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Ankara’s credibility and aims in its neighbourhood suffering a major setback.

Unfortunately Turkey became over confident and rather boastful. Davutoglu’s now infamous speech announcing that” Turkey would be reshaping the Middle East” is a good example. To a certain extent the international community also contributed, given how much praise both Washington and the EU piled on Turkey, boosting its already sizeable ego.

After decades of hostile relations the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), developed exceptionally close ties with Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad. So close that joint Cabinet meetings were taking place. Syria was the example Turkey always cited when talking about how successful its “zero problems with neighbours” policy was. When the up-rising in Syria began, Ankara tried to persuade Assad to reform. Turkey expected Damascus to listen given their close ties. It came as a blow to realize he was not interested in what Ankara had to say. Rather he continued with his brutality. Turkey changed policy (as it had previously done in Libya after initial hesitation) calling on Assad to step down, openly pushing for regime change. As a consequence, relations with Syria were turned on their head with Erdogan making Assad an enemy. Consequently this led to Turkey relations with the Shiia leaderships in both Iran and Iraq also unraveling.

Turkey’s decision to support only the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army unfortunately led to Ankara being accused of following a sectarian foreign policy and has not helped prevent the break-up of Syria into an ethically and religiously divided country. Turkey should have taken a more pluralistic approach and supported all the opposition groups. This was further complicated by Assad granting autonomy to certain Syrian Kurdish regions which resulted in the Syrian Kurds not supporting the opposition. Rather it resulted in making the Kurds more ambitious about creating an independent Kurdish homeland spanning Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Turkey’s failure to resolve its own Kurdish issue has been a gift in this respect. The PKK has used the turmoil in Syria to strengthen its own position, getting support from Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds.

All in all Turkey’s Syrian policy has blown up in the face of its architects, Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davultoglu, something Davutoglu had to admit during a meeting of the UN, when his plan to force the international community to form a safe zone in Syria, as a consequence of Turkey growing refugee crisis, found no support. After allowing almost one hundred thousand refugees into the country an increasingly dangerous security situation has arisen and it is likely that Ankara will soon have to start moving refugees to other regions. There has already been an increase of clashes at the border with opposition forces taking control of the Tel Abyad border gate, with bullets and mortars falling in the central Akçakale district. As a result Turkey as deployed armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. The financial burden is also a strain on Turkey’s coffers. Initially insisting it did not need financial assistance and could handle the burden alone. A decision it has now come to regret.

The Turkish public is getting fed up too. Initially many Turks supported Erdogan’s Syrian policy, believing it would equate to the Egyptian or Tunisian experience. They have now realized that Turkey has gotten in too deep and the policy is creating insecurity and instability in the country.

Meanwhile Ankara remains at loggerheads with Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki. This is not only because of Turkey’s position on Syria but also because Turkey is still providing asylum to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, now sentenced to death for alleged crimes which are broadly viewed as politically motivated. Relations with Iran have also gone down-hill as Ankara has accused Iran of supporting the PKK.

Unfortunately there are only a few positive stories in Turkey’s neighbourhood policy, in particular Azerbaijan and Georgia with which Turkey had good relations in the first place. Of course before the Arab Spring, the biggest failure of the “zero problems with neighbours policy” was with Armenia with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties. A diplomatic process designed to normalize relations, including reopening the shared border, between Armenia and Turkey led to the signing of two protocols in Zurich in 2009. Unfortunately Turkey made a u-turn, backtracking by deciding to link ratification of the Protocols in the Turkish Parliament to progress on a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey did this under pressure from Azerbaijan, when it was confronted by a hostile reaction from Baku that accused Turkey of betraying Baku’s interests. Turkey crumbled under Azerbaijani pressure and it killed the process. Turkey’s credibility was damaged internationally while Yerevan declared Turkey had acted dishonestly. The whole episode increased rather than decreased tensions in the region.

As long as Turkey continues to insist that Armenian-Turkish relations can only move forward if Armenia complies with Azerbaijani demands on Nagorno-Karabakh, I doubt there will be any new effort to normalize relations. However, since then Turkey has further strengthened relations Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is now one of the biggest investors (soon to be the biggest) in Turkey with the two signing to important energy contracts this summer. Indeed Ankara’s relationship with Azerbaijan is now so important and valuable that Ankara remained completely silent, unlike the rest of the international community, when Azerbaijan recently pardoned and shockingly promoted Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani soldier who brutally murdered an Armenian soldier during a NATO Partnership for Peace Training in Budapest in 2004. Extradited to Baku some two weeks ago, where he received a hero’s welcome, it created a diplomatic storm and increased tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, throwing another spanner into the already difficult Karabakh peace process.

All in all Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” policy has fallen on tough times, contributing to regional tensions, rather than reducing them. Thereby regional ambitions have been hobbled and domestic troubles have been exacerbated. While I feel sure that Turkey will “bounce back , it currently seems that Davutoglu’s great success has ultimately become his greatest failure.

  1. #1 by A.R Gumush on October 1, 2012 - 2:36 pm

    It is not in the interest of both the US /its allies and the Russians to have peace in the Middle-East! The cold war now manifests itself in the “sub-contract” troubles in countries like Syria and Iraq! The objective is to keep the pot boiling until the map of the area is re-drawn! So actually Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbours” would have put an end to those plans rather than the other way round! Who loves you baby, as Kojack would say!

  2. #2 by C. Gavrielides on October 1, 2012 - 6:25 pm

    Very interesting article. Special mention should also be made about the worsening relations with Cyprus, not only related to the ongoing military occupation of the north of the island, but also following Turkey’s threads this year regarding ownership of gas reserves found between the borders of Cyprus and Israel. The freezing of EU accession talks due to the Cyprus problem have been ongoing with no signs of a resolution, while relations with Israel following the ‘Mavi Marmara’ incident in 2010 have kept the two countries at bay.

  3. #3 by Wim Roffel on October 8, 2012 - 11:27 am

    The results of Turkey’s Syria policy would hardly have been better if it had supported a broader opposition coalition. The fundamental error was that it required immediate change instead of wanting negotiations.

    Sure, such negotiations would have been long and boring, but they are needed to build trust between the segments of the Syrian society. Let’s not forget that the last major thing that the Syria saw from its opposition before the present trouble was the 1979-1982 murder campaign against Alawites by the Muslim Brotherhood. And although many opposition leaders now want more inclusive policies a considerable number advocate and implement more racist policies. Let’s not forget that a crucial element in building support for the uprising were television preachers like Arour who fomented anti-Alawite sentiments.

    As a neighbor you can only influence the policies of a country to a certain extent – and often that takes time. Erdogan seems to have lost that perspective.

  4. #4 by emre on October 19, 2012 - 3:57 pm

    there are quite numerous reasons why turkey’s “zero problem politics with neighbours” since the neighbours in fact are not stable. Yet in Armenia, in schools children are educated with stories and memories agaist turkey, as well in Syria, under a dictator named Essad, not willing to develop his country, his only concern is to keep his Baas Party active. So, no matter what is the politics and the position of Turkey, problems and crisis are inevitible. Turkey is somehow in the middle of East and West, with a 80 year old republic and democrasy, itself had problems also for the last two decades, military internentions like 28 Februay.
    Europe didnt implement the policy as they did in Libya, in the moment they understood rebels are not able to beat Qaddafi, French jets and Nato hit important target and so for opened a corridor for rebels. Which they did not do yet same thing in Syria.

    In my opinion, turkey without any foreign support, must hit syria soonest possible to get his own position.