Turkey’s Strategic Vision and Syria

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Summer 2012 issue of The Washington Quarterly.


For most of the 20th century, Turkey chose not to get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. During the past decade, however, in a remarkable departure from this Kemalist tradition (based on the ideology of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), Ankara has become a very active and important player in the region. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government since 2002, Turkey has established closer ties with Syria, Iran, and Iraq, assumed a leadership position in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), attended Arab League conferences, and contributed to UN forces in Lebanon. It has also mediated in the Syrian—Israeli conflict as well as the nuclear standoff with Iran. Ankara’s diplomatic engagements with Iran and Hamas have led to differences with the United States and Israel, leaving many wondering if Turkey has been turning away from its Western orientation or if it was just a long overdue shift east to complete Turkey’s full circle of relations.

Fundamentally, analysts make a major mistake in analyzing Turkish foreign policy when they speak of a ‘‘pro-Western’’ versus ‘‘Islamic’’ divide in Ankara’s strategic choices. This is an understandable fallacy. Turkey’s population is almost fully Muslim, and the AKP, a political party with Islamic roots, has won consecutive election victories. Many policymakers, analysts, and scholars thus equate the notion of Turkish divergence from the West or the fear of ‘‘losing Turkey’’ with the idea of an Islamic revival. Moreover, this is exactly how some members within Turkey’s Kemalist establishment the military, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Atatuürk, and the judiciary describe some AKP policies in the Middle East. While the growing importance of religion in Turkey should not be dismissed, such an analysis gives superficial credibility to the fallacy of an ‘‘Islamist’’ foreign policy in Turkey.

But how then should Turkey’s current foreign policy be characterized and understood? To answer this question, one has to look first at the three grand strategic visions that have driven Turkish foreign policy: Neo-Ottomanism, Kemalism, and more recently, Turkish Gaullism. The common denominator of these strategic visions is that they transcend the erroneous narrative prevalent in Western media focusing almost exclusively on the dichotomy between Turkey’s Islamic and secular factions. In particular, the way in which Turkey has handled the continuing implications of the 2011 Arab awakening helps to clarify Turkish grand strategy, or its continuing balancing act among these three strategic visions, as Ankara has faced a more challenging strategic environment, most specifically in its estranged relations with Bashar Assad’s Syria.

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