The “Sunnification” of Turkey´s Foreign Policy

Two months is a long time in politics – even more so in Turkish politics. At the beginning of June, the Turkish election brought a wave of hope across the country with results that broke the majoritarian (and authoritarian) rule of the reigning Justice and Development Party (AKP). The pro-Kurdish People´s Democratic Party (HDP), winning 13% of the vote, managed to cross the 10% threshold so gaining representation in mainstream politics for Kurds – as well as liberals desperate for a new democratic force in Turkey´s staid political landscape. It was a political victory that promised a continued normalization in Turkish-Kurdish relations and an opportunity to reinvigorate the stalled peace process of 2012. With cautious optimism (and a solid dose of apprehension), Turks anticipated a long hot summer of political wrangling in the search for a coalition government. However, when a young Kurdish ISIS supporter exploded a bomb in the Turkish border town of Suruç on the 20th of July killing 32 young activists and injuring many more, the summer suddenly became hotter than anticipated.

PHOTO: Ozcan Soysal/AP Photo

The victims were members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations (SGDF) who were in Suruç to assist with the reconstruction of Kobane, a frontline town in the battle with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). It was a devastating blow to the AKP´s already deeply unpopular Syria policy. Since the outbreak of the war, Turkey has admitted 1.8 million refugees as part of an “open door policy” in what has been praised by the international community as an admirable humanitarian commitment. It has not, however, been equally popular domestically and raised tensions internally, particularly among Turkey´s minority Alevis and Arab Alawites. The AKP´s commitment followed the government´s unsuccessful effort in 2011 to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step back from the brink of hostilities. Assad´s refusal was a diplomatic and personal blow to then Prime Minister Erdoğan who believed his influence on Assad would carry decisive political clout. That failure led to a Syrian policy that was singularly focused on bringing down the Assad regime by supporting the opposition, hosting Free Syrian Army officials, and more controversially, covertly arming groups fighting it: from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra – a Sunni extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda – to extremist groups without al-Qaeda links, such as Ahrar al-Sham. In addition, over the last year, allegations in the Turkish press over Turkey´s transfer of arms to Islamist militants under the guise of humanitarian aid to Syria have emerged (and led to Erdoğan personally filing criminal charges against Can Dündar, the editor of the opposition daily, Cumurhiyet). While Dündar´s report crucially came in the lead up to the June election, Turkey has been criticized over time for allowing the border to function as a crossing point for aid, weapons, and foreign fighters. Turkish officials deny the accusations but analysts posit that “AKP ideologues see ISIS as a “Sunni actor” and thus attribute the group a certain rationale.” However, it is admittedly a difficult task to monitor a 900 km porous border that also serves as the crossing point for fleeing Syrian civilians.

The Turkish government´s support to Sunni militants can be analysed from a wider geopolitical perspective. In March 2015, Erdoğan made a visit to the newly crowned King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia during which a pact was signed between the two countries for collaboration in Syria. In return, Turkey would join the Saudi operation against Yemen and thus contribute towards countering Iranian regional influence. This was an unusual alliance given Turkey and Saudi Arabia´s traditional rivalry. However, Saudi Arabia is carving a role for itself as an emerging pivotal power in the Middle East at a time when Turkey is facing the failure of its own ambitions to regional leadership. Saudi Arabia´s new foreign policy activism, increasingly more independent of the United States, is filling the vacuum left by Egypt and Turkey. (The latter states are both absorbed by domestic turmoil). For Saudi Arabia, building a Sunni Alliance has meant opening up for cooperation with both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. However, joining the Sunni alliance, presents a clash between realpolitik and ideology for Turkey. The challenge will be balancing its alliance with Saudi Arabia against its considerable economic interests with Iran. Turkey has a valuable trading relationship with the latter, particularly in natural gas, despite being at loggerheads on regional foreign policy in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Not least, the Iran deal signed in mid-July between Iran and the six world powers will roll back economic sanctions, augmenting Iranian importance as a significant regional economic actor on the rise. Turkey´s balancing act was already in evidence when Erdoğan made a strained visit to Iran in April 2015 (after publically criticising Iran´s Yemeni campaign at home).

In the long run, the partnership with Saudi Arabia in Syria may be indicative of a Turkish foreign policy gradually recalibrating its ambitions of regional leadership and instead focusing on regional alliances with other Sunni actors. From 2009– 2011, under then foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey pursued a policy of “Strategic Depth” projecting its power in the region by exploiting its cultural, historical and religious capital. Trade with the Middle East grew and Turkey´s popularity with it. Erdoğan ´s “one minute” speech at Davos in which he berated Israel publically over the Gaza War made him a hero in Arab eyes and threw into question Turkey´s relationship to Israel. The Mavi Marmara (Gaza Flotilla) incident in 2010 reinforced the AKP´s commitments to the Palestinian cause further reinforcing the animosity towards Israel. After the Arab Uprising, Turkish support for Egypt´s Muslim Brotherhood strengthened the relations between the region´s two pivotal powers. A peace process with the PKK started in 2012 raised hopes that relations to Syria´s Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, which is closely linked to the PKK) would be addressed as pragmatically as relations to Iraq´s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been. However, as the Syrian revolution metamorphosed into a proxy war and Egypt´s revolution ended in a military dictatorship, Davutoğlus “zero problems with neighbours” policy was satirically renamed “zero neighbours without problems”. Domestically, the AKP´s model of majoritarian democracy with little regard for minority rights gave rise to the Gezi riots in 2013, another indication that Turkey´s “soft power moment” had passed.

However, partnering with regional Sunni states would not augur well for domestic security. Wishful thinking aside, the AKP cannot conduct a regional foreign policy driven by Turkey´s Sunni identity without negative domestic repercussions, particularly for Turkey´s minority Alevi, Alawite, and Kurdish communities. Although precise figures are difficult to come by, there are around 400 000 Turkish Alawites in Turkey, while Turkish Alevis make up 10-15% and Kurds around 20% of Turkey´s 77 million population. Turkish Alevis resist the “sunnification” of Turkey´s foreign policy because it marginalizes and denigrates expressions of Alevi religious identity domestically by presenting Turkey as a homogenously Sunni state. This, in turn, increases the polarization within Turkish society along the Sunni/Alevi divide. Turkish Alawite concerns focus more particularly on Turkey´s anti-Assad policy in Syria and its implications for the future of their ethnic kin – the Syrian Alawites. However, presently it is the AKP´s support for the militant Islamist opposition in Syria that has had the greatest domestic blowback.

In particular, Turkey´s policy on ISIS has had disastrous consequences for Turkish-Kurdish relations. The battle between Syrian Kurds and ISIS over the town of Kobane in the fall of 2014 gave a clear indication of the government´s disregard for the domestic consequences of its Syrian policy: While the United States conducted airstrikes and the Kurds fought on the ground, Turkey was unwilling to open its border to allow Kurdish fighters to cross. Erdoğan declared he would only assist in an operation that would also bring down the Assad regime. It resulted in mass demonstrations by Kurds in Turkey and PKK threats to end the peace process. Nine months later, the ISIS suicide bomber brought the struggle in Kobane between ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish PYD into Turkey. The ensuing chain of events terminated the peace process and reignited the confrontation between militants of Turkey´s Kurdistan Worker´s Party (PKK) and the state. More ominously, directly following the Suruç bombing, the liberal pro-Kurdish HDP accused the state of a failure to protect its Kurdish citizens, stating, “our people, our political institutions, civil society organizations, municipalities, all social structures such as vocational organizations should develop their own security measures.” Thus, the protection of the state was seen to extend only to Sunni Muslims, absolving Kurdish citizens of their loyalties to it.

As the tragedy of Suruç illustrates, the “sunnification” of the AKP´s foreign policy has become a boomerang, importing regional sectarian conflicts into Turkey. Many years ago, I held an interview with an officer in the Turkish army who described Turkey´s geopolitical position as in the “middle of a witches´ cauldron”. The prevailing wisdom at the time was to maintain an arm´s length to the region. Four years after the Arab Uprisings, with another proxy war in Yemen and a reignited cross-border Kurdish conflict, there is no promising end in sight. But as the cauldron bubbles over, it seems already too late to step away.

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