Turkey’s foreign policy zigzags out of control in Idlib

 

The theory on the subject makes it clear that Islamism is bound to turn Turkey into a belligerent state. This theory avers that Islamism normalises the state of war, making it permanent feature.

A popular saying in Turkey suggests that we should get used to living with earthquakes. In political terms, this means getting used to war.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a recent speech, before his meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin last Thursday, that he wished to fight the Syrian government more openly. In that speech he challenged Putin to step out of the fray in Syria’s Idlib province and allow Turkey and Syria to fight it out one on one, thus laying bare the Turkish decision makers’ appetite for war.

Over the last three years, Turkey had focused on Russia in its policy, becoming a persistent source of pain for the NATO bloc. This made none happier than Putin.

But in the last few weeks, Turkey has come to the point where its Syrian proxies are targeting Russians and battling  militias from Iran and from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Idlib. 

If this amounts to more than lashing out in retribution for the killing of its soldiers, then Ankara has performed a volte-face and is now letting its NATO allies know that it is ready to inflict pain on Russia and its allies.

The important part here is that neither Russia nor Iran ever expected Turkey to come completely, willingly and permanently to their ranks. The relations between Turkey and these two countries is superficial and based mainly on economic and political pragmatism.

But, even worse for Turkey, Ankara has failed to fully convince the West with its latest moves. Turkish foreign policy has followed a series of zigzags for nearly six years, and the Western bloc is naturally suspicious of a policy that does not remain consistent from one day to the next.

At this point Turkey is nothing more than a buffer country for the West.

If Turkey willingly plays a spoiling role for Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, of course it will receive encouragement from some Westerners.

The real problem here is that Turkey has failed to realise that its attempts to play the two sides off against each other are not free of political costs. Turkey’s pointless zigzags have not come without a price, and the costs to the country’s economy and society have been mounting.

A critical point here is the politicisation of the military. Of course, the armed forces must be accountable to the civil administration. But that should not mean that civilians dictate the army’s tactics.

It is Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, formerly chief of general staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, who has de facto command of the Turkish army – not as the leader who sets its policy, but effectively as its commander. In other words, it is Akar, technically a civilian leader, who is heading the Turkish army’s operation in Syria.

The government has tried to establish a new regime through the concept of a struggle with the Gülen religious movement, which it accuses of orchestrating  the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. The war in Syria will serve a similar purpose.

I do not believe that the like of the militarist, nationalist wave that is swelling in Turkey today was seen even in the days of Turkey’s war for Independence. It is vital to see that this wave has created a new society.

What is stranger is that individuals from every faction in Turkey appear to have adhered to Erdoğan’s new militarist-Islamist-Turkist wave: some from religious circles who have grown angry with the president still subscribe to his religious views, while there are secularists who appreciate his anti-migrant policies.

In short, society has happily welcomed this new wave.

There were two great parameters holding Turkey accountable to reason.  One of them, foreign policy, has collapsed. The other is the economy. But in the face of Erdoğan’s great populist wave, we should not place too much faith in economic reality to keep the ship on course.

Clearly, Erdoğan has charted a new destination for Turkey, and there is nothing for us to do but wait and see where his course leads us.