Danger signs in Turkey's strategic depth
By Ergin Yildizoglu
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet
Davutoglu believe that a new, independent and self-confident Turkey is emerging
whose destiny under their leadership is to become a regional superpower,
reclaiming the historical and cultural heritage of its Ottoman and Muslim
roots. This, they believe, will provide their nation with a "strategic depth''
in the Greater Middle East.
Erdogan has recently become extremely popular in the Arab world as a result of
foreign policy moves stemming from the doctrine of ''strategic depth'', the
idea that Turkey must use its unique geography and history to its foreign
policy advantage, which was first formulated for Turkey by Davutoglu in his opus
magnum of the same title. But not everybody is convinced that Erdogan's
found esteem has the substance to be translated into sustainable geopolitical
gains or even a regional leadership capable of speaking for the Muslims and the
It is very difficult to know whether the "strategic depth" base of Turkey's
foreign policy is a foundation for building something new and better, conducive
to greater stability and peace in the region, or whether it is simply pulling
Turkey into the vortex of time-worn and extremely complex conflicts and
problems of the Middle East with which it is not properly equipped to deal. To
put it another way, it is not yet possible to see with any certainty if Erdogan
and Davutoglu are waving triumphantly in a sea of ''strategic depth'' or
gradually drowning in it.
From Davos to Jerusalem via Gaza
A closer look at the dynamics behind the Erdogan's recent popularity in the
Arab world on the one hand and, on the other the growing concerns of many
foreign policy analysts in the West about Turkey's turning away from its
tradition allies and national-secular modernization, and moving towards the
Muslim Middle East, reveals two distinct trajectories.
One trajectory is to lend support to Iran's diplomatic struggle to defend its
right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. The other is lending support for
the Palestinian cause, but particularly to Hamas in the context of Israel's
blockade of Gaza by deploying increasingly vitriolic verbal attacks, bordering
on anti-Semitism, against the Israel's foreign policy.
Early concerns about the Justice and Development Party's (AKP) new foreign
policy orientations had emerged when Erdogan invited Hamas officials for talks
in 2006 to Ankara despite the objections of Turkey's close allies, US and
Israel administrations. But many observers believe that the real turning point
came at Davos in 2009, when Erdogan practically called President Shimon Peres a
murderer and stormed out of a panel discussion in the World Economic Forum.
This instantly made him a hero in the Arab world.
Joint military exercises between Israel and Turkey that had been held for many
years were later canceled by Turkey. Later, Turkey cooperated with Brazil to
strike a uranium-swap deal with Iran and then, to the dismay of US and European
Union, joined Brazil in the United Nations Security Council to vote against
stepping up sanctions on Iran. In between these two developments, came the
tragic incident where nine civilians, including Turkish nationals, were killed
by Israeli commandos boarding the Mavi Marmara, which was carrying
humanitarian aid destined for Gaza. Turkey's attempt to break Israel's Gaza
blockade further enhanced Erdogan's popularity in the Arab world.
As for Erdogan, not only has he increased the intensity of his verbal attacks
against Israel but also extended them to include US by suggesting that those
who lend support to Israel were also responsible for its crimes. Forgetting
that he had once during the Iraq war declared himself as the joint chief of the
Greater Middle East Project, he asked ''what America is doing in Iraq... in
Afghanistan''. Furthermore, it seems that he is now unleashing his anger
against domestic opponents by fueling anti-American and Israeli sentiment.
Recklessly, he has begun to accuse his critics of being the propaganda tool of
international media controlled by the Israeli lobby.
Davutoglu was also busy in promoting Turkey as the champion of the Palestinian
cause. He reportedly promised during a closed session of The Turkish Arab
Business forum In Istanbul last week that "Jerusalem is going to be the capital
[of Palestine] very soon. And we are going to pray there together."
Many experts argue that the AKP has moved so far away from the West in general
and from the US and Israel in particular that it is already on a course to join
with the Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas axis. Voices in the US Congress are
being raised about punishing Turkey. Neo-conservative political analysts who
had introduced Erdogan to the world and supported him enthusiastically during
the first Bush administration, have gone beyond having second thoughts about
him. They are fuming with disappointment and anger. Some have even suggested
that Turkey should be expelled from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Arguments and concerns, though containing some elements of truth, are gross
exaggerations, some verging on the hysterical. The real situation is more
likely that Erdogan and Davutoglu wanted to increase their domestic political
capital through foreign policy success in the region.
At the beginning they counted on US support and prestige in the region. But
they quickly realized that amid waning US prestige and power to influence
developments in the region, and an emerging power vacuum with the absence of
Saddam Hussein's regime, that Iran was rising as a major force capable of
shaping developments in the Muslim world. Erdogan and Davutoglu then began to
rely on their own devices; the doctrine of “strategic depth” and the guaranteed
support of people on Arab streets for any one confronting Israel in the region.
However, the more they relied on these devices, the more they entered uncharted
waters. First, Erdogan and Davutoglu watched with great disappointment the
recent Hamas declaration stating that Egypt was the only acceptable
intermediary between Palestinian factions. This declaration made clear that the
Arab world was not going to let Turkey interfere in its internal affaires and
may be linked to emerging concerns among the Arab leaders.
Arab leaders reportedly perceive recent developments in the region as
manifestations of hegemonic rivalry between Turkey and Iran. They are also not
happy that competition between Turkey and Iran progressively has exposed their
own political impotence in opposing Israel's policies and also undermined their
regimes' legitimacy in the eyes of their own people.
To make a bad situation worse, Tehran decided to up the ante, in order not to
lose its Hezbollah and Hamas portfolio to Turkey, by threatening to send its
own blockade-breaking flotilla to Gaza. The Iran flotilla would certainly
exacerbate the political and diplomatic crises between Israel and Turkey and
increase the risk unfolding a military confrontation.
Erdogan and Davutoglu seem to have destabilized Turkish foreign policy in more
than one way. The traditional links with the Western allies have noticeably
weakened. The political elite in the Arab world are becoming less and less
receptive to the idea of Turkish leadership in the Middle Eastern affairs.
Erdogan and Davutoglu may be realizing, with horror, that they are about to
join a game of ''Chicken'' with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who
appears forever ready to go one step further than Turkey in confronting Israel.
Turkish foreign policy ship under the helmsmanship of Erdogan and Davutoglu is
now sinking in ''strategic depth''. The vessel is still salvageable, and the
voyagers can be rescued. But the capacity of the captains to manage the
required operations is increasingly coming under scrutiny.
Dr Ergin Yildizoglu is a university lecturer at Middle East Techncial University. He is a columnist for the Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.