SPEAKING FREELY Turkey puts a new paradigm in play
By Omer Aslan
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
A new paradigm is in play in Turkey as the "Kurdish peace process" gains traction and Turkey's willing involvement in the Syrian crisis continues. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government seeks to turn the tables on what many see as major regional crisis into an opportunity not to be missed for Turkey's momentous renewal; a "new Turkey" for a "new Middle East".
The principle of non-interference in Arab affairs had been the lodestar of Turkish foreign policy since the founding of the
Republic. Though at times Turkey threatened its southern neighbors by the use of force (such as Syria over its sheltering of the the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party leader in 1998) the Kemalist foreign policy dictated aloofness from the Middle Eastern "swamp".
With the onset of the Arab Spring in general and the ongoing Syrian crisis in particular, Turkey has transformed itself from being a "reluctant neighbor" to being a country that openly called for Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt, hosted with no qualms the Free Syrian Army against the Syrian regime and still hosts around 400,000 Syrian refugees.
The happy welcome the AK Party government gave the Arab Spring marked a continuation from its previous policy of democracy promotion in the Middle East following the American invasion of Iraq. On many occasions Turkey's then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for reforms in many autocratic political regimes of the region.
This stance continued with Turkey's initiative to remove visas with its neighbors and form High Level Strategic Cooperation Councils with Iraq and Syria around the motto of "common destiny, common history and common future". Thus, the regional upshot aimed in Turkey's efforts remained unchanged: an integrated Middle East of strong democracies that boasts maximum economic and political cooperation and interaction between the peoples, the reign of rule of law, and respect for human rights.
The Arab Spring, seen as a homegrown opposition to autocracy, and the result of a decades-long yearning for democracy and human dignity, came as a windfall for Turkey. But the partitioning of Arab states and formation of new "statelets" in the region - as was discussed briefly in Libya and now is mentioned for an "Alawite state" in Syria - is the least-desired result for Turkey.
Turkish foreign-policy makers are well aware that every newborn nation-state in the region will mean a new quest for narrow national interests at the expense of every other Muslim nation. The number of national interests that will have to be reconciled for creating economic and political commons in the future will multiply in such a worst-case scenario.
On the domestic front, the AK Party government made its first attempt at solving the Kurdish problem back in 2005. Erdogan admitted the Kurdish problem in a taboo-breaking speech in Diyarbakir and promised to solve it by "deepening democracy, expanding citizenship rights and increasing welfare".
As of 2005 the government governed, but did not yet rule. The entrenched tutelary regime took hard hits from the government's political reforms over the years, and more so by the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer failed coup attempts.
The Kurdish Initiative followed these preliminary signs of erosion in the bureaucratic and military tutelage over politics. The failure of the Kurdish opening as well as the disclosure of the secret talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that followed in Oslo led the government to the more open method that is now being followed in the Kurdish peace process.
The beginning of PKK's withdrawal as of May 8, the arrival of the first group of PKK in Northern Iraq, and the upcoming stages in the "solution process" may portend a new founding paradigm of citizenship and democracy in Turkey.
These remarkable developments on both fronts are interrelated and poised for a single goal: "dispensing with the 20th century parenthesis". According to the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the 20th century was characterized by autocrats of various stripes at odds with their own peoples, rigid and artificial national boundaries and man-made barriers. This was unnatural and did not fit the long history of an integrated region and interacting peoples (not denoting reign of peace at all times but meaning people engaging each other, traveling easily across boundaries).
What Davutoglu said in relation to developments in the region, Erdogan said it in the context of the solution process: "the AK Party government took under its feet every kind of nationalism".
No doubt domestic and foreign policy acts based on the new operational codes come with major risks. As the latest attack on Reyhanli, a town near the Syrian border, showed, Turkey's involvement in the Syrian war compromises its security, exposing Turkey to the war's spillover effects.
On the other hand, the outcome of negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's imprisoned leader, remains uncertain. However, the Turkish government appears to have in abundance the economic, political and cultural wherewithal to maintain both processes and let the new paradigm guide its actions at home and abroad.
The chances are high that Turkey's policies may pay off. It is not for nothing that Iraq has already declared it does not want the Iraqi members of the PKK to return. Iran too has been claimed to offer the PKK support on the condition that they continue to fight Turkey.
The Turkish policy makers know well that if the Kurdish problem is solved peacefully, they will have more room to maneuver in foreign relations. After all, a more democratic Turkey at peace with all its citizens will not be warned of overplaying its cards or overstretching its power.
Turkey converted what would have been a nightmare for the "old Turkey" into an opportunity to solve its Kurdish problem and further prepare its people for a Turkey that will not shy away from involvement in Middle Eastern affairs.
Thus, it looks like the new Turkish leadership is opting to prise new openings and take unexpected steps instead of closing in on itself in times of looming crisis in its vicinity. When the dust finally settles, there is every reason to expect that Turkey under its current government will direct its gaze and energy even more to the region and offer its new paradigm to states and peoples of the new region.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Omer Aslan is a PhD candidate in Political Science, Bilkent University, Turkey and works in Political Research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey.