By Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi*
Policies followed by Turkey in the face of regional crises, especially with regard to post-Arab Spring crises, have been always a focus of attention for analysts of regional issues. Recent actions taken by Turkey at a time that can be called the “era of the fall of Daesh,” have been also observed with special sensitivity. Ankara’s actions include establishing new military alliances in Iraq and Syria; dispatching armed forces into Iraq and Syria despite serious protests from both countries; making surprising remarks about the need to leave historical treaties, such as the Treaty of Lausanne, behind; insistence and exerting pressure for serious participation in the operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh; as well as expressing concern about the Shia composition of the Iraqi army or operations by Shia popular forces in Iraq.
It is obvious that remarkable analyses can be offered about changes in Turkey’s regional policy following the Arab Spring, in general, and the aforesaid actions, in particular. One of the factors is Turkey’s long common borders with Syria and Iraq as an objective and geopolitical reality, which when considered along with the presence of failed states in Syria, and to some extent in Iraq, makes it easier to understand Turkey’s security concerns and actions arising from them. An effort to maintain some degree of influence in Syria and Iraq, especially after possible recapture of the city of Mosul in Iraq and the city of Aleppo in Syria by their respective central governments, could be another reason to justify Turkey’s recent actions. The leaders in Ankara also need to incite nationalistic sentiments inside the country. This point becomes important when taking into account that in the period of transition following the recent botched coup in Turkey, recourse to such nationalistic sentiments to boost the country’s national solidarity has been seen as a necessity. The effort made by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take advantage of national solidarity as a tool under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party to promote his goal of establishing a presidential system in the country is also of importance in this regard.
Concerns about the “Kurdish issue” can also serve as a good factor shedding light on the regional policies adopted by Turkey over the past few years and its behavior in recent months. From this viewpoint, an important part of Turkey’s regional actions in recent years can be analyzed on the basis of securitization of the issue of secessionist Kurds in the country. For example, Turkey’s direct or indirect support for Daesh was mostly aimed at restricting the influence of Kurds both in Syria and Iraq. The relationship between the Kurdish issue in Iraq and Syria and Turkey’s internal security issues has been, and will be, highlighted by Turkish politicians. This point becomes important since it seems that with the fall of Daesh, the Kurdish issue will turn into one of the most important factors influencing competitions, coalition building, and regional disputes. By the way, it seems that Kurds, on the other hand, have no plan to easily give up the historical opportunity offered them through developments that followed Arab revolutions. Within this framework, Turkey’s concern about coalescence of Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s forces in Iraq’s Sinjar region and the Rozhawa region in Syria has been another reason determining Ankara’s recent actions in Iraq.
I personally believe that despite importance of the above facts, an identity-based explanation of recent developments in Turkey’s foreign policy will give a more profound view of those developments. At the same time, such an explanation will include an important part of the aforesaid factors and considerations. It seems that the rise, emergence and role played by three identity layers, that is, Islamic, Turkish, and European / Western, should be considered as the main drivers behind Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies in recent years. For example, recent remarks made by Turkish president in which he described the Treaty of Lausanne as unjustified and unacceptable, should be analyzed within framework of two Turkish and Islamic identity layers of the country (The Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923 in which the current borders of Turkey were laid out). In fact, what has come to be known as “Neo-Ottomanism” in recent years is also a product of the joint impact of these two identity layers. These layers served to strengthen the Ottoman Empire, especially during the second half of its rule. In fact, it was due to the impact of these two layers that important parts of Turkey’s society and officials did not accept treaties like the Treaty of Lausanne at the depth of their hearts. Of course, it must be noted that the European / Western layer of Turkey’s identity has made it necessary for the country’s government to accept the ideas, which accompany the notion of the nation-state in modern times. On the other hand, the need to take into account political, security and economic considerations for membership in such Western and European organizations as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have practically ruled out any possibility that Turkey would try to do anything to change the national borders of regional countries.
Another noteworthy point, which should be taken into account within framework of Turkish and Islamic identity layers as well as Neo-Ottomanism policy of Ankara, is the effort made to boost regional influence of Turkey, including by taking advantage of soft power tools. In fact, changing Turkey’s borders in proportion with borders of the Ottoman Empire is practically impossible, but making an effort to boost Ankara’s cultural and political influence in various geographical regions from Balkans to Yemen has been always on the agenda of Turkish officials. Efforts to support Sunni and Turkmen groups in Syria and Iraq have been in fact undertaken with the goal of preserving and expanding cultural and political influence of Turkey. Another point is that by promoting a more sectarian narration of the country’s Islamic identity layer following developments related to the Arab revolutions, Turkey has been showing its sensitivity about increasing influence of Iran and Shia groups in the region. Turkey, among other things, is concerned about Iran’s rising clout as well as the presence of Shia popular forces in Iraq’s Nineveh province and around the city of Mosul as well as along the border between Iraq and Syria. Turkey’s indirect, and sometimes direct, cooperation with regional coalitions, which aim to curb Iran’s regional influence, can be analyzed within this framework.
* Hossein Mofidi Ahmadi
Researcher at Center for Middle East Strategic Studies