Turkey: From “zero” to anti-hero?

How “zero problems with neighboring countries” defenders became champions of revisionism and expansionism?

Turkey’s transformation during the AKP era is quite absorbing both for the fields of domestic and foreign policy. The two decades that followed Erdogan’s rise in power constitute a journey through a road of rose petals with a dead end. In this story of power conquest lies a threat to regional security. The state established by Kemal Ataturk back in 1923 is the main character.

2002 is a landmark year for Turkey. It is the year that AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, begins to dominate the political life of the Turkish society. The former mayor of Istanbul was prolonged as a liberal leader that will transpire Turkey as an exemplary model of secularism in the region. An integral part of this agenda was also the foreign policy doctrine that was suggested by -then academic- Ahmet Davutoglu. One of the major principles Davutoglu’s “Strategic Depth” encompassed was that of “zero problems with neighboring countries”. According to this principle, Turkey’s modernization would be halted if it didn’t pursue to solve the disputes it is involved in the broader regions of Balkans, Caucasus and the Middle East. Only then it will be considered as a responsible and influential power.

And so it started to be materialized. Turkey started to establish economic relations with neighboring countries and set its EU accession as a top priority of foreign policy. Erdogan enjoyed a personal relationship with Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad and refused to contribute to the fragmentation of Iraq. Meddling into other countries’ affairs was systematically rejected even though Kurdish autonomy posed a threat. Turkey even tried to bridge the damaged relations between Iran and the West. At the same time, relations with Israel peaked while Russia and Georgia were not considered as enemies. The disputes in the Aegean Sea with Greece, the unresolved question of Cyprus and the rejection to recognize the Armenian Genocide were still hindrances towards the Turkish strategy. However, Turkey never really tried to escalate any tensions during the first decade of Erdogan’s power.

Nevertheless, every aspect of this process began slowly to be reversed during the second decade. Turkish involvement in the 2010 Mavi Marmara crisis was the first act of relationship deterioration with Israel. Shortly after, in 2011, Arab Uprisings will soak in blood the broader region of the Middle East causing major realignments and creating new geopolitical competitions. Turkey, alongside Qatar, sponsored the Islamic movements in countries divided by unrest and civil war such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Syria won’t be left out of this engagement, as Kurdish militias gained ground and challenged Turkish territorial integrity. The destabilization caused even an act of war when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M in 2015. Steadily, Turkey neglected the path of influence through “zero problems” and espoused a strategy of influence through interventionism and revisionism.

Things were about to get worse in 2016. After a series of struggles for the Turkish state to contain the spillover effects of the regional unrest by stamping down on democratic freedoms, a failed coup sunk the country even more into the path of authoritarianism. The questioning of Erdogan’s rule brought a Hobbesian Leviathan domestically and fueled aggressiveness abroad. Turkey violated the Treaty of Lausanne, the very agreement that gave birth to the Turkish state after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by invading in Syria with ground troops. A sudden rapprochement with Russia brought relations with the West to a point that questions the country’s credibility and commitment towards NATO. EU talks became completely frozen and the Turkish harassment in the EEZ of Cyprus created a hefty pressure upon regional stability.

Right now, Turkey’s relations with Israel and Egypt are hostile, while Syria, Iran and Iraq cannot fully trust Erdogan. Greek and Cypriot disputes are still alive and are being used as tools for domestic consumption when, at the same time, Turkey openly trashes countries for recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Traditional western relations are at an all-time low when the USA and Turkey can exercise diplomacy exclusively at the head-of-state level. Recent developments in Libya, with Turkish troops setting foot in the country to support the internationally recognized government, show that Turkey can pursue influence only by following a militaristic strategy. At the end of the day, “zero problems” turned into “many problems” as the country favors conflict over cooperation both regionally and internationally. A foreign policy based on liberal win-win practices was drowned into Neo-Ottoman and Islamist agendas.

Revisionist powers always challenge the status quo. The result of such a predicament is geopolitical tension that puts at risk security and stability in a region. Turkey is such a power and the broader Eastern Mediterranean is that region. It is quite difficult to predict how this -not so classic- anti-hero journey will eventually conclude. What tends to be classic though is how democracies fall from grace in the 21st century, especially after thrilling positivism that everything goes according to a western utopian plan.