Turkey: Zero Chances for “Zero Problems”

by Zenonas Tziarras

Since the election of Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Turkey followed a different foreign policy orientation. The man behind this foreign policy shift was Ahmet Davutoglu, today’s Foreign Minister. Davutoglu had a whole new idea about how the goals of Turkish foreign policy should be pursued and in his book “Strategic Depth” (Stratejik Derinlik) (2001) he brilliantly drafts a strategic doctrine for Turkey’s new foreign policy. Despite its relative success, this doctrine is seriously challenged by many regional developments, which are making it hard to believe that its implementation could ever be possible.

“Zero Problems”

A central theme of Davutoglu’s, and Turkey’s, foreign policy doctrine is the “zero problems with neighbors” principle. In brief, this suggests that Turkey wants to re-engage with the Arab world and the broader region more generally, by playing the role of the peace broker and mediator for regional disputes and conflicts. Based on “zero problems” Turkey is willing to abandon its crisis prone attitude and resort to “soft power”, cultural and historical bonds with its neighbors, and create economic and political relations of interdependence between the states of the Middle East and beyond, in order to resolve any bilateral or regional problems. At the same time Turkey is not neglecting the good relations that it should maintain with international actors like the US, EU and Russia. However, the last few months Turkish foreign policy has been facing quite a few problems not only in its region but also internationally. This has led many analysts to reconsider the feasibility of the “zero problems” principles and the goals of the Turkish foreign policy themselves.


The dead-ends that Ankara is facing extend, mainly, to three fronts; namely, the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and the International Level.

Middle East: The root of most of Turkey’s problems on its borders with its neighbors (Iran, Syria, and Iraq) is the Kurdish separatist movement which consists of Kurds militants from Syria, Northern Iraq, Iran and of course PKK in Turkey. Apart from a short period of relative peace between the Turkish government and the Kurds in the early 2000s, the Kurdish issue kept posing an important threat to Turkey’s security. In the midst of the Arab Spring the Kurdish problem has escalated while the attacks of the Kurdish militants have become more efficient since Israel has stopped providing intelligence to Turkey – regarding the Kurdish movements – due to the significant decline of the relations between the two countries. Turkey is now undertaking military operations in Northern Iraq against the militant Kurds and is trying to cooperate with Iraq to contain the Kurdish insurgency. But, as noted, N. Iraq is not Turkey’s only problem. Despite Turkey’s need for Iran’s help in the conflict against the Kurdish secessionists, Ankara’s latest decision to install NATO antimissile systems in its soil raised concerns in Iran and put the fragile relations of the two countries in danger. In addition, the emerging civil war in Syria, and the violent crackdown of the regime on the protesters thus far, have been very important destabilizing factors that create even more insecurities to Turkey. Faced with this deteriorating situation, Turkey has already threatened Syria twice: the first time in August and the second time in October. And Turkey has done so after Davudoglu himself, a little more than a year ago, wrote that “[a]lthough Turkey maintains a powerful military due to its insecure neighborhood, we do not make threats”. In the same spirit he wrote that “Turkey can use its unique understanding of the Middle East, and its diplomatic assets, to operate effectively on the ground. Turkey’s Lebanon policy, its attempts to mediate between Syria and Israel and achieve Palestinian reconciliation […] are integral parts of Turkey’s foreign-policy vision for the Middle East” (Ibid.). Today, Turkey uses the Palestinian quest for statehood to gain the support of the Arab states and diplomatically pressure Tel Aviv in order to win the diplomatic battle that it has been having with Israel. It is worth noting that in September Turkey also threatened Israel that it would send humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip accompanied by warships to make sure for its safety. Moreover, a few weeks ago it was said that Lebanon’s decision to dispute its marine borders with Israel and Cyprus was influenced by Turkey.

Eastern Mediterranean: The last point brings us to the challenges that the “zero problems” principle of Davutoglu’s doctrine is facing in the Eastern Mediterranean. The drillings for the extraction of natural gas and oil in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by “Noble Energy” – a company of American interests – was an unexpected development for Turkey. Cyprus, which shares marine borders with Greece and Israel, is closely cooperating with both of these countries, and especially with Israel since their undersea energy reserves are adjoined. Turkey, since summer months, has been threatening Greece, Cyprus and Israel in order to convince them to stop the drillings. It even mobilized warships, frigates and military airplanes, both near Cyprus and Greece, to make the threats more plausible. The threatened countries responded with cooperation agreements or solidarity statements. The Aegean Sea has been a disputed area between Greece and Turkey for decades and a cause that brought the two counties to the brink of war in the past. It is important that Greece and Cyprus, unlike Turkey, have signed and ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty (1982). Whereas Greece wants a legal settlement of the problem, Turkey wants a political one. In Cyprus the problem regards the Turkish illegal occupation of 37% of the Island. Turkey uses the rights of the Turkish-Cypriots, which have been secured from the Republic of Cyprus, as an excuse to dispute the Republic of Cyprus’ right to operate in its EEZ. The Republic of Cyprus has already stated that Turkish-Cypriots are citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and are entitled to any possible profits that will occur from the drillings in the future, especially if a settlement unifies the island under a federal system. Furthermore, it has been lately made known that 100.000 Turkish Cypriots own a passport of the Republic of Cyprus and are therefore European citizens. Consequently it becomes clear that Turkey has not abolished its crisis prone orientation and that it is willing to put aside the “zero problems” or “soft power” rhetoric if geopolitical or economic interests are considered more important. Turkey’s threats for example, on the one hand, and its decision to delimitate its continental shelf with Northern Cyprus (“TRNC”) – a legally (de jure) nonexistent state, recognized only by Turkey – on the other, do not present willingness for “zero problems”.

International Level: Turkey’s latest behavior both in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean has been troubling for International actors like the EU, US and Russia. To begin with, the bad relations between Israel and Turkey and Turkey’s threats towards Cyprus – given that the drillings in Cyprus are being made by an American company – do not please the US at all, and the State Department made that very clear to Ankara. At the same time, the EU, especially France and Germany, is constantly asking Turkey to restrain itself and refrain from provocative actions, as that would not help its EU candidacy. France in particular sent a warship close to Cyprus’ marine boarders to show its opposition to the Turkish threats. Similarly, Russia sent ships and submarines, since it has many interests in, and very good diplomatic and economic relations with, the Republic of Cyprus. The diplomatic fronts that Turkey has opened with these actors, through its actions, contradict its foreign policy aim of finding the balance between its regional interests and the interests of its international and western allies.


It is evident that despite its successes, the new Turkish foreign policy doctrine is not working. In order for such a doctrine to work real changes need to be made in the political culture of the state’s elite and real concessions have to be made on a diplomatic and political level in different cases of the Turkish foreign policy. Making peace, let alone being a peace broker, with the region and the world comes with the appreciation of certain realities and the abandonment of some others. Even though Turkey has come a long way since 2002, especially in terms of democracy and domestic reforms, it seems that the results of those reforms, along with previous historical processes, have been twofold. Apart from democratizing the different levels of the state and civil society they have also allowed for a “revisionist political culture paradigm” to exploit the previous “status quo paradigm” and thus create an evolved paradigm that enjoys the support of the civil-society (exactly because it combines both political culture paradigms) and allows to the elites to apply a “soft power” rhetoric on the one hand and a “soft revisionism” practice, on the other. This last assumption needs to be thoroughly researched as the domestic, cultural and historical dynamics that lead to the Turkish foreign policy-making are very complicated. Turkey is indeed positioned in a very sensitive geopolitical location, which defines to a great extent its foreign and security policies. However, there are always more than one option and the management of the threats, the timely bilateral disputes and the relics of revisionism lie in the hands of the policy makers.

Follow Zenonas Tziarras on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/ZenonasTziarras


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