As ISIS flexes its muscles as a new international menace, Turkey is moving to shut down its “jihadist highway,” the border routes by which men and arms trickle into Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:
Turkish forces have stepped up arrests, patrols and interrogations in recent months, but the rapid advance of Islamic State extremists in Iraq has made Ankara’s initiative even more urgent, say Turkish officials, Western diplomats and residents. […]Turkey became the primary route for foreign jihadists to join Syria’s civil war because of the country’s easy visa policies for travel, its porous 565-mile border with Syria and its modern transportation infrastructure.
Ankara, which grew hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after his deadly crackdown on protesters in 2011, also allowed foreign militants who sought to oust him to freely operate, diplomats say. Ankara has denied turning a blind eye to their presence.
This latest move signals yet another setback for the “neo-Ottomanism” (see WRM’s essay on the project from 2011) which was to be a signature of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his then-Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. An excellent appraisal in Foreign Affairs of Davutoglu is worth pondering in this context. The big picture:
In the early years of Davutoglu’s tenure as foreign minister, Turkey did pivot toward the Middle East. He sought rapprochement with Turkey’s Muslim neighbors, including Iran, Iraq, and Syria. He also reached out to the Gulf monarchies, and built good ties with countries as far away as Sudan. He believed that these policies, which he dubbed “Zero Problems with Neighbors,” built Turkish influence in regional capitals and helped establish Turkey as a Middle Eastern power.The Arab Spring, however, soon proved Davutoglu wrong. As protests began to heat up in Syria in 2011, Davutoglu flew to Damascus to advise President Bashar al-Assad to refrain from using violence against the crowds. Only hours after Davutoglu’s departure, however, Assad sent tanks into Syrian cities for the first time, snubbing the Zero Problems policy and Davutoglu. Appalled by the slight and by Assad’s treatment of civilians, the Turkish leader decided to back the uprising, and opened the country’s borders to Syrian refugees and anti-regime rebels, including what would eventually become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. This decision cost Turkey dearly, and its relations with Damascus and its regional patron, Iran, began to crumble. Things went poorly in Iraq, too, where Davutoglu supported the Kurds because he wanted to import their oil and because he saw them as a potential intermediary with Turkey’s own Kurds and as proxy against the Shia-majority government in Baghdad. This rapprochement irritated the Iraqi government and Iran, also Iraq’s patron.
Neo-Ottomanism has certainly seen better days. But the question is: Will Erdogan and Davutoglu now re-examine their overall strategy? A trio of Turkish scholars argued in our pages that it does not appear likely in the immediate term. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to paint what has transpired recently as anything other than a serious foreign policy failure. This can only be heartening to those voters within Turkey who have kept the flickering flame of a Kemalist, West-facing Turkey alive.