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Why Turkey's Big Ambitions To Become Diplomatic Heavyweight Have Fizzled

Article illustrative image Partner logo Tall ambitions

ISTANBUL – Only two years ago, Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu seemed absolutely unstoppable. Spurred by this academic who had been appointed Foreign Minister by Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan, Turkey’s so-called "360 degrees diplomacy" went from one success to another.

In 2010, the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy described the professor-turned-diplomat as "the brains behind Turkey's global reawakening."

After a year at the helm of the country's diplomacy, he turned out to be an ambitious envoy – spending up to 25 days per month abroad, spreading the ideas he developed in his Strategic Depth theoretical treatise written in the late 1990s, on how to build a peaceful area providing Turks with economic prosperity.

This strategy is summarized in what has now become Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu’s motto: "Zero problems with neighbors." But two years and one Arab Spring later, the patent failure of this policy has become plain to see.

The Syrian problem

The central point of DavutoÄŸlu’s "Love Thy Neighbor" diplomacy was the rapprochement between Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan’s Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Before the revolution in the Arab world broke out in March 2011, DavutoÄŸlu went to Damascus more than 50 times. Syria and Turkey held two joint councils of ministers in late 2009, one of which took place in Aleppo, and they decided to abolish visas between the two nations.

As recently as January 2010, ErdoÄŸan and then Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otri inaugurated the Friendship Dam on the Orontes River, along the border.

However, the harmony soon fizzled. The Turkish Foreign Minister did not miraculously succeed in ending the Syrian regime's repression against the opposition, and the border between Turkey and Syria -- the longest Turkey shares with any of its neighbors – is back to being militarized, just like in the 1990s. To make things even worse, some 45,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border to Turkey so far.

A troubled neighborhood

And that's not the only problematic frontier. Turkey’s border with Armenia remains desperately closed after the failure of talks in 2009. The country’s budding friendship with Greece, meant as a gateway of sorts to the European Union, has suffered from the economic collapse of the Greek neighbor.

The Cyprus issue continues to plague Turkey’s bilateral ties: The Republic of Cyprus has taking up the rotating presidency of the EU with half of the island still occupied by Turkey. All attempts at negotiating have been met with failure.

The Cyprus question also continues to weigh considerably on the matter of Turkey’s accession to the EU – for which negotitations have been at a standstill for several years. Turkey is still aiming for "full and complete" membership and is betting on a warming of its relations with France, hinted at in July with DavutoÄŸlu’s visit in Paris to resume talks with the new French administration.

Regarding Iraq, significant differences have emerged. In early August, DavutoÄŸlu’s trip to Kirkuk -- a city in northern Iraq claimed by Kurds – caused much uproar among the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad, and angered Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who had not been notified ahead of DavutoÄŸlu’s visit.

Confusion had already been caused by the protection granted to Tariq Al-Hashemi, a Sunni politician and former general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic Party, who found refuge in Istanbul while being investigated by the Iraqi justice for allegations of aiding and abetting murder.

Then there is the oil conflict that pits Baghdad against the Kurdish autonomous region – in which Turkey has picked its side, by bonding with the Barzani family (Massoud Barzani being the current President of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Region). In July, Kurdistan directly exported oil to Turkey, triggering Baghdad’s wrath.

When it comes to Iran, relations have never gone beyond a state of mutual distrust, despite DavutoÄŸlu’s attempts to act as a negotiator concerning Iran's nuclear program.

The wind of revolution carried by the Arab Spring has rekindled the neverending tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in the region. Tehran, at the front of the Shiite block, and Ankara, a Sunni authority getting closer and closer to the Gulf monarchies, have increasingly diverging interests.

Scaling back ambitions

Ankara's ambition, that of becoming a bridge between East and West, ended in bitter disappointment. In 2008, Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu tried to gather the leaders of Syria and Israel around the same table, by using its good relations with each other. Not only was the attempt a total failure, but now Ankara ended up at odds with both countries.

"The Turkey that was pursuing new goals with the European Union, Israel and Iran on one side and developing long-term projects with Syria, Russia and the United States on the other – that Turkey is nowhere to be seen now," says says Cumali Onal, a columnist for the newspaper Zaman and former supporter of DavutoÄŸlu’s policy.

Onal explains that Turkey’s foreign policy is back to where it was before the Islamic-leaning conservative party AKP came to power in 2002. "Currently, there is virtually no neighboring country with which Turkey doesn’t have problems," he notes. "Neither Israel nor Palestinian groups mention Turkey any longer. Now we see how unproductive Turkey’s efforts have been."

Has Ankara lost the influence it had famously acquired during the Arab revolutions? "Four countries that have overthrown their dictators -- Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen – no longer consider Turkey as a model, despite the efforts and diplomatic initiatives that have been taken," says Onal.

Egypt’s priority is Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by President Mohamed Morsi’s first trip abroad. For many observers, Turkey’s failure at creating a new regional order means it has returned to its former state and re-aligned on Washington's foreign policy: a NATO member since 1953, Ankara has allowed the installation, on its territory, of anti-missile radars pointed at Iran – thus putting an end to Turkey’s role as a impartial negotiator.

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