"There is no deadlock in Turkey's Middle East policies"

ORSAM director Kardaş has said that, despite opposition parties' claims of a deadlock in Turkey's foreign policy, the ruling AK Party government's actions will prove that right steps have been taken in the long run, adding that he does not expect a shift in Turkey's foreign policy after the June 7 general elections. With only a month left for the June 7 general elections, political parties, along with their promises of economic betterment, are trying to gather more votes through their foreign policy discourses.

ORSAM director Kardaş has said that, despite opposition parties' claims of a deadlock in Turkey's foreign policy, the ruling AK Party government's actions will prove that right steps have been taken in the long run, adding that he does not expect a shift in Turkey's foreign policy after the June 7 general elections.

With only a month left for the June 7 general elections, political parties, along with their promises of economic betterment, are trying to gather more votes through their foreign policy discourses. On the other hand in comparison to the previous elections the criticism toward Turkish foreign policy from opposition leaders is increasing. In the wake of the upcoming general election, Daily Sabah spoke to prominent academic Associate Professor Şaban Kardaş, the director of Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), about the foreign policy agendas in the manifestos of political parties, the alleged deadlock in Turkey's Middle East policies and other current foreign policy issues.

Daily Sabah: How do you evaluate the foreign policy chapter of political parties' manifestos?

Şaban Kardaş: The AK Party is advantageous as the ruling party. Its promises are premised upon the current policies which, in the AK Party's view, are coherent and consistent with its principles. As such, AK Party manifesto seeks to specify long-term goals, with a perspective toward sustainability. Lately, there have been heated debates over Turkish foreign policy and many of such criticisms can be observed in the CHP's manifesto. Despite all the recent criticisms, the AK Party is standing by its policies and principles. The underlying theme is despite some apparent setbacks at the current juncture, the foreign policy is essentially sustainable. Moreover, in terms of institutional structure of foreign policy mechanisms, the continuation of institutional reforms and restructuring is also promised.

The CHP's manifesto, on the other hand, is over determined by the criticisms towards AK Party. It seeks to offer an alternative by lumping together the oft-heart criticisms of the AK Party's foreign policy, especially in the case of the Middle East. The problem here is that the manifesto is built so much upon the criticism of AK Party that the CHP is distracted away from offering a new coherent discourse for foreign policy. Moreover, since the criticisms take a narrow point of view, they consume the CHP's attention. The CHP focuses mostly on the Syrian policy in its criticisms, at the expense of a more balanced assessment of the bigger picture.

AK Party's foreign policy, of course, has some issues to be criticized; but, there are also many achievements, especially in regards to such issues as opening to new regions, pursuing a more multi-dimensional foreign policy and development assistance. These are areas which the CHP claims to focus on as part of a new 'social democratic vision.' Yet, the CHP has a manifesto which disregards all the gains and prefers to focus exclusively on the negative aspects, which prevents it from a healthier assessment.

DS: In the foreign policy chapter of their manifesto, the AK Party uses the expression "being on the right side of history." What does it mean and is the AK Party on the right side of history? Does such an approach not make it impossible to judge the foreign policy?

Ş.K: In terms of judging foreign policy, a more relevant question is which span of time we are talking about. After how many months or years are we going to consider whether we are on the right or the wrong side. Obviously, it is not possible to prove or debunk this expression, if a specific period of time is not given.

However, most criticisms of this motto are flawed, considering they are focusing on the 'moment.' Instead of taking the whole process into consideration, most criticisms jump easily into hasty conclusions. The AK Party, for its own part, with this expression, adds a time dimension, signifying that there is a continuum, hence process. Therefore, this expression requires a process analysis.

To exemplify, let's recall the relations with Iraq. Two years ago, the most criticized, cliché, foreign policy subject was Turkey's 'bad relations' with Maliki. Some viewed this as a personal issue between then Prime Minister Erdoğan and Maliki, connoting even an alleged sectarian policy. However, with the rise of ISIS, the political conditions in Iraq have changed since June 2014. The U.S. leadership argued that Iraq's recovery from the political crisis rested on Maliki's not running standing for a new term as premier. Similar to Turkey's previous criticism, Maliki's previous policies came to be viewed as the prime cause of the havoc in Iraq.

If we analyze another example, in the Iraq War of 2003, the U.S. invasion, despite Turkey's objection was considered as a grave blow to Turkey. When some leading Turkish journalists interviewed U.S. decision-makers, the prevailing common wisdom was that Turkey lost dearly. However, analyses in 2007-2008 claimed that Turkey benefited the most from post-2003 Iraq, economically and otherwise. The bottom line is, in foreign policy analysis, the time period and the process should not be disregarded.

When we look at the Syria policy today, which allegedly forms the core of the deadlock argument, we see a similar problem. Recently, we see that the opposition forces are active in Idlib and on the southern front, and there are talks about a change of military balance in the field. If such moves gain traction, we might be talking about a completely new conjecture. Therefore, a deadlock may appear to be true for a moment in a policy; but, the key question is to understand whether, as a process, in which direction it might unfold.

Then, isn't there a deadlock in Turkey's Middle East policies? This is one area for which the Ak Party is most criticized by opposition parties.

Personally, I do not think there is an irrevocable deadlock in Turkey's Middle East policies. The reason why it seems as a deadlock is the time gap between the current reality and the visionary nature of the policies. The results of these policies, if they're correct, will be seen in the future. In this matter, there is a time gap between a policy and its results. In the intervening period, criticisms can naturally emerge; we are in such a period. AK Party's and the government's assumption is that Turkey stands to benefit from this process eventually, which I partially agree.

Even if there is currently a standstill in Syria for Turkey's perspective, what matters for the long term is that 'Assad has no place in Syria's future' forms the basis of the international community's approach, including that of the United States. From foreign policy analysis perspective, the challenge is to manage the differences between short-term and long-term expectations. My point is that: Turkey is not bogged down in the short-term such that it cannot achieve its preferred results in the long-term. If we treat this process as a game, Turkey still remains a decisive player and it has the means and wherewithal to protect its interest and shape outcomes.

It should not be disregarded that the countries in the region have been affected negatively from the recent conflict spiral. Moreover, some actors that appear to be victorious have in fact lost so much, with their vicious entanglement on the ground. Turkey, in comparison to other actor, has managed the process with lesser loss, while it still possesses the means to maneuver if the situation deteriorates. These means includes many assets from military to diplomatic.

DS: It seems that the AK Party will continue to hold the government after the upcoming elections. Do you expect a radical revision in the AK Party's foreign policy?

Ş.K: I do not expect a 'reset' in Turkish foreign policy after the elections, as it is speculated by some. Nonetheless, there may be revisions in tandem with the changing dynamics. In fact, there have been constant adaptations and adjustments in response to changing situations in the underlying dynamics. Let's go over the Syrian example; since the start of the conflict, there has been one constant, the principle of 'open-door' policy. However, today, the work permit for the Syrian refugees is debated and, instead of encouraging them to take refuge in our country, sending humanitarian aid to Syria and meeting their needs is prioritized, through, for instance, zero point delivery policy.

A side effect of that policy was the foreign fighters problem. As that challenge became apparent, Turkey moved to take measures accordingly. The Western allies have also started to cooperate with Turkey on this issue. There was a U.N. decision regarding this issue, and, in response to it and new coordination with Western partners, Turkey has bolstered its measures to tighten movements across borders with Syria, especially the border security.

Another point is Turkey's underlying approach to the resolution of the Syrian crisis. Turkey's initial aim and preference was to resolve the crisis through a more regional initiative; cooperating with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When this did not happen, from 2012 onwards, Turkey adopted a policy which foresaw greater coordination with the West and the international community. Yet, for the last one and half years, due to the poor delivery of the Western actors, Turkey has also encountered some disagreements with them over Syrian policy.

This is what adjustment is; to adapt to the changing situations and positions of other actors. Again, unlike some of the experts, I am not expecting a 'reset'. Because, in the view of the government, the policy is not flawed. Over time its rightness and wrongness will definitely be determined; but, given the government's belief in a visionary approach, the supposed reset is not a realistic expectation.

DS: During Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) head Masoud Barzani's visit to Washington, D.C., Kurdistan's independence was among the subjects discussed. How do you evaluate the possibility of an independent Kurdistan?

Ş.K: There was news regarding the Kurds seeking for a solid U.S. support for independence. However, the American officials reiterated clearly their support for Iraq's unity. Another main subject of discussions was the war against ISIS, according to some news outlets.

We can guess that KRG administration, which played a critical role against ISIS, might have raised some political demands. Also, Masoud Barzani may have conveyed his views regarding the tension between Irbil and Baghdad. While there is an agreement on the distribution of oil revenues, it remains to be seen how sustainable it will be. For the time being, every group in Iraq seems to be united against the ISIS threat. When the threat is eliminated, however, it remains unclear how the balance will unfold and whether the current cooperation can be sustained.

The internal dynamics of the Kurdish politics should not be disregarded, either. KRG is not a uniform structure; on the contrary, intra-Kurdish political struggle is very fierce. Currently, the extending of Barzani's term or a possible presidential system are discussed in the KRG. We can infer that Barzani may have solicited U.S. support to strengthen his position in the internal politics.

If we factor in economic and security issues bedeviling the KRG, as well as the positions of the regional and international actors, I do not think the establishment of an independent Kurdistan is feasible in the short-term. However, we observe that KRG is spending tremendous effort for the acquisition of disputed regions and settling the dispute over Kirkuk's status to its own advantage. With the postponement of the demands for independence, in the short-term, the possibility of a reopening the debate for Kirkuk's status should not be disregarded.

DS: Another subject is Iran's nuclear agreement. In your opinion, will the tentative agreement between P 5+1 transform into a permanent one?

Ş.K: There is no reason not to; however, we can observe that the suspicions are not yet eliminated and there are voices of dissent in both Iran and the P 5+1 countries. Nevertheless, on the positive side, we need to recall that the dynamics which brought the parties to this tentative agreement are still there.

DS: How will Iran's nuclear agreement affect the region?

Ş.K: There are two opinions on this subject. The first is that a diplomatically and economically relieved Iran will increase its influence in the region and will continue its expansionist policy. A more extreme interpretation of that view suggests that even Iran may seek the development of a nuclear weapon. This view is dominant in the Gulf countries and Israel. The second view which is accepted by Turkey and the West is that Iran's normalized relations with the international community will result in increased economic relations and ease tensions in the region.

Turkey is not afraid of an internationally integrated and powerful Iran. The fear of an empowered Iran is existent in the Gulf countries; but, Turkey's position is more nuanced. As we can see from the developments prior to President Erdoğan's latest visit to Iran, Turkey does not refrain from taking a stance against Iran when it is seen pursuing an expansionist policy, yet finds a common ground to maintain its cooperative relations.

DS: The preliminary consultations for the resolution of the Syrian Crisis, which are dubbed "Geneva-3" have started. Do you think these talks will yield a result?

Ş.K: I think the most crucial question is what is required for a diplomatic solution in Syria in the following period. There are two issues: who are the ones which will negotiate and whether they are willing to negotiate. We can see that Assad regime is not willing to negotiate currently. Regarding the Syrian opposition, there has been ambiguity as to who is representing the opposition, which was the major impediment. However, we can regard the conciliation among some opposition groups as an important gain. The return to Geneva framework, despite many question marks, is important. Especially, after several attempts to initiate other processes in Moscow or Cairo, Geneva signifies a more realistic approach to incorporating the real representative opposition.

On the other hand, the pressure on Assad regime must be increased in order to reach a negotiation process. This pressure can be provided not only by diplomatic pressure, but through the military successes of the opposition. As long as the deadlock on the ground continues, a diplomatic solution does not seem very possible.

Resource: Daily Sabah, May 10, 2015

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