When the Iraqi city of Mosul was captured on June 10 by the armed militias of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, many world leaders were shocked and concerned. Turkey’s leaders were more alarmed than most; ISIS militants stormed the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped 100 Turkish citizens, some of them diplomats. As I write, the hostages, including two babies, are still in the hands of ISIS.
Back in Turkey, a heated media debate abruptly came to a halt after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his usual authoritarian tone, asked the media “to follow this issue silently.” Two days later, an Ankara court issued a gag order, banning all sorts of news and commentary on the events in Mosul. The reason, the court explained, was first “to protect the safety of the hostages” but also to prevent “news that depicts the state in weakness.”
But Turks need to discuss their state’s weaknesses, and the mistakes made in the multiple crises along the country’s southeastern borders. And they should do this without falling into the deep polarization that has plagued Turkey’s political landscape recently. This is not about being for or against Mr. Erdogan; it is about Turkey’s future security and its relationship with its troubled southern neighbors.
In fact, Mr. Erdogan and his professor-turned-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu deserve credit for abandoning Turkey’s traditional conservative foreign policy, which only focused on protecting the status quo and responding to new developments defensively. Mr. Davutoglu’s famous goal of having “zero problems with neighbors” was an expression of the vision that the world around Turkey might change and that Turks could play a pivotal role in shaping it.
This vision worked well for a while, and the Erdogan-Davutoglu team even felt that, with the chain of Arab Revolutions in 2011, the time had come for their moderately Islamic “Turkish model” to serve as an example for the whole region. This was not a bad idea, the veteran Turkey and Middle East expert Graham Fuller explains in his new book, “Turkey and the Arab Spring.” Yet too much idealism, if not ideology, along with overestimating Turkey’s power, led to some serious mistakes.
In Syria, Turkey’s first mistake was to underestimate the durability of President Bashar al-Assad, who had quickly turned from friend to enemy. The second mistake was to underestimate the threat posed by radical jihadist groups such as ISIS that had gradually overshadowed the more moderate and democratic-minded Syrian opposition.
To be fair, Turkey didn’t willingly nurture a Qaeda offshoot beyond its borders. But by focusing so singularly on toppling Mr. Assad, and turning a blind eye for quite some time to the anti-Assad extremists, it unwittingly helped create a monster.
Yet still there is one bright spot in the region — and it is a direct result of Mr. Davutoglu’s “zero problems” vision: Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now Turkey’s best ally in Iraq, if not the whole region.
This is deeply ironic, of course, because for decades Turkey was paranoid about Kurds and their political ambitions — both at home and abroad. The Erdogan-Davutoglu team, along with President Abdullah Gul, gradually turned this bitterness with the Kurds into reconciliation and eventually an alliance.
The alliance between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has grown over the past five years, as Turkey invested heavily in the partly autonomous Iraqi region, opened a consulate in its capital Erbil, and Mr. Erdogan even befriended its leader, Masoud Barzani.
The relationship was further cemented earlier this month, when Ankara signed a 50-year deal with Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders, allowing them to export Kurdish oil to the world via a pipeline that runs through Turkey. The deal, which was opposed by Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, indicates that Turkey now sees Iraqi Kurdistan as a strategic partner, and cares very little about the territorial integrity of Iraq that it used to obsess about.
It’s no wonder, then, that a spokesman for Mr. Erdogan’s party recently announced that Turkey would support Iraqi Kurds’ bid for self-determination. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” he said — a clear departure from traditional Turkish policy.
Apparently, Turkey is now willing to welcome Iraqi Kurds, perhaps even Syrian ones, as allies and to serve as a buffer between Turkey and the chaos in both of those countries. This could prove a very wise strategy, especially if it can be combined with a successful domestic peace process that ends the long-running conflict with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, who for years used bases in northern Iraq and Syria to attack Turkish soldiers in the majority-Kurdish southeastern regions of the country.
But Turkey’s leaders need to show the same sort of wisdom and flexibility on other issues, too. The reconciliation with the Kurds was partly possible because Mr. Erdogan and his colleagues largely freed themselves from the ideological constraints of ethnic Turkish nationalism, which was a hallmark of most of their secular predecessors.
Yet the masters of the New Turkey seem to have their own ideological constraint — Sunni Islamism. They should be able to outgrow that, and instead of taking a side in the region’s growing Sunni-Shiite divide, they should champion reconciliation, be more wary of Sunni extremists, and reach out to non-Sunni Muslims — both at home and abroad. If they do not, many of Turkey’s recent diplomatic accomplishments could be overshadowed and reversed by sectarian strife.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.