Ahmet Davutoğlu gave a remarkable speech before the Turkish parliament yesterday in which he completely smashed any remaining vestiges of his own zero problems with neighbors policy and embraced his full neo-Ottoman side. Davutoğlu declared that Turkey will be the “owner, pioneer, and servant” of the new Middle East which he says Turkey has led the way in creating, and that Turkey will continue to lead and “guide the winds of change” in the region. On Syria specifically, Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey had been urging Assad to reform well before the Arab Spring and said that he could not understand those who embrace autocratic leaders at the expense of the people, and stated that the AKP’s motto is “cry out against oppression.” Most remarkably and in what must be seen as an enormous policy shift, Davutoğlu said that Turkey will no longer wait to let the big powers set the agenda in Syria before acting and that Turkey will not follow any policies that do not originate with its own government. In making it apparent that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, Davutoğlu said, “Even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Whew! Anyone else think that Ahmet Bey has been reading too many glowing testaments to his own brilliance in Time and Foreign Policy?
Despite the snark, I actually think this is a good thing because it means that Turkey’s rhetoric is starting to catch up to current realities. In instituting zero problems with neighbors, Davutoğlu’s aim was to rebuild Turkish power by cutting out unnecessary foreign policy distractions and using Turkey’s growing economic clout to expand its influence. By any measure, the policy has been enormously successful as Turkey has transformed itself into a regional power with ambitions of becoming a top geopolitical actor. While this has occurred, Turkey has insisted throughout that it can still maintain positive relationships with all countries in the region and work out any problems through dialogue and mutual understanding. As I have pointed out previously, this is silly naivete. Last week I wrote the following:
Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region.
The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
Turkey, and Davutoğlu particularly, has continued to spout the zero problems with neighbors line, but it does not fit with what Turkey is trying to do. Davutoğlu has finally come out and said what everyone knows, which is that Turkey views itself not as a first among equals but as a regional leader, and that it expects to be out front in setting policy for the region in a bid for hegemony. It took the opposition parties accusing the government of interfering in Syria at the expense of ignoring domestic problems for Davutoğlu to reveal his true thoughts and ambitions, but now that they are out in the open, there is no point in trying to cram them back into the box. Turkey should embrace its new role and its newfound power rather than trying to hide the ball, and the empty slogans about zero problems and humility in foreign policy now need to stop for good.
P.S. By the way, if you want to do a fun little exercise, compare the news stories on Davutoğlu’s speech in Hürriyet and in Zaman. Before you do so, try to guess which paper frames the speech as dealing with Syria and which frames the speech as outlining Turkey’s ambitions to lead the Middle East, and if both report Davutoğlu’s declarations about policies that originate in Ankara and Turkey’s epic power.