By Peter Lee
April 22, 2012

With a high-profile visit to China, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued his campaign to increase the geopolitical clout of his country.

Turkey has great hopes of emerging (or re-emerging, if one recalls the heyday of the Ottoman Empire) as more than the geographic and economic linchpin of Eurasia. Erdogan hopes to leverage that central position by establishing Turkey as a regional power, a country that can set the agenda for events across the continents.

Judging from Erdogan’s trip to China, Turkey still has a way to go.

Hurriyet, Turkey’s leading English-language daily, confused

Premier Wen Jiabao’s given name and surname and covered the visit as: Erdogan meets Jiabao on milestone China trip. [1]

Geopolitics also saw no uniformity on a key issue – Syria. Turkey has turned its back on President Bashar al-Assad; the People’s Republic of China is actively engaged in the Syrian peace process.

Nevertheless, at Beijing Airport on April 10, Erdogan told reporters that “China is not in the same position as it was before”, ie that it was shifting away from full support of Assad’s regime in Syria.

One can speculate that he made his statement at the airport on his way out, so that he could shape the message without fear of any embarrassing contradiction from his hosts.

Optimistic spin was duly provided to Turkey’s Sunday Zaman newspaper by a Turkish academic:

I think both [Russia and China] will re-evaluate their positions and take a stand very close to the Turkish one … Russia and China will not confront Turkey and the West by continuing to support the Assad regime. [2]
Beijing did not respond to Erdogan’s comments, at least not directly.

However, China’s Syria peace initiative is arguably its most important geopolitical move in the last decade. If China and Russia have any doubts about Assad’s staying power, they are unlikely to share them with Erdogan.

On April 12, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted a special statement on the Syrian ceasefire:

In order to ease tensions and push forward the political settlement process, China has been engaging the Syrian Government and other parties in Syria in its own way. China has also stayed in contact with relevant parties such as regional countries, the Arab League and Russia on the political resolution of the Syrian issue.
What China has done is effective.

At the next stage, China will work with other parties concerned to continue to actively support Annan’s mediation for the political settlement of the Syrian issue, maintain communication and coordination with relevant parties in a bid to play a constructive role for the fair, peaceful and proper settlement of the Syrian issue at an early date. [3]

More to the point, shortly after Erdogan’s departure, China gave a high-profile welcome to Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and provided a full-throated endorsement of the Kofi Annan mission to broker peace.

If there was a message for Turkey in all this, it was that China is directly engaged in the issue, and is not looking to Turkey for leadership.
The fact is, Turkey is very far out on a limb on Syria and, at this point, can only be grateful that the international community has not sawn it off.

Toward the end of 2011, Erdogan apparently saw Syria as another Libya. Turkey had dumped Muammar Gaddafi in Libya when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lined up against him and Erdogan could claim the credit, such that it was, that the bombing was conducted under NATO instead of French and British auspices.

As demonstrations against Assad and his regime persisted into the summer and autumn of 2011, it looked like Turkey might begin thinking about a new regime-democratic, perhaps with a strong Sunni component and eager for Turkish tutelage and assistance across its southern border.

Erdogan abandoned his policy of engagement with Assad and joined the chorus calling for his ouster.

In Syria, however, no foreign intervention has materialized out of the expressions of Western and GCC outrage, Assad is still in Damascus, and Turkey, instead of basking in another deft “right side of history” Arab Spring maneuver, is now locked into an agenda of confrontation with a desperate and rather resourceful neighbor.

Turkey has not cut its losses by exploring rapprochement with the Syrian government; instead it has emerged as the patron of the feckless (the Syrian National Council ~ SNC), the reckless (Free Syria Army ~ FSA), and the opportunistic (Friends of Syria).

Erdogan seems to be intent upon digging a deeper hole for Turkey with his mouth, talking up the horrors of the Assad regime so that reconciliation will be politically impossible for him.

Upon leaving China, he declared that he would invoke NATO’s obligations under Article 5 (to protect a member state) in response to a minor border skirmish that might actually have been provoked by some FSA fighters seeking a haven in a refugee camp in Turkey following an attack that they had mounted.

Erdogan’s Syria stance has had other diplomatic repercussions.

Iran, which had traditionally viewed Turkey as a supporter in its wrangling with the West over its nuclear program, called for a shift in venue for the “Iran Six” (also known as the P5+1 ~ the United States, China, the United Kingdom, France and Russia plus Germany) (ED: Once again, note the absence of mention of Israel, the ice pick behind all this war prodding.) talks from Istanbul in response to Turkey’s pro-Western tilt over Syria, and Erdogan’s decision to go all-in supporting NATO missile defense.

Erdogan peremptorily burned his bridges with Tehran by responding, “Because of the lack of honesty, Iran is continually losing its international prestige.” [4]

ED: Ooopsies! That was a diplomatic blunder if ever there was one, Mr. Erdogan!

This round did take place in Istanbul, but the next round will be in Baghdad.

Erdogan has successfully placed Turkey on the outs with Syria, Russia and Iran. Since Turkey sources the majority of its energy needs from Russia and Iran, this is no small feat.

If Turkey is seen to be advancing the Western freedom agenda, it can count on coolness from China as well.

And that’s not good news for Erdogan, whose political strength relies on delivering economic growth, not diplomatic hassles.

Erdogan’s highest priority on his April 2012 trip was business: to strengthen the economic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Turkey. Trade is booming ~ but with China enjoying a major surplus. Therefore, Erdogan brought 300 businesspeople in tow, issued calls for increased Chinese investment in Turkey, and talked expansively of a “New Silk Road”, a railway bridging 28 countries and connecting China and Turkey.

ED: How fragile is that considering today’s political climate? It is a good idea, but at what cost? Very bad timing.

At the same time, Erdogan was anxious to demonstrate Turkey’s stature (and his enhanced global profile) by visiting Xinjiang, home to 10 million Uighurs who share cultural and linguistic ties with Turkic peoples across Asia.

The imperatives of Turkish politics and geopolitical self-regard have turned the issue of the Uighurs, and the ongoing political and cultural repression they suffer at the hands of the Chinese government, into another crisis point for Erdogan. 

In 2009, on the occasion of the Han-Uighur riots in Xinjiang, Erdogan had infuriated Beijing by characterizing the government crackdown as “a kind of genocide”. [5]

He also stated that he would issue a visa to Rebiya Kadeer ~ head of the World Uighur Congress and perpetual thorn in Beijing’s side. (Kadeer apparently did not apply for the visa, perhaps much to the relief of the Turkish government).

On his visit to China ~ the first by a Turkish prime minister in 27 years ~ Erdogan was keen not to upset the apple cart.

He scored the political coup of visiting Urumqi ~ actually, his first stop on entering China, before he continued onward to Beijing ~ but did not antagonize his hosts by posturing as the protector of Xinjiang’s Uighurs.

As Emre Kizilkaya, foreign affairs editor of Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily, observed dyspeptically on his blog,

Erdogan promised Beijing he was “not going [to Xinjiang] to itch the problem”.

The most remarkable thing Erdogan did in Urumuqi was apparently allowing himself to be photographed in gaudy Uighur costume carving up a roasted lamb under the solicitous gaze of some local functionaries.

Kizilkaya took Erdogan to task for using the China visit to harp on Syria, instead of succoring Turkey’s Uighur brethren:

OK, China was a world power, but why did you go to Xinjiang if you would remain silent about the inhumane repression against Uyghurs? [6]
It is worth noting how powerfully Turkish nationalism ~ the legacy that Kamal Attaturk bequeathed to his country through intensive indoctrination in schools and media ~ shapes Turkish attitudes, and limits Turkey’s efforts to bestride the world stage.

Kizilkaya fulminates about the oppression of Turkic people thousands of kilometers away in China, while his country struggles with an intractable Kurdish problem at home, exacerbated by the fact that the non-Turkic Kurds are viewed as fundamentally alien to the body politic.

Add to that the fact that in 2009 Erdogan felt comfortable employing the incendiary term “genocide” to characterize the Chinese security operation in Xinjiang, even as his government fights a pitched public relations battle to deny its application to the Turkish nation in the deaths of over one million Christian Armenians through execution, massacre, and death marches in 1915.

Overall, it paints the picture of a country whose international role, at least in non-Turkic sectors, is limited by a profound and institutionalized ethnic chauvinism.

Turkey’s natural allies reside in the Turkic stans of Central Asia. In the Middle East, it stands alone.

When Turkey becomes assertive, many of the other nations of the region respond with dislike and mistrust.

Turkey is on the outs with almost every one of its neighbors, with the exceptions of Georgia and Bulgaria:
Greece, Syria, Iran and Armenia all have long-standing or recent grudges with Ankara. Add the Shi’ite power Iraq to the list ~ Turkey recently decided to host the fugitive Sunni Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi.

Kurdish distaste for the extensive, ongoing, and, in the Western press, virtually unreported, Turkish government crackdown against Kurd separatists, activists, and journalists go a long way in explaining why Syria’s put-upon Kurds have not joined the anti-Assad rebellion.

Although Erdogan made an unscheduled trip to Saudi Arabia directly from Beijing ~ presumably to confirm the GCC’s continued resolve to push Assad to the wall ~ he is unlikely to find sincere friends among the Gulf autocracies.

The sclerotic, oil-exporting, Arab, and theocratic/conservative Gulf states are unlikely to welcome upstart Turkey’s claim to regional leadership on the basis of democracy, free-market economics, a balance between secular and religious authority, and a professed faith in the validity of popular Arab Spring uprisings against out-of-touch autocrats.

Turkish nationalism is matched in Europe by broad, barely disguised racism and hostility. One of the many reasons that Turkey’s application to the European Union has stalled has been a feeling, from Pope Benedict on down to the right-wing chauvinist parties that have sprung up like weeds across Europe, that Turkey is too “non-European” to integrate into the union. [7]

ED: The “sick man” has always straddled East and West, striving for acceptance to the West at the cost of Eastern alliances. It has been so for hundreds of years, and always Turkey is betrayed or fails to meet the opportunities as presented..
As for the United States, Turkey has emerged as a key asset.

It is the yearned-for moderate Islamic state (now that Egypt is teetering into populism and/or radicalism) that will serve as Israel’s regional interlocutor, and the obliging host that will undercut Russia’s monopoly in the supply of natural gas to Europe by allowing the Nabucco pipeline or some variant thereof to be built across its territory.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to forget the contemptuous words of an unnamed US administration official in 2003, when Erdogan unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a $25 billion payment in return for allowing 40,000 US troops to deploy into Iraq from Turkey:

The Turks seem to think that we’ll keep the bazaar open all night. [8]
The United States seems to be gleefully egging on Turkey in its Assad-bashing, since the sound and fury of Turkish indignation helps obscure the reality of a do-nothing Western policy on Syria.

Erdogan, for his part, seems to be trapped in a frontline confrontation with Syria without genuine geopolitical backup, and doesn’t know how to extract Turkey from the situation without losing face-or starting a war that will leave the region in tatters.

Instead of relieving tensions, Ankara is exacerbating them; and instead of acting as the even-handed middle-man in regional negotiations, Turkey is drifting into the role of Western poodle.

The Economist, which detects imperial rumblings in Erdogan’s foreign policy, reported:

“It was this ability to talk to all sides that made Turkey an effective player,” says Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador to Turkey. But “now it has chosen sides.” [9]
It is a remarkable and melancholy comment on Middle Eastern politics that Turkey has, over the past 12 months, forfeited its primary regional diplomatic asset – its status as the “honest broker” – and China, of all countries, because of its close economic ties to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is stepping in to try to assume the role.


3. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Liu Weimin’s Remarks, Chinese foreign Ministry, Apr 12, 2012.

5. Turkey attacks China ‘genocide’, BBC, Jul 10, 2009.

9. Growing less mild, The Economist, Apr 14, 2012.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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