Turkish ‘Zero Problems’ Between Failure and Success

Turkish ‘Zero Problems’ Between Failure and Success


This paper aims to show that Syrian Civil War represents a sort of epiphany for Turkey, demonstrating its stalemate position regards to this unresolved, and by now frozen, conflict. The recalibration of principles and guidelines in Turkish foreign policy after March 2011 is a direct consequence of the changed environmental context of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and of the lack of an adequate response to the so-called Arab Spring from the international arena. In fact, the drama of these unresolved critical situations has accelerated the adoption of a phase 2.0 of Davutoğlu’s geopolitical vision. This vision could allow Turkey to overcome the challenges ahead, reinvigorating its regional role and revitalising ‘zero problem’ policy too.


The aftermath of the Syrian awakening happened in 2011 has affected the new course of Turkish foreign policy in several ways. The Arab revolts that reshaped the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) space have forced Turkey to review and adapt its approach to foreign affairs, commonly referred to the ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy. The challenges, which arose from the Arab Spring and from Syrian Civil War over all, represent a fundamental cleavage for Turkey’s regional role. After a period characterised by the neo-Ottoman vision, in which the country aimed at transforming itself into a true global actor[1] based on the blueprint outlined by the “Strategic Depth” doctrine, propounded by the former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the “zero-problems” was exposed to several criticisms and a wide debate among scholars (Robins, 2013; Aras, 2014; Öniş, 2014) about its validity and around the supposed limits of Turkey’s regional role and agenda was opened. Several of them have judged this policy as a failed strategy, defining it as obsolete (Ülgen, 2012) and unable to deal with the changes and challenges emerged from the so-called Arab Spring (Taşpınar, 2012).

Rather than retrace the American promoted “Turkish model” (Murinson, 2012) that could be intended as a new revisionist doctrine of foreign policy introduced by Davutoğlu and linked to a new political elite, representing the conservative and religious businesspeople of Central Anatolia, this paper aims to show that Syrian war represents a sort of point of no return in Turkish foreign policy in Middle East: after the explosion of the revolts in Damascus in March 2011, Ankara started to move its agenda throughout a rediscovered pro-Western attitude, asking the intervention of the international community towards the ONU and NATO’s assistance.

Syrian impasse, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) rise, has moreover showed that Turkey is not sufficiently ready for a leadership role in the Middle East, notwithstanding its position in other regions like Caucasus and Balkans, in order to reach most of the governments and people in the neighbouring countries. The drama of some unresolved critical situations has in fact accelerated the adoption of a phase 2.0 of Davutoğlu geopolitical vision, characterised by more flexibility, humanitarian discourse and diversification of roles through the involvement of greater number of non-state actors, in accordance with the ‘total performance principle.’

The paper will try to assert that this novel vision could allow Turkey to overcome the challenges ahead, reinvigorating its regional role and also revitalising ‘zero problem’ policy. In this article two research questions will be critically examined: 1) the first is related to understand how Turkey has lost its international credibility due to its handling of the Syrian crisis, which itself represents a good ‘test case’ for Turkey’s ambition to become a regional leader and a global actor; 2) the second inquiry is concerned with Davutoğlu’s foreign policy and in particular to his ‘central country’ strategy, thus considering whether it is really failing or if it still holds relevance.

In order to answer to these questions, this research uses the ideal-typical regional strategies, i.e. empire, hegemony and leadership, in particular making reference to the attempt to categorise countries like Turkey, and to define them as “regional (great) powers” (Neumann, 1992; Østerud, 1992; Hurrell, 1992; Fuller and Arquilla, 1996; Buzan and Waever, 2003; Soares de Lima and Hirst, 2006; Hurrell, 2007). The final aim is to demonstrate that regional actors attempting to attain a leading role, such as Turkey, can pursue a much wider range of foreign policy strategies in their regions of influence. Moreover, the paper using an interdisciplinary approach through a qualitative method, the Syrian case study addresses the relations between Ankara and Damascus, using a chronological narrative from the end of the Cold War to the future prospects and challenges.

Turkey-Syria Relations after the End of Cold War

To understand the reasons of the Turkish standstill in face of Syrian crisis, it is necessary to historicise the relative foreign policy change, whose roots can be traced from the early 90s, when there was a historic encounter between domestic and regional forces and interests. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the reshuffling of the global and regional balance. Focusing on the Syrian case study, shortly before the ‘90s there had been a first improvement in the relations with Turkey’s neighbouring country, brought about by the Özal government in 1987 alongside the Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad. The draft agreement brought together the two parties in order to address two main issues of tension: the Euphrates water dispute and the Syrian support for the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) (PKK). Turgut Özal’s foreign policy, known as ‘Özalism,’ was aimed at bringing about Turkey’s revival through a rapprochement with the neighbouring countries: although the agreement failed and the effects of the 1987 were not enduring –mainly due to the Atatürk dam[2]– it highlighted the capacity to improve relations between the two countries.

The end of the bipolar system and the division of the entire world in regional spheres of influence, brought about the emergence of a multipolar world, or at least a world order characterised by the US as the “only superpower” (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 614). In this sense, the levels of analysis are located not only at a global level, but also on regional one too. At the same time, the traditional accounts of hegemony must be re-conceptualised in order to useful analytical tools at the regional level (Prys, 2008). Regional powers emerged at this time in order to negotiate between “the pressures or constraints coming from great powers and their own inspirations and goals for regional order, as well as the actions and reactions of their regional neighbours” (Nolte, 2006: 28).

Obviously this change also represented a moment of profound importance for Turkey and Syria, which, until the existence of the two blocks of US vs. URSS, were divided by opponent alliances. For Turkey, this change touched upon not only its foreign policy’s agenda, but also its identity. What changed was not the central conception of security, internalised by the Kemalist ideology, but the tools used to ensure it. The influence of external great powers represents only one of many factors affecting the strategy of a regional power, together with other aspects such as domestic pressures and the presence of neighbouring countries with conflicting relationships.

Turkish foreign policy’s orientation resumed a neorealist conception of international relations absorbed in an anarchic environment where the state may rely only on self-help. Consequently, any foreign policy choice should follow the logic of preserving national security and strengthening territorial integrity (Bilgin, 2005). This position is well summarised by Ataturk’s historic statement “Peace at Home, Peace in the world,” which could be translated into a cautious and wary foreign-policy orientation which seeked only to protect Turkey from potential threats (Hale, 2002; Robins, 2003). The disease of encirclement and dismemberment commonly known as “Sèvres syndrome”[3] affected the policies aimed maintaining the ‘status quo’ through prudent and Western oriented behaviour.

However the dramatic changes of the early 1990s provided significant opportunities to Turkey, re-defining its identity and its role in the new international system. Russian withdrawal enabled Turkey’s ambitions to create possible areas of influence and expansion of its geopolitical sphere (Halliday, 2005), but also reshuffled the Middle East balance and left some Arab states, like Syria, in “more exposed” and “isolated position” (Hale, 2002: 296).

In order to take advantage of the new post-Cold War context and to relocate itself geopolitically, Turkey needed to address a deep psychological process of rethinking identity, no more as a timorous and wary ‘border’ country but as an enterprising and dynamic ‘bridge’ between East and West. At the same time, Turkey had to understand its identity and to come to terms with reality, namely with the fact that its heritage draws on both the Levant and the Occident (Öniş, 1995). The recognition of this attitude provides the opportunity to open not only towards the West, but also in other regions.[4] Therefore, the choice of a more active policy was an opportunistic reflection of that moment, when Turkey itself was looking for an identity and a new place in the international system, refusing its traditional passive and cautious positions.

We encounter in this understanding the application of three important concepts of IR theory, i.e. empire, hegemony and leadership, emerged particularly after the rise of the US as the ‘only superpower,’ and reflecting the strategy pursued by the powerful actor in the international system. These notions are theoretically useful to distinguish between different types of regional powers in international relations. Fitting them on a regional environments (Prys, 2008), we embrace the idea according to which “there is no essential difference in the dominant state’s strategies at the global and the regional levels” (Destradi, 2008: 7). Regional actors have to absorb or reject the pressures from international powers, trying to expose their own interests in their more little space of representation, facing also with others factors like the domestic forces. This situation could limit the strategic options available to regional powers: the essential characters of these alignments, however, do not vary in front of the regional and the global dimension. It means that the very nature of imperial, hegemonic or leadership strategies remains the same. On the basis of the ancient Ottoman Empire (a state which is clearly dominant in terms of material powers resources); Turkey has tried to reconstruct its hegemony and to exert its leadership. An imperial state could be defined as a country with a clear dominance in terms of material power resources, that follows its own national interest, sustained by coercion and, if necessary, the use of military power.

Even if some authors use the same definitions to describe the hegemony giving to the empire a diffuse character, it is however important to underline the difference between these three terms, even hegemony is sometimes used as a synonymous of the others (Kindleberger, 1981; Rapkin, 2005; Wallerstein, 1984; Lake, 1993). Empires can therefore be defined as “structures of transnational political authority that combine an egalitarian principle of the jure sovereignty with a hierarchical principle of de facto control” (Wendt and Friedheim, 1995: 695). The discussion of hegemony will require more attention to the effective sphere of influence, which will lead to a deeper classification and formation of subtypes of hegemonic strategies. In fact, if empires determine a substantial limitation to the sovereignty of subject states, other forms of hierarchical interaction, such as hegemony, cannot be definitively fixed in order to be distinguished from the first one. The element that really makes the difference is the coercion, or the imposition.

In accordance with the cogent nature of the empire, Turkey has tried to exercise its hegemony, which could be translated as a form of regional dominance (Gramsci, 1975).[5] It has employed, in fact, its form of power with more subtle strategies, which can vary “from the exertion of pressure to the provision of material incentives, up to the discursive propagation of the hegemon’s norms and values” (Destradi, 2008: 10), with sanctions, rewards, incentives or persuasion to accept a governmental model. The idea of Turkish hegemony is not to be considered necessarily in the Gilpin’s assumption that has a negative face with a sort of subordination and coercive obligation (Gilpin, 1981). The deeper difference stays in the concept of leadership, in front of hegemony: “while the hegemon aims to realise its own egoistic goals by presenting them as a common with those of subordinate states, the leader leads a group of states in order to realise or facilitate the realisation of their common objectives” (Destradi, 2008: 19).

Regarding the Syrian question, Turkey has constructed peaceful relations without eliminating a powerful and dominant approach (using for example the water issue as leverage), and considering threats that could come from neighbouring and opponent country. In this sense, Turkey has used, and still tries to do so, more of a hegemonic approach and relies less upon its leadership qualities. This latter means that the state guides a group of countries in order to realise or facilitate the realisation on their common objectives, while the hegemonic approach indicates an egoistic goal by considering the others states as subordinates. In front of Syrian situation, in fact, Turkey has not conducted its neighbour to achieve a common goal, but it has pushed it towards its own interest, driven by the fear of the security dilemma.

The Republic first experienced its “security dilemma”[6] in its foreign relations with Syria, as prior during the crisis in 1998 a few converging economic interests between the two neighbours offset their long-standing divergent political interests. These political differences latter emerged due to the enduring dispute over the province of Hatay (Alexandretta), and due to Syria’s claims regarding access to Euphrates water. Even though the dialogue with Damascus has been cut off since 1995, the first Turkish – Syrian crisis did not erupt until October 1998, becoming a historic moment in the post-Cold War Middle East policy. The Adana Accords however were signed the end of the struggle, thanks also to the intervention of the United Nations. The core of the agreement dealt with Syria ending its support for the PKK. Syria recognised this later as a terrorist organisation and had to expel Öcalan and to arrest PKK militants, ceasing to give economic support to them and extending cooperation with Turkey in their fight against PKK. The crisis of October 1998 was a culmination of burning and unsettled issues between Turkey and Syria and since then, a combination of unresolved problems remains regarding the destiny of the two states, the consequences of which will be shown later on.

With regards to endogenous factors, it should be noted that domestic political consolidation, as well as economic growth and democratic progress, have been influential in this the change, both at the psychological level and in altering understandings of national security. The reform process, starting during the 1980s, has also contributed to this general change. The growing number of civil society groups has had a more and more influential role in policy makers’ choices (Findley, 2010). These socio-political changes weakened the power of the Kemalist military-bureaucratic elites over the state in favour of an emerging Anatolian Muslim middle class. This element of Turkish society has aimed at promoting progress and integration into the global market without neglecting Islamic values and dogmas. As such, the change in Turkish foreign policy was also reflective of the increasing influence of this sort of ‘counter elite’ with totally different political view and interests, which included new insights into foreign policy. The implications of this latter, in particular the process of Islam’s gradual rehabilitation in public sphere, were visible a few months after the Adana Accords on the occasion of Kurban Bayramı festivity[7] when the border between two countries was opened to allow relatives to greet one another.

In 2002, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) victory was also the result of this development in Turkish society. Turkey’s domestic reforms, in line with European accession process, and economic growth increased the power and the weight of the country, elevating it as a potential ‘model’ in the form of a marriage between moderate Islam, democracy and secular institutions. The internationalisation of the “Anatolian tigers” turned out to be the “practical hand” of Turkish foreign policy (Kutlay, 2011; Atlı, 2011). The general “transnationalisation” of small- and medium-sized business in Turkey was a driver of emerging civil society organisations (Öniş, 2011). That joint favoured the rising of new Muslim bourgeoisie and the asserting of pro-Islamic or religious civil society.

The new Muslim middle class has used its private capital in charity through the promotion of religious movements, charitable foundations (vakıflar) and a large number of faith-based NGOs (Solberg, 2007). In the last decade, thanks to the AKP’s multilateral foreign policy approach, the faith-based NGOs have become an essential part of Turkey’s cross-border engagement, creating the right conditions for lasting ‘people to people’ relations. Alongside this, the process of democratisation led to the growth of the civilian component, downsizing the military one. These dynamics became clearly visible in the same bureaucratic apparatus and cadres with the gradual introduction of young officials from the emerging Muslim middle class.

The Early Success of ‘Central Country’ Strategy

After their electoral victory, the AKP began cautiously revitalising Turkey’s role in the international sphere. The Middle East, and precisely the strategic opening with Syria, offered AKP the opportunity for a distinct and more autonomous foreign policy towards the Islamic and Arab world. Turkey saw Syria as its ‘gateway’ to the Arab world. The achievement of greater autonomy from Western tutelage in Turkey’s regional policy is not synonymous with moving away from their Western alliance. Indeed, Turkey’s government has realised that the nature of its relations with the West depends on the nature of its relations with neighbouring countries. These two approaches, towards the West and towards neighbouring states are not alternative but complementary. If Turkey is able to take an active role in crisis situations –and, more generally, in the future balance of the region–, it will enjoy greater power in relations with the West, no more from a subordinate position but from an equivalent position. This situation could better specify a leadership approach of new Turkish foreign policy, in front of the coercive and hegemonic tactic exerted in Middle East and specifically in Syria.

Therefore, the Middle East offers to the AKP government the opportunity to be revaluated in the eyes of Western friends and foes by demonstrating its geo-strategic “intermediate” character between East and West, but from a different perspective from previous decades. Demonstrative of the new course of Turkish foreign policy is the former Foreign Minister and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu:[8] Davutoğlu’s geostrategic vision is, in fact, a mix of realist elements, referable to the traditional Kemalist ‘security-centred’ foreign policy, and a new approach with a strong liberal character focused on elements such as soft power, conflict resolution and promotion of ‘win-win’ solutions.

Davutoğlu had in his academic work called for Turkey to move from its traditional “threat assessment approach” towards an “active engagement in regional political systems” (Kardaş, 2012b). The Turkish assertive approach has been able to increase and diversify its relations, capitalising on the expansion of state’s soft power tolls and encouraging the renewed dynamism of an emerging civil society. In Davutoğlu’s vision, Turkey no longer thinks about itself as a “bridge” country, but has gained self-confidence in its role and position as “central” country or power (Davutoğlu, 2008). This idea represents a pillar of a wider Davutoğlu theory known as “central country” theory. According to Davutoğlu, in fact, Turkey’s centrality derives from its geographical and historical peculiarity, elements ignored by the Kemalist foreign policy agenda (Davutoğlu, 2001: 52-83). Moreover Davutoğlu believes that Turkey’s unique geocultural position gives it a special central-country (merkez ülke) role, and therefore Turkey cannot define itself in a defensive manner. This central position affords Turkey the scope to manoeuvre in several regions simultaneously, and to connect and influence them (Grigoriadis, 2010). This specialty endows Turkey with a political and moral responsibility regarding problem solving and contribution to regional peace-building (Dinç, 2011: 64). In this sense, rapprochement with Syria until 2011 represented the successful model of the Turkish approach and highlighted two key paradigms of the central country theory, i.e. multidirectional and multidimensional approaches, which are the underpinnings of the policy known as ‘zero problems with neighbours.’ This latter was a new vision that brought the country to adopt a constructive approach towards its neighbourhood, providing it with new foreign policy tools (Aras, 2009). Its main aim was minimising the troubles in Turkey’s neighbouring regions (Özcan, 2012). Although the term “zero problems” narrative appears abused and in some cases has been inappropriately used to label the whole Turkish foreign policy setting, it represents only one of the principles that form Davutoğlu’s wider geopolitical framework defined as “central country” or “central power” strategy (Kardaş, 2012a).

The multi-directionality approach is defined by Turkey’s ability to project its influence and its interests in different directions; so departing from its previous unidirectional (Westward oriented) approach, instead open to all regions around the Turkish centre (Danforth, 2008). Davutoğlu stated that Turkey should act as a central country and break away from static and single-parameter policy (Baudner, 2014). The multi-dimensionality or multi-track foreign policy corresponds with the ability to operate on different levels and on different fronts; from ‘official’ diplomatic relations, mainly within international and regional organisations, to ‘people to people’ relations mainly developed by non-state actors. This ‘double level’ approach was also present in Syria during the process of normalisation: for example, a bilateral free trade agreement, signed in 2004 and initiated in 2007, saw the relationships between the two states flourishing. Syria’s exports to Turkey more than tripled from $187 million in 2006 to $662 in 2010, while Turkish exports to Syria grew from $609m to $1.85 billion in the same period (Turkish Statistical Institute, 2011). This improvement was accompanied by Muslim bourgeoisie growing role and the emergence of strong business associations such as the Müstakil Sanayici ve İşadamları Derneği (Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association) (MÜSİAD), which, along with increasingly influential chambers of commerce in the booming cities of southern Anatolia, pressed for a policy of engagement and trade with neighbouring states including Syria (Phillips, 2012). These elements too express Turkish wider intention to move from the hegemony to leadership.

Multi-directionality is easily seen through an analysis of indices and it is then quantified thanks to precise parameters such as trade volume. This assessment applied to relations with Syria shows that there has been a dramatic increase in the volume trade, which passed from $730 million in 2004 to over $2 billion in 2010.[9] This significant and rapid increase has been enabled by specific policies in multiple sectors such as the Free Trade Agreement, mutual abolishment of visas and completion of several bilateral agreements on security issues (Hinnebusch and Tür, 2013). Davutoğlu, recalling Özal’s policies, stressed that the number of tanks is not important to make sure the boundaries but the investment and trade with neighbours. This trend has showed a strong “Europeanisation” of Turkish foreign policy or, more properly, Turkey’s gradual adoption of EU foreign policy norms and practices (Oğuzlu, 2010; Müftüler‐Baç and Gürsoy, 2010). Just as in the European Union’s setting there is the belief that the best way to ensure peace, stability and prosperity in the region is increasing economic interdependence and promoting shared values.

This European position is also detectable in Davutoğlu’s other ideas, promoting 1) the balance between security and freedom, 2) dialogue as a mean to resolving crisis 3) economic interdependence, because order cannot be achieved in a context of an isolated economy and last of all, 4) co-existence of cultural diversity (Davutoğlu, 2012; 2014). These elements show how Turkish strategy resembles the idea of building and promoting a “ring of friends” that the European Union wants to create around its borders (Çandar, 2009; Cohen, 2010). The visa free policy, adopted with Damascus in 2009, was significant in this sense.[10]

These economic improvements were simultaneous to the consolidation of diplomatic relations. Since January 2004, Turkey, has welcomed the initiative of Syria, an eminent member of the Arab world and a traditional rival, of further rapprochement. The visit of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, to Turkey early in January 2004 was the first official visit paid at the presidential level. Thus it was immediately conceived of as the political will to take more concrete steps towards the improvement of bilateral relations and wider cooperation in the region. In this context, the religious dimension has gained an important role in foreign policy. The fact that a (pro) Islamic party, with sensitivity towards cultural matters, was in power in Turkey was perceived by Syria as a factor that might facilitate bilateral relations. The Syrian and Turkish statesmen occasionally acknowledged their common faith, as a powerful tie between two people amongst other factors. Before outbreak of the crisis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to call Bashar al-Assad ‘Brother.’

Multidimensionality can be assessed in a qualitative manner, highlighting that alongside the growing presence in the major supranational organisations, in the last decade, there has been a gradual shift of the tools used with a general “transnationalisation” of its own relations (Kirişçi, 2012; Demirtaş, 2013). In this framework, Turkey’s ‘cultural diplomacy’ has become more prominent, in particular in its religious dimension. This latter is part of a wider process undertaken by the AKP government which has completely reversed the Kemalist paradigm and has reintroduced elements previously censured (such as Islam and Turkey’s Ottoman heritage), cultural vectors useful for opening Turkey to long ignored neighbourhood. In the last decade Turkey has reinterpreted in a positive way the Sevres Syndrome, which has become no more a reason to disregard the affairs of the former Ottoman provinces but a leverage to regain influence in those same areas. This approach is in line with the AKP’s holistic rhetoric reflecting its post-Kemalist and neo-Islamist ideological propensities to develop cultural and historical ties with Turkey’s neighbours.

Multidimensionality and multi-directionality, in this research, are synonymous of leadership and hegemony. Turkey has in fact extend its leadership on several geographical axes (i.e. multi-directionality), differing its approach also in a hegemonic way (i.e. multidimensionality).

This work shares what has been recently argued by Özcan (2014), i.e. Davutoğlu was the first intellectual to devise a rational and pragmatic Islamist foreign policy whose ambitions and theoretical concepts were shattered against the reality. Nevertheless underling elements of Turkish foreign policy can help not only to understand the country’s behaviour facing the Syrian crisis, but also to understand modern Turkey. In recent years, Turkey has acted in order to promote the settlement of disputes and conflicts through diplomatic channels, involving in some cases the international community while in others circumstances, due to unilateral efforts.

Although this mediator’s policy had several achievements, including the rapprochement with Syria and the expansion of Turkish-Iranian relations, it has shown its limits after the Arab uprisings when Turkey had the potential to become a regional leader. All of these efforts were insufficient to promote effective democracy in the area and they collapsed within a few weeks after the outbreak of the first protests in Syria. These kinds of initiatives, inspired by a liberal approach to international relations, have been colliding with a strong political realism which led and is still leading Turkey to increase its relations with all the regional actors, following its own pragmatic interests. As Tziarras claimed, Turkish foreign policy was, and still is, conducted in an opportunistic way, aiming at the maximisation of benefit in different isolated issues (2014).

The Syrian Rebellion

In late January 2011, a fortnight after the revolts in Tunisia and days after Egyptian upheavals taken in Liberation Square to overthrow their dictatorships, Bashar al-Assad affirmed to the Wall Street Journal: “Syria in stable. Why? Because you have to be strongly linked to the beliefs of the people… This is the core issue. When you have divergence […] you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.” (Solomon and Spindle, 2001) According to Assad, extremism has taken possession of Arab society and this has resulted in ‘less creativity, less development and less openness.’ He also claimed the right to keep the floodgates open, against Turkey, saying, ‘we need flowing water, but how fast is the flow? It is very fast, it can be very destructive or you can have a flood. Therefore, it should be flowing smoothly.’

But Assad spoke too soon. Six weeks later in fact, rebellion came Syria’s way. Revolts in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt (it is not the same for protest in Yemen and Bahrain) had inflamed, tantalised and emboldened the Syrians. Their desire for bread, freedom and reforms rose over the Golan Heights. The process which led to the upheavals, also in the rest of MENA countries, was almost symptomatic of the request from the population to obtain more rights and basic needs: the country has in fact been transformed since the Assads came into power. In earlier decades, the state was largely rural, with 6 million people. Under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad it was urbanised and its population grew to 22 million, among which some 16 million people had not known any other dominion than that, the Assads and their security state.

This population was mostly young: 50 percent were in fact under 19 years old, and 57 per cent of people under 25 were unemployed. But the revolts did not erupt either in Hama, the city that suffered a difficult situation in the previous years,[11] or in Homs, Hama’s twin city, larger and inhabited by Sunnis, Alawi and Christians thrown together. It was in the countryside where the first movements started to stir and for this reason the Syrian revolts differ from the other so-called “Arab Springs.”[12] Deraa, the administrative centre of the agricultural plain of Hawran, near the frontier with Jordan, was taken firstly. Then, also Deir el-Zor in the east and Baniyas, near Latakia on the coast fell under the rebels.

After few days, on 15th March, a Facebook page named Syrian Revolution 2011 called for a protest Day of Rage. Meanwhile, protests spread across in al-Hasakah, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama, with smaller demonstrations in Damascus, using the chant of ‘God, Syria, Freedom.’ In Deraa, and in particular, in the entire southern region of Hawran, one of the poorest areas of the country, the unrest was widespread because of a sense of ostracism from Damascus and due to the water scarcity. Latakia was involved in the conflict, too: the family of Assad and of Makhluf, who manages the majority of the Syrian public and private affairs, comes from this country town of the Alawi region, which is also the most important stronghold of the state. After the first revolts the regimes still appeared far from collapse, while the opposition, both within Syria and exiles abroad, have tried to awaken the population and to respond to the attacks. The international community was frozen between the possibility to intervene or to stay outside of the violence. Kofi Annan was not successful in his attempt to negotiated and resigned from his duty. In the meantime, Russia, China and Iran continued to explicitly or implicitly back Assad. After three years of violence, the conflict has become a bloodbath between a regime and a poorly armed but determined opposition, and it could continue to transform itself in a powder keg for the entire Middle East.

From the Turkish perspective, they initially tried to play the role of privileged interlocutor for Assad’s regime and mediator between the Syrian President and opposition groups for the adoption of significant reforms, thus trying to exert its leadership. However, the AKP government, after noting the ineffectiveness of its endeavours, has radically changed its positions, turning against Assad and taking the side of the rebels. This result has showed Ankara’s weak influence on the Syrian regime and its absolute lack of coercive capacity. Moreover, Turkey’s incoherent attitude, with a clear contradiction between rhetoric and practice, has had several consequences: firstly, exacerbating the already existing geopolitical instability; secondly weakening its international credibility, especially in the eyes of Middle East and North Africa people (Başkan, 2012) after Turkey initially tried to present itself as the “champion of democratic” transformation;[13] thirdly highlighted the lack of a “grand strategy” able to deal with the new regional configuration and challenges; fourthly meant that Turkey’s foreign policy lost its autonomy, backing more in line with Western goals and interests (Tziarras, 2014). At the same time, Erdogan’s public rhetoric managed to alienate both the US and EU by accusing them of compounding the human tragedy (Kirişci, 2013); and finally, despite Turkey’s manoeuvres to avoid a Sunni-Shiite tension in Syria as well as in other crisis situation (Iraq), the harsh opposition against the Alawite regime has favoured the perception that Turkey is pursuing sectarian policies in the region (Akgün and Gündoğar, 2014).

In early 2012, Turkey tried to forge an international ‘Friends of Syria’ coalition to secure regime change. However it failed to gain the agreement of key players to any form of intervention, including the no-fly zone idea proposed by Ankara. Key NATO partners, most importantly the United States, remained strongly opposed to any form of military intervention. Importantly, the Syrian stalemate revealed the basic dilemma of AKP’s government foreign policy in two ways: a political (regional leader or model and source of inspiration) and a theoretical declination (realist or liberal approach of foreign policy).

Focusing on the latter one, the last decade foreign policy has been based on a more liberal approach than that of the previous years. This vision, conditioned by the factors analysed above; (new Turkey’s socio-political environment, unipolarism, globalisation, EU accession process, etc.) proved ineffective in preventing or managing regional crises. The change of perspective did not alter the main Turkish aim of ensuring national security. The new MENA geopolitical configuration strengthened the link between the regional stability and Turkish domestic security.

The Stalemate and Threats at the Boundaries

Since the explosion of the revolt, Ankara has been faced with a scenario of regional crisis, which could have a huge impact on its own internal security. The crisis has also been at the point of drawing Turkey in to the escalating conflict when Syrian forces shot down a fighter jets over the Mediterranean Sea on June 2012, and when car bombs exploded along the Turkish/Syrian borders. After their initial conciliatory approach, Ankara changed its attitude and crystallised its dual level relations: ‘diplomatic or official’ level Turks started to promote secure regime change within international organisations, granting asylum to Syrian army defectors. At a “people to people” level, this increased humanitarian support for Syrian refuges with many advocacy campaigns emerging, such as the “Bread and Blanket” one.[14] These developments were facilitated by the progressive integration of various components of a dynamic civil society as non-state actors.[15] It is another way for Turkey to implement its multidimensionality, in the form of soft-hegemony.

Following the Arab Spring, the growth of transnationalism has been distinctive aspect of Turkish foreign policy, expressed primarily through integration and cooperation with a growing number of non-state actors. These actors mainly operate via three channels: the economy, the movement of people and the participation of civil society (Kirişçi, 2012). This process was accelerated by the implementation of another principle of Davutoğlu’s setting: the “total performance” principle. It means a process of involving all the political and socio-economic groups, from universities to trade associations and humanitarian NGOs in the foreign policy-making process (Aras, 2012). The total performance principle does not consider non-state actors as an alternative or threat to the state’s actions, rather its aim is to incorporate them into a unified and coordinated strategy with emphasis on a presence on the ground (Cebeci, 2011). This principle means the inclusion of non-state actors like NGOs, business circles, think-tanks, public intellectual figures in the foreign policy agenda, and thus, the mobilisation of their support (Davutoğlu, 2001).

When civil war reached Damascus, events unfolded quickly, however, on the other hand actions from the regional and international actors involved were not so immediate. Turkey asked for a steadfast resolution, but the UN had a structural delay, most probably due to the mechanism of decision-making in the Security Council. During the first phase, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had exhorted Assad to listen to the requests of the population, however since the first military operations on the borders had constrained Turkey to appeal to Article 5 of NATO,[16] even though international community continued not to take a position.

The possibility of eventual sanctions against Assad’s regime was discussed, while rebels tried to overthrow the regime. Russia and China stopped every resolution or sanction provided by Chapter VII of UN charter, whereas USA tried to give more responsibilities to regional actors like Turkey and Gulf Arab states. Resolution 2043 of April 21st was obsolete for the crisis resolution, because it stated to organise a mission of observatory called as the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) in order to verify the respect of a ceasefire that never happened in accordance with the so–called Annan Plan. 300 UN observers were compelled to leave the most violent zones, but it was evident that this huge protection was missed.

From the other hand, the diplomatic attempt from the West, and Europe in particular, had done only what UN Security Council was willing to do. This attitude naturally conditioned Kofi Annan’s decision, which was requested by the UN and the Arab League. His plan had the aim to negotiate with Bashar al–Assad, or his government, but it was refused by every Syrian military part. In the meantime, three deputies from the parliament of Damascus, all from the south of the country, were dismissed, which caused a radical division inside the Syrian government. Also the Mufti Rizk Abdel Rachman Abasid, the most important Sunni authority from Deraa, nominated by Minister for Religious Affairs. Damascus suppressed violence also in the Kurdish regions, like Al –hasakah and Ar– Raqqah. The crisis was becoming unmanageable, because, by that time, there was an increased risk posed by the fragmentation of the rebels. Little by little, Assad suffered defeats, while anarchical violence increased.

Question about boundaries are proper given the tensions between the two neighbouring countries. The conflict, which has assumed the form of a civil war, has caused problems on the borders between the two states, and now nearly two million of Syrian refugees are crammed into Turkish territory. The worsening of the situation in Syria pushed the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party) (CHP), the most important party of the Turkish opposition, to press government for a more active diplomatic action. The AKP and its leader Erdogan are in fact in a very tricky position. Davutoğlu had invested much of his credibility on the development of a peaceful relationship with Syria.

The personal relations of the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs with Syrian establishment, but also the Hamas leadership based in Damascus, had been an important element for the affirmation of Turkey as bridge for a European, Western, and more dynamic politics. Ten years since the Adana Accords, relations between Damascus and Ankara are more unstable than even before. Assad is stubbornly continuing on his own way, without granting reforms, and repression against Syrian people forced Turkey to take position against Damascus. Syria, from its own side seems to be frozen in its position, and violence could have no end.

This different attitudes and the collapse of peaceful relations suggest the return of the ‘ghost’ of the PKK and the support of it from Syria against Turkey. One of the reasons can be found in the fact that Ankara hosts and supports the Syrian National Council, as well as the Free Syrian Army, the soldiers of Syrian revolt, born in 2001 from deserters of Syrian regular army. On the other hand, Cemal Bayık, the leader of the PKK guerrilla, said that if Turkey engaged in war against Syria, PKK would not hesitate to stay with Damascus. The PKK’s ghost could only disappear with a serious intervention from the international community: with this decision, Assad could not do anything, while Turkey would support a new ally government.

This dramatic stalemate has exposed Turkey to some threats to its own national security. Not only are the Kurdish issue and relations with the PKK, which the Erdogan government has long established contacts with for a permanent peace, under threat but Turkey’s other fear is that the Assad regime will foster not only the PKK but also the sectarian strife internal to its southern provinces. Syrian support has also been provided to an extreme left-wing Turkish organisation: Acilciler (Booth, 2012). This Marxist group is a descendant of the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi/Cephe (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) (DHKP/C) who was forced to go underground after the military coup of 1980. Acilciler, with the support of the Syrian intelligence agency (Mukhabarat), has intensified its activities in the border zones, mainly in the province of Hatay, recruiting many Nusayris (young Turkish Alawites). The danger for Turkey is that these groups can threaten domestic stability and may pursue actions of guerrilla and urban terrorism[17] in the heart of Anatolia, operating as Shabīḥa, pro-Assad armed militias in civilian clothes, in order to foment sectarian tensions.

Concluding Remarks

Considering that the principle of ‘zero problems’ in the light of recent regional developments cannot be evaluated only by its success or failure, it is important to underline that zero problems was instrumental in creating links not at government levels, but rather among people. Observing it from another perspective, it can be said that this principle was conceived as zero problems with neighbouring populations regardless of the type of regime, it is not only still valid, but potentially it allows Turkey to maintain a leading role in future regional arrangements.

Even if Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talent as politician could be considered still now as undeniable, his charismatic leadership has been put under several attacks and critics for its probable democratic deficit: Gezi Park’s riots and the prohibition to use some social network are two examples. Moreover, the estimation of 700,000 Syrian refugees at the Turkish doors has seemed very generous. However, it has had several and problematic consequences regarding Turkey’s hope of entering the European Union, which had previously encouraged internal reforms. The idea of Turkish hegemony, in ‘contrast’ with leadership as explained before, can be retraced to Erdoğan’s blend of democracy and political Islam. Turkey could be a beacon of democratic hope for the states from Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa, whilst for others this vision seems sadly outdated, particularly given Erdogan’s deepening authoritarian streak and his attempt to resolve the Syrian crisis with force.

The decisions taken in the last three years by the Turkish government show the ‘zero problems’ paradigm has not been shelved and classified as a failure, even if the Syrian revolts have constituted a red light for its ambitious foreign policy. There has been a gradual adaptation of this paradigm to the new regional context, reaffirming also its validity and the will to pursue the ‘central country’ doctrine. Following the 2011 events, the “central country” theory remains the main framework of Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s aims are unchanged: 1) granting national and regional stability through a balance between security and democracy; 2) elevating its own position as regional power and relevant international intermediary; 3) protecting and promoting Turkish economic interests in the world in the face of the changes and challenges of the global economy (Davutoğlu, 2012).

‘Zero-problems with neighbours remains however fundamental in Turkish foreign policy, although in some cases, like in Syrian one, has not fitted: the relationships established by Ankara with the rest of its extended neighbourhood, from the Balkans to Africa, demonstrate the Turkish chance to a have a voice with several countries, establishing a deep and strong hegemony via soft power. This fact has been demonstrated: by the improvement of the policy of engagement for example in the Western Balkans; by the developments in the area of international agreements in Central Asian and Caucasus; by “the regular political dialogue between the EU and Turkey continued to intensify, covering international issues of common interest, including developments in North Africa, in the Horn of Africa, in the Middle East and the Gulf, the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Ukraine, the Southern Caucasus, Central Asia, counter-terrorism, foreign fighters and non-proliferation issues” (Turkey Progress Report, 2014: 5). However, the stalemate in Syria, in which Turkey did not demonstrate its force to resolve a conflict at the border that in the meantime has become very dangerous, turning the other check with the ISIS’s threat, continues to prove that unresolved questions, like PKK claims and water issues, menace the dialogue within the two countries, transforming them in potential enemies. In this case, it is evident that the ‘zero-problems’ has not been successful.

The so-called Arab Spring created challenges but also an opportunity to get in direct contact with the people of these states, so Turkey has been taking full advantage of this chance deciding to profit by its civil society activism directing it in a more liberal foreign policy based on the promotion of political stability, democratisation, economic cooperation and interdependence. As such, the presence of multiple institutions with international roles and the adoption of novel discourses such as cultural, public and humanitarian diplomacy is an understandable aspect of Turkish foreign policy.

If the ‘zero problems’ policy is considered in inter-state perspective, it has proved to be ineffective in influencing Assad’s regime choices, also because Syrian crisis needs to be resolved from an international level of analysis and throughout the intervention of great powers. Conversely analysing the principle of ‘zero problems’ in a broader way emerges its transnational character which fostering a ‘people to people’ or social relations. From these lasting relations Turkey could start to build a future of peace and stability in the region. If Turkey is able to recreate these conditions, the former emphasis on ‘zero problems’ will certainly re-emerge when countries affected by Arab Spring have made substantial progress towards the establishing stable political systems.

Dr. Allesia Chiriatti, University for Foreigners of Perugia, Italy & Federico Donelli, PhD Candidate, University of Genoa, Italy

Please cite this publication as follows:

Chiriatti, A. & Donelli, F. (March, 2015), “Turkish ‘Zero Problems’ Between Failure and Success”, Vol. IV, Issue 3, pp.108-131, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=8507)


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[1]It was argued that the “Arab Winter of 2011 has created a new Middle East landscape in which the AKP’s Turkey, which has positioned itself as the defender of the Muslim Brotherhood and popular uprisings is a regional power to be reckoned with” (Cagaptay, 2011).

[2]Originally the Karababa Dam. As the construction of the dam neared completion, Syria’s Prime Minister Abdelrauf al-Kasm visited Ankara in March 1986: he warned that, if Turkey reduced the flow of water due to GAP, Syria would have to respond with the means at its disposal. Nevertheless, the talks proceeded in a constructive way. With Özal’s visit in Damascus on 17 July 1987, Turkey and Syria reached the Security Protocol, together with the Economic Cooperation protocol. In the article 6, it was stated: “During the period when the reservoir of the Ataturk Dam is being filled, and pending the definitive allocation of Euphrates waters among the three countries, the Turkish side undertakes to release an annual average of more than 500 cusecs of water at the Turkish-Syrian border. Should the monthly average fall below 500 cusecs, the difference shall be made up in the subsequent month” (Oran, 2012).

[3]To describe the ‘Sèvres syndrome,’ also declined in ‘Sèvres-phobia’ or ‘fear of dismemberment,’ it needs to make reference firstly to the Treaty of Sèvres, signed on 1920, after which Turkey lost the most part of its empire, excepting the Anatolia, under decision of Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan; and secondly to the Turkish reaction. It became a nationalist paranoid from public opinion and political class, nourished by the fear of disaggregation of the state. A complex of encirclement, persecution, inferiority and need to defend itself against the enemy in fact gripped its population.

[4]The ties with the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the position taken in the conflict of Bosnia, for example, gave Turkey the opportunity to begin to carve out its new role of reliable mediator in crisis situations.

[5]To describe power and hegemony, Antonio Gramsci takes over Machiavelli’s metaphor of the centaur: like this latter, which is half human and half animal, power is always twofold, encompassing the use of the force and coercion on the one hand, and consensus and hegemony on the other.

[6]It means that Turkey faces a situation in which “each party’s efforts to increase its own security reduce the security of the others.” (Walter and Snyder, 1999: 15-16)

[7]The Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice.

[8]This study takes into account Davutoğlu’s foreign policy doctrine; evaluate its relevance to current Turkish foreign policy-making, as well as its limitations. This will require an analysis of his books, articles and speeches, archived on the foreign ministry website.

[9]Data available on the website of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs: [Accessed 20 October 2014], Available at:


[10]This initiative was followed by a more comprehensive and ambitious project, which also includes Lebanon and Jordan: the Close Neighbors Economic and Trade Association Council (CNETAC). The CNETAC was created to develop co-operation and integration in different economic sectors among the four states.

[11]The rise of the House of Assad in Syria came at a high price: for example, in 1982 the regime brutally faced a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency centered on the city of Hama, and Hafez al-Assad perpetrated one of the worst atrocities in modern Arab history. The death toll is unknown, but estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000.

[12]The others so-called Arab Springs exploded in fact in the main squares of the capital city, like Il Cairo or Tunis.

[13]The image of ‘champion of democratic change’ was further undermined by several domestic events, over all by Gezi Parki protests in the summer of 2013 and high-profile corruption scandal in the winter of the same year.

[14]This campaign has been started by the NGOs initiative in order to establish a humanitarian relief corridor for Syria, receiving support by state institutions as the Başbakanlık Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı (Prime Ministry Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency) (AFAD).

[15]In the traditional classification, non-state actors are divided into two categories: international intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and transnational or international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The work refers to the second category of non-state actors. They are established not by nation-states, but by certain group of individuals, businessmen and other societal forces. This group has no legal bonds with nation-states; therefore, they are truly transnational.

[16]The article 5 of NATO in fact recites: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

[17]On May 11, 2013, Turkey suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in its modern history when 52 people were killed in twin car bombings in Reyhanlı, a town in Hatay Province close to the Syrian border. Turkish authorities arrested nine Turkish men –believed to be linked to Syrian intelligence groups– for their role in the attacks.



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