Channel NewsAsia

New Turkey PM leaves troubled foreign policy legacy

Turkey's prime minister-designate and outgoing foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu leaves his successor a troubled legacy after a bold policy to expand Turkish influence across the ex-Ottoman empire left the country painfully exposed to the Syria and Iraq crises.

ISTANBUL: Turkey's prime minister-designate and outgoing foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu leaves his successor a troubled legacy after a bold policy to expand Turkish influence across the ex-Ottoman empire left the country painfully exposed to the Syria and Iraq crises.

Critics accuse Davutoglu of perusing ideas that backfired disastrously by backing Islamic rebels in Syria who then went on to create the brutal Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. Moderates are calling for a recalibration of Turkish foreign policy when outgoing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes the presidency on Thursday (Aug 28) to mend fences with the West and pursue more realistic goals in the Middle East.

Yet this is far from guaranteed under Erdogan, who said his election victory was not just for Turkey but the Muslim world from Sarajevo to Islamabad. "With this approach, Turkey has increased its profile but also found itself a part of many conflicts in the region," said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director at the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Ankara.

The identity of Turkey's new top diplomat is yet to be revealed but reports it could be the head of Turkey's secret service Hakan Fidan, an Erdogan loyalist, hardly suggest a sharp about-turn in policy. Davutoglu's unassuming and smiley demeanour belied his reputation as a steely idealogue who was the architect of Turkish foreign policy for most of the past decade.

His thinking is based on his 2001 book Strategic Depth, where he argues that Turkey should embrace its Ottoman past and use its unique geo-strategic position to restore its influence throughout the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East. But initial successes in asserting Turkey's power were cancelled out after the Arab Spring uprising when interventionist Turkish policies only brought more strife.

"CRAZY AND IRRESPONSIBLE"

Turkey stands accused of arming radical groups fighting against the Syrian regime, in the hope that it would quickly bring down President Bashar al-Assad. "Incapable of convincing its former ally Assad to engage in reforms, Turkey took the crazy and irresponsible decision to support - directly or indirectly - the jihadists," said Bayram Balci of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said Turkey's ambiguous relations with the jihadists contributed to their growth in Syria and Iraq. In a huge personal embarrassment for Davutoglu, IS militants are now holding 49 Turks hostage, including diplomats and children, abducted from the Turkish consulate in Mosul on Jun 12.

Critics have expressed bewilderment that despite such failures, Davutoglu has been promoted. "You, yourself, handed over the hostages to IS. You have moulded IS into its current shape," said the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. "It's amazing how he has been rewarded," he said.

As the world takes on IS, Ankara has remained silent in order not to endanger the lives of the hostages who are believed to be kept as human shields. A Western diplomat said it was Davutoglu's unrealistic assumptions about Turkey's power that pushed the country to become a part of the problem. "Turkey cannot pursue an ambitious foreign policy in the region anymore because it has so many security concerns right now. It can only do damage control and try to minimise the losses that can occur from the crisis on its doorstep," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

NATO member Turkey's relations with Israel have eroded almost to breaking point, in the wake of Erdogan's blistering attacks on the Jewish state.

EU-US RELATIONS SOURED

Meanwhile, Erdogan's periodic clampdowns on social media and anti-government protests have also soured relations with the United States and the European Union. "Improving relations with the US and the EU will take improving democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law in Turkey," said Unluhisarcikli.

Political scientist Behlul Ozkan - who has analysed academic articles Davutoglu penned in the 1990s - describes him as "a pan-Islamist who uses Islam to achieve his foreign policy goals". "He (Davutoglu) believes that the nation-states that were formed in 1918 were artificial... He wants to go back in time to an order based on Islamic unity," Ozkan told the Taraf newspaper.

Still, his policies remain hugely popular among the AKP's pious voters, who hail Davutoglu for raising the country's international profile. "Davutoglu has opened a new chapter in foreign policy thinking by positioning Turkey as a country of the centre" Ibrahim Kalin, one of Erdogan's advisors, wrote in the pro-government Sabah newspaper. "He has refused to confine Turkey just to the East or to the West."

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia