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Whither Turkey’s Zero Problem Policy?

“Aware that development and progress in real terms can only be achieved in a lasting peace and stability environment, Turkey places this objective at the very center of her foreign policy vision” reads out the very first paragraph of the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry in the section devoted to the “Zero-Problem policy”.

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It has been the foreign policy motto of the Government of Erdogan, inspired from Kemal Atatürk’s guiding words of « Peace at home, Peace in the World », whose very followers in Turkey have often clashed with Erdogan for side-tracking from his ideals. Adding to this contradiction is the ephemeral nature of the Zero-Problem Policy. In other words, from its idealistic beginnings in 2003, the Zero-Problem policy sought to avert tensions with Turkey’s neighbours only until the outbreak of the Arab Spring to find itself at a today’s deadlock characterised by increasing problems with Turkey’s neighbours. 10 years after AKP’s tenure, Turkey’s fleeting diplomatic success with neighbours such as Iran, Syria, Russia, Iraq, and its attempts at reconciliation with Armenia have hit rock bottom. The question arises, was AKP’s problem-free foreign policy ambition confined to words? Or was it meant to fail from its very outset?


Vahid Yücesoy is a graduate student of Political Science at l’Université de Montréal (Canada). His research interests focus on democratisation in the Middle East (notably, political economy of oil and its impacts on democracy), Islamist groups and democracy, as well as various aspects of Turkish and Iranian politics. He speaks fluent English, French, Turkish, Persian and intermediate Kurdish.


The advent of AKP into the Turkish political scene as a majority government in 2002 heralded the beginning of a new era not only for its neighbours, but also for Turkey itself.  Turkey that the AKP government inherited had long been characterised by its dependence on IMF-administered structural adjustment programmes aiming to reduce an intractable rate of inflation, the colossal income gap between the rich and the poor, and a stagnant economy that was trying to shed the effects of a recent economic crisis. This dismal portrait started to change for better under the ascendancy of the AKP. The inflation fell far beneath the pre-AKP levels. Moreover, the average growth rate between 2002 (the year the AKP arrived in power) and 2011 was registered as being 7.5 per cent annually whilst lower inflation and interest rates have also fuelled higher domestic consumption. Correspondingly, Turkey witnessed a rising GDP per capita from $2,800 U.S. in 2001 to around $10,000. The country’s tourism revenues as well skyrocketed between 2002 and 2011, as the number of tourists visiting Turkey rose from 12 million to more than 31 million, increasing the circulation of foreign currency within the economy. In addition, let alone cutting off its relations with the United States, 10 years of AKP leadership in Turkey has heightened the level of Turkish-American alliance. As for Turkey’s accession plans to the European Union, the AKP government not only proceeded with a heightened momentum, but the AKP used the EU-imposed democratisation reforms in order to incapacitate the army apparatus that has for decades dominated the political scene in Turkey.  These socio-economic breakthroughs were also reflected in the electoral behaviour of the Turkish electorate. The AKP received 34.28 per cent of the vote in 2002. It won 46.58 per cent in 2007. And it scored 49.90 per cent in 2011.

This meteoric political and economic success of the AKP had already raised Turkey to prominence in the eyes of its Muslim neighbours. In other words, AKP’s soft-power was slowly in the making. Part of the economic success of Turkey is also imputable to the deepening relations with its neighbours as part of the gradual implementation of the “zero-problem” policy. The first two months of 2012 saw a decline in the flow of EU investment funds to Turkey, which fell by 22%, while entry of funds from Asia, including the Arab world, grew from a low level of under 2% at the outset of the AKP-rule to 34% of all foreign capital flows into Turkey. Turkey’s exports to the Middle East went from 9.6 per cent of total export capacity in 2002 to 20.3 per cent in 2011 .

While on the surface the soft-power-based zero-problem policy appeared to be the blueprint for Turkey’s booming relations with its Middle Eastern neighbours, in retrospect conflicts appear to have been a thorn on the side of the Turkish foreign policy. The cracks started with the flottila event, which have soured the Turkish-Israeli relations to this day. Arguably, the entire incident served Turkey, especially the AKP government, to be elevated to a higher status in the minds of millions of people in the famous Arab street. Much to the chagrin of Iran’s ruling elite, Erdogan also started to pilfer the heroic image of the defender of the Palestinian cause from Iran’s Ahmadinejad. As a result, opinion polls by the Pew Research Center reveal that most Muslim respondents hold an unfavourable view of Iran. Only in Pakistan and Indonesia are more than 50 per cent of respondents favourable towards Iran, while most respondents in Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon, and Turkey are unfavourable. More than 80 per cent of Egyptians and over 74 per cent of Jordanians feel threatened by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Although the flotilla incident was awash with contradictions as far as the zero-problem policy was concerned, the downgrading of Turkish-Israeli relations seemed, to Erdogan and his entourage, a risk well worth taking as the reward was a proliferating Turkish clout in the Arab Middle East, thus in line with the soft-power policy of Turkey. However, the outbreak of the Arab Spring caught Turkey off-guard. The mounting anger that started from Tunisia spreading like wildfire in the Arab world had an immense impact on Turkey’s Middle East policy.  Initially silent on the uprisings in Tunisia like many of its European allies, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey was the first to ask Hosni Mobarak to step down when the Arab Spring reached the shores of Egypt, which contributed to the rising popularity of Turkey amongst the Egyptian public

Notwithstanding, this responsiveness on Egypt was contrasted with passivity on Libya. On par with the international reactions to Gadhafi’s deeply unpopular regime, Turkey had to recoil and give in to the international pressure on its acquiescence on the massacre of the opponents of the Gadhafi regime in Libya. Erdogan’s initial restraint on the egregious human rights violations in Libya was primarily imputable to Turkey’s $15-billion worth of investment in Libya prior to the uprising. Turkey’s Libya policy made such an about-turn that Erdogan’s government precipitously started to collaborate with Libya”s National Transitional Council.

It can be argued that the inexorable spread of the Arab Spring to Syria was an important crucible for Turkey’s famous zero-problem policy. There started Turkey’s insurmountable squabbles with Syria and its allies (Iran and Russia) that reverberate to this day and which also contrast with the beginning of the tenure of AKP party. Syria was in fact the cornerstone of the “zero problems with neighbours” policy at its very inception; as long as trade boomed, why couldn’t everybody get along? The Assad regime of Syria became a close ally of Turkey. The two leaders had been holidaying together and the visa restrictions between both countries had been lifted. Furthermore, relations between Syria and Turkey had received a further boost in April 2008, when indirect talks began between the Syrians and Israelis under Turkish mediation although the stalemate with regards to the Golan Heights proceeded apace.

When the rebellions broke out in Syria, however, Erdogan was quick to instruct Assad to carry out far-reaching reforms in order to accommodate the demands of protesters only to realise that he did not bear as much political clout on Syria as he had anticipated. As the extent of repression in Syria against the agitators grew, so did Erdogan’s anti-Syrian rhetoric. Turkey soon realised that it had a moral and political responsibility to support the Syrian opposition given the extent of brutality the opposition was exposed to. Yet, the same moral obligation was absent from the rhetoric of Erdogan during 2009’s Green Movement demonstrations in Iran that was also home to brutal crackdown on the opposition.

The on-going tug-of-war between the Syrian government has opened a can of worms difficult to handle for Turkey. First and foremost, it has strained its once-flourishing relationship with Iran, whose relations with Turkey prior to the advent of the AKP had been characterised with intermittent secular-Islamic ideological tensions due to Islamic Iran’s diametrically different state structure from that of secular Turkey. The warming relations between Iran and Turkey during the onset of the AKP’s tenure were perhaps another salient epitome of Davutoglu’s “zero problems” doctrine. Leaving erstwhile conflicts aside, both countries focused on improving their commercial relations. The trade between both nations reached 16 billion dollars. Turkey also enthusiastically attempted to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear quagmire with the West together with Lula da Silva of Brazil before the nuclear blueprint was swiftly spurned by the Western powers.

All the same, the unflinching Turkish opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, one of the few Arab allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East, did not take long to draw the ire of the Iranian regime. The war of words between both Iran and Turkey ensued. On February 5 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister of Erdogan, Bülent Arinç, delivered quite a critical speech with regards to Iran’s support of the Assad government: “I am addressing the Islamic Republic of Iran: I do not know if you are worthy of being called Islamic,” Arinc said, according to the Anatolia state news agency. “Have you said a single thing about what is happening in Syria?”

This remarkable change of tone was a far cry from the supportive stance of Turkey towards the Iranian government, even in the face of the brutal elections crackdown in 2009 when Erdogan did not hesitate to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his “election victory” under dubious circumstances. Nevertheless, the mutual economic interdependence has been keeping the relations at bay for the time being. Although the sanctions have been instrumental in causing a sharp reduction of Turkish crude oil imports from Iran, Turkey still depends on Iran for 20% of its gas imports while Iran’s dependence on Turkey, especially recent Turkish gold sales to Iran, a direly needed item now that Iran has been increasingly isolated by the existing international sanctions.

Another dissension that has recently been a thorn on the side of Turkey with regards to Syria has been with Russia. During a recent spat between both countries, Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, accused Russia of supplying the Syrian government with munitions. The Turkish authorities stopped a Russian plane en route to Syria while it was in the Turkish airspace. Turkish media reports said cargo confiscated from the plane before it was allowed to leave Ankara included radios, antennae and equipment “thought to be missile parts. While the incident triggered a deterioration of Turkish-Russian relations, diplomats said Turkey was flexing its muscles after Russia refused to condemn Syria at the United Nations when recently mortar shells fired by the Syrian army killed five civilians in a Turkish border village.

On balance, Turkey’s zero problem policy has followed an entirely different trajectory from the one laid out by its pronouncements. Whilst the AKP government initially appeared to be adhering to the ideal of promoting co-operation based on a soft-power approach, its implementation, especially in the light of the Arab Spring, has followed an utterly incoherent path. What is unmistakably clear is that Turkey, under the aegis of the AKP government, is facing more tension in its region than before the reign of the AKP. What started as an ambitious odyssey of mutual comprehension and improved bilateral relations with the neighbours has only proven transient. Erdogan’s Turkey appears to be resolute to retain its foothold in the Middle East and the Arab Spring appears to be the newly-found occasion for it to propagate what many have been critically calling “Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism” under the banner of “zero problems” policy”. While the economic ties have been in Turkey’s favour, Turkey might pay the price of its increasing involvement in the Middle East by creating further enemies and, in the end, imperilling its stability, a key factor of its booming economy.

  • February 7, 2021