The trouble with a great one-liner is that, if you say it enough times, it’ll eventually come back to haunt you. That’s a reality that Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu has faced since 2010, when he penned an article for the US magazine Foreign Policy outlining the “Zero problems with neighbours” stance that he’d pursued for his country. Whenever Turkey has made a bold outreach beyond its borders or engaged in a diplomatic spat, the phrase has resurfaced to be picked apart in the Turkish and international press.
When Davutoglu wrote the original article, he was still the foreign minister, guiding the country toward renewed relations in the Middle East and setting a course for accession into the European Union. He talked about proactive and pre-emptive peace diplomacy and fostering cordial relations with the immediate region by easing visa restrictions and economic interdependence. The core of “Zero problems” was about keeping Turkey above regional disputes; a mediator idea that, to some extent, persisted until the Arab Spring unseated the region’s old guard and the country witnessed neighbouring Syria descend into a complex civil war.
“Zero problems” is once again on the newsstands in Istanbul. Turkey has long been wary of too deep an engagement in Syria and the coalition against Isis. But a suicide bomb attack earlier this month in Suruç in the south of Turkey left 32 people dead and unseated the idea that the country was impervious to the conflict over its border.
The attack in Suruç shook the country, not only for its callousness – targeting a group of young people heading to Kobane to assist with reconstruction – but also for those concerned that more could have been done to guard an allegedly porous border.
Government response, therefore, had to be significant. Drawings of an elaborate border wall appeared in the local dailies, while Turkey made international headlines for a deal with the US to allow manned American jets to take off from Turkish airbases. Meanwhile the air force launched its own airstrikes into Syria.
Simultaneously, a key part of “Zero problems” unravelled. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) reneged on a ceasefire and accused the Turkish government of being responsible for the rise of Isis, which is fighting Kurdish forces in Syria. Two Turkish soldiers were killed, more wounded and the country began shelling PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan. On Tuesday Turkey called an emergency meeting with Nato as two conflicts erupted on its borders.
Some pundits now see “Zero problems” as an unfulfilled prediction. Others are concernedly recalling the 1990s, an era dogged by conflict with the PKK. But perhaps the message of “Zero problems” today, particularly after the attack in Suruç, is that Davutoglu’s roadmap was for a very different neighbourhood.
Christopher Lord is Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief.