By O. Bahadir Dincer
During the last years, there have been a great many developments in the Arab world which proved that the days of the existing authoritarian leaders were numbered. Definite proof that things were changing were provided by a series of events: the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003; the elections in Iraq in 2005; demonstrations the same year against Syria in Lebanon; the unprecedented success of the Muslim Brotherhood in winning 88 parliamentary seats in Egypt; and in 2006 Hamas’s success in bringing to an end the many years of absolute rule by Fatah in Palestine. In addition to all those things, the chronic political, social, and economic problems of our region had reached the limit and were harbingers of what is happening today.
However despite this picture, people did not envisage that the year 2011 would be so critical for the Arab world and such intense upheavals would be experienced. Looking back at events from the vantage point of a year, 2011 can be seen to have been a breaking point for the Arabs. Put differently, last year could appropriately be called the year that history jumped the tracks. For the things that the Arab world has experienced, shifting out of its historical course, the general set of things happening in the Middle East indicate that no matter how long it takes, it will arrive at a favorable outcome. The process will not progress at the same rate for each country but it does appear to be inevitable for every one of them. These leaders—psychological and psychiatric cases—and their bankrupt systems will all of them be forced, one by one, to surrender their places to the people.
While these things have been happening in the Arab world, it should not be allowed to escape attention that the entire Middle Eastern region in general has been going through a very critical process in the last few years. Many processes are upsetting the existing balance in the region: the rapidly changing and developing socio-economic and political structure of Turkey; Iran’s stealthy moves to increase its influence; the bilateral crises between certain countries in the region, e.g. Turkey and Israel; the stance adopted by the Western world toward these crises; and most important of all the actions that have taken place on the Arab street and the struggle to take advantage of it.
Over the past year these developments smashed the mold, bringing with them a huge challenge for Turkey.
Correctly seeing where we are
For years Turkey neglected this area, even remained apart from it, and so did not understand its dynamics but as it now focuses upon it, it faces the intricate realities of the region. Emotional and naive idealistic approaches, ones which even pretend not to see certain important truths, will not satisfy us but fly in our faces. During the past year, Turkey has been on a steep learning curve. If the old style of relations had continued, one which we were trying to develop within the existing parameters without any changes, then we would have continued to make mistake after mistake and build up ties on the wrong foundations. We would have continued to be unaware of the need to construct new foundations to make the relations sustainable and to set to one side the question of developing capacity.
In 2011 it may have been painful, but Turkey was given the chance for a rapid test of what its capacity was. And at the same time Turkey also saw who its friend was and who its enemy. Otherwise, perhaps it might have been impossible to understand where it had gone wrong in the last decade and which areas had been neglected or how too much trust had been placed in certain actors. Whatever else we would have seen would have been a lot of positive steps being taken with good intentions but based on nothing substantial, while despite this there would have been a lot of empty talk. We hope the fact that this situation has been perceived means scenarios for the future can be devised which are healthier and have their feet on the ground.
As pre-conditions for generating the will needed to develop our capacity, we should accept that we have our deficiencies and be convinced that this must be borne in mind when designing strategies. In the last ten years, Turkey has significantly increased its capacity as a regional power and its global influence. But it is also noteworthy that during that decade, a deficit has emerged in Turkish foreign policy between expectations and its ability to deliver. In particular, Turkey was late in taking up a position against the Assad regime over Syria and the steps that were then taken were not sufficient to produce a positive outcome. Events in 2011 demonstrated to us in Turkey how powerless we are in trying to create a degree of influence that matches the size of our population. Our experiences during the year also taught us that, parallel to this, a lot more effort had to be expended to remove the expectation-to-capacity deficit.
Domestic and international circles uneasy with Turkey being influential in the region and the equilibrium between different states have launched an intense political, diplomatic, and strategic offensive, but just as some countries which outwardly appear to be unfriendly are actually allies, in parallel certain countries which act as if they are friends turn out to have been totally insincere. In that respect, there was one favorable feature of 2011. It became easy to recognize that the moves being made by Iran and the strategies it was acting on were aimed at upsetting regional stability and thwarting Turkey’s initiatives. The fact that the some actors of the West have given prominence to Turkey and acts as if they aim to push it into the region’s problems demonstrates very starkly how difficult our work is.
In order to design positive policies toward the Middle East region, it is very important to above all stay well away from analyses which do not conform to the realities of the area and the internal dynamics of the region. Instead of just trying to study these countries casually on the Internet, they must be taken seriously through a disciplined learning process. Perhaps the most basic lesson that we should extract from 2011 is that superficial studies get us nowhere.
The events we have just lived through have provided us with an opportunity to recognize that there are various different powers which do not want Turkey to exist as a political and economic power in the region, and that they have the potential to engage in every kind of manipulation. In this context, the actions of Iran and Israel in 2011 need to be scrutinized very carefully and analyzed. What has happened also reminds us yet again how necessary it is, at sensitive times, to pay great attention to the binding nature that even hasty talk possesses and the potential for it to be misunderstood.
O. Bahadir Dincer
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies