By Daniel Wagner and Abdul Yousef
Turkey’s relationship with the nations of the Middle East has historically vacillated between periods of ambivalence and periods of engagement. Turkey’s desire to join the EU had previously prompted it to distance itself from the Arab world, however, since the rise and consolidation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) beginning in 2001, Turkey’s attitudes towards the region have changed dramatically. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan, the Turkish government pursued a policy of active engagement in Middle Eastern affairs, and began positioning Turkey to become a major player in the region. The Arab Awakening resulted in a strengthening of this trend, and Turkey is now well positioned to exert even greater influence throughout the Middle East.
Turkey’s desire to ensure and maintain regional stability was the original driver of the country’s “zero problems with the neighbors” foreign policy. Though the Turks clearly see an opportunity for growing influence in the region, they also understand that Middle Eastern politics are a tinderbox, and traditional ‘power politics’ from the EU, US, Russia and China impact the landscape on an ongoing basis. Given the American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey concluded that soft power would be the likelier path to success. But Turkey cannot ignore the hard power realities of its Kurdish issue, its borders with Iraq and Syria, and the growing refugee problem with Syria. So Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ approach to foreign policy was really more of a desire than anything else from the beginning.
To date, Turkey has adopted a hands-off approach to the Arab Awakening, except in the case of Syria, where it felt it had no choice but to take an increasingly strong stand against the Assad regime, even going as far as to provide military support to the Syrian rebels. Erdogan has been vociferous in his support for political change more generally throughout the region. In return, Erdogan has garnered widespread support for himself and his government among the Arab masses, allowing him to partially fill the vacuum of leadership created in the process, and bringing Turkey to the forefront of the Middle East as a model for the future.
A second reason for the shift towards the Arab world has been Turkey’s failed efforts to gain admission to the EU. It is of course ironic that Greece, which initially blocked Turkey’s accession, is now an economic basket case, while Turkey has become a regional economic and political powerhouse. Though Erdogan and the majority of Turkish citizens still support accession, ongoing intransigence on the issue within the EU has created growing disillusionment among the Turks. They see Greece considering pulling out of the Union and all the associated problems the Union has had and ask themselves why they would want to become members. Given the EU’s dismal economic health, many Turks believe that Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. Turkey has always prided itself on maintaining political and economic independence – a pillar of Kemalist principles. Any perceived attempt by a foreign power to coerce or compromise this principle would be met with strenuous resistance by the Turkish government, and its citizens.
The third reason is Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with its once solid allies – the US and Israel. Turkish relations with the US have always been strong. The two countries not only cooperate vis-à-vis a host of bilateral military and security agreements, but as members of NATO they are also bound by their military commitments to the organization. Though Turkey was a key ally in the US “War on Terror”, it strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq on the basis that an attack would not only destabilize the region, but would also create enormous problems along Turkey’s shared border with Iraq, and exacerbate problems with its large Kurdish population. The decade following the Iraq War created a significant cooling off period between the two nations that has only recently begun to thaw. But with Turkey now a significantly stronger country, the US is finding it must approach bilateral relations more delicately.
Turkish/Israeli relations began in 1949, and the two nations have historically enjoyed strong military, strategic, and diplomatic ties. The longer-term relationship between Turkey and Israel had always been one of various intersecting interests. For the Turks, continued relations with Israel not only meant access to the advanced military technology the Israelis had to offer, it also meant maintaining a balance of power within a region where instability had become the norm. For the Israelis, having Turkey as an ally in a hostile region where Israel enjoyed few friends has been of great importance. Israel’s relationship with Turkey began to dramatically deteriorate following its attack on Gaza in 2009. Erdogan was highly critical of Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories, calling them war crimes. The deterioration of relations reached a peak in 2010, following Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla at sea. It is now difficult to imagine how that bilateral relationship will become what it once was. Any meaningful improvement in that relationship is undoubtedly many years away.
Many Turkish critics of Erdogan and the AKP – particularly secular elites in the Turkish military establishment – have accused them of violating the Turkish constitution’s separation of religion and state by pushing a political Islam agenda. Erdogan has countered by stating the ADP was democratically elected on a mildly Islamic platform, and that he is merely carrying out the will of a majority of the Turkish population. Erdogan notes that diplomatic and military relations between Turkey and Israel still exist despite their differences, and that his government does not have any plans to change this policy. The goal of Erdogan’s foreign policy is to maintain good relations with the US and Israel, while at the same time cultivating stronger ties with Turkey’s immediate and regional neighbors.
The final reason for Turkey’s shift from West to East has been its continued economic growth and political power, and its desire to seek new opportunities in emerging markets. Turkish trade with the Middle East has experienced remarkable growth over the past several years. Turkish investment in the region has grown from approximately $5 billion to more than $34 billion in just under a decade. Turkish products, films, and television shows, are bought and viewed by millions of people throughout the Middle East. The influence of Turkish culture in the Arab world has enjoyed a renaissance, and has created a positive image of Turkey among the average person in the street in the Middle East. Not only do most of the region’s citizens view Turkey as a positive political and economic force in the region, but there also is a growing sentiment that Turkey is the model to follow for transitional states throughout the Middle East and North Africa – a thriving modern Islamic state coexisting peacefully in a Western dominated global political system.
Turkey’s rise will now hopefully coincide with the rise of more modern, moderate political systems throughout the region. But a number of storm clouds remain on the horizon – ranging from the ongoing turmoil in Syria to growing instability in Iraq to Europe’s long-term economic problems. Fortunately, it looks as though Turkey’s strength will allow it to be a source of stability in the region on a long-term basis. Mr. Erdogan’s and the AKP’s strength are likely to endure, which is a good thing, given that so many positive outcomes have been derived from their decade-long consolidation of power. Given the choice between a new and potentially weak regime in Ankara and a strong and stable one, MENA and the Gulf are surely better off with the latter.
Daniel Wagner is a Non-Resident Scholar at INEGMA and is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA) and author of the new book Managing Country Risk (www.managingcountryrisk.com). Abdul Yousef is a research analyst with CRS.
Daniel can be followed on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/countryriskmgmt.