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Schizophrenic Turkey by Peacefare.net

The closing panel yesterday at the Middle East Institute’s Third Annual Conference on Turkey, on “Turkey’s Leadership Role in an Uncertain Middle East,” found plenty of uncertainty in Turkey’s role as well. Al-Jazeera Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara opened the discussion with a look at the “schizophrenic” face of Turkey’s ascendancy in the Middle East. While many Arabs look to Turkey as a leader as well as a model of successful moderate political Islam, others see its rising profile in the region as a threat. This tension in Turkey’s regional role is evident in its relationships with Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Israel.

International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann covered Turkey’s relations with Iraq, which appeared to be the most schizophrenic case. Turkey’s worsening relations with Baghdad and ever-growing partnership with Irbil are contributing to the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart, counter to Turkey’s stated objectives. Hiltermann’s recent trip to Ankara left him still confused about what Turkey hopes to achieve in Iraq, but he sees the current dynamic as negative.

Turkey wants a stable and unified Iraq as a way to provide regional stability, regional economic integration, a buffer against Iran, access to Iraqi oil and gas, and tempering of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. On the last point, Ankara hopes to harness the Kurdish Regional Government as a counterweight to the PKK, but its other main interests depend upon Iraqi unity and amicable ties with Baghdad. The current strain in relations stems from tension with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s overt opposition to al-Maliki’s party in the 2010 elections backfired when he won the day. Ankara-Baghdad relations have broken down further with suspicion in Iraq that a Sunni (Turkey-Gulf) alliance is gunning for the Syrian regime and will come after the regime in Baghdad next. The best way forward would be a rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad, particularly an exchange of envoys, in order to prevent mutual suspicions from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Freelance journalist Yigal Shleifer had the simplest diagnosis: Turkish-Israeli relations are anywhere from “dead and frozen” to “completely dead and deeply frozen.”  The Gaza flotilla incident was simply the nail of the coffin, and since then the two sides have painted themselves into a corner. Turkey wants nothing less than a full apology, restitution, and the lifting of the blockade, while Israel is only willing to apologize for operational mistakes and cover some damages. In dealing with the crisis Israel was looking to “make up after the breakup,” while Turkey was negotiating “the terms of an amicable divorce.” Indicators for the near future are discouraging, particularly as both publics have become deeply skeptical of the other. Strategic partnership with Israel simply does not fit into Turkey’s evolving sense of purpose in the region, one piece of which is to be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause.

The lack of high-level communication is a recipe for disaster; the flotilla incident would likely not have gone so sour if relations had not already been strained to the point of stymying communication. Shleifer’s recommendation is a concerted diplomatic push, which will have to be American. Restoring relations to a level of trust is imperative for both. For Israel, it’s a question of security, but for Turkey it’s necessary for the development of its role as regional mediator as well as political, economic, and religious crossroads.

Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center characterized Syria and Iran as representing some of the profoundest achievements and toughest challenges of Turkish politics in the last few years. The AKP has been fond of talking about 360-degree strategic depth, but Iran and Syria have called this approach into question. Iran has become an important energy source and trading partner for Turkey under the AKP. It has also provided an opportunity for Turkey to flex its diplomatic muscle, as the biggest player in nuclear negotiations outside the P5+1. But Iran’s recalcitrance has proven increasingly frustrating for Turkey, and Turkey may find itself having to choose between closer relations with Iran or with the emerging bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Syria is an even starker challenge. Erdogan and Asad used to call each other personal friends, and the countries even engaged in joint military exercises. The rebellion has flipped the situation, with Turkey becoming the base for the opposition Syrian National Council and Erdogan calling Asad’s tactics savage and his regime a clear and imminent threat. Wright does not see the possibility of normalized relations anytime soon, especially under the current leaders.

The conflicts over Iran and Syria have pushed Turkey ever more toward the West, undermining its 360-degree diplomacy. What Turkey does in the next year in terms of its alliances in the East and the West will do a lot to determine the direction of its development as a regional and international player.

The overall impression was one of Turkey at a historical crossroads paralleling its traditional role as geographic and cultural crossroads. Turkey now has issues with most of its neighbors, yet its potential for political and economic growth is huge. It has successfully cast itself as the indispensible mediator. The political role it envisions is both regional strongman and regional middleman. It will also play an important role in helping the Arab world define a new order in the wake of the Arab Spring, as a model and as a political partner.

Turkey has been steadily strengthening its economic ties with its European and Middle Eastern neighbors, but the political realm will require more tradeoffs: between Europe and Asia, Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf, Israel and Arab states. Yigal Shleifer’s recollection of a Turkish airline ad touting Istanbul as a connection to both Tel Aviv and Tehran was illustrative.

The consensus on the panel was that even with these ambiguities of strategic direction, Turkey has carved an independent place for itself on the regional and international scene. Turkey’s clout will almost certainly increase with the rise of moderate Islamist governments in Arab Spring countries, but to navigate the new environment it will have to make tough choices about its alliances and its guiding foreign policy principles.

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This entry was posted on Հուլիսի 1, 2012 by in in English, Թուրքիա -արտաքին հարաբերություններ and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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