Turkey has been pivotal in determining both the history and political fabric of the Middle East, so it is no surprise that since the Arab Spring, the country has encountered numerous challenges. The uprisings which spread like wildfire across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 have profoundly reformed the foundations of Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring ushered in the ideal opportunity for Erdogan to establish his role as a powerful regional leader by supporting the people against despotic regimes. This was an occasion to bolster Turkey’s image as a progressive and pro-democratic Muslim government.
However, in the four years since the unrest started in the Arab world, Turkey has been inundated with quandaries it did not foresee. Following his support for mass anti-government protests, Erdogan was compelled to forsake his ‘zero problem’ policy. This formula towards its neighbours had enabled Turkey to expand business and trade links with Arab states. It even facilitated Turkey’s role as an intermediary in some of the region’s most resilient disputes, negotiating talks between Fatah and Hamas and even Syria and Israel. Post-Arab Spring, however, the ‘zero problem’ strategy had been forced into abeyance, and this in turn had resulted in an estrangement between Turkey and many Arab states.
These hostilities reached a head after Erdogan denounced the military coup in Egypt 2013 and overtly expressed unequivocal support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the deposed President Mohammad Morsi. Just last week Erdogan once again ruffled some feathers with his polemical outburst at the UN General Assembly, questioning the legitimacy of Sisi’s rule.
"The United Nations as well as the democratic countries have done nothing but watch events such as the overthrowing of the elected president in Egypt and the killings of thousands of innocent people who want to defend their choice. And they lend their legitimacy to the person who carried out this coup."
Furthermore, Erdogan’s support for Syrian rebels has crushed the growing trade partnership with Syria’s Assad and riled Iran and Russia, Syria’s key allies.
Turkey’s support for the Sunni rebels in Syria but not the Shiite protesters in Bahrain, has led many to believe that Erdogan was pursuing a sectarian strategy supported by western interests. Erdogan openly challenged Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq, accusing it of fostering sectarian rivalry and furtively negotiating oil deals with the Kurdish Regional Government. Relations with Iraq’s Shiite-led government rapidly deteriorated as a result.
The most recent turmoil in Iraq and Syria created by the upsurge of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State (IS), has proved to be the biggest foreign policy challenge for Turkey yet. Fierce fighting between ISIL/IS and Kurdish forces just over the border in Syria have bought the skirmish close to home.
For the past two weeks the US-led coalition has been launching airstrikes against ISIL groups in both Syria and Iraq as part of their “near continuous” raids against the jihadists. Turkey has been under considerable pressure from the US to step up its efforts in the fight against ISIL. Erdogan was reluctant to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq until now, he averred over fears of the safety of 46 Turkish diplomats who had been seized by ISIL fighters in June in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. However on the September 21, Turkey secured the return of its hostages. The terms of the release remain ambiguous but it is more than likely that ISIL got something in return.
Despite Erdogan’s display of hesitancy at joining the coalition against ISIL, analysts maintain that he has undergone a radical shift in his approach after returning from the UN summit, as a result of strong US pressure.
On Thursday, October 2, Turkey made a major advance when its parliament approved a motion that gives the government new powers to launch military incursions into Syria and Iraq and to allow foreign forces to use its territory for possible operations against ISIL. However this should not be viewed as a surrender to western dominion. Washington Post correspondent Liz Sly reported from the Turkish border village right alongside Kobane, where ISIL militants have been increasing attacks against the Kurds, that “Erdogan spelled out his reluctance to become embroiled in a military campaign in Syria that does not prioritise the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and relies on airstrikes to achieve its goals.”
Erdogan’s comments suggest that Turkey’s military role in Syria and Iraq will not be on American terms.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s latest move is highly significant: it will allow the US and its partners to use the Incirlik airbase. And it is also a symbolic development, as Turkey is an addition to the Muslim nation states who are already a part of the coalition, but as the only Muslim NATO member will send a profound message to IS militants.
However despite Turkey’s advancement in the fight against jihadists, it continues to come under suspicion and speculation over its real objectives in joining the coalition. Turkey remains displeased at the US’s apathy towards the Syrian regime. It is also ambivalent about empowering the Kurds on the Kurdish/Turkish border and doesn’t want to see them aligned with the PKK and ultimately encourage their breakaway from Turkey. Analysts have claimed that Turkey is once again utilising the turbulence in the region to salvage its own reputation which has been largely tarnished following the Arab Spring.
Many see this as an attempt to eliminate suspicion that Erdogan is pursuing a sectarian agenda.
Only time will tell whether Ankara will tip the scale against the jihadists. But it is appropriate to say, Turkey has and always will play a paramount role in the region’s political composition.