The sea change in Turkey's middle eastern policy

Turkey's foreign policy realignment is nowhere more pronounced than in the middle east. Previously absent, Turkey is now taking a leading role as a mediator and diplomatic force in the region.
Joshua Walker Nathalie Tocci
16 March 2010

Rarely does a state’s foreign policy undergo such a dramatic transformation as Turkey’s middle eastern policies in the 21st century. Whereas Turkey’s involvement in the middle east has been on the rise since the 1990s, the nature of that involvement has changed in recent years. In the 1990s Turkey’s developing military ties with Israel, its coercive pressure on Syria and its participation in western sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were largely framed within a realist understanding of the middle eastern balance of power.

Today, Turkey presents itself as a as a central country in the midst of Afro-Eurasia, intent in developing relations with all actors in order to promote peace and regional integration. In line with this goal, Ankara has mediated between Israel and Syria, Israel and Hamas, Syria and Iraq, within the broader Sunni and Arab world, as well as between the US and Iran. Furthermore, the continued withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has changed Turkey’s regional dynamics and allowed Ankara new space for manoeuvring; a space which Turkey has seized by promoting a Kurdish and regional initiative. The 2009 High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council Agreements between Turkey and Syria, and Turkey and Iraq, which may even include Iran in the future, is an unprecedented development. The mere discussion of an economic union between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq would have been unthinkable in any other period of Turkey’s modern history.

Turkish foreign policy in the middle east today is undoubtedly far more proactive, cooperative and multi-dimensional than in any period of Turkey’s republican history. But what has this sea change in Turkey’s middle eastern policies achieved (or what is it achieving)? There appear to be two major arenas in which Turkey’s transformation is having an impact.

Turkey’s potential in mediation

The first and most evident impact regards Turkey’s role in mediation. To the extent that promoting peace has been a pillar of Turkish current foreign policy, offering to mediate in the conflict-ridden middle east has been a principal feature and outcome of Turkey’s transformation. 

The most important case regards Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria. The Turkish initiative dates back to January 2004 in the context of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s visit to Turkey. The 2006 Lebanon war (and Israel’s ensuing awareness of Hizballah’s capabilities and its relative vulnerability) raised Israel’s perceived need to move forward on the Syrian track, triggering Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s call for his Turkish counterpart’s mediation in September 2006 at track-one level. The process was delayed by Israel’s bombing of Syria’s military installation in September 2007 (incidentally flying through Turkish airspace) and official preparations took place between March 2007 and May 2008. Between May 2008 and December 2008 four rounds of official indirect talks via Turkish shuttle diplomacy took place. According to both sides, greater progress was achieved than originally expected. The parties had entered the process for different reasons. For President Asad a prime aim was that of breaking Syria’s international isolation and showing the west that it was a serious partner for peace. For Prime Minister Olmert the aim was to negotiate with Syria in order to weaken the Iranian-Syria-Hizballah link. Neither side expected a breakthrough. Yet more was achieved than ever before.[1] The climax came at a dinner between the Turkish Prime Minister and his Israeli counterpart on 23 December 2008, in which the launch of direct talks appeared to be in the offing. Five days later Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Gaza and the process broke down.

Another case of Turkish mediation regards relations with Hamas. In view of Turkey’s open political channels to Hamas (and in particular its political bureau in Damascus), Ankara has offered to mediate on two occasions. The first was over a prisoners’ exchange deal in the aftermath of the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. Then Turkish Prime Minister advisor Ahmet Davutoğlu travelled to Damascus several times to broker a deal. Following the failure to yield a breakthrough, the potential of Turkey’s efforts was recognized by UN Human Rights Rapporteur in the Occupied Territories Richard Falk.[2] The second instance of Turkish mediation with Hamas was during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009. Given the absence of official contact with Hamas, neither the US nor the EU could exert any influence on Hamas in order to secure a ceasefire on its side.[3] Egypt played a crucial role, yet the well-known difficulties between Hamas and the Egyptian regime also opened a space for Turkey. Davutoğlu readily used it by holding two meetings with Hamas leader Meshal and shuttling between Damascus and Cairo in order to secure a ceasefire by Hamas in return for an Israeli ceasefire and the lifting of Israel’s closure of Gaza. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, appreciated Turkey’s called for Turkey’s role.[4] Following the end of the Israeli offensive, Turkey’s efforts were openly praised by the Arab League, Syria, France and the European Union.[5]

The possibility of mediating one of the most internationally contentious issues and engendering the praise of the US and EU has captivated Ankara’s attention when it comes to Iran. Turkey sought to facilitate 5+1[6] talks in 2006, when President Gül conducted shuttle diplomacy between the principal actors Condoleeza Rice, Javier Solana, Mohammed el Baradei and Ali Larijani. Secretary of State Rice acknowledged Turkey’s efforts in July 2006, but nothing came of these. Since then Ankara has consistently offered its good offices to mediate on the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and continues to pass messages from Washington to Tehran. However by 2009-2010 the tone of the Turkish Prime Minister’s rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear ambitions started to be seen as less than helpful by the west.

A final area of Turkey’s attempted mediation is within the Arab world. Three examples of this are Turkey’s mediation efforts within Iraq, between Syria and Iraq, and between Syria and Saudi Arabia. In the first case, Turkey successfully persuaded Sunni leaders to participate in the 2005 national elections in Iraq helping to draw them into a new political system led by the Shi’a. In the second case, Turkey attempted to reconcile Syrians and Iraqis over the latter’s accusation of the former for the August 2009 bombings in Baghdad. In the final case, Turkey mediated a micro-crisis over the quasi-cancellation of a state visit by the King of Saudi Arabia to Syria in the fall of 2009 due to tensions between Damascus and Riyadh. Whereas these three examples represent Turkey’s role in micro-crisis management, they are nonetheless emblematic of a Turkish role in the Arab world which would have hitherto been unthinkable.

Turkey’s potential in realigning the middle east

Leading on from this, the second, less evident, yet potentially more important Turkish impact on the middle east regards the geopolitical and ideational realignment of the region. Turkey offers the prospect of realigning the region by countering revisionist and securitizing trends rampant in the middle east. In today’s middle east, states like Iran and Israel through their rhetoric and actions raise anxiety and fear. Turkey vies away from this paradigm by fostering relations with all parties through bilateral relations and regional integration. Countries like Syria see this potential. Prevalent in Syrian perceptions of Turkey is precisely Damascus’ double objective of strengthening its hand vis-à-vis Israel while concomitantly diversifying its alliance with Iran. As put by a key Syrian interlocutor: ‘when Syria feels threatened it turns to Iran, when it sees opportunities it turns to Turkey’.[7] Indeed Syria on the one hand has important areas of disagreements with Tehran particularly regarding the sectarianization of Iraq, while on the other appreciates the disunity of the Arab world and the role that Turkey can play by providing a route to the west and an integrated middle east. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been less enthusiastic about Turkey’s role particularly in Palestine and intra-Arab affairs. Yet Turks have generally been accepted by Arab states that welcome the pragmatic and business-savvy nature of Turkish diplomacy. As a gateway to both Europe and America, Turkey has become an important meeting and convening spot for the actors of the region.

Turkey thus offers the prospect to unsettle, dislodge and possibly break the dichotomies which have poisoned the middle east in the past. Particularly in the west (yet partly also in the middle east), the region has been viewed in us/them terms, be this moderate/radical, western/anti-western, Sunni/Shi’ite, Israeli/Arab or west/Islam. A transformed Turkey in the region could help move away from these dichotomies by being “moderate”, “Muslim” and “western” yet enjoying relations with “radicals” and “anti-western” actors in the “Muslim” middle east; by being predominantly “Sunni” while enjoying relations with “Shi’ite” countries (e.g. Iran), movements (e.g. Hizbollah) and regimes (e.g. the Alawite Syrian regime); by being neither Arab nor Israeli while enjoying relations with both. Fulfilling this potential is no small feat. To the extent that the middle east is conflict-ridden, Turkey will not be able to improve relations with some without harming its relations and raising suspicions in others. This said, Turkey  does run the risk of going beyond this, doing little more than “switching alliances”. In this respect while it is healthy for Turkey’s relations with Israel to be dictated by conditionality and “tough love”, it is equally important for the rhetoric of the Turkish prime minister not to suggest that Turkey simply falling in the opposing camp in what may be read as an identity-driven clash that Turkey supposedly attempts to transcend.

The Implications of Turkey’s middle eastern Transformation

What does Turkey’s transformation in the middle east add up to? As far as mediation is concerned, Turkey’s efforts can bear fruit only if undertaken in tandem with the US. Turkey has demonstrated its ability to mediate micro-crises and can play a useful role as a go-between the west and actors such as Hamas, Iran or Syria, with whom the US and EU either have no with relations or have problematic relations ridden by mistrust. Yet as far as the macro-conflicts in the region are concerned, Turkey’s potential is limited. Turkey played an important role in moving the Syrian-Israeli track forward. Turkey has also won Syrian trust and desire to see Turkey involved in future peace efforts. However Turkey has gone as far as it could go. This is not because the deterioration of relations with Israel has written Turkey off as an “honest broker” .[8] The history of mediation in the region suggests that neutrality has hardly been a condition for success. The principal reason why Turkey’s mediation potential is limited is that Israel, Syria and Turkey all know that a deal can be sealed only when the US steps in. Israel will not budge unless it is induced by Washington, while Syria will not grant Israel a peace process which does not offer the prospect of a peace deal, a deal which Turkey, alone, cannot deliver. Likewise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Turkey’s relations with Hamas are important because of the self-imposed lack of US/EU contact and thus influence on the movement. Yet the prime actor calling the shots is Israel, on which Turkey, irrespective of the state of its bilateral relations, has little influence. It is only if and when the US/EU exert their influence on Israel that Turkey’s ties to Hamas can contribute to a positive movement in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.   

However, unlike the US and EU, Turkey, as an actor “of” rather than simply “in” the middle east offers the prospect to realign the middle east and break the dichotomies of the past by developing relations with all parties. This does not entail that Turkey’s ties with all actors will always and necessarily be good and indeed “tough love” if measured (i.e. not excessive) and consistent (i.e. towards all parties) would mark a welcome difference from western policies in the region. Yet this potential would be squandered if Turkey were viewed as acting purely according to a “Muslim” worldview rather than in the name of international rights and law.



[1] Syria for the first time made a written territorial offer (six reference points on the map) on the Golan Heights expecting an Israeli response. In turn Israel asked a set of security questions (related to Syria’s stance vis-à-vis Hamas, Hizballah and Iran following a deal) to which Syria responded in written form yet in a manner deemed too vague by Israel. During his visit to Turkey on 23 December 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert was expected to deliver written responses to the Syrian offer, which he did not, primarily for domestic political reasons. The two prime ministers allegedly had a five-hour long dinner in telephone conversation with Syrian President Asad.

[2] Falk, Richard (2009) ‘Understanding the Gaza catastrophe’, Today’s Zaman, 4 January.

[3]While choosing not to exert any influence on Israel to ensure a ceasefire on its side. 

[4] ‘Turkish PM speaks Sarkozy on the phone’, Time Turk English, 7 January 2009.

[5] ‘Turkey key to convincing Hamas on Gaza cease-fire’, Turkey,

[6] The 5+1 contact group includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

[7]Interview, Damascus October 2009.

[8] See ‘Netanyahu: Turkey can’t be an ‘honest broker’ in Syria talks’, Ha’aretz, 18 October 2009, Retrieved 2009-10-18 


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