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Overestimating Turkey’s influence in the Middle East

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Turkey’s desire to re-orient its foreign policy towards the Middle East and gain influence with the Arab Awakening seems to have been undone by its approach towards the Syrian conflict.

Christopher Sisserian
9 September 2012

Last week’s images of the returning Lebanese hostage captured in Syria, arriving from Turkey and sporting a red tie bearing the Turkish flag were a clear signal of Turkey’s desire to boost its image and re-position itself in the Middle East [see image here ]

Turkey’s aspirations to become a larger player in the Middle East, building on the zero problems with the neighbours policy developed by foreign minister Davutoglu, have drawn much international attention. The stalling of Turkey’s talks to join the EU can partly explain Turkey turning its back on Europe and as a result finding itself facing the other way, towards the Middle East. Labelled as neo-Ottomanism, the new approach has been viewed as a return to Turkey’s colonial past, as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire that once ruled most of the region. Many commentators, especially in Europe (perhaps to offer compensation for the stagnation of EU ascension talks), jumped the gun and labelled this shift the ‘emergence of Turkey as a global power that would come to shape the Syrian conflict’, before it had managed to properly establish itself as a regional one, as demonstrated by this Spiegel article. published in April this year.

However far from being an opportunity to showcase its leadership in determining the fate of Syria, the Syrian crisis seems to have halted Turkey’s own regional ambitions and provided the final nail in the coffin for the zero problems approach. Instead of developing friendly ties, Turkey now seems to have problems with all of its neighbours. Aside from the old issues with Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, relations with Middle Eastern states began to deteriorate with the suspension of relations with Israel following the flotilla incident. Earlier this year the Iraqi Prime Minister labelled Turkey a “hostile state” and tensions remain high with the country, which is currently reviewing its relations with Turkey. Tensions with Iran are also constantly increasing as a result of Turkey’s position on Syria.

Before the Syrian uprising, Turkey was a strong ally of Assad with improved relations with Syria being the jewel in the crown of Turkey’s rising influence in the region. However the speed with which this was abandoned in favour of supporting the Syrian rebels will make it difficult for Turkey to be viewed as a reliable partner in a region where the past is rarely forgotten and more likely to be brought up at any available opportunity.  The strong stance taken by Turkey in supporting the Free Syrian Army has also alienated many that would have been open to it potentially playing a greater role. Rather than building on past attempts at mediation, primarily between Syria and Israel as well as on the Iranian nuclear issue, and acting as the neutral mediator that many had hoped it would, Turkey is now viewed as having chosen sides in a conflict that is not its own. This coupled with the hypocrisy of supporting an armed rebellion in Syria whilst simultaneously suppressing its own armed Kurdish rebels (see below) has damaged Turkey’s credibility in the region.

Turkey is unable to escape the fact that as a member of NATO it remains a member of the Western sphere, despite its attempts at repositioning itself as an independent actor. The decision to convene a NATO meeting following the downing of a Turkish warplane by Syria shows how seriously Turkey takes the US-led alliance.

The Arab Awakening has been a movement for people in the Middle East and North Africa for greater control over their own lives. In the first instance this means removing despotic rulers. But in the second place it will mean ensuring that new regimes are able to steer their own path without being influenced by external great powers as were the previous club of dictators.

As well as proving to be unpopular in the region, the position taken by Turkey is viewed increasingly unfavourably domestically. With Erdogan appearing intent on securing his position within the Turkish political sphere by conducting a Putin-esque manoeuvre to become President following the end of his maximum term as Prime Minister, the position he has taken on Syria may backfire as the government is receiving increasing criticism from the Turkish public as the conflict spills over the border.

The Syrian conflict is proving unwilling to remain within its own borders and is having an impact on almost all neighbouring states. The Kurdish issue, which remains the single greatest problem faced by Turkey, has been especially aggravated. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has stepped up attacks in its fight for greater Kurdish autonomy and many believe Assad is providing them with support as revenge for Turkey’s backing of the opposition. The most recent attacks, leaving 10 Turkish soldiers dead are likely to continue given that the Kurdish majority area of North-Eastern Syria is now effectively under Kurdish control, with neither the FSA or regime forces present in the area.

This new power vacuum along with the vast amount of weaponry and men with military training / experience now in circulation due to the conflict could see Syria become a launch pad for increased attacks on Turkey, a situation Erdogan will be desperate to avoid as the end of his term approaches.

That Turkey has a role to play in the Middle East is undeniable, but it will be as one voice amongst the many that are supporting the rebels, including those in the Gulf and ‘the West’. As the sectarian nature of the conflict continues to grow, the decision to clearly support one side may prove to have been a lasting mistake with regard to Turkey’s own foreign policy objectives. Once the dust has settled in Syria the decisions taken by the former colonial power in an increasingly divided region will not be quickly forgotten, limiting its capacity to have influence over individual states.  

Meanwhile back in Lebanon the fate of two kidnapped Turkish nationals remains unknown and efforts to secure their release have thus far been fruitless. Given that the Hezbollah led government is broadly aligned with the Syrian regime, it would be easy to believe that locating them is not a top priority. Turkish authorities may offer another red tie to the next hostage that manages to secure a safe a passage through Turkey back to Lebanon, however sartorial influence offers little consolation for a regional ambition that seems to have failed.

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