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AKP's Middle East policies in turmoil

HDN | 3/28/2011 12:00:00 AM | SEMİH İDİZ

Given the latest dramatic developments in both the Middle East and North Africa, it will be difficult for Ankara to maintain its policy on the region as originally drawn up.

Turkey has had a very ambitious policy on the Middle East and North Africa under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. The underlying aim has been to try and increase Ankara’s regional influence as a soft power. Ankara has also been taking aim at a certain degree of political and economic integration between the countries involved.

Joint Cabinet meetings, the lifting of visa requirements and overtures aimed at trying to establish some kind of a common market in the region have been the most apparent outward expressions of this effort.

Some have even seen this as Turkey’s way of hitting back at those in Europe who have negative views on Ankara’s potential EU accession.

Given the latest dramatic developments in both the Middle East and North Africa, however, it seems it will be difficult for Ankara to maintain this policy as it was originally drawn up by Davutoğlu.

It is true that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists that Turkey supports change in the region, where, he says, the will of the people must be respected. It is unlikely, however, that what he meant by “change” in this context is the kind of revolutionary events that are taking place.

These events are aimed, after all, at toppling existing dictatorial regimes and destroying the entrenched status quo in order to replace it with a new and more representative order. Turkey’s approach, on the other hand, has been based on encouraging the leaders of the existing status quo to change their countries by means of reforms.

In other words, Ankara has been exhorting “evolution,” rather than “revolution.” But faced with revolution instead, it seems Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will have to go back to the drawing board in order to revise their grand strategy for the Middle East.

Turkey can still try and work with representatives of the established order in the Middle East and North Africa, even if the position of this order appears very shaky now. But the Libya example has shown us that this could backfire on Ankara in unexpected ways given the new political realities that are emerging.

The Erdoğan government is trying to give the impression now that it was in contact with the Libyan opposition based in Benghazi from the very start.

This may very well be true, but for it to be significant today it would have had to have been seen at the time, and not “after the fact” following the international intervention in Libya.

Whatever may have taken place behind closed doors in the past, it is also evident that the government’s wavering on Libya has spawned the impression that Ankara originally placed its bets on Moammar Gadhafi’s ability to stay in power.

This also appears to be the impression among members of the Libyan opposition, who have not refrained from airing their views on the topic to reporters from various Turkish news channels reporting out of Libya.

It is also telling in this respect that Turkish flags or pro-Turkish banners are not to be seen at mass demonstrations against Gadhafi held in Benghazi, while French flags as well as banners praising French President Nicolas Sarkozy are waved.

Put another way, it is clear that Ankara can not expect “automatic sympathy” from the Libyan opposition given the contradictory approach it displayed concerning events in that country.

This means the Erdoğan government is going to have to work to gain the hearts and minds of the opposition once the war against Gadhafi’s forces is won – a prospect that looks much more likely today than it did 10 days ago.

We have argued from the start that Erdoğan misread the political events taking place in Libya and came up with his confusing rhetoric on these events as a result. Part of his rhetoric has been angry anti-Western outbursts cautioning the United States and Europe not to send ground forces to Libya, following the resumption of the air operation against Gadhafi.

It seems now that he misread the military situation as well and did not factor in the possibility that the West would not send ground forces since the Libya opposition would suffice once the playing field was leveled with the intervention against Gadhafi’s forces from the air.

The legality of this blatant involvement on behalf of the opposition by the international coalition is of course questionable since United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 only mandates the protection of civilians. But we are faced here with an inevitable “fait accompli” that Ankara is not in a position to complain about too vocally, mainly due to the behavior of Gadhafi.

Libya is only one example showing how the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government has had to revise its policies vis-à-vis the region in the face of fast-moving developments. It is clear that the situation in Bahrain, which points increasingly to a regional cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia based on religious sectarian lines, will inevitably have the same effect on Ankara.

The rapidly emerging situation in Syria is another case in point, and one that is being followed with serious trepidation in Ankara given that this country borders Turkey. The fact that Ankara has been developing very warm ties with President Bashar al-Assad is of course fueling concerns since it is not clear who Ankara’s interlocutor in Syria will be if al-Assad and his regime are to go.

There is also some irony in the fact that the much-lauded lifting of visa requirements between Turkey and Syria may end up making life easier for Syrian refugees fleeing that country if the situation gets really out of hand and violence spreads across the country.

The short of all this is that while Ankara’s policies toward the countries presently in turmoil were predicated on cooperating with the status quo, the ground has now shifted seriously. In the meantime it has been seen that channeling the new social dynamics that have emerged in North Africa and the Middle East in a direction that Ankara desires is beyond Turkey’s capabilities.

It is also clear when looked at from the present vantage point that it will take a long time for the necessary political and economic infrastructure in North Africa and the Middle East to emerge in a way that allows Davutoğlu’s dream for the region to be reenergized.

This leaves Turkey little choice but to make sure it remains anchored in the West if it is to serve its strategic security and economic interests. This will also require the government to explain to a Turkish public that has gone off the European Union, that while there are many who oppose Turkey in Europe, there are also influential countries and leaders who do not, and believe instead that Turkey must remain in the European fold.

As historic developments continue apace in the Arab world, providing a lot of uncertainty for the future, more attention to Turkey’s ties with the West may be one of the positive things to come out of all this.

The bottom line, however, is that it takes two to tango so there is some responsibility that befalls Europe here also, because it too faces uncertainties vis-à-vis developments in a geography of vital concern to it.

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