Turkey’s forays into the Middle East
Soon after coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) pivoted Turkish foreign policy towards its neighborhood, most distinctly, MENA. As an important component of what some referred to as “emerging neo-Ottomanism,” Ankara believed it could parlay its new popularity, economic strength and growing regional networks into diplomatic muscle deployed in furtherance of conflict resolution. However, the AKP’s outlook soon created contradictions in its peacemaking efforts. In 2006, it endorsed Hamas after it won the elections in the West Bank and Gaza, diverging from the Quartet, which linked acceptance of the results with the Islamist movement’s recognition of the state of Israel and renunciation of violence. Ankara’s approach to post-2003 Iraq was wrought with contradictions and ultimately failed dismally. While its relations with the Saddam Hussein regime were never very solid, it saw a strong Iraq as a critical buffer against Iranian influence and shared Saddam’s interest in keeping the Kurds divided and weak.
Turkey soon shot itself in the foot. In the run-up to Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Turkey, in coordination with Qatar, set about building a secular political counterweight to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamist-tinged Shiite ruling alliance. But by drawing mainly Sunni parties into former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya list, Turkey compounded Iraq’s sectarian politics. These antecedents would come back to haunt Ankara after 2011. The Arab awakenings put Turkish regional policy to an ever more rigorous test. Initially, it seemed that history was on the AKP’s side, with years of investment about to pay off. Sensing commercial and political opportunity in the Arab world at a time when European Union membership negotiations had reached a stalemate, Turkey presented its multiparty politics, economic vibrancy, synthesis of Islam and democracy as a model to the region. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, became the hero of Tahrir Square with an early call on Hosni Mubarak to step down. With the old autocrats gone, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya all saw Brotherhood affiliates triumphing. In Syria, Ankara expected Bashar al-Assad to fall in the face of growing popular protests. Then came the reversal, shattering in its impact. Assad stayed on. Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood backfired. Lastly, the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 diminished Turkey’s value to Tehran as a bridge to the West.
Setbacks in Syria, Iraq and the broader region pushed Turkey into retrenchment mode. Instead of Turkey changing Syria in its own image, as many Turks had hoped it would do in 2011, the Syrian war transformed Turkish domestic politics and regional policy. To prevent further isolation and maintain its position, Ankara began to repair relations with Israel, tried to restore economic ties with the Sisi regime in Egypt, reopened its embassy in Libya and even toned down its anti-Assad rhetoric, reportedly establishing a backchannel to Damascus. At the same time, Turkey has clung to its alliance with Qatar. Turkey also has remained steadfast in its backing of Hamas in Gaza.
The Arab Awakenings and their violent aftermath served to unravel the edifice that AKP leaders had built. Most of the gambles the AKP took, starting from the mid-2000s but especially from 2011 onwards, boomeranged. Turkey’s challenge today is to restore equipoise in its regional relations and in particular to prevent any further negative spillover from the conflicts and vacuum in Syria and Iraq.
Dr. Dimitar Bechev is a Research Fellow at the Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Dr. Joost Hiltermann is the Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG). This is an abridged version of the original article published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) 2017 issue.