Turkey and the ‘Arab Winter’

Turkey and the ‘Arab Winter’

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government set out its ambitious plans for the Middle East, Iraqi Kurds were still considered as being in the enemy camp. Arabs of all shades and denominations, on the other hand, were Ankara’s favorites, to be courted without exception.

But times have changed, and the Iraqi Kurds today have become “emerging strategic partners” for Ankara, while the Arab world is heading for a cold winter, following a brief “spring.”

Today the “nation-destroying,” rather than “nation-building,” processes in Iraq and Syria, two key regional countries whose fates will have serious ramifications for Turkey, appear set to cause years of upheaval if this trend cannot be checked.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, for his part, is showing that a desire for true democracy is not what drives the Muslim Brothers. For them it appears more important to grab a historic moment in order to institute systems that are thinly disguised as democratic, but are in fact run according to Islamic rules.

Turkey, even under the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), could have contributed to regional stability had it kept to its traditional stance of not getting embroiled in matters pertaining to the Arab world. In other words it could have continued to be a facilitator of settlements as an impartial outside soft power, a role it has played in the past.

But the AKP lost that chance by refusing to do what successive Turkish governments had cautiously done. Instead, with its overbearing Islamist inclinations, clearly revealed by who is admired and who is vilified in the region by Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey went on to take sides in regional disputes.

As a result it has ended up being accused of turning into an outside meddler in the domestic affairs of various countries in the Middle East. It is also being accused today of fueling sectarian divisions in the region with policies that overtly favor Sunni regimes and groups over Shiites and Alawites.

This clearly was not part of Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s grand vision for Turkey as he spelled it out for us at the time. The simple fact is that Ankara failed to recognize and understand the regional dynamics that have led the Middle East to where it is today.

It is not clear either how Ankara is preparing for the eventuality of Iraq’s and/or Syria’s being split up along ethnic and sectarian lines. Davutoğlu went on record recently saying developments in Iraq are much more worrying for him than developments in Syria.

He nevertheless appears to be doing little to overcome this concern, despite his claim that Turkey is a key player in the region whose advice is heeded. On the contrary Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have demonized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as they have Bashar al-Assad, and the government is refusing any friendly overtures from Baghdad aimed at easing tensions.

The one thing to the government’s credit in all this is the way it reversed the age-old Kurdish phobia of Turks and developed what amounts to stately ties with the Kurdish administration of northern Iraq. Even this dramatic and historic change of tack should show AKP planners how unpredictable things can be in the Middle East, and underscore the importance of remaining impartial and flexible in order to contribute to regional stability.

Instead of drawing the necessary lessons and returning Turkey to its traditional foreign policy orientations, however, the Erdoğan government continues to be abrasive and thus ultimately divisive in terms of regional disputes.

This is not just diminishing Turkey’s chances of being a true force for peace and stability but is increasing the chances for regional disputes spilling over into this country. Perhaps it’s not for nothing that groups like the U.S. National Intelligence Council have started to claim that an independent Kurdistan may affect Turkey’s unity in years ahead.