Turkey’s importance for the Middle East
Looking at the general picture it is not hard to conclude that Turkey is being left out of important diplomatic and political processes underway in the Middle East. Many attribute this to the fact that Ankara has started taking sides in regional disputes, particularly along the Sunni - Shiite fault line.
This contrasts with the impartial position Turkey held a few years ago as far as regional disputes were concerned. That impartiality was also favored by the international community, given that it placed Ankara in a unique position to play an important role as a regional mediator.
Today there is little ground left for Turkey to be a major mediator in the disputes of the region, whether these concern the Arab - Israeli dispute, or disputes between Arabs. As can be seen from the Syrian case, Turkey is now a country that is simply trying to ward of the negative fallout to itself from regional disputes, and one that is seeking assistance from NATO and the UN for this.
This is unfortunate at this particular juncture, coming at a time when a democratic and secular Turkey should have made its positive influence felt across a Middle East searching for its democratic future.
Rami G. Khouri, of the Lebanese “Daily Star” newspaper, indicated in an article on March 31 that three great battles over political power are raging across the Arab world today.
He listed these as the battles between military and civilian authorities (democracy vs. autocracy), between Islamists and secularists (the authority of God vs. the citizenry), and between narrow ethnic/tribal/sectarian identity and a more inclusive national identity (tribe vs. state).
Turkey is of course not a stranger to any of these. There is a continuing conflict on all three levels in this country even today. While this conflict is often beset by acrimony, it is nevertheless a fact that Turkey has marked major advances in these respects. The prospect of a military coup in Turkey has receded into the deep background and is most likely nonexistent at this stage.
The struggle between hard core secularists and their religious rivals continues apace. But Turkey’s heterogeneous make up makes it very unlikely that either anti-democratic secularists or religious fundamentalists will be able to have their way. The most likely outcome of this conflict will be democratic compromises, whether hardcore secularists or religious fundamentalists like it or not.
The Kurdish problem, on the other hand, remains a major issue for the country, which is aggravated further by PKK terrorism. It is a fact however that there have been openings in this respect that could not even have been imagined only a decade ago, especially in terms of recognizing the Kurdish identity and its unique culture.
None of this should be taken to mean that Turkey has solved its problems and is sitting pretty; far from it. But neither can one underestimate the point that has been arrived at in the search for solutions to these conflicts.
These efforts of Turkey’s also carry great importance for the wider Middle East, since the region has to confront the issues listed by Khouri sooner or later if it is to move to the next stage of its democratic development. By moving ahead in these areas Turkey is also showing what a predominantly Muslim country can achieve in this respect.
But for Turkey to be able to enhance its capacity as a democratic role model for the region, it is clear that Ankara will have to move to the middle ground again in terms of regional disputes, and not be party to them, if it wants to have increased credibility.