Turkey in the Middle East: From honest broker to spoiler?

Turkey in the Middle East: From honest broker to spoiler?

In international relations, perception matters. The foreign policy conduct of a country is not only a mirror of its domestic order and harmony but also its image maker in the international community. The image of a country is very much in line with the way it is perceived. Therefore, perception matters.

Ten years ago, Turkey was perceived as a strong honest broker in its region. As a facilitator, Turkey was active from Afghanistan to the Balkans, from the Caucasus to the Middle East. In the east, Turkey was able to bring together Afghanistan and Pakistan in a trilateral format to contribute to the search for the resolution of the Afghan problem. In the west, Turkey did the same between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a similar format.

Turkey’s facilitation and mediation efforts were influential in the Middle East too. Turkey put forth economic development projects focusing on infrastructure in Palestine and was able to establish an indirect but functional dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In 2008, Istanbul hosted a series of proximity talks between Israel and Syria, with a view to overcome the difficulties between the two countries, again through a functional perspective. In those years, Syria was perhaps one of the closest neighbors Turkey had, with frequent high-level visits and through the meetings of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council.

In this context, it would have been remiss if similar efforts to find a solution to the Somali problem or the meetings between the Ethiopian and Eritrean authorities under the coordination of Turkey were not mentioned.

In the last couple of years, however, Turkey’s image in the international arena has been declining. Perceptions about Turkey have seriously been depreciated. In the immediate neighborhood, Turkey is no more perceived as an honest broker in the region. Trust and confidence has practically disappeared. Similar tendencies are skyrocketing in Europe, among Turkey’s allies too. A major reason for such deterioration is Turkey’s changing policy of impartiality.

Two recent developments happen to be very telling. First, the unfolding crisis between Qatar and four Middle Eastern countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, is a case in point. Turkey, instead of embarking upon a mediatory effort for a non-confrontational solution to the tension, preferred to deploy its troops in Qatar. 

Turkey’s argument was apparently based on the international law concept of “pacta sunt servanda,” explaining that the bilateral agreement signed between the two countries two years ago to establish a military base in Qatar required such deployment. Bad timing! This hasty deployment was perceived by the countries in the region as if Turkey was taking sides with Qatar in this dispute and losing its objectivity.

The second development is Turkey’s preparation to launch a new military operation in Syria, apparently toward Afrin, where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) presence is located. In the region, and in the international community, this is also perceived as an untimely and unnecessary move. 

It is perceived so because the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Raqqa, as well as in and around Mosul in Iraq, is approaching its final phase. In this fight, in the Syrian theatre, the PYD is an influential land force in alliance with U.S. troops around Raqqa. Many believe that any tension between Turkey and the SDF now would seriously undermine the fight against ISIL.

Turkey’s image is seriously transforming from an honest broker to a spoiler. In order to maintain a positive perception, Turkey’s foreign policy needs to be objective, egalitarian and equidistant to all the actors who may be in a position to contribute to the solution of a dispute. For this, dialogue is the best way of communication. An intelligent and constructive communications strategy may positively influence perceptions about Turkey in the region again. In the absence of such a strategy, foreign policy is reduced to an instrument of closed and paranoid domestic policy. This is not the image Turkey needs.