Qatar versus Turkey?
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spread the word that a new Syrian opposition as an alternative to the Syrian National Council (SNC) is going to emerge from the ongoing four-day conference in Doha, the capital of Qatar. As the SNC was set up in Istanbul and has been in Turkey’s sphere of influence since then, this announcement gave birth to speculation that the center of the Syrian opposition, and hence the center of gravity, is shifting from Istanbul to Doha. After that came the results of “The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East” survey, conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). Accordingly, with regard to foreign influence in the “Arab Spring,” Turkey came in third in the survey following Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This reinforced the argument that Qatar is infringing on Turkey’s sphere of influence in the region.
The picture is bigger and more complicated. The TESEV survey also states that most of the participants define Turkey as the strongest political power in the region. Some 69 percent of the participants selected Turkey as the most positive example out of 15 different nations, followed by Egypt. Yet, compared to earlier years, there is a decline in the perception of Turkey’s positive impact in the region which, according to the same survey, fell from 56 to 42 percent in 2011. And when it comes to Syria, 65 percent of Syrians feel that Turkey’s approach to their country is hostile as opposed to 16 percent in 2011. Another negative result is that, while 28 percent of the participants overall think Turkey is running a sectarian-based policy, the number is much higher in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.
So the picture is neither black nor white. It is gray. Just like Turkey’s choice. The choice is not between supporting the ruling authoritarian elites or the opposition, between taking a pro-regime stance or a confrontational attitude. Rather, there is a gray role out there waiting to be picked up by Turkey.
Instead of cutting all bilateral ties with the government, like in the case of Syria, thereby wasting any opportunity to use leverage, Turkey could play a “constructive leadership” role within multilateral initiatives. Relying on its greatest strength, its unique soft power, Turkey should take the mediator role by initiating, endorsing and leading regional and international cooperation. In doing so, it would engage with all sides rather than getting over-engaged with just one side which, in turn, immensely harms its soft power capacity. This would not only remove the misperception about Turkey’s sectarian-based approach, but also the possibility of turning the turmoil into a bilateral conflict.
Watching change is like watching the grass grow. You don’t see it happening day by day, but it becomes visible over a period of time. Just like the question in the title. Turkey only needs to look out the window to notice the change in its perception. Mowing the grass is the easiest part.