The Middle East needs a secular and democratic Turkey

The Middle East needs a secular and democratic Turkey

The Arab awakening began with high hopes. But its effects have since rocked the stability of the region, stirring up new sectarian conflicts in countries such as Syria and prolonging older ones in Lebanon and Iraq. The geopolitical breakdown of the past two years makes the emergence of a new order in the Middle East almost unavoidable.

The map of the region was effectively drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which split up the Ottoman Empire and led the way to the creation, under French and British hegemony, of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and what would become the Palestinian territories. These nation-states remained unified under authoritarian regimes that managed to keep ethnic and sectarian groups in coexistence either through force or domination by one sect.

This system is no longer sustainable. The Arab Spring has empowered people, but it has also intensified ethnic strife and religious extremism. Syria is in a state of civil war with no immediate prospects of resolution. Iraq continues to suffer from bloody sectarian violence while failing to establish a stable democracy. The fast-shifting political landscape runs the risk of destabilizing ethnically split Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli peace process lies dormant.

The question now is whether the Sykes-Picot order will survive its 100-year anniversary in 2016, or if these nation-states will dissolve along sectarian lines. Alternatives remain limited and may not be achievable without the active work of outside actors. Yet, the United States seems to have lost interest in this objective after pulling out of Iraq and seeking to wind down its presence in Afghanistan, as it shifts its strategic attention to the Asia-Pacific region. On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe is occupied with its ongoing economic crisis. Russia and China are eager to fill the vacuum, but they don’t have the necessary leverage.

Against this backdrop, some say that Turkey, the regional hegemon of the Ottoman era, has an opportunity to assume a greater role once again in shaping the Mideast’s new map. Turkey’s economic growth has strengthened the neo-Ottoman ambitions of the political elite, as seen in the recent speeches of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other party officials.

Indeed, Turkey has potential to play a greater and constructive role in the Middle East – but that it must be as a secular democratic influence, not the Sunni Islamist power envisioned by Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Witness the popularity in the region of one Turkish export: its television soap operas. They portray a secular, modern lifestyle that appeals to a large Arab audience. This phenomenon is a direct contradiction with Erdoğan’s ambitions.

Between 2002 and 2008, Turkey was successful in improving regional relations. It sought mediation between Syria and Israel, encouraged different sectarian leaders to participate in the Iraqi political process, and worked on bridging sectarian divisions in Lebanon. However, since 2009, the Erdoğan government has changed tack to support the Muslim Brotherhood model along with its Sunni allies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, playing a destructive role in Iraq and Syria. Supplying weapons to the Syrian Sunni opposition creates a perception that Turkey is not a secular actor but a Sunni one. Negotiating energy deals with Iraq’s Kurdish region runs the risk of alienating Baghdad, as does Turkey’s hosting of fugitive former Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi.

Risks are larger than opportunities. Northern Iraq may have attractive hydrocarbon resources, but they come with political pitfalls. A post-Bashar al-Assad Syria would offer not only reconstruction deals but also sectarian conflict that could spill back over the border to Turkey. More than 45 people were killed and more were wounded when bombs exploded Saturday afternoon in the Turkish town of Reyhanlı, along its border with Syria. Turkish encroachment in these countries would also frustrate Iran and intensify the regional confrontation.

Ankara’s ambitions can also be seen in domestic developments, such as the reconciliation process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan appears to believe that with a peace deal, the AKP can draw the largest Kurdish population in the region under its umbrella. While resolving the decades-old “Kurdish issue” would have positive effects, it risks legitimizing a terrorist organization, the PKK, which would not disarm but rather move to Iran and Iraq to operate and strengthen as a proxy war agent in the region.

Turkey’s tradition of secular and democracy could make it a preeminent actor in forging a comprehensive solution for the Middle East. However, the AKP’s Islamist-tinged interventionism is not the answer. What we need in our troubled region is secular bridge-building, not more sectarianism. Turkey, as a Muslim country but secular state, has the potential to serve as this bridge – but it must do so by living up to and projecting the secular and democratic values upon which its modern state was founded.

* Cenk Sidar is the managing director of Sidar Global Advisors in Washington.