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Turkey’s Role in Post-Revolutionary Middle East

Until the ongoing “Arab Spring,” perhaps the most important development of the last couple of years, which has affected the entire Middle East region in one way or another, was the resurgence of Turkey as a major player.

Despite being geographically located in the Middle East, Turkey – in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – had turned its back to the region and transformed into a pro-Western secular republic. During the reorganization of the international system in the aftermath of World War II, Turkey opted to go with the West against the Soviet threat.


Turkey then joined NATO in 1952 and became a dependable ally of the West in the region. Turkish foreign policy regarding the Middle East was mostly formed by the priorities of this alliance. Politically and ideologically, Turkey considered itself part of the larger Europe and joined various European institutions in the area ranging from military cooperation to customs union to even song contests and soccer tournaments. However, this alignment has come into question in the last few years, thanks to various assertive moves by the Turkish government that seemingly challenges the perception of Turkey as located between the East and the West, but always facing the West.

Fevzi Bilgin is an assistant professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He received his doctorate from University of Pittsburgh in 2004 and has since published a number of essays and articles on political liberalism, constitutional politics, and religion and politics in Turkey and the Middle East. He is the author of Political Liberalism in Muslim Societies.

Turkey’s New Middle East Policy

The highlight of the new Turkish foreign policy is its pro-active stance towards Iran. Turkey and Iran have not experienced an interstate conflict since they settled their boundaries about four centuries ago. The names and the regimes of both countries subsequently changed but a certain minimal level of reserved cooperation and trade has always remained. In the last two decades, Iran became an important supplier of natural gas to Turkey, along with Russia. And Turkey has been cautiously following the unfolding dispute between Iran, Israel, and the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. In the last couple of years, however, Turkey began to question the concern of Western nations and especially the United States in regards to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Turkish officials cast doubt on the assertion that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. To substantiate this stance, in May 2010, Turkey joined with Brazil to broker a nuclear fuel-swap deal under which Iran would ship much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for research-reactor fuel. The deal was found inadequate—and impetuous—by Western nations and led to a dispute between the United States and Europe on the one side and Turkey and Brazil on the other. Subsequently, Turkey and Brazil voted ‘no’ to sanctions on Iran in the United Nations Security Council (both are non-permanent members).

Another episode which underscored Turkey’s turn happened outside the control of the Turkish government but jolted the whole region for a while, dealt a blow to the somewhat friendly relationship between Turkey and Israel, and boosted Turkey’s credit in the Arab world: the flotilla incident. In May 2010, a flotilla of six boats set sail from Turkey to the Gaza Strip in order to deliver humanitarian aid. The Gaza Strip has had supplies blockaded by Israel since Hamas took over control of its government in 2006. The relationship between Israel and Turkey was already sour due to this blockade and especially so after a Gaza offensive by Israeli armed forces in January 2009. The flotilla was carrying citizens from 32 countries, including European legislators and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. One of the boats, the Mavi Marmara, owned by a Turkish charity, was carrying around 600 passengers, most of whom were Turkish citizens. As the Mavi Marmara docked in international waters across the Gaza Strip, Israeli commandos stormed the boat at night. The operation left nine Turkish activists dead and over 30 activists wounded. Turkish officials strongly condemned the Israeli aggression, calling it “state terrorism” and “an act which must be duly punished.” It also demanded an official apology and compensation packages for the families of the victims by Israel as a condition to normalize relations with Israel. The Israeli government refused to comply.

These two incidents left a bitter impression that an old friend of the West was turning away. It sure looks like Turkey considers Iran a friend and Israel an enemy. But Turkish officials vehemently deny these allegations. They argue that Turkey’s Iran policy is pretty much shaped by its reluctance to see another war in its backyard and a hope to defuse global tension over Tehran’s nuclear program. This policy is in line with the overarching principle of contemporary Turkish foreign policy, namely “zero problem with neighbors.” The principle is the brainchild of Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Since his appointment to the post in the summer of 2009, Davutoglu has brought not only a sense of consistency and comprehensiveness to Turkish foreign policy, but also a new dynamism that derives from the “strategic depth of Turkey,” which translates into assertive Turkish foreign policy through diplomacy, trade, and cultural interaction.  Davutoglu believes that Turkey’s multiple ethnic and religious links make it an ideal mediator in such regions as the Balkans, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Most recently, Foreign Policy magazine ranked him seventh among the 100 top global thinkers “for being the brains behind Turkey’s global reawakening.”

Under the “zero problem with neighbors” policy, Turkey has embarked on several initiatives that have astonished international policy circles. Apart from the Iranian deal, Turkey has also changed its tune towards the regional government in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed to normalize relations with Armenia, mediated peace negotiations between Israel and Syria until the eve of Israel’s Gaza offensive, established the Caucasus Stability and Security Platform, and made several overtures to Greece.  Currently, Turkey is busy with establishing a free trade zone with Syria, a past enemy, along with Lebanon and Jordan. Turkish companies are constructing airports, shopping malls, and skyscrapers throughout the region, from Cairo to Dubai. The shift in the policy is most visible in Iraq. According to a recent New York Times report, about 15,000 Turkish citizens in 700 Turkish companies are operating in Northern Iraq in every possible sector.

Turkey’s hyperactivity in the region owes more than anything to the domestic stability it has achieved in the last decade. Turkey lost the critical decade of the 1990s due to petty politics of coalition governments, and ended the decade in a deep economic and political crisis. Since 2002, it is run by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish). AKP’s success, especially in the area of economic growth (Turkey’s GDP has since tripled) and good governance, have been rewarded by the voters repeatedly with great margins of victory in two parliamentary elections, two local elections, and two constitutional referendums. In sum, as Turkey puts its house in order, its religious and cultural affinity with the Middle Eastern nations, along with its Western and democratic credentials, provides enormous opportunities that boost its soft power in the region.

The Arab Spring and the Future of the Region

The democratic revolutionary fervor that has overtaken the region in the last couple of months offers serious challenges but also opportunities for Turkey. Until the last few years, Turkey, an electoral democracy, kept itself politically distant from the long-standing Middle Eastern autocracies. Turkish entrepreneurs and businessmen that had been active especially in North Africa and also in Saudi Arabia since the late 1980s, reported stories of horror: rampant patronage and corruption, arbitrary rulings, frequent violation of contracts, and anti-Turkish sentiments, reminiscence of once popular Arab nationalism. Such has been the case especially in Libya, where thousands of Turkish engineers and constructions workers involved in the construction of major public projects (as of this writing, the Turkish government is trying to rescue its 25000 citizens stuck in Libya). Those stories were frequently featured in the Turkish media and thus helped construct a negative sentiment about autocratic Arab governments in Turkey. Accordingly, as those corrupt and repressive regimes tumbled one after another, the Turkish people did not hesitate to show enormous sympathy for the plight of the people on the street. When Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called Mubarak to listen to the demands of the street, the Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square chanted his name over and over again.

It is no wonder that the people of the Middle East are now aspiring to a political system like the Turkish democracy. They would like to see their countries repeat Turkey’s success and blend Islamic culture and democracy as in Turkey. This is not the first time that Turkey inspired the Arab world. In the wake of World War I, the newly independent Arab nations emulated late Ottoman experience with constitutionalism. The secular nationalist regimes that emerged after World War II were inspired by the modernist policies of Kemalist Turkey. Accordingly, the Arab street has been carefully following Turkey’s democratic transformation in the last decade. They observed and at times celebrated the reforms introduced by the government that helped consolidate democracy in Turkey. They also closely followed Turkey’s aspiration of becoming a member of European Union. Turkey responds positively to those sentiments.  It is no surprise that Minister Davutoglu visited Tunisia right after the revolution and offered help in building democratic institutions in that nation.

The Syrian Conundrum

Although Turkey welcomes the democratic revolutions that sweep the Middle East, Syria offers quite a challenge. The revolutionary tide has not yet reached Syria. But the country presents political, social, and economic predicaments comparable to those of Egypt and Tunisia; thus, it may eventually face a similar fate. Syria is the most repressive regime in the region. It is a police state that has no tolerance for any opposition. Those who dare challenge the credentials of the regime risk years of imprisonment. It is also a brutal regime which did not hesitate bombing one of its cities, Hama, and killing nearly 40000 people in 1982. Bashar al Asad who inherited the power from his father Hafez in 2000, initiated some openings but then reverted to his father’s policies. In 2005, an emerging opposition movement was viciously clamped down. Syria also offers similar demographics: a large young, but unemployed population. But the most distinct characteristic of Syria that could prove explosive at the time of a potential uprising is the fact that Alawis, a minority Shi’a sect in Syria, predominate the top government, military and intelligence offices. In the absence of an opposition movement with broad national support, this feature of Syria may potentially transform a democratic uprising into a sectarian warfare. Needless to say, such a prospect would create disastrous consequences for Turkey.

Can Turkey help defuse this potential conflict? The recent friendly relations between Turkey and Syria may play a role. Syria is on uneasy terms with Iraq and Lebanon and technically at war with Israel. That leaves Turkey as Syria’s only window of opportunity in the region. In 2007, the two countries signed a free trade agreement and in 2009 they mutually lifted the visa requirement for short visits. In 2010, over 1 million Turkish citizens visited Syria while over half a million Syrian citizens visited Turkey. Northern Syrian city of Aleppo is swarmed by Turkish citizens and businessmen. There are now 27 weekly flights between Syria and various Turkish destinations. Thus, it would be quite imprudent for the Syrian government to squander this valuable relationship and opportunity for liberalization and, instead, choose to violently suppress demands of its own people while putting thousands of Turkish citizens in Syria at risk. Syria is too close to home, so if this ever happens Turkey cannot and would not stay quiet.

  • February 7, 2021