Turkey is launching initiative after ambitious initiative aimed at stabilising the Middle East. Building on the successes of its normalisation with Syria and Iraq, it is facilitating efforts to reduce conflicts, expanding visa-free travel, ramping up trade, integrating infrastructure, forging strategic relationships and engaging in multilateral regional platforms. For some, this new activism is evidence that Turkey is turning from its traditional allies in Europe and the United States. In fact, its increased role in the Middle East is a complement to and even dependent on its ties to the West.
This report assesses Turkey’s growing engagement with the Middle East within the broader frame of Turkish foreign and trade policy. The process is still in its infancy, faces official scepticism in Arab governments and has divided opinion among Turkey’s Western allies. Yet, the attempts to grow the regional economy, create interdependence and foster peace have positive potential. At a time when negotiations to join the European Union (EU) have faltered, Ankara has adopted early EU gradualist integration tactics for post-Second World War peace in Europe as a model for strengthening long-term stability and healing the divisions of the Middle East.
Turkey’s self-declared “zero-problem” foreign policy to end disputes with its neighbours has worked well in Syria and Iraq, and its facilitation role in some Middle East conflicts has booked some success, for instance in hosting Syria-Israel proximity talks in 2008. Ankara has been less effective, however, in intractable matters like the dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The sharpening tone of Turkey-Israel relations has raised Turkish leaders’ popularity among Middle Eastern publics but has undermined trust among traditional allies in Washington, Brussels and even some Arab capitals.
Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) leaders’ rhetoric, and their new regional activism extending from Persian Gulf states to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), have given rise to perceptions that they have changed Turkey’s fundamental Westward direction to become part of an Islamist bloc, are attempting to revive the Ottoman Empire or have “turned to the East”. These are incorrect. The basic trends in the country’s regional activism seen today were well established before AKP came to power, and NATO membership and the relationship with the U.S. remain pillars of Turkish policy.
While Turkey is bitter over attacks by France, Germany and others on its EU negotiation process between 2005 and 2008, half of its trade is still with the EU, and less than one quarter of its exports go to Middle East states – a proportion typical for the past twenty years. The global nature of Turkey’s realignment is underlined by the fact that Russia and Greece have been among the biggest beneficiaries of its regional trade boom.
Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has been shifting its foreign policy priority from hard security concerns to soft power and commercial interests and moving away from being a kind of NATO-backed regional gendarme to a more independent player determined to use a plethora of regional integration tools in order to be taken seriously on its own account. Turkey’s U.S. and EU partners should support these efforts towards stabilisation through integration.
Ankara has many balls in the air and sometimes promises more than it can deliver, over-sells what it has achieved and seeks a role far away when critical problems remain unsolved at home. Turkey’s new prominence is partly attributable to confusion in the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a situation that is not necessarily permanent. Some Middle Eastern governments are also wary of the impact on their own publics of emotional Turkish rhetoric against Israel or about implicit claims to represent the whole Muslim world.
Turkey should sustain the positive dynamics of its balanced relationships with all actors in the neighbourhood and its efforts to apply innovatively the tactics of early EU-style integration with Middle East neighbours. While doing so, however, it should pay attention to messaging, both internationally, to ensure that gains with Middle Eastern public opinion are not undercut by loss of trust among traditional allies, and domestically, to ensure that all Turkish constituencies are included, informed and committed to new regional projects over the long term. Also, it will gain credibility and sustainability for its ambitions if it can solve disputes close to home first, like Cyprus and Armenia.
Middle Eastern elites worry about any sign of Ankara turning its back on its EU accession process. Much of their recent fascination with Turkey’s achievements derives from the higher standards, greater prosperity, broader democracy, legitimacy of civilian rulers, advances towards real secularism and successful reforms that have resulted from negotiating for membership of the EU. At the same time, Turkey and its leaders enjoy unprecedented popularity and prestige in Middle Eastern public opinion, notably thanks to their readiness to stand up to Israel. Turkey’s new strength, its experience in building a strong modern economy and its ambition to trade and integrate with its neighbours offer a better chance than most to bring more stability and reduce the conflicts that have plagued the Middle East for so long.
Istanbul/Brussels, 7 April 2010