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Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints
Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Report 203 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints

Turkey’s sometimes controversial new Middle East activism is an asset to the EU and U.S., and attractive in the region, but only if Ankara pursues its longstanding integration with the West.

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Executive Summary

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

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.