Ankara Looks East

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Republic oriented itself toward Europe to catch up with ‘contemporary civilization.’ But in the last ten years, Turkey has sought to play a more active role in the Middle East. The dramatic policy shift now stands to yield substantial strategic, political, and economic dividends following the Arab Spring.

Suleiman I, Ottoman sultan from 1520 to 1566, in a Venetian portrait; collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Ambras Castle, Innsbruck. The Gallery Collection/Corbis

It is not as headline-grabbing as the Arab Spring, but Turkey’s return to the Middle East—and Ankara’s gradual recalibration of its relations with the West—may prove to be one of the most significant changes on the international scene in these early decades of the new millennium.

Not long ago, Turkish diplomats were busy making business in Brussels and Washington their main priority. Advancing Turkey’s candidacy for membership in the European Union (EU) was the focus of Ankara’s foreign policy. Now, a Eurozone crisis and an Arab Spring later, Turks are more preoccupied with Syria’s future, Iraq’s stability, and Iran’s nuclear program than anything happening on the Potomac or the Place du Luxembourg.

This is largely because Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the moderately Islamist party that won power in 2002, finds Turkey’s prospects for regional leadership more appealing than its strained and demanding ties with Europe. As AKP leaders see it, the country’s return to the fold of the Middle East bolsters Turkey politically and economically. It allows the AKP to fashion itself as “the model” for Arab nations transitioning to democracy, and gives Turkey greater standing in the emerging global order. Ankara’s eastward shift has been gradual and has had its share of slipups. But taking into consideration the boost it has given Turkey’s self-confidence as a regional power and the popularity of the AKP government’s foreign policy at home and abroad, Turkey’s new engagement with the Middle East is likely to be both deep and lasting.

The Architect

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is often credited with being the architect of AKP foreign policy; and in many ways, this is accurate. Previously a relatively unknown conservative scholar of international affairs, he came to prominence as the AKP’s foreign policy advisor in 2002. He has preferred to focus on rebuilding Turkey’s relations with the Arab world, which had been largely neglected since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the first quarter of the last century.

And Davutoğlu has earned himself a special place among the advisors and ministers in the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The two men could not be more different in their outward temperaments; Erdoğan is a populist firebrand with little regard for diplomatic niceties, while Davutoğlu is the epitome of the soft-spoken academic. Yet they have established a close working relationship over the years and Erdoğan calls him hocam, or “my teacher.”

In addition, Davutoğlu has gained popularity across the political spectrum. Since being picked as foreign minister in 2009, he has become one of Turkey’s most prominent public figures. His Islamist background appeals to conservatives, his concerns for the emerging world are appreciated by the left, and his polite manner makes him tolerable even for the secular opponents of the AKP, those particularly turned off by Erdoğan’s belligerence. By the time Davutoğlu became foreign minister, his theory on Turkey’s new position in the global order as a regional leader—initially spelled out in his 2001 book, Strategic Depth—was already the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy.

Born from the ashes of a declining empire and consecutive military defeats, the young Turkish Republic was focused on creating a Western-oriented, secular nation state. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and modern Turkey’s other founding fathers were wary of the Ottoman heritage of a multi-ethnic goliath and saw no benefit in engaging with the troubled—and at the time still colonized—Arab world. Their modernizing spirit and desire to catch up with ‘contemporary civilization’ —that is, Europe—consequently set the political course for the next century. Much changed, however, with the advance of the AKP, in particular, Ankara’s current willingness to delve into regional affairs and its ability to leverage this with allies in the West.

Strategic Depth remains the key to understanding Turkish foreign policy under the AKP. The book was loosely inspired by the regional activism of the late Turkish President Turgut Özal and by the new, emerging cadres of liberal Islamist politicians in countries such as Malaysia, where Davutoğlu lived and taught for a while. Davutoğlu argues that Turkey’s potential is best fulfilled not by solely focusing on its ties with the West but by expanding its influence and engagement with the Middle East and former Ottoman territories. He criticizes former Turkish establishments’ Euro-centric approach, and advocates instead for concepts of the ‘pivotal nation’ (Turkey as the epicenter of a new order), ‘active diplomacy’ (increased diplomatic presence and engagement in the Arab world, Asia, and Africa), and ‘zero problems with neighbors.’

Davutoğlu’s notions and outlook do perhaps exaggerate Turkey’s standing in the world, and its ability to shape developments in its neighborhood. After all, Ankara is a newcomer to Arab affairs and, despite its growing economic and diplomatic presence, it is far from being a regional hegemon. But Davutoğlu’s rhetoric has served two important purposes. It has boosted the self-confidence of the Turkish people and enabled Turks to see their nation as a significant member of the international community rather than a developing country with a pile of problems. It has also weakened the long-held public perception of being surrounded by enemies who are out to harm Turkey one way or another. This is known as the Sèvres Syndrome in the Turkish media—a reference to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that divided up the Ottoman Empire. Today, in a nation that has long verged on the xenophobic, there is nonetheless widespread support for rapprochement with Arab states.

European Dreaming

Since attaining EU candidacy status in 2005, a tenet of AKP foreign policy has been to boost trade and diplomacy with both the Balkans and the Middle East. Turkey’s deepening engagement with its own neighborhood has run almost parallel with its growing disillusionment with the EU accession process. Turkey initially applied for EU candidacy in 1987, but Ankara’s poor democratic and economic record made the progress of its EU aspirations difficult and humiliating at every turn, although in 1995, Turkey did join the EU customs union. In subsequent years, the carrot-and-stick from Brussels did successfully encourage democratic and economic reforms.

The AKP saw the EU accession process and the respectability it gained from diplomatic engagement with Europe as a tool that could be used against the staunchly secular Turkish military’s strong interference in politics, and so pushed ahead with accession during its first term. Erdoğan also saw the advantage in Turkey serving as a bridge between East and West and he has been keen to sponsor international gatherings around such themes as ‘Alliance of Civilizations.’

But obstacles continued to emerge against Turkey’s EU aspirations. Anxiety grew across Europe regarding Muslim immigration as Turkey’s new Islamist elite cooled its ties with Europe. In Germany and France particularly, right-wing politicians sharpened their criticism of Turkey and its EU accession. Ankara faced fresh hurdles in its membership application with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president in 2007 and the rise of Angela Merkel as a German government coalition partner in 2005 and as chancellor in 2009. Sarkozy and Merkel point to “cultural” reasons in opposing Turkey’s membership, read by Ankara as an open admission of anti-Muslim prejudice in the heart of Europe.

Polls show that European support for Turkey’s candidacy is declining. This can be explained not only by the resurgence of rightist and anti-Muslim sentiments but also by economic anxieties within the Eurozone. Europe’s desire to keep Turkey at arm’s length has in turn diminished Turkish enthusiasm to join, with polls showing a steady decline in support for EU membership among Turks since 2005. For AKP leaders now, EU membership is a useful goal to pursue but they increasingly feel that the EU is a club they will never get into. It is no surprise then, that in the past four years, Erdoğan has rarely visited Europe but has made frequent stops in Middle Eastern countries, to talk trade and regional issues.

Taking Sides

By 2010, Turkey’s EU accession process had become stuck. Meanwhile, Turks were enjoying an upsurge in trade with the Arab world, which fueled Turkey’s enviable growth figure of 8 percent in 2010. Turkey’s trade with the Middle East and North Africa now accounts for roughly a third of all its trade; figures that have tripled over the past decade. Turkey is a major supplier of commercial goods and infrastructure services in Iraq, and is aggressively pursuing construction, telecom, and other infrastructure tenders in Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, and elsewhere in the region. Iraq remains the most profitable market for Turkish goods and services.

Ankara’s interest in the Middle East now extends beyond trade, however. In 2005, the AKP began to capitalize on a ‘mediation vacuum’ in the region—notably the disinclination of the U.S. administration under George W. Bush to play an active role in the Middle East peace process. Albeit with limited success in achieving tangible results, Turkish diplomats embarked on a wide range of mediation efforts—between Israel and Syria, rival Palestinian factions, Iran and the West, Sunni groups in Iraq and the Baghdad government, and the Lebanese government and Hezbollah.

Ankara increasingly finds itself siding with fellow Sunnis: in Iraq, Lebanon, or Syria. Gradually, by taking a more assertive role in intra-Arab conflicts and increasingly acting as a counterweight to Shiite Iran’s ambitions, Turkey has assumed the mantle of being the premier Sunni power of the region. In the run-up to the 2010 elections in Iraq, for example, Ankara actively supported the formation of the more secular Iraqiya coalition led by Iyad Allawi over what it saw as the more sectarian Iranian-backed Shiite Islamist alliance, known as the Watani List, or the National Iraqi Alliance led by Nouri Al-Maliki. Al-Maliki continued as Iraq’s prime minister, but his relations with Ankara remain strained.

Turkey developed close ties with Iraq’s Sunni groups, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, and, since 2008, with the Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani in northern Iraq. AKP government officials were quietly critical of the U.S.-supported de-Baathification program that targeted Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s fallen regime. But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu also publicly criticized Al-Maliki for pushing terrorism charges against Iraq’s most senior Sunni official, Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi. Ankara worked to broker peace among Sunni groups during the U.S. military’s “surge”—Washington’s effort to quash the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq.

Kiss and Make Up

No claim to regional leadership in the Middle East can ring true without a serious attempt at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and this is precisely what the AKP had hoped to address during its first term. Instead, relations gradually deteriorated between Israel and the AKP’s pious leaders—partly as a result of differing views on the issues and partly due to a calculation that Ankara had more to gain in its regional standing by distancing itself from Israel. Amid the drift in Turkish-Israeli ties came the Mavi Marmara affair in May 2010—in which nine Turkish citizens died when Israeli commandos raided a vessel in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to bring aid to Palestinians blockaded in Gaza.

Since then, Turkey’s relationship with its one-time ‘strategic ally’ has deteriorated to the point of non-existence. Ankara reacted fiercely to the deaths of its citizens and demanded a public apology. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was unable to publicly apologize after several rounds of discreet talks, Ankara cut off military and diplomatic ties. Turkish officials say privately that short of a full apology from the Israeli government, normal relations will not be restored any time soon.

In reality, with or without an apology, it is unlikely that the Turkish-Israeli alliance will return to its former state in the foreseeable future. This is because the fundamental parameters of Turkey’s foreign policy have changed under the AKP; where Israel sees threat, Turkey sees opportunity and new allies. Back in the 1990s, Turkish-Israeli relations largely formed under strategic and military requirements—and were crowned with lucrative military deals over the years. Yet the main advocate of close relations with Israel, namely the Turkish military, has receded in political influence in Turkey. Unlike Israel, Turkey is very supportive of the Arab Spring and its leaders feel an ideological affinity to resurgent Islamist parties in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. On the other hand, AKP leaders strongly disapprove of Netanyahu’s policies and see that the upsurge in Erdoğan’s popularity in the Arab world stems to a large extent from his confrontations with Israel.

Turkey has therefore adopted a new partner in the region. After the Hamas election victory in Gaza in 2006, Turkey was the first country to invite Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Meshal, for an official visit. Meshal has visited Turkey frequently, and an official welcome was recently extended to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on his first overseas trip. Ankara has since become one of the main backers of Hamas in international public diplomacy. Erdoğan has personally become a fierce advocate of Palestinian rights and often uses Israel-bashing as a tool in domestic politics. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have consistently called for the inclusion of Hamas in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Ankara has also encouraged the formation of a Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah and was instrumental in convincing Hamas to move its military headquarters out of Syria.

Washington Compartmentalizes

What is curious about the demise of Turkish-Israeli relations is how little it has affected Turkey’s rapport with Israel’s top ally—the U.S. government. Since the early 1990s, Ankara had successfully leveraged its close relations with Israel to bolster ties with Washington and in particular Congress. Turkish officials were fond of repeating the adage that the “Turkish-Israeli alliance is not a two-way but a three-way relationship”—it increased Ankara’s kudos, Congressional support, critical intelligence, and lobbying power in Washington.

After the Mavi Marmara affair, the Turkish government was concerned that the state of its deteriorating ties with Israel would also sour relations with Washington. But that hasn’t happened. Although the Obama administration periodically urges Turkey to avoid escalating tensions with Israel, it has adopted a convenient policy of “compartmentalization.” It seems that one of the reasons for this American stance is Turkey’s agreement to facilitate a strategic missile shield developed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) against Iran as well as its constructive role in the Arab Spring. It appears that the Obama administration is being careful not to let Ankara’s feud with Israel spoil Washington’s bilateral ties with the Erdoğan government.

From the Obama administration’s viewpoint, Erdoğan has been a helpful ally and there is just too much at stake to push Turkey away. A few years ago, or under a different administration, such a harmony with an ally at loggerheads with Israel would have been unthinkable. But Erdoğan and Obama enjoy an unprecedented personal relationship and have learned to work together over the years. In an interview with TIME’s Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama cited Erdoğan and four other leaders by name in discussing the “bonds of trust” that he had established with certain global leaders. In 2009, Obama arrived in Turkey on his first official trip to a Muslim nation and, according to a senior U.S. official, he is “invested in the personal relationship.” The two leaders often speak on the phone­—ten times over the past year alone—to exchange views on Iraq, Syria, Libya, and other regional issues. When Erdoğan reversed his opposition to the missile shield and agreed to place a critical early-detection warning system in central Anatolia, senior American officials called it one of the biggest strategic deals between the United States and Turkey in the past fifteen to twenty years.

Turkey is also playing an important role by encouraging Islamist groups in the region—including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, An-Nahda in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party in Algeria—to move toward the center and take part in electoral politics. Erdoğan’s surprising emphasis on secularism during visits to Egypt and Libya won him praise in Washington. And officials within the Obama administration appear to believe that Turkey represents a reasonably good model for Islamist participation in democracy, and are willing to overlook not only Ankara’s poor relations with Israel but also the AKP government’s worsening record on free speech and the Kurdish issue.

New Opportunities

In this context, perhaps no government in the region welcomed the Arab Spring more unequivocally than the AKP in Turkey. From its onset, the Arab Spring was the icing on the cake for Ankara’s new regional aspirations; ushering in a new era of democratization that would benefit AKP-affiliated moderate Islamists and potentially open up new markets for Turkish companies. When Erdoğan declared, in February 2011, “we are with the people,” his strongly worded public demand for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave power marked the start of a new era for Ankara. In Davutoğlu’s view, the Arab Spring was a “natural process” that had to take place, sooner or later, in the Muslim world, like “a river finding the riverbed.” He believes that the Arab Spring cleaned up the last vestiges of the Cold War and will allow democratization in the Middle East. Turkish officials believe that their nation will benefit strategically and morally from the spread of freedom in the region.

After the glitch in Libya—when Ankara initially opposed outside intervention and tried to mediate between Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi and the West—Turkey went on to support the NATO military operation against Gadhafi in the spring of 2011. In Libya and Syria, Turkey publicly suggested regime change early in the uprisings. Furthermore, the AKP has provided campaign and electoral advice to Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco in order to facilitate electoral participation and promote a smooth transition to democracy.

Dissidents and opposition politics are new concepts to Turkish diplomats who have traditionally weighed in on the side of preserving the status quo and territorial integrity in the region. In the early days of the recent Balkans wars, Turkey was reluctant to support any breakup of Yugoslavia—despite the Turkish public’s cultural and religious affinity to the Bosnians. Ankara once viewed exiled Iraqi dissidents with great suspicion fearing that opposition to Saddam Hussein could lead to the breakup of Iraq. Yet, in Libya and Syria, Ankara has actively courted opposition activists and offered them diplomatic support.

In Syria, Turkey abandoned its policy of rapprochement with President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime a few months after the uprising when Ankara’s repeated calls for domestic reform were ignored by Damascus. The Turkish government subsequently facilitated the formation of Syrian National Council, the umbrella opposition group, and allowed more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into newly established camps on the Syrian border. Turkey has also permitted Syrian military defectors to establish an opposition group called the Free Syrian Army on Turkish soil. Turkish officials claim the group does not plan military attacks inside Syria and is only loosely affiliated with other smaller units of defectors who have adopted the same name. Whether or not Turkey-based dissidents have any say in the events on Syrian ground—and it is doubtful that they do—their presence in Turkey has given a psychological boost to the revolt against Al-Assad’s rule. What happens to the Al-Assad regime remains an open question and risky issue for Turkey. Besides calling on Al-Assad to quit, Turkey has supported the Arab League initiative for Al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy as a prelude to democratic elections, and has supported the UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by Russia and China) condemning Syria. Uncharacteristically, Ankara made it public that Turkey is willing to establish a buffer zone inside the Syrian border if there is a UN mandate or a human exodus of major proportions. To do this, Turkey would need clear support from the Arab League and the U.S. and, while there is no doubt that Turkey seeks regime change in Syria, Ankara will certainly not take the lead in achieving that goal. A senior Turkish official says privately, “Eventually this regime will fall. How soon, that I cannot tell yet.”

The Iran Learning Curve

Similarly, Iran remains a complex challenge for Turkey’s foreign policy. Iran is another area where AKP foreign policy has evolved dramatically over the past decade, from something bordering on sympathy for Tehran to a discreet rivalry with the Islamic Republic. Relations between Turkey and Iran experienced an almost historic high point during the AKP’s first two terms in office. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper as recently as 2009, Erdoğan called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a friend and questioned international efforts to impose sanctions on Iran. But a year and a half later, Turkey signaled its willingness to sign up for NATO’s missile shield.

Today Turkey is actively working to provide a counter-balance to what it sees as Iran’s tendency to exploit sectarian differences in the region. While trying to engage with Iran and continuing a semblance of good relations, AKP’s views on Iran’s nuclear ambitions now seem very similar to those of Turkey’s former, secular establishment. Ankara welcomes efforts to stall progress of Iran’s nuclear program and at this point, Turkish policy seeks to avoid both war and direct sanctions for fear of further destabilizing the Middle East. Strategically, Ankara has agreed to host the most critical part of NATO’s missile shield against Iran.

On an ideological level, too, the AKP no longer sees Iran as a kindred non-aligned spirit and is wary of what they view as Tehran’s destabilizing policies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Key factors in Ankara’s policy revision include Iran’s support for the Al-Assad regime in Syria and Al-Maliki’s fight against Sunni political leaders in Iraq. Turkey has also at times suspected Iran—and Israel, too, for that matter—of supporting PKK activities and is careful to keep an eye on Iran’s influence in northern Iraq.

At the same time, Turkey is keen to avoid confrontation with Iran, with whom it has shared a largely peaceful border since 1639. Ankara believes that regime change in Iran is a remote possibility, another reason it is careful not to look supportive of anti-regime activities there. Yet Turkish-Iranian rivalry is a distinct feature of the new regional order. To Ankara, it is a shadow war that needs to be managed rather than won.

Rough Neighborhood

Ahmet Davutoğlu coined the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ concept, but Turkey still finds itself surrounded by problems. Yet, while some neighboring governments may be unfriendly and Ankara has all but lost hope of EU membership in the near future, Turkey’s economic and cultural influence, as well as its diplomatic soft power, is being felt far and wide across the Middle East.

Today, Istanbul is a top destination for Arab tourists and a major hub for regional political gatherings. Turkey is exporting everything to the Middle East from kitchen appliances and television sitcoms to a model for political Islam. The focus for Turkey’s leaders has shifted. As it was throughout the Ottoman Empire, the country will always be a bridge between East and West, but it is in the East that its fortune may well lie.

Aslı Aydintaşbaş is a columnist for Milliyet, and a former Ankara bureau chief for Sabah. She has also written for the New York Times, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Middle East Quarterly, and Daily Beast.