The balance of power in the Middle East is shifting. With the United States withdrawing from Iraq and Iran’s attempts to strengthen its reach across the region, there is uncertainty about who will shape future events. The recent flotilla incident underscored Turkey’s changing role and rising influence. In a video Q&A, Paul Salem analyzes Turkey’s position in the Middle East and what it means for the region and the West.
While Turkey is increasingly charting a path based on its own strategic interests, Salem contends, “Turkey is not turning away from Europe and the United States.” The U.S. administration needs to ensure that the two countries do not drift further apart as Turkey’s changing relations with other countries provides both a risk and an opportunity for Washington—Turkey is uniquely positioned to play a key role in helping find a solution for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Middle East peace process.
- How are relations within the Middle East changing?
- What is Turkey’s regional role and global influence?
- How will Prime Minister Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds impact Turkey’s power?
- Is Turkey turning away from Europe and the United States?
- What is the status of relations between Turkey and Israel?
- What does Turkey’s shifting foreign policy mean for the United States?
Power relations within the Middle East have been changing for some time, beginning with the invasion of Iraq. This empowered Iran tremendously, not only in Iraq, but also by strengthening its influence with Syria and Lebanon through Hezbollah, and with Hamas in the Gaza strip. So, Iran has certainly been on the rise.
Recent developments have also empowered Turkey, who is increasingly engaged in the Middle East both economically and diplomatically. But, with the latest events—including the United Nations vote on Iran’s nuclear program and more importantly the flotilla incident with Israel—Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan have been catapulted into a leadership position on the most popular or populist issue in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey stands to gain a lot of influence on that particular issue.
External powers—notably China and Russia—are growing more influential than they were in the 1990s. Meanwhile, Israel is having a harder time dominating the region compared to the 1980s or even the 1990s. There is also the emergence of powerful non-state actors, among which the most powerful is Hezbollah, but also Hamas to a certain degree.
So it is very much a region in flux. U.S. power was on display between 2003 and 2006 or 2007, but now it is on the decline. On the whole, there are a lot of changes taking place.
Turkey’s vision for the region and for all its external relations evolved during the 1990s and consolidated in the first decade of the 21st century. It’s based largely on Turkey’s economic interests. Turkey became a tiger among economies of the world and has been growing by leaps and bounds. The country does not have oil or gas, so its strength is exporting and it has achieved high growth rates through exports. It is now the 17th largest economy in the world, which is quite remarkable.
For Turkey to continue to grow, it needs access to as many markets as it can secure, and it needs stability and peace to interact with these places. This applies to its orientation towards Europe, which is its biggest market, but also its relationships in the north—towards the Balkans, Caucuses, and Black Sea area—and its relations with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf countries in the Arab world.
Ankara has annunciated this policy as a “zero problems with its neighbors” strategy and pursued this through vigorous diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East. It is actively trying to find a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, is working with the Iraqis and the Kurds to manage conflict in Iraq, and of course it played a leadership and mediation role between Israel and Syria just a couple of years ago. Ankara was also previously pushing for progress on the peace progress between Arabs and Israelis. So this is what Turkey has been pursuing over the last decade and a half.
Differences in Turkish diplomacy and American diplomacy that resulted from a series of misunderstandings or miscues, however, have led to serious disagreements over how to handle Iran and particularly over the flotilla incident in which nine Turks were killed by Israeli commanders—this caused a big escalation in tensions with Israel.
So, Turkey has generally been moving in the direction of trying to provide stability and mediation, but now finds itself at odds with two traditional friends and allies. We’re at a moment when both Turkey and Israel, and Turkey and the United States need to rethink where they are in their relationships, as they need each other to move forward.
Prime Minister Erdogan is a popular figure and he is somewhat of a populist himself. He enjoys stirring up public support and has at least two constituencies. One is the Turkish constituency itself—the country is in the run-up to elections and the themes that he has been raising, including tension with Israel, have been popular. He is certainly playing to a domestic audience.
The other constituency is the Arab and Muslim world. Given Turkey’s increased economic ambitions and political interests in the Arab and the Muslim world, increasing Erdogan’s and Turkey’s popularity is useful for Turkey. And this has been achieved in the last few weeks.
Turkey’s popularity increased after the Gaza war in December 2008 and January 2009 when Ankara was critical of Israel’s war on Gaza, which was an extremely popular position in the Arab world. It was furthered by Turkey’s decision a few months ago to launch an Arabic language Turkish television station as Turkish programs on Arabic television are becoming increasingly popular. Turkey is re-entering the Arab consciousness and many people are looking to Turkey as a cultural model. Prime Minister Erdogan is increasingly looked to as a champion of Arab and Islamic causes.
This does not please the Iranian leadership which has tried to monopolize these positions for a long time. It might also displease some Arab leaders who find their own populations responding more to Erdogan’s position than their own.
Turkey is not turning away from Europe and the United States, but the country is charting a more Turkish set of interests and positions. The country is now more willing to go out on a limb for its beliefs or if they believe it is important for its political and economic interests.
Whereas Turkey may previously been perceived as being somewhat dependent on the West, it no longer sees itself that way. It is a proud and effective member of NATO and had applied for membership in the European Union. It’s the EU that has been rejecting Turkey, not the other way around. And Turkey has been out in front trying to help U.S. policy on the Middle East peace process, but Israel was dragging its feet.
On the Iranian file, Turkey has been trying to coordinate for years with the Europeans, Americans, and the P5+1—the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany—to help mediate with the Iranians. This is something that for most of the time, the P5+1 and particularly the United States was grateful for. Turkey sees the deal that it recently struck with Brazil and Iran as something in the general interest of the West in finding a negotiated solution with the Iranians. Ankara does not perceive it as something that goes against Western interests. It is important to keep in mind that Turkey is more fearful of an Iranian nuclear weapon than the United States as Turkey is right next door and there are strong concerns in Turkey, Europe, Russia, and the United States.
An unfortunate set of diplomatic misunderstandings on both sides have unfolded. Both the United States and Turkey need to move forward and rebuild trust. They need to cooperate on the Iranian nuclear issue because sanctions themselves are not going to solve the problem. According to all players, the door for negotiation with Iran needs to remain open. Negotiations need to be pursued and the Turks are still well placed to play an important role in doing that.
Relations between Turkey and Israel used to be stronger and more strategic than they are today. Over the final decades of the last century, Turkey regarded Syria, Iraq, and much of the Arab world in some ways as opponents and hostile. The secularist and military-supported governments in Turkey viewed Israel as a necessary strategic ally against threats from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. All of that, however, has changed.
The last two sets of governments in Turkey have had Islamic roots and they view the Arab and Muslim worlds in a positive way. More importantly, their relations with Syria and Iraq have been completely transformed. Previously hostile relations with Syria have become cooperative over Kurdish, water, and other issues. And previously tense relations with the regime of Saddam Hussein have turned into very positive relations with both the northern Kurdish regions of the new Iraq as well the government in Baghdad. So, Turkey’s situation vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors is different today.
As an emerging economic power and by interpreting its strategic interests through its own economic interests, Turkey also recognizes that good relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, like good relations with Europe and other large markets, is of strategic importance.
Turkey and Israel still have significant military relations in terms of technological cooperation and training and they also have a fairly sizeable trade relationship between the two—trade totals about $5 billion, which is significant. But the relationship is not as necessary or strategic as it once was.
The Turkish position remains that the relationship with Israel—as a state, economy, and society—is strong. But, the current government in Turkey has had bitter disagreements with the current government in Israel and they were triggered by the Gaza war that started in December 2008.
It is important to remember that the Gaza war was launched by then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert three days after meeting privately with Prime Minister Erdogan. He talked with Prime Minister Erdogan about Turkish mediation and peace talks with Syria. Prime Minister Olmert returned without mentioning any word about an impending war. When the war started it embarrassed the Turks and the Turkish prime minister. So there is a personal history and a sense of betrayal from the Turkish government.
The shifting position of Turkey presents both a risk and an opportunity for the United States. The risk is that if Turkey and the United States don’t reconnect and talk to each other to build trust over the coming weeks, they might drift further apart.
Turkey feels slighted by the United States and that it was treated in a hostile manner by Israel. These feelings have accumulated over several years and hence there’s a sense of anger and hurt on the Turkish side. The Americans feel the same way—they feel like they were betrayed by the Turks on the Iranian nuclear sanctions vote in the United Nations. So, there is rancor on both sides.
Once tensions cool, it will be clear that Turkey needs good and deep relations with the United States and that they and everyone else knows it. And the United States needs strong and strategic relations with Turkey. It’s incumbent on both sides to take steps to mend the relationship. There’s a lot of debate now in Turkey that perhaps Prime Minister Erdogan may have perhaps gone a bit too far and that maybe he should rebuild relations. Indeed, he has sent many envoys to Washington in the past days and weeks to that end.
On the United States side, there are three things that Washington can do. First, the U.S. administration can help the Turks and Israelis find a satisfactory and face-saving way out of the flotilla crisis with some kind of apology. It will be good for the United States to show that it is concerned and trying to help Turkey and Israel.
The second relates to the Iran file. It is recognized that even though Turkey and Brazil voted against sanctions, they have the trust of the Iranians and this is valuable for the international community. The P5+1 should again engage with Turkey and Brazil and see what can be done to revive talks with the Iranians.
Third, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is useful and helpful that Prime Minister Erdogan staked out this rather hard line position because it enables him to appeal to the Arab and Muslim public. Turkey has been pushing for peace talks and stability for years and Erdogan now has strong credibility. So, the fact that there is somebody like Prime Minister Erdogan front and center and able to speak for an Arab and Muslim public is an opportunity.
It is much better having Erdogan rather than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah. Unfortunately, the Arab leaders who are engaged in these talks—like President Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia—don’t have the pull or credibility in public opinion to actually make progress towards peace. Concessions and difficult decisions need to be made and Arab leaders are too weak at this point to be helpful—and Iran doesn’t want to help at all.
Turkey’s position presents an opportunity. President Obama said from day one that the Arab-Israeli conflict is his number one priority. While Turkey’s recent involvement may have raised tensions a little bit, they were already high and no progress was being made. Perhaps the increased tensions will provide the momentum needed to move forward and Turkey can be an able partner in building peace in the region.