In the month of October Turkey lifted border restrictions with Syria, signed a large number of trade and political agreements with Iraq, and spoke out in defense of Iran. This is after Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of Israel during the Gaza war and suspension of Israel from Turkish war exercises. The AKP government in Ankara is moving to consolidate its influence in the Muslim East and is thereby affecting the patterns of power in that region.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Israel, Turkey and Iran were on the same side, allied with the West, counterbalancing key states in the Arab world. Iran changed sides in 1979, and Turkey seems to be gently adjusting its stance as well. Just a few years ago, Syria was viewed by Ankara as an enemy, Saddam’s Iraq was a dangerous neighbor and the Kurds were in open rebellion. Today Syria is a friend and an ally, Iraq is a needy neighbor, and the Kurdish-Turkish relationship has moved from confrontation to cooperation.
Beyond security, the shift in Turkish policy has a political and ideological component as well. Unlike the radical Kemalists of earlier years who roundly rejected their Muslim and Ottoman past, the leadership of the AK party draws strength from Turkey’s Muslim identity and has an almost nostalgic view of its Ottoman past with its southeastern neighbors. Although Ankara is not abandoning its European bid, it is refreshing for it to go from being the rejected child of the European family to a potential patriarch of the Muslim family.
Indeed, Turkey is well placed to make a bid for a preeminent leadership role within the Muslim and Arab world. Egypt under Nasser set the standard. Since then Egypt has faded. Saudi Arabia has tried but failed to secure leadership, burdened by its alliance with the US, a too austere version of religion, and an ostentatiously non-austere hyper-rich ruling family. Iran has made headway but it has been limited by its Shiite identity in a mainly Sunni world and by an increasingly dysfunctional and unattractive model of clerical rule.
Turkey is the only country in the entire Middle East that has integrated with modernity. It has a functional and democratic political system, a productive economy, and has found workable balances between religion and secularism, faith and science, individual and collective identity, nationalism and rule of law, etc. No other country in the region, from Morocco through to Pakistan, has succeeded in this way.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran are not the future; Turkey might well be. As a large Sunni country with deep historical roots in the region, this could be the beginning of Turkey’s century in the Middle East.
A key driver of Turkey’s opening to the east is also economic. With a growing economy that is fast approaching the one trillion dollar GDP mark, Turkey has urgent needs. It must secure nearby markets for its growing exports and energy to fuel its growth. It has learned from its closeness to the European experiment, that the national interest is profoundly linked with regional stability and large regional markets. Its foreign policy for the last decade has been to actively seek stability and cooperation in all directions.
It has continued accession talks and integration with Europe, maintained its presence in NATO and alliance with the US, while also building excellent relations with Russia, and seeking stability in the Balkans, Caucuses and Black Sea area. It has urged moderation on Iran and Syria, helped Iraq back from the brink of total collapse, and mediated Israeli-Syrian talks. In Iran and Iraq it has large potential sources of energy both for its own use and for transit to Europe. In Syria it has a growing market. Through strong relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Turkey also gains access to the all-important Gulf region.
Turkey’s growing role is partly the result of the power vacuum created by the receding of American power and the tensions created by the absence of initiative in resolving the key Arab-Israeli conflict. For Syria in particular, the inability or unwillingness of the Obama administration to make any serious progress in addressing Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the Golan, has made the US less relevant and encouraged stronger regional alliances.
For Israel, the Turkish shift leaves it with no regional allies for the first time since its establishment. And the apparently complete death of the peace process leaves Israel’s peace treaty friends, Egypt and Jordan, in very difficult conditions. With Israel closing down the peace process and adopting a fortress mentality to maintain its occupations and settlements, those states—namely Egypt and Jordan—that gambled that the peace process was the way of the future, will find themselves on the wrong side of history. And with Turkey now shifting position, it is questionable how long these states can maintain their stance.
Turkey’s shift is, in itself, a positive development. That a functional, democratic and pragmatic country like Turkey plays a larger role in the Arab and Islamic world is a positive development. However, if no progress is made in the Arab Israeli peace process, this shift could be accompanied by the beginning of a new round of confrontations. The recent events in the Al-Aqsa Mosque only underline the dangerous religious tensions that could reverberate throughout the region.