THE ARAB WORLD
How Turkey is re-discovering its Middle East role
After centuries of Ottoman domination in the Middle East, Kemal Atatürk's Turkey and successor governments kept aloof from the Arab world. Stephen Larrabee explains why that policy has now been scrapped
One of the most distinguishing hallmarks of Turkish foreign policy since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power in November 2002 has been Ankara’s active engagement in the Middle East. After decades of passivity and neglect, Turkey is emerging as an important diplomatic actor there. Ankara has established close ties to Iran and Syria, two countries with which, in the l970s and l980s, it had tense relations and it has also adopted a more forward-leaning approach to the Palestinian issue and improved relations with the Arab world.
This new activism in the Middle East represents an important departure in Turkish foreign policy. Except for a brief period in the l950s, Turkish foreign policy has been characterised by caution, and by an aloofness from deep involvement in Middle East affairs. For most of the post-WWII period, the Middle East was largely “off limits” for Turkey.
This new activism in the Middle East does not mean that Turkey is about to turn its back on the West. Nor is it a sign of the “creeping Islamisation” of Turkish foreign policy, as some critics charge. Rather, it represents a response to structural changes in Turkey’s security environment since the end of the Cold War.
During the Cold War years, Turkey concentrated primarily on containing Soviet power and strengthening its ties to the West. The end of the Cold War removed the Soviet threat and opened up new opportunities and vistas to Turkish foreign policy in areas that had been long neglected – the Balkans, the Caucasus/Central Asia and the Middle East. No longer a flank state, Turkey found itself at the crossroads of a new, emerging strategic landscape which included areas in which it had long-standing interests and/or historical ties. Turkey sought to exploit this new diplomatic flexibility by establishing new relationships in areas it had previously neglected, above all the Middle East and Central Asia.
The locus of threats and challenges to Turkish security has shifted too. During the Cold War, the main threat to Turkish security came from the north – from the Soviet Union. Today, Turkey faces a much more diverse set of security threats and challenges – growing Kurdish nationalism and separatism, increasing sectarian violence in Iraq which threatens to spill over and draw in outside powers, an assertive Iran with nuclear ambitions, and a weak, fragmented Lebanon dominated by radical groups with close ties to Syria and Iran. Most of these threats are located on Turkey’s southern periphery. As a result, Turkish attention today is focused much more intensely on the Middle East than in the past. This is where the key challenges to Turkish security are located.
Turkey is, in effect, rediscovering a region of which it has historically been an integral part. Under the Ottomans, Turkey was actively involved – indeed, was the dominant power – in the Middle East. The Republican period, in which Turkey essentially turned its back on the Middle East, was an anomaly in Turkish history. Thus in many ways Turkey’s more active policy in the Middle East of late represents a return to a more traditional pattern of behaviour.
Turkey’s greater activism in the Middle East has been reflected in its effort to strengthen ties to its regional neighbours, particularly Iran and Syria. Turkey’s relations with both countries were strained in the l980s and l990s, in part because they supported the PKK Kurdish insurgency against Turkey. Since then relations with Tehran and Damascus have significantly improved in recent years.
The Kurdish issue has been an important factor influencing the intensification of Turkey’s ties to both countries. Iran and Syria both have substantial Kurdish minorities on their territory and share Turkey’s interest in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. This shared interest has provided an important incentive for both countries to cooperate more closely with Ankara.
Energy has also been an important driver behind Turkey’s rapprochement with Iran. Iran is the second largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey behind Russia. In July 1996, the Erbakan government concluded a $23bn natural gas deal with Iran. The deal provided the framework for the long-term delivery of Iranian natural gas to Turkey for the next 25 years and created strains in U.S.-Turkish relations because it directly undercut U.S. efforts to constrict trade and investment with Iran.
In the decade since then, energy ties have continued to expand. In July 2007, Turkey and Iran signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to transport 30bn cubic metres (bcm) of Iranian and Turkmen natural gas to Europe. The deal envisages the construction of two separate pipelines to ship gas from Iranian and Turkmen gas fields. The state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) will also be granted licenses to develop three different sections of Iran’s South Pars gas field, which has estimated total recoverable reserves of 14 trillion cubic metres.
The deal has been sharply criticised by the United States, which opposes large investments in Iran’s energy sector. Washington is also concerned that the deal could undercut U.S.-Turkish cooperation to develop Caspian gas resources and construct pipeline infrastructure to transport these gas resources to Turkey and international markets. Instead of the deal with Iran, U.S. officials want Turkey to either intensify cooperation with Azerbaijan to transport gas from the Shah Deniz fields or to import gas from Iraq.
The Erdogan government, however, seems determined to go through with the Iranian gas deal. It argues that Turkey needs to diversify its sources of supply to avoid becoming over-dependent on one supplier. Turkey currently imports about two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia, so Iran represents one of the few alternative suppliers of natural gas capable of meeting Turkey’s growing energy needs. While most of the natural gas under the deal with Iran will be exported to Europe, some of it will be used to meet domestic needs.
On other matters, especially the Iranian nuclear issue, U.S. and Turkish approaches are much closer. Like the United States, Turkey is opposed to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. While Ankara does not perceive a serious military threat from Iran, Turkish officials fear that a nuclear-armed Iran could spark a regional arms race and force Turkey to take compensatory measures to ensure its own security. In the short term, Turkish concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran could increase Turkish interest in missile defence. But if relations with the United States and NATO were to seriously deteriorate, Ankara might then feel the need to consider acquiring a nuclear deterrent of its own.
Turkey’s relations with Syria have also significantly improved in recent years. The rapprochement with Syria has been driven in particular by a shared concern regarding the threat posed by Kurdish nationalism. Like Turkey, Syria faces an internal problem with its Kurdish minority, which has lately shown increasing signs of restlessness. The Ba’athist leadership around President Bashar Assad is worried that the emergence of an economically robust Kurdish government in northern Iraq could stimulate pressures for economic and political improvements among Syria’s Kurdish population and could pose a challenge to the regime’s stability.
As with Iran, Ankara’s closer ties to Syria have created strains with the United States. The Bush administration looked askance at Ankara’s growing ties to Syria. But the Obama administration is likely to be far less neuralgic about Turkey’s contacts with Syria. If the administration opens a dialogue with Syria,, as it has signalled it intends to do, this could help to ease recent strains and bring U.S. and Turkish approaches toward Syria into closer alignment. However, the recent decision by the Syrian regime to open the Iraqi-Syrian border to al-Qaeda and jihadist forces is likely to cast a pall over the prospects for opening such a dialogue in the near future.
Ankara’s diplomatic engagement in the Lebanon crisis in the summer and fall of 2006 is another example of Turkey’s new activism in the Middle East. The Erdogan government’s decision to send 1,000 troops to participate in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) represented an important departure from Turkey’s traditional policy of avoiding deep involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The decision provoked a lively internal debate in Turkey and was sharply criticised by Turkey’s other mainstream political parties, whose leaders argued that Turkey should not get actively involved in the conflict. Some members of Erdogan’s own party also feared Turkey could be drawn into a military confrontation with Hezbollah.
The decision provoked an open split between Erdogan and Turkey’s then President Ahmet Sezer. Sezer opposed Turkish participation in the UN peacekeeping force, arguing that it was “not Turkey’s responsibility to protect others’ national interests.” Erdogan, by contrast, maintained that Turkey could not afford to be a “mere bystander” and that the best way to protect Turkish national interests was to participate in the peacekeeping process. The debate between Sezer and Erdogan highlighted the difference between the traditional Turkish policy of avoiding involvement in Middle East and the more activist approach of Erdogan and his foreign minister at that time Abdullah Gul, who view engagement in the Middle East as essential to shaping developments on Turkey’s periphery in directions conducive to Turkish interests.
The decision to participate in the UN peacekeeping mission, though not without risks, had a number of important benefits for Turkey. It allowed Turkey to show that it was a regional player whose influence had to be taken into consideration. It also enabled Turkey to underscore its European credentials by being among the largest European contributors to the UNIFIL force. And it won accolades in Washington, which had strongly encouraged Turkish participation.
Finally, it allowed Turkey to demonstrate its newfound commonality of interests with the established Arab states of the region. Relations with Saudi Arabia have been strengthened, highlighted by August 2006 King Abdullah’s visit to Turkey – the first of its kind in 40 years. Both countries have worked together to try to invigorate the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as to contain Iran’s rising power. Ties to Egypt, another regional power, have also been strengthened. During a visit to Ankara by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in March 2007, the leaders of the two countries decided to establish a new strategic dialogue on energy cooperation and the strengthening of regional security.
Its improved relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt highlights the way Turkey has begun to reach out to leading Sunni Arab states in the Middle East, and is yet another example of Turkey’s new regional activism. The driving force behind this enhanced cooperation has been strategic, not religious. It reflects the growing recognition on the part of the Turkish leadership that stability on Turkey’s southern border requires Ankara’s active engagement with its Middle Eastern neighbours and deeper participation in regional peace efforts.
Close ties with Israel, especially in the defence and intelligence areas, have been one of the cornerstones of Turkish policy in the Middle East since 1996. But Turkish policy toward Israel has begun to change under the AKP; the Erdogan government has pursued a much more actively by pro-Palestinian policy than its recent predecessors. Erdogan has been openly critical of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza, calling it an act of “state terror".
The December 2008 Israeli offensive in Gaza provoked an even harsher Turkish reaction. During a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of this year Erdogan got into a shouting match with Israel's President Shimon Peres and stalked off the stage, causing a major international stir. Both sides have tried to play down the incident, but in Israel’s eyes Erdogan’s outburst and his more critical approach toward Israel have undermined Turkey’s ability to act as an unbiased mediator in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
The Erdogan government’s effort to establish closer ties to Hamas has also contributed to the cooling of relations with Jerusalem. A few weeks after the elections in the Palestinian territories, the Erdogan government hosted a high-ranking Hamas delegation to Ankara led by Khaled Mashaal. The visit was supposed to highlight Turkey’s ability to play a larger diplomatic role in the Middle East. The visit was arranged, however, without consultation with Washington and Jerusalem and provoked strong irritation in both capitals because it directly undercut U.S. and Israeli efforts to isolate Hamas until it met a series of specific conditions, including acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
So far the shift in Turkish policy has largely been one of tone and style rather than substance. Beneath the surface, cooperation in the defence and intelligence areas has quietly continued. A $165m agreement on airborne imagery intelligence was signed on the eve of the Gaza bombardment. The Israeli air force continues to conduct training missions at Turkey’s training base in Konya.
In private, though, there is growing concern among Israeli officials about Turkey’s increasing involvement in the Palestinian issue, especially its support for Hamas. Israeli officials still want strong relations with Ankara, but the growing anti-Israel tone of Erdogan’s rhetoric is deeply worrying to many Israelis. It has begun to have a corrosive impact on the overall relationship, eroding trust and confidence in Ankara’s goodwill and its long-term objectives in the Middle East.
Turkey’s Middle East diplomacy has largely been a success. In the last decade Turkey has managed to reduce tensions with most of its neighbours in the Middle East, and that has contributed to greater regional stability. This does not mean that Turkey is turning its back on the West, but since the end of the Cold War it has begun to increasingly diversify its foreign policy by becoming an important Middle East actor.
This process of diversification is on the whole healthy, and should be no cause for alarm. On the contrary, Ankara’s strong ties to the Middle East can be an asset for the West as Turkey can serve as a bridge to the Middle East. But to play this role Turkey needs to maintain a firm anchor to the West – and above all to Europe. However, Turkey’s European anchor has been weakening in recent years. On the one hand, the European Union has been plagued by “enlargement fatigue” following its inclusion of 12 new member states in recent years and its ongoing accession talks with Balkan countries. On the other, the process of domestic reform in Turkey has slowed since 2005 with the consequence that Turkey’s EU membership prospects have become increasingly uncertain.
Much will depend on the EU’s own development. If the EU evolves into a looser, more flexible intergovernmental organisation – along the lines, say, of the British model that favours the retention by member states of significant national autonomy – Turkish accession could be easier. If, by contrast, the so-called “federal” model based on closer and deeper integration were to prevail then Turkey’s accession will be much more difficult, thus increasing the dangers of Ankara’s sense of alienation and exclusion.
A third possibility could be phased membership. Under this, Turkey would be integrated in stages, beginning with one or two concrete areas such as foreign and security policy. Other areas could be added later, such as economic policy and justice. This would stretch out the accession process and give Turkey more time to prepare for membership. It would keep Turkey closely anchored to Europe while still keeping open the possibility of full membership some time in the future, thereby avoiding the overtones of discrimination or second class citizenship implied in the concept of “privileged partnership” advocated by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and a number of other European leaders.