Earlier this week, the ISN looked at the ‘Arab Spring’ from a geopolitical perspective – or more precisely, at how regional powers benefited from the recent political changes to further their own influence in the Middle East. Let’s now take a closer look at Turkey to see how the recent events impact upon Ankara’s geopolitical ambitions.
Unlike most advanced economies, Turkey survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. Indeed, Turkey’s steady economic growth partially explains why the country is of renewed importance to the West’s foreign policy agenda. Its close proximity to the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia means that it is critical to US, European and NATO policy objectives. Turkey has the second biggest army in NATO and is home to a US air-force base at Incirlik. Add to that a relatively moderate, secular democracy with a Muslim population of more than 75 million, and it becomes clear why Western powers simply cannot afford to ignore the geopolitical importance of Turkey.
Yet for Turkey, the balance between an east- and westward orientation in its foreign policy is a delicate one. Internally, there is a deep split within Turkish society between the mainly secular, Europe-oriented faction of the Sea of Marmara region and the religious faction of Anatolia. When Prime Minister Erdogan came to power in 2002, he seemed to restate the country’s long-standing allegiance to the West by making Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU a top priority. Yet accession talks have long stalled. This is mainly the EU’s decision, but Turkey’s desire to be a more integral part of Europe seems to be fading too.
Meanwhile, the country has become more assertive in its own backyard. Much to Turkey’s delight, the upheavals in the Arab world have played into the hands of its regional ambitions. Turkey naturally assumed the role as a regional mediator, with Arab countries increasingly looking up to their former imperial power for its successful blend of Islamic values with democracy and a free-market economy. In September, Erdogan launched an ‘Arab Spring Tour’ to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, during which he asserted Turkey’s growing role as a regional power-broker. His efforts to build a regional partnership with Egypt can be seen as an attempt to establish a new axis of power vacuum created by the Arab spring and waning US influence in the region.
Turkey’s relations to Iraq, Iran and Syria are more complex (and greatly complicated by the Kurdish question), which helps explain why Erdogan’s initial response to the Syrian uprising was muted and in stark contrast to the immediate call for Mubarak’s resignation earlier this year. However, the Turkish government has since become one of the most vocal critics of the violent crackdown in Syria and occasionally even hinted at military intervention. Despite Turkey’s ‘zero problems’ foreign policy, Ankara does not want to idly watch others take over matters in its own backyard.
As Turkey perhaps demonstrates, a regional power in the Middle East can negotiate more effectively if it is not perceived as too close to the US and its regional allies. In that regard, Turkey’s fallout with Israel has – at least on the surface – played into the hands of its regional ambitions. The relationship between Turkey and Israel started to cool down at the end of 2008, when Israel attacked Gaza. The attack came just as Turkey was about to cement a deal between Israel and Syria. Indeed, the crisis escalated with Israel’s raid of a Turkish-led convoy bound for Gaza, during which nine activists died. Erdogan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric in the aftermath of the tragedy has increased his popularity not only domestically but also on the Arab street. A recent survey found Turkey to be the biggest winner of the Arab spring. Erdogan’s hijacking of an “anti-status-quo mantle” with his recent public criticisms of Israel may have boosted the results just as much as the country’s constructive role in the conflict.
But it is a double-edged sword. The US needs Turkey to map out the Arab spring, especially in Syria. Good Turkish-Israeli relations would benefit the Arab world and strengthen both countries’ regional influence. Also, the US and parts of Europe are not comfortable with Erdogan’s strong stance and harsh words, which – or so they argue – reveal his autocratic instincts. And then there is of course the Kurdish question. There are around 14 million Kurds living in Turkey, mostly in the deprived south-east. Since 2002, Erdogan has given them more freedom and autonomy. But despite his announced ‘Kurdish opening’ in 2009, Erdogan now seems to be moving back to a purely military solution to the conflict with the Kurdish rebels, including cross-border raids into Iraq. Yet to play a positive role in the region, Turkey must address, not suppress the issue.
Turkey is in the ideal position to link the West to the East, not just geographically. Favoring one at the expense of the other will not do justice to the country’s historical and geopolitical importance justice.