The Evolving Role of Turkey in the Middle East and the Arab and Persian Response

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Context

Turkey began the year already considered a runner for increasing influence in the Middle East and North Africa. With the aftermath of the May 2010 Freedom Flotilla incident positing Turkey in a new, unfriendly dynamic with Israel and increasing cooperation with Iran, Turkey was seen to be positioning itself for undertaking a leadership role in the Arab world with an eye for an anti western-influence approach.

The NATO efforts in Libya were opposed by Turkey at the onset and the nation seemed to be following through on its new Arab-centric route, however, in recent times the tone coming out of Ankara has been markedly different from that of the beginning of the year, especially as affairs in Syria started to deteriorate. Indeed the Turkish perspective appears to have shifted much more to a pro-NATO, Israel-friendly one. This article looks at the evolving role of Turkey and what it means for other regional contenders, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Analysis

As the US starts to withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and initiates negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) with these countries, the irredentist claims presented by the Kurds, Pastuns and Baluchs are likely to escalate. These claims present an opportunity to keep the regional powers off balance.

(The article includes a map.)

Ralph Peters Map of the Middle East

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Syria Factor

The shift invariably came with the onset of trouble in Syria. Syria and Turkey have traditionally been friendly and the border they share relatively peaceful. With Iran and Syria having close ties, the initial Turkish approach would have included warmer ties with these two countries, which necessitates a position away from western influence and good ties with Israel. However, civil unrest and crackdown by the Syrian government against civilians has presented a moral dilemma for Turkey. Assad has continued to ignore requests from Ankara to stop the brutalities against protesters and enter into meaningful reforms, pushing Ankara towards a breaking point in its relationship with Syria.

Perhaps Turkey has seen that with a change in tone it could now enjoy the backing of the EU, the US and even Russia in its stance as a new regional leader. Its nearest competitor, Iran, would never be able to gain such support, with conceivably the exception of Russia. That being said, Turkey is by no means aiming to blindside Iranian relations. Turkish and Persian relations have been steadily building over the past two or three years, with Turkey maintaining close economic ties with Iran, notably in the energy sector.

Turkey’s role as a mediator in the 2010 nuclear swap deal with Iran was a clear demonstration of Turkey’s ability to play a significant part in affairs of the region and sets a precedent for its inclusion into the stagnant Middle East Peace Process. Turkish prowess in mediatory roles was also showcased in talks between Israel and Syria back in 2008. However, Syria is increasingly becoming a thorn complicating Turkeys relations with Iran and other Arab countries.

Turkey’s Evolving Positions

The other factor pushing Turkey to the fore in the Middle East is the loss of credibility in other Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These countries previously held a strong position in regional affairs, but the Arab Spring, and the reasons that led to it, has taken its toll on their standing. Egypt is still coming to grips with the change in its internal circumstances and Saudi Arabia is trying to balance turmoil on its borders with Yemen as well as unrest in Bahrain with its own civil unrest.

This month’s meeting of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) in Istanbul sends another message of Turkish dominance in Middle Eastern affairs. It also signifies Turkey’s stepping more into line with the NATO alliance and their actions in Libya. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu officially recognized the rebel government in Libya and pledged $200mn in aid during a trip to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi last Sunday. “Gaddafi should leave power and a genuine political change based on the demands and aspirations of the Libyan people should be realized,” Davutoglu said during the trip. “The unity of Libya must be protected.” The recognition comes just one day after the Turkish government announced it is closing down its embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Compare the above statements to the ones Turkish leaders made towards the start of the Libyan crisis: “Reporters have been asking me whether or not NATO should intervene in Libya. It is such nonsense. What does NATO have to do with Libya? NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had stated while delivering a speech to the Turkish-German Economy Congress in Hanover, Germany.

When the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Libya in February, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated, “Sanctions, an intervention, would force the Libyan people, who are already up against hunger and violence, into a more desperate situation. We call on the international community to act with conscience, justice, laws and universal humane values – not out of oil concerns.”

On Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) intervention in Bahrain Turkish PM Erdogan had said it could not be termed as foreign intrusion since it is a regional task force that is recognized internationally. On the other hand, speaking on the Middle East revolt, Erdogan had earlier stated that the Arab leaders need to realize that they can’t suppress the demand for change through violence or force.

Neo-Ottoman Ambitions

While Ankara is very keen to give off the impression of a benevolent benefactor, its growing presence in the region is not without concern for many Arab countries, suspecting a rise in neo-Ottoman ambitions. It important to note that so far Turkey has sided with the protesters in Egypt, Libya and Syria while it has backed the Saudi led GC intervention in Bahrain. The Iranians would have certainly noted this inconsistency.

In this vein there have been rumors of closed-door talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu just concluded a visit to Saudi Arab followed by a surprise trip to Tehran. Turkey certainly appears to be domineering the affairs of Middle East and North Africa. Three important US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman recently conveyed to the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that only Turkey can persuade the Palestinian group Hamas to participate in peace negotiations with Israel.

On the other hand, Iran appears to be strengthening its role in the affairs of Afghanistan, which must be of great concern to the Saudi’s. President Ahmadinejad of Iran, Zardari of Pakistan and Karzai of Afghanistan shared the stage with Al-Bashir of Sudan, Rahmon of Tajikistan and Talabani of Iraq last month for the “anti terror” conference in Tehran to discuss how they would react when the US and NATO withdraw from Afghanistan. In a trilateral meeting between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the leaders of these three countries discussed a number of issues that may arise after the West exits Afghanistan. All three seemed determined to take matters into their own hands and exercise their sovereignty to boost cultural, political and economic cooperation.

As the US starts to withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and initiates negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreements with these countries, the irredentist claims presented by the Kurds, Pastuns and Baluchs are likely to escalate. These claims present an opportunity to keep the regional powers off balance.

PoliTact intends to closely monitor the Turkish response to the changing situation in the Middle East, especially as it pertains to the conflicts in Libya and Syria, as these two dynamics and Turkish involvement therein will give clues to how the new Middle East balance of power will evolve.