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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Turkey’s New Mideast Role Is Limited And Pivotal
By Ziya Meral This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 31/05/2011
For some observers, the Arab Spring burst the Turkish foreign policy bubble, exposing its true scope and lack of maturity.
While Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued to captivate the Arab public across the region by publicly asking Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, he also seemed supportive, if much more so earlier on, of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as silent over serious human rights abuses unfolding in Syria and Bahrain.
On Libya, Erdogan went from categorically rejecting NATO involvement and condemning military action against his “Libyan brothers” to attempting to play a key role in the growing international tide against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Erdogan sought ties with the rebels and signaled the need for Gadhafi to leave power, and the country. This caused disillusionment in the streets of the Middle East as Turkey’s behavior resembled that of a colonial power, using the discourses of human rights and democracy whenever it suited its national interests.
Those ready to declare the end of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s energetic vision also pointed out that his catch phrase “zero conflict” had not achieved any results in the standoff between Armenia and Turkey; nor had it brought the Cyprus problem any closer to a resolution. Full European Union membership still looks far away. Israeli-Turkish relations are at a historic low and a return to the level of cooperation of the 1990s seems almost impossible. No one remembers Turkish efforts to settle disputes between Syria, Israel, Hamas and Fatah.
Critics, on reflection, note that Davutoglu’s engagement assumed the maintenance of the status quo. He had developed his policies on a false assumption, guided by the seeming naivety of a daydreaming academic who finally had a chance to apply his grandiose ideas. Thus, the foreign minister was caught off guard when the Arab Spring kicked in.
While all of these observations have a grain of truth, it is too early to declare the end of Turkey’s place and influence in the region. True, the matrix of new Turkish foreign policy assumed the Middle East would remain as it was, evolving only in slow motion. However, it was not just Turkey that was caught by surprise; no one foresaw what was coming, not even the Arab leaders themselves. As the events unfolded, all blocs and countries with a stake in the region seemed out of their depth, inconsistent and in a panic to protect their interests.
It is also true that Turkey has been hit hard by the complexities of a fast-changing region and of acting independently in an age of multipolarity. As Turkish flags were burned in Libya and demonstrations by Cypriot Turks in Northern Cyprus damned Turkey and Erdogan, officials in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were reminded that it is impossible to keep everyone happy. Decisions must be made and in our world “win-win” remains a much talked about but rarely seen mystery.
Nevertheless, Davutoglu remains the right man to steer Turkey through the complexities of a new era. His analytical depth and pragmatic creativity have shown themselves in how quickly and quietly Turkey turned around its policies toward Iraqi Kurdistan and how quickly the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey became good business partners despite memories of grievances and fears about each other. When Erdogan stepped into Shiite shrines in Iraq, he did what no other Sunni Muslim leader had been able to do publicly. As the Sunni-Shiite faultline deepens between the Arab and Persian worlds, Turkey seems to be the only player who can work with both sides.
With all of the mishaps of the last few months, Turkish soft power in the region is still a point of envy for European and American policymakers, who have learned to abandon speculation that Turkey is turning its face from the West. As Turkey’s performance in the region outshines that of the European Union and the United States, there is now a silent rush by these parties to strengthen relationships with Turkey.
While the developments of the last few months showed the limits of Turkish engagement in the region, they also demonstrated the pivotal place Turkey increasingly occupies in its much-troubled neighborhood. Expect to see a new wave of bold moves from Turkey after the upcoming national elections.
Ziya Meral is a London-based researcher. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.