Turkey's and the European flag (photo: dpa)
The Turkish Role in the Middle East and Beyond

Moving Beyond the Dichotomy

The dichotomous perception of the choice in the orientation of Turkish policy between "pro-Western" and "anti-Western", or "pro-Muslim", is more reflective of a mental division of the world between Occident and Orient than of the complex reality of 21st-century international politics, writes Erik Siegl in this essay

Turks as the heirs to the Ottoman Empire have never lacked self-confidence, and the role of a regional power reflects the self-perception of the elite, especially of the current, conservatively-disposed elite. President Abdullah Gül, in his speech at Chatham House in London (November 2010), boldly placed Turkey in the same category as countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. In his exalted words, "having inherited the experience, memories and reflexes of great empires, contemporary Turkey certainly will take its rightful place in this new and normal international order".

But is Turkey not punching above its weight? And is its foreign policy still "pro-Western", or does it run counter to the interests of that part of the world to which it has always professed to belong?

Certain Western and Turkish commentators think that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has moved Turkey away from the "West" in the direction of the "East". In their view this trend is confirmed by Turkey's spat with Israel, new vigorous relationships with its Arab neighbours, and the attempt on its own diplomatic initiative to prevent the imposition of new sanctions against Iran.

But the dichotomous perception of the choice in the orientation of Turkish policy between "pro-Western" and "anti-Western", or "pro-Muslim", is more reflective of a mental division of the world between Occident and Orient than of the complex reality of 21st-century international politics. It is a distortion analogous to labelling Turkey as either an exclusively "Western" and "secular" or "non-European" and "Muslim" country.

Roots of the "Zero problems policy"

The intellectual father of the country's new "zero problems policy" is Turkey's present Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. He confidently asserts that traditional relationships with Western allies and new cooperation with former rivals are compatible.

photo: AP
Maintaining traditional relationships with Western allies while establishing new cooperation with former rivals: Ahmet Davutoglu and Massoud Barzani, president of semi autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region

​​It is true that the academic works of this former professor of international relations are the essence of a geopolitical interpretation of the world– one of them is even a direct argument against Huntington's thesis breaking down the world into rival religiously and historically conditioned alliances, on whose dividing lines – according to this celebrated author – Turkey also lies, as an internally "torn country".

Davutoğlu and the current leadership are among the culturally conservative segment of Turkey's elite, who never bought into the idea that Turkey is, from the standpoint of its identity and interests, exclusively a "European country" for which opportunities and allies lie to the West and threats to the East. For decades, the Kemalist elite and the army cultivated mistrust and disinterest in society toward its Muslim neighbours, because they considered them – like Islam itself – to be not entirely compatible with modernisation, which they understood mainly as Westernisation.

As a result of geopolitical changes and its own redefinition, the country has moved from the position at the "periphery of the West" to a conceptual intersection of regions – Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East as well as the Muslim world. This vision was formulated already by Turkey's former Prime Minister and President, Turgut Özal, who at the close of the 1980s became the first Turkish Prime Minister to undertake an official pilgrimage to Mecca, but also submitted Turkey's application for membership in the European Community and initiated far-reaching social and economic reforms.

In his book Turkey in Europe, Europe in Turkey, he mainly defends the place of Islam in Turkish society, the expansion of civil rights, and Turkey's membership in the European Union. Özal declared modernisation as adopting the Western principles of democracy, liberalism and scientific progress, not as cultural Westernisation or an attempt to "imitate" its development at the expense of repressing its own culture and traditions.

Regional rapprochement

Turkey's current policy of "zero problems" with its neighbours also grew out of positive trends prior to the AKP taking power in 2002 – specifically, out of a breakthrough in strained Greek-Turkish relations initiated by left-wing Foreign Minister İsmail Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, with symbolic gestures and visits following a series of earthquakes that struck both countries in 1999.

photo: dpa
Hajj to Mecca, diplomatic trips to Brussels: Turgut Özal, Prime Minister of Turkey from 1983 to 1989, and President of Turkey (1989-1993)

​​The two men steered the definition of national interest in the direction of developing mutual trade and strengthening integration with the EU, and made a mental shift in the sense that they no longer interpreted accommodating behaviour toward one another as an expression of weakness that their rival would exploit, but rather as an opportunity.

But whereas the Greek Socialists under Papandreou's leadership are in this sense modernised and open toward Europe, the Turkish left – after İsmail Cem's departure from politics – remained more nationalistic compared to the Islamic conservative right-wing AKP, and have hindered further democratic reforms in Turkey.

Under the "zero problems policy" slogan, Ahmet Davutoğlu and the AKP also began to apply the new approach vis-à-vis Syria as well as Turkey's two historically "most problematic" neighbours – Iraqi Kurdistan and, most recently, Armenia. It is based on simple premises – an active role for Turkey in the region and above all good relations with its neighbours and even-handedness in regional conflicts.

Policy toward the Middle East is based on developing trade and investments, and on political rapprochement, i.e. on the same interests and principles as relations with the West. Turkey has exchanged its static position as a defender of the status quo for the active role of a "good neighbour", "honest broker" and trading partner. However, Turkey did not manage to solve any of its longstanding frozen conflicts being it with Greece, Cyprus, Armenia or Syria on the water issue.

A counterweight to Iran in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But Turkey's current foreign policy is not just the coldly calculated advancement of the interests mentioned. While Davutoğlu rejects the oft-mentioned "Neo-Ottomanism" as a label, he identifies with it intellectually. He stated that Turkey feels its historical responsibility and has a "mission" to ensure security and development in post-Ottoman territories, and that this is also what is expected of Turkey.

photo: AP
Turkey's increasing engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a positive aspect that tends to be overlooked by Western commentators, writes Erik Siegl: Turkey has become a counterweight to Iran's influence in the role of champion of Palestinian rights. Pictured: pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul

​​Other central factors include the sympathies, emotions and prestige-seeking of Prime Minister Erdoğan and the views of his party's conservative base. Prime Minister Erdoğan defends Hamas as a legitimate representative of Palestinians ("resistance fighters who are defending their country and were elected democratically") and accuses Israel of state terrorism. For this, he has received significant public sympathy in Arab countries, although as a result his support for Hamas less understanding from some Arab governments.

Turkey's increasing engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does have one undisputedly positive aspect that tends to be overlooked by Western commentators, however: It has become a counterweight to Iran's influence in the role of champion of Palestinian rights. According to a survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 43 per cent of Palestinians (more or less the same in Gaza and the West Bank) consider Turkey to be their most important ally, far ahead of Egypt or Iran. The cause is evidently the fact that, unlike these countries, Turkey has not been pursuing a radical or "hidden" agenda in its pro-Palestinian engagement.

Turkey does not even seem so far to be interested in manipulating the conflict to its benefit, unlike most Arab leaders, who are – despite their emotional outbursts – cold cynics and manipulators. The perception of Turkey as a fundamentally impartial (especially in the context of so-called Sunni-Shiite relations), territorially and hegemonically saturated Muslim country represents a diplomatically significant position in the complex web of Middle Eastern conflicts and rivalries.

It enables Ankara to act as a mediator in internal disputes in Libya, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and – until the outbreak of the war in Gaza – also in secret negotiations between Israel and Syria, despite its concurrent official relations with the top leadership of Hamas. Modern secular Turkey's longstanding self-imposed "detachment" from Middle East politics was just as important a prerequisite for this engagement as the pro-Palestinian activism of the AKP, which has improved Turkey's stature in the region.

The West should not be apprehensive a priori about Turkey's new active role in the Middle East, especially if it really contributes to resolving problems with its neighbours and regionally. Paradoxically, it was precisely such problems that in the past were cited as one of the arguments against Turkey's membership in the European Union. Today, Turkey has a more "normalised" foreign policy in the sense that it is less influenced by the security discourse (especially Turkish generals) and the feeling of being threatened and surrounded by neighbours with whom it had strained relations.

Turkey as a "role model"?

But is Turkey truly influencing its eastern neighbours actively with tangible results, and serving as a "model" for their transformation, as its elite likes to claim? Its approach has been rather selective and reactive and it was surprised by the events of the Arab Spring. The "zero problems" policy, an interest in intensive trade and energy sources, and an ambition to mediate delicate diplomatic negotiations with authoritarian regimes do not go together well with possible criticism of human rights violations or direct support for reforms.

Erdogan and Ahmadinejad in Tehran (photo: FARS)
Selective approach: Turkey's Prime Minister Erdoğan often vociferously decries human rights, but he was conspicuously silent over the brutal suppression of the Iranian opposition and civil society

​​Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed open solidarity with the protests against President Mubarak's regime and was among the first politicians to call on him to step down. However he invested a lot of effort in improving economic relations with Syria and Libya, and it took him a long time to condemn the slaughter of the protesters in those countries and openly support calls for reform.

Azerbaijan, another example, is probably the neighbour most strongly subjected to Turkish influence through investment, culture and the media, yet the regime is the most authoritarian in the Southern Caucasus and no one in Ankara criticises its excesses in the area of human rights. In Iran, despite sanctions and reservations on the part of the United States, Ankara is planning joint development of the South Pars natural gas field and construction of an export pipeline. This policy is driven by common interests, not sympathies for the "Islamic" regime, and is directed toward preventing escalation of the conflict with the West and further isolation of Iran at all costs.

A symptom of this "business-oriented" policy was Prime Minister Erdoğan's uncritical reaction to Iran's manipulation of election results and his silence over the brutal suppression of the Iranian opposition and civil society in contrast to his posture as a defender of human rights in other conflicts.

On the other hand, Turkey's present role in the Middle East consists not only of its rhetoric and the foreign policy it pursues, but also of how it is perceived, including the perceptions of broader strata of society and the currently rising political opposition. Clearly, it is not possible to draw automatic developmental parallels between Turkey and its Middle Eastern neighbours or – in view of the mentioned reticence – to overestimate its influence. A recent TESEV study on Arab perceptions of Turkey shows that it is indeed taken as a positive reference of the secular as well as of part of the Islam-oriented opposition.

Despite fierce domestic political disputes surrounding the form of secularism, which even led to a proceeding to ban the AKP before Turkey's Constitutional Court, Westernised and Islam-influenced Turkish lifestyles coexist alongside one another without pointed conflicts, and even blend together in part.

Clearly, the issue of a "role model" is a matter of perspective whether one looks at it from the East or the West. Many in the EU and Turkey itself rightly point out to the pressure on the media, the situation of the Kurds and the politicised justice system. Turkey's own democratization must not remain standing at the midway should it become an inspiration for political and economic modernisation –with a secular Western face as well as an Islamic one.

Erik Siegl

© Erik Siegl 2011

Erik Siegl works as the programme coordinator for the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Prague. He pursues his PhD study on the notions of modernisation and secularism in Turkey.

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