Turkey between the Middle East and the West

Ankara's Political Self-Blockade

Following the end of the Cold War, says Cengiz Çandar, Turkey has found it difficult to change the direction of its foreign policy towards becoming a bridge between the Middle East and the West

Bosporus bridge in Istanbul (photo: AP)
The significance of Turkey and its potential to take on a bridging function between West and East depends very largely on the outcome of its negotiations with the EU over accession.

​​Whenever Turkish geopolitics and the current global situation are discussed, the role of Turkey as a bridge between East and West is always mentioned.

The fact that Turkey has two faces – one looking west and the other looking east – is seen as being good for global and regional stability. Turkey is often said to have the task of creating a synthesis between East and West.

Strategic importance since the end of the Cold War

But it must not be forgotten that this bridging function is the result of a specific historical development – a specific competitive situation. The end of the Cold War did not lead to a reduction in Turkey's significance, as was thought at the time within some circles in Turkey. On the contrary, it boosted the country's international significance.

Bashar Assad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo: AP)
Syria and Iran have long been regional rivals for Turkey - Syrian President Bashar Assad talks with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran

​​Turkey is no longer just a country on the south-eastern tip of NATO as it was during the Cold War. It has become one of the most strategically important countries in the world. The American political strategist Richard Holbrooke summarised Turkey's new role by saying that Turkey now has the importance which Germany had during the Cold War.

But the political chances offered by this bridging function are not being exploited. It is true that the idea that Turkey could create a synthesis or become a bridge between East and West is present as a slogan, or at least an issue, throughout the wide varieties of Turkish self-images, from that of Orhan Pamuk to that of Tayyıp Erdoğan. However, it is not turned into a reality.

Holding on to the status quo

The Iraq war resulted in the spread throughout the Middle East of a political climate dominated by violence. New dynamics have been created, and some believe that a Pandora's Box has been opened. One will have to wait and see how the Middle East will develop in the future.

But Turkey is finding that its traditional foreign policy is making it very difficult for it to adjust to the changes in the region. Its primary aim is to maintain the status quo, or, to put it another way, its political assumptions lead it to work towards regional stability, and the Middle East is viewed primarily from the point of view of security.

The Arab states make up one element of the Middle East. They are led by Sunnis who want to block the political advance of the Iran-Syria axis, and especially the expansion of Iranian influence.

The interests of these Arab states coincide with those of the West, and especially with those of the USA, even if this is never openly stated. In addition, there's the continuing conflagration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All this has resulted in a strengthening of Islamist tendencies in the region, while respect for the West, and particularly the USA, has been significantly declining among wide swathes of the population, with a consequent loss of influence.

The Turkey as a participant in the Kurdish conflict

In this highly interdependent series of regional conflicts – from the struggle between Sunni and Shia in Iraq to the Middle East conflict, taking in Iranian nuclear ambitions on the way – where does Turkey stand? One might be forgiven for seeing Turkey up a dead end.

Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey (photo: AP)
The conflict between Kurdish rebels and Turkey has claimed more than 30,000 lives since it began in 1984

​​For in spite of the fact that Turkey is aware that an all-embracing solution for the region's conflicts must be developed, it does not behave itself as a regional power, but as a participant in a smaller conflict: that with the Kurds.

Whatever Turkey claims, its Iraq policy is solely concerned with the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey's oft-stated support for "Iraqi national unity" is primarily an expression of its desire to prevent Iraqi Kurdish independence.

Initially, Turkey rejected the term "federal Iraq," but it has been forced to accept it. But it is questionable whether Turkey would accept or is ready for an independent Kurdish political entity on its border.

It is already clear that the Kurdish problem has an influence on Turkey's relations with the whole of the Middle East and even on its relationship with the USA. Since March 1st, 2003, shortly after the beginning of the US attack on Iraq, when the Turkish parliament threw out a government decree which would have allowed Turkish military cooperation with the USA in the Iraq war, relations between Turkey and the USA have been tense.

Self-blockade in the Middle East

The wave of anti-Americanism which swept Turkey then was largely the result of a widespread feeling that the US was supporting the Kurds.

International meeting about the Iranian nuclear programm at the foreign Ministry in Berlin (photo: AP)
Turkey is unable to line up firmly on the side of the West when it comes to stopping the Iranian nuclear programme

​​Turkey shares its refusal to countenance an independent Kurdish state with Iran and Syria, and that has led the three countries to develop closer relations. But this development has led Turkey into a "self-blockade" in Middle Eastern policy. It means, for example, that Turkey is unable to line up firmly on the side of the West when it comes to stopping the Iranian nuclear programme.

In the case of Syria, which has allied with Iran and Hezbollah in trying to weaken the legitimate government of Lebanon, the Turkish government also finds itself unable to take a clear position together with the West and other Arab countries.

As a result of these foreign policy interests, Turkey finds itself unable to fight at its real weight, let alone act as a bridge in the Middle East, however much this may be politically desired and publicly proclaimed.

Position of weakness

Although Turkey has had stable relations with both Israel and the Palestinians for many years, it is unable to play a mediating role in the conflict between them. With the "Middle East Quartet," made up of the USA, the EU, the United Nations and Russia, having failed with its "roadmap," it seems unthinkable that Turkey will be able to be any more successful.

The country also has no means of intervening independently in the Palestinian conflict between the Western-oriented Fatah and the Hamas.

As long as Turkey remains a participant in one of the smaller conflicts in the Middle East and fails to change its traditional foreign policy, it will continue to play an insignificant role.

During the twentieth century it was the international conditions, defined by the East-West conflict between the Soviet bloc and NATO, which prevented Turkey from taking a role as a bridge between the Middle East and the West.

These conditions do not apply in the twenty-first century. Now it is Turkish inability to move on from an outdated Middle East policy which is preventing it from taking on this role.

And it must also be emphasised that Turkey's importance, its "apparent activity" in the Middle East is a consequence of its policy towards Europe. Regional actors consider Turkey to be a politically interesting model on account of its links to the EU.

In that sense, the significance of Turkey and its potential to take on a bridging function between West and East depends very largely on the outcome of its negotiations with the EU over accession.

Cengiz Çandar

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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