Turkey's Role in the Middle East: An Outsider's Perspective

By Perthes, Volker | Insight Turkey, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Turkey's Role in the Middle East: An Outsider's Perspective


Perthes, Volker, Insight Turkey


Turkey specialists, a group the author does not belong to, have realized that Turkey's policies towards the Middle East and its corresponding role have been changing considerably over the last eight years. Already, certain changes began during the tenure of Foreign Minister Ismail Cem (1997-2002), as he improved relations with Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbors, and put in place the foundations on which the AKP government has continued to build upon. However, the most dramatic changes occurred as of 2002/2003.

The context in which this transformation has taken place is shaped by three factors. First, and in this author's judgment foremost, there has been a rapid change in the geopolitical environment of the Middle East. We can speak of a geopolitical revolution triggered by the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This intervention not only toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, it also weakened Arab nationalism and the states and actors that used to represent it, such as Syria and the PLO. Also, there was a shift in power within the region, leading to relative gains by the three non-Arab states: Israel, Iran, and Turkey. In addition to this, George W. Bush's administration failed to act as a mediator in the Middle East, which opened a space for diplomacy that Turkey, as well as other players, was ready to fill. Second, there have been domestic changes in Turkey, which without going into detail, can be characterized as political reform and democratization. Third, there is the new foreign policy approach of the AKP. From an outsider's perspective, Turkey's new foreign policy, centred on Ahmet Davutoglu's idea of "strategic depth," seems to be a self-confident re-interpretation of Turkey's geographic role and policies. Turkey is seen as an emerging 'great' power or, more realistically, as an "historically conscious" regional super power. The key principle of "zero problems with neighbors" appears as a re-interpretation of Ataturk's motto "peace in the country, peace abroad." In a sense, the architects of Turkey's new foreign policy have been trying to prove that they can implement this motto better than the Kemalists. They have understood that in order to solve problems with Turkey's neighbors as well as being accepted as a mediator abroad, Turkey needs to solve its conflicts at home. The "democratic initiative" towards the Kurdish population, while yet to be completed, certainly was an important first step.

In what follows, I will first try to evaluate the success or lack of success in Turkey's foreign policy initiatives towards the Middle East. Second, I will touch upon some problems and dilemmas in these policies. Lastly, I will make a few remarks about the opportunities of Turkey's Middle East policies from a German and European perspective.

Keeping All the Balls in the Air

Turkey's foreign policy initiatives towards the Middle East under the AKP government are directed towards achieving two main goals. First, Turkey is resolved to finding solutions to regional problems and building stronger relations with its immediate neighbors, i.e. Syria, Iraq and Iran. Second, Turkey plans to mediate and thereby reduce tensions between various, sometimes quite problematic, players such as Syria, Israel, various Lebanese factions and their external backers, Hamas, Fatah, Iraq, Iran and the United States. Thus far, Turkey's efforts to improve bilateral relations with its immediate neighbors in the Middle East have been largely successful--and generally more successful than its mediation efforts in its wider neighborhood or between regional and international players. Progress has been particularly visible in Turkey's relations with Syria. The policy of opening borders, clearing the borders of mines, and initiating a broad range of economic cooperation as well as societal contacts have really made for a qualitative change in a long, complicated 'neighborhood' relationship. If carried out successfully, this development could become a prime example of how long-standing enemies can actually become friends, perhaps comparable, if on a different scale, to the case of Germany and France.

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