Turkey’s growing pains

By Samuel Perriman

Triumphantly touring post-revolution Arab countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped off his plane in Cairo to be met by droves of cheering Egyptians. Time magazine reported that he was “greeted like a rock star”.

The purpose of the visits was clear: to solidify Turkey’s role as one of the region’s key players. After a century looking west towards Europe, forcefully changing society and politics with the desperate aim of joining the European Union, Turkish foreign policy priorities would now appear to lie east and south of its borders. Turkey has found itself managing crisis and conflict throughout the region, despite its long serving policy of “zero problems with the neighbours”. While Arab governments have publicly welcomed resurgent Turkish interest in the region they will also undoubtedly be anxious to ensure it doesn’t become too overbearing.

Take Turkey’s role in the Israel-Palestine arena. While it has long played the role of impartial negotiator, deliberately set back from the often-impassioned rhetoric and diplomatic tit-for-tat, relations with Israel have taken a nose dive lately. Much of this has been a calculated and deliberate political manoeuvre. Erdogan is effectively commandeering the Arab Spring, steering the Middle East’s fledgling democracies in a distinctly Turkey oriented direction.

After Israel failed to issue an apology for the killing of 7 Turks at the hands of Israeli commandos on board the embargo-busting Mavi Marmara, Turkey downgraded diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ankara kicked out the Israeli ambassador and has suggested sending Turkish warships alongside any future Turkish aid flotillas bound for Gaza.

In taking this stance Turkey has endeared itself to Arabs everywhere and in doing so has firmly taken the lead in the new Middle East. By confronting Israel with real action Turkey has done what both the old regimes and, so far, the new transitional governments have failed to do. Mr Erdogan has presented a challenge to Israel that is more than just pompous rhetoric.

Forget Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Erdogan is the new poster boy of the Arab Spring. Imports of Turkish goods and rating for Turkish TV soaps have skyrocketed across the Middle East. Turkish flags can be seen fluttering all over the Palestinian territories and record numbers of Arab tourists have visited Turkey this year, in part because Arab uprisings have discouraged travellers from visiting their usual holiday destinations.

But once the cheers have died down, what has Turkey actually gained from its hawkish actions? Although for the time being Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have ground to a halt, Turkey could have seriously aspired to play a key role in any future talks. Unfortunately, its unique reputation as an impartial go-between has been tainted. Israeli ill-feeling and international recognition that Turkey is too heavily embroiled in the issue have sidelined Ankara.

Turkey’s policies regarding Israel and the Palestinians are also unintentionally creating suspicion in Egypt. Although Erdogan’s visit was hailed as a success, there would equally have been many a grumble from Cairo’s halls of power. Egypt has long seen itself as the primary interlocutor with the Palestinians and so any Turkish involvement is regarded as a nuisance.

Although eventually cancelled, Erdogan had also intended to visit the Gaza strip after Egypt. Such a move would in itself have given legitimacy to Hamas and, in the eyes of Cairo, would have threatened Egyptian internal security. Cairo is also keeping a close eye on how Mr Erdogan’s mildly Islamist AK party inspires Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, although commentators have noted that the Brotherhood doesn’t really trust Turkey’s secular government.

Similarly, the military leadership in Cairo fears that Mr Erdogan, and his ability to subordinate a power-hungry Turkish military, might also inspire the protesters still in Tahrir Square who have grown tired of the Generals in charge.

However the greatest challenge for Turkey and its new found regional role will be right on its doorstep in Syria. While Mr Erdogan previously presided over an unusually strong relationship between the two countries, he has now turned his back on the Assad regime and its murderous attempts to quell the popular uprising in Syria.

The sharp turn around was necessary and to Erdogan’s credit. However with an 850km shared border and political and historical ties, much is at stake for Turkey. As Erdogan said: “ Syria is like a domestic issue for us”. Allowing the country to descend into civil war may encourage the Syrian Kurds to seek greater autonomy, which in turn might give ideas to the Kurds in Turkey. Ankara will also have to keep a watchful eye on its own Alawite population in Hatay province, lest they feel compelled to join the fray across the border.

At the same time, Erdogan cannot be seen to be doing nothing. Much of the Sunni AK party’s appeal lies in its ability to reach out to other Sunni groups in the region. Allowing the murder of mainly Sunni protesters in Syria will not do those credentials any good.

Iran has made the calculated decision to put some distance between itself and Assad but Syria nonetheless remains Iran’s primary ally in the Arab world. By attacking the Assad regime in Damascus, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has subsequently worsened. This has come at a time when diplomatic relations were already tense after Turkey agreed to host a NATO early-warning radar system which is quite clearly pointed at the Iranian border.

The governments of the Middle East have no doubt that they will have to make room for Turkey as it flexes its muscles. The influence of a strong, stable and democratic Muslim nation will, on the whole, be a good thing for the region. But Turkey should quickly dismiss any delusions that it can involve itself in the Middle East without becoming entangled in the unforgiving political realities of the region. While it has won a few friends, Ankara has also angered allies and made some new enemies.

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