Turkey’s New Middle East Geo-Political Power

As the various revolutions sweep the Arab world, the question remains what role will Islamist parties play in the democratic transition of these countries. The prospect of these parties dominating the political landscape after the fall of autocratic but secular regimes is a source of anxiety to many in and outside the Arab world. These parties are very much aware of such concerns and have tried to address them, with mixed results.

In an effort to reassure fellow citizens and foreign audience, The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has already declared that it won’t seek to obtain the majority on its own in the next parliamentary elections, nor will it impose its candidate for presidency. The Tunisian En-Nahda party made a similar statement. While it is too soon to say whether or not the Syrian uprising will be successful, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also sought to reassure when it said it did not want Syria to become an Islamic state.

All of these parties repeatedly refer to the experience of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), founded in 2001 and dominating the Turkish political landscape ever since. The party portrays itself as a conservative political formation, advocating liberal market economy and committed to European Union membership. It is widely described as a moderate Islamic party and as such offers an attractive alternative to the sort of political Islam prevailing in countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia. Turkish leaders, aware of the potential at stake, do not hide their desire to capitalize on the Arab revolts by promoting their own model of governance.

At stake is the potential for Turkey to reassert its power in the Middle East. Tired of being snubbed by Europe, Ankara looked elsewhere to establish its influence, perhaps with the aim of rendering itself indispensable for Europe at a later stage. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has been the mastermind behind Turkey’s recent foreign policy, advocating good and friendly relations with Turkey’s neighbors. Davutoglu firmly believes that having “zero problems” with neighboring countries can only help Turkey project its influence abroad.

Turkey’s reaction to the recent wave of protests in the Arab world has been carefully crafted. Never really backing out on leaders before their ousting seemed inevitable, while strongly urging governments to listen to popular demands thus ensuring good relations with the leadership whatever the outcome of the protests.

Turkey welcomed the ousting of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, and quickly dispatched its foreign minister – the first to visit the country after the revolution – to establish contact with the new political actors and offer assistance. A month later, it welcomed Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the En-Nahda party, who did not fail to repeat, once again, that the Turkish political experience “inspires the Arab world.”

When Egyptian protesters took to the streets, Erdogan quickly urged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to listen to the people and implement reforms. Subsequent comments during the revolution even amounted to direct intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs, particularly when a Turkish statement demanded the resignation of Mubarak and Erdogan insisting that the transition period begin “immediately and orderly.”

As events in Libya unfolded, Turkey rushed to oppose UN sanctions and any direct foreign intervention. Erdogan condemned the double standards of some countries in dealing with cases “out of considerations for their oil interests.” Some attributed this vocal position to the billions of dollars of Turkish investments and the large Turkish community working in Libya. 

Perhaps more interesting is Turkey’s reaction to the protests in Syria. On one hand, Ankara fears the events might spill over into its territory given the close affinity and cultural interaction between populations on both sides of the borders. On the other hand, it would like to avoid a chaotic scenario in Syria by pressuring president Assad into adopting reforms that would satisfy the people. It did so not only through statements, but also by tolerating a series of events that must have infuriated the Syrian leadership. Among these, a press conference organized in Istanbul by the leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, condemning the Assad regime and supporting the uprising while also praising Turkey and the AKP, and the organization of peaceful rallies in support of the protests in front of the Syrian embassy in Turkey.

Ultimately, Ankara will actively seek close relations with its neighbor whatever the regime in place in Damascus, as it perceives Syria as key to establish and expand its influence across the Middle East. Clashes with Iran are therefore expected in order to win over the Syrian ally. The recent warm relations between Turkey and Iran do not hide their intentions of exerting their influence in the Middle East.

With inspiration comes influence. Nearly a decade ago, Turkey’s presence was hardly felt in the Middle East beyond bordering countries. The recent years marked a shift in Turkish foreign policy with Turkey increasingly looking eastward instead of looking towards Europe and the West. Ankara now deploys troops in the region (within the UNIFIL contingent in South Lebanon), brokers peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, invests billions of dollars, establishes a visa-free zone with its neighbors and exports its culture via its influencing entertainment industry, thus “winning the hearts and minds of populations” across the region.

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