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Many people in the West regard Turkey as a Middle Eastern state, which is understandable to some extent, given the history of the Ottoman Empire.  However, many Turks would reject this idea, and rightly so.  Turkey is a unique amalgamation between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.  Its political history also puts it at odds with the Arab world, Iran and (to a lesser extent) Israel.

The early years of the 20th century saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of a new Turkish identity that took institutional form on 29 October 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic.  The Republic’s early rulers held conservative Islam responsible for holding back progress in the region, and so they fixed their sights firmly on the West, attempting to replicate what they saw as modernity.[1]

The Turks also felt that the Arabs had stabbed them in the back by helping the British during WWI, and, for their part, the Arabs felt that many of their problems after independence were the result of Ottoman misrule.[2] This all led to a culture of mistrust, an atmosphere that did not improve much during the Cold War.

On 18 February 1952 Turkey became a member of NATO[3], effectively allying itself with the North Atlantic powers against the Soviet Union. As many of the newly independent Arab states moved into the Soviet sphere of influence, Turkey became viewed as the West’s gendarme in the Middle East.  The Republic’s new regional role appeared confirmed when it supported the Baghdad Pact (1955), a US attempt to create an anti-Soviet Middle Eastern bloc.

The split between Turkey and its southern neighbours seemed to be unbridgeable after 1958 when it signed secret agreements with Israel and Iran in what was ostensibly an anti-Arab alliance.[4] After 1964, relations improved a little when the US refused Ankara support as the Cyprus situation deteriorated and the 1970s oil boom in the Gulf states offered Turkey an opportunity for new markets.  However, Ankara still remained politically at odds with the Arab countries.

The AKP and the Shift in Turkey’s Foreign Policy – Stage 1

Turkey’s foreign policy underwent a significant change once the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.  Commentators frequently refer to the new approach as one of “zero problems with neighbours”[5], an essentially realpolitik approach that involved the promotion of good relations with the other states in Turkey’s neighbourhood.  In particular, this involved closer integration between Turkey and the countries of the Middle East.

One of the main architects of Turkey’s new foreign policy was the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.  This academic-turned-politician has been instrumental in bringing about a paradigm shift in Turkey’s international relations policies. In his 2001 book Strategic Depth, Davutoğlu argues, according to Alistair Crooke, that Turkey should take advantage of its geographical position, situated as it is between Europe, the Middle East and Asia.  He believes that while Turkey’s relations with the EU and the US are important, Turkey should look beyond these and take a more active role in its immediate neighbourhood.[6]  The sources of this new approach are two-fold; ideological and geopolitical.

First, ideology.  The AKP is an Islamist party whose ideological orientation is best described as religious, conservative and (relatively) democratic.  Despite some fears in the West and from secular Turks, it seems very unlikely that Turkey is about to become another Iran.  However, the AKP has certainly improved Turkey’s relations with the rest of the Muslim world, while simultaneously distancing itself from its long-term ally, Israel.

Between 1996 and 2009 Turkey’s exports grew four-fold, with exports to the 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) increasing seven-fold. By 2009, Turkey had become one of the top ten foreign investors in Iraq, and had also managed to shelve political disputes between itself and Syria in order to sign 51 protocols on trade by March 2010.[7] Ankara has also sought to lead the way in regional integration, easing private travel and border restrictions between Turkey and the Arab world. The result of this was a 16% rise in tourism from Middle Eastern countries (not including Israel) in 2008 and a 22% rise in 2009.[8]

Before the recent fighting in Syria, the AKP had also improved Turkey’s relations with Iran, much to the chagrin of Western powers. In June 2009, shortly after the highly questionable re-election of President Ahmedinejad, the AKP was quick to offer its congratulations. The following year Turkey also voted in the Security Council against additional sanctions on Iran, suggesting a particularly soft line on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.[9]

Concomitantly, Turkey’s relations with Israel have soured significantly. During the 1990s the two countries enjoyed cordial relations but the 2000s saw a dramatic change. Operation “Cast Lead”, Israel’s brutal attack on the Hamas-lead Gaza Strip in 2009, strained the relationship significantly. However, it was the killing of eight Turks and one US citizen of Turkish descent, during Israel’s raid on the Mavi Marmara, that lead to the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries in years.[10]Ideology certainly has something to do with this. In order to garner further support amongst its domestic constituency and in the Muslim world in general, the AKP has engaged more in “Islamic” issues, such as the Palestinian question, which has necessitated that Ankara put some distance between itself and the Jewish state.

It is, however, important not to overemphasise the ideological factors behind the recent changes in Turkish foreign policy. While it is true that the AKP is an Islamist party, their version of Islamism is best described as moderate and a world away from the Ayatollahs of Iran or the militants of Hamas and Hezbollah. This is due largely to the secular political culture of Turkey and the traditions of Kemalism that still exist at every level of Turkish society. It is also due, in part, to Turkey’s position in the American-led international order. Cihan Tuğal captures this well with his description of the AKP as “NATO’s Islamists”.[11]

Geopolitics, the second source of AKP foreign policy during this first stage, must also be taken into account. Turkey’s turn to the East must be seen in the context of its relationship with Europe and the US. First of all, the Iraq war placed significant stress on Turkey – US relations. The war was very unpopular with the population; so much so that in March 2003 Turkish deputies voted against allowing US troops to use Turkish territory for military operations.[12]

The second geopolitical factor that was instrumental in changing the direction of Turkish foreign policy came in 2004 when Greek Cypriot voters rejected the UN Annan Plan for a settlement of the Cyprus dispute after it had been accepted by all the other parties involved. The Cyprus issue has been one of the major obstacles preventing Turkish accession to the EU, and has compounded Turkish frustrations with the whole process. This, and the attitudes of certain populist European leaders, has led Turkey to turn its sights elsewhere.[13] (In fact, over the past year I’ve probably met only a handful of Turks who were still interested in joining the EU.)

Other geopolitical factors that seem to suggest that AKP foreign policy is dictated by concerns other than Islamic ideology can also be discerned. Erdoğan’s government has attempted to resolve Turkey’s issues with Armenia (a predominantly Christian country) and with Christian Greek Cyprus. It has also been a facilitator in the Balkans, trying to resolve issues between the different parties in the area, apparently paying no mind to religion. These appear to be the moves of a government attempting to expand its country’s geopolitical reach rather than an ideologically motivated attempt at uniting the Muslim nations.[14]

The AKP and the Shift in Turkey’s Foreign Policy – Stage 2

The Arab Spring has prompted a radical rethink of AKP foreign policy. After spending most of the 2000s meticulously courting governments of all political stripes – from the theocratic Iran to the secular dictatorship in Syria – the Turkish government has begun to see the limits of a pragmatic, realpolitik approach to international relations.

In a speech in February 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan claimed that “not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world, the [AKP] has shown no fear or hesitation in siding with the oppressed and the victim. It has always taken a position against the status quo.”[15]

This about-turn stems mainly from the AKP’s sudden realisation that their Cold War-style foreign policy is untenable in a rapidly-changing world. Stage 1 of their foreign policy was based on outdated Cold War ideas, such as the belief that what a regime does within its own borders has little to do with its external relations. In other words, you can make friends with tyrants because how they treat the people under them will have little impact on your interests.

Erdoğan and co. realised that they were on the wrong side of history and so they switched seamlessly to the right side. In August and September 2011, Erdoğan visited Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, courting the Arab people and attempting to shore up Turkey’s position in the future Middle East.

Many commentators have noted how the AKP could act as a model for the Islamist parties of the Middle East. They appear to confirm the compatibility between an ideological commitment to Islamism and democracy at the same time. However, it should be noted that Erdoğan emphasised the importance of secularism while on his travels. In his address to the Assembly of the Arab League, he talked about the necessity of “building a secular state on the basis that secularism is the way to solve the current problems of the Egyptian state”.[16]

Erdoğan’s comments on secularism drew a harsh reaction from Egypt’s Islamists. A prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr Essam al-Eriyan, said that he “did not know how a man of state like Erdoğan, who had sworn to respect the will of the people, could interfere in the means of choosing the means to build Egypt.”[17] This was a sentiment echoed by the spokesman of the Salafist Da’wa, when he stated flatly, “Erdoğan’s call to disseminate the secular Turkish regime is absolutely unwelcome”.[18]

What path Turkey’s relationship with the Middle East will take in the future is largely dependent on the outcome of the present upheaval in the region and so is likely to remain unclear for some time.  However, with the on-going Arab Spring, tensions with Iran over Syria, and continuing bad relations between Turkey and Israel, it is unlikely that any equilibrium will be arrived at soon.


[1] International Crisis Group, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints.”, 7 April 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Turkey: A Modern History, Eric J. Zürcher, 2005.

[4] International Crisis Group, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints.”, 7 April 2010.

[5]

[6] Alastair Crooke, “The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East.”, http://www.twq.com/10july/docs/10jul_Crooke.pdf

[7] International Crisis Group, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints.”, 7 April 2010.

[8] Ibid.

[9] International Crisis Group, “Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran.”, 8 September 2010.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://www.newleftreview.org/?view=2657

[12] International Crisis Group, “Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints.”, 7 April 2010.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cited in Piotr Zalewski, “Turkey’s Democratic Dilemma.”, Foreign Affairs, March 21, 2012.

[16] Cited by M. Abdel Kader, “Egypt and Erdoğan’s Message to the Arab Spring Countries.”, Turkish Review, Vol. 1 Issue 6 – Oct.-Dec. 2011.

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