Turkey's Diminished Influence in the Middle East

How Erdogan’s authoritarianism has damaged Turkey’s appeal and influence.

erdoganNot long ago, at the height of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now President of Turkey) enjoyed the adulation of the masses throughout the Arab world, and a close friendship with U.S. President Barack Obama. A revival of a neo-Ottoman Empire was not far from the mind of Erdogan and his Foreign Minister (now Prime Minister) Ahmet Davutoglu. It was Davutoglu who proclaimed neo-Ottomanism as a policy, and a new order in the Middle East.

As the year 2014 comes to a close, Turkish influence in the Middle East has seen a sharp decline. It was outvoted in its quest for a seat at the United Nations Security Council despite its intensive lobbying of the UN’s 193 member nations. Turkey lost out to Spain. Counter lobbying by Egypt and Saudi Arabia helped defeat Turkey’s efforts. Turkey’s reluctance to take action against the Islamic State (IS) has put it under international pressure. Its refusal to help the besieged Syrian Kurds in the city of Kobani (on the Turkish border) resulted in violent Kurdish demonstrations in Turkey offsetting the gains made by the AKP party with the large Kurdish minority. In addition, Turkish passivity in the face of Kurdish suffering engendered contempt for Turkey.

In March, 2013, Davutoglu claimed that for the first time, Turkey has been back to the lost lands that once made the Ottoman Empire. He suggested that it’s time for Turkey to take the lead to set an order for these lands and re-connect them once again. He charged that “Last century was only a parenthesis for us. We will close the parenthesis. We will do so without going to war, or calling anyone an enemy, without being disrespectful to any border, we will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum, to Batumi. This is the core of our power, These may look like all different countries to you, but Yemen and Skopje were part of the same country 110 years ago, or Erzurum and Benghazi. When we say this, they call it ‘new Ottomanism.’ The ones who united the whole Europe don’t become new Romans, but the ones who unite the Middle East geography are called new Ottomanists. It’s an honor to be reminded with the names of ottoman, Seljuks, Artuklu or Eyyubi, but we have never or will ever have an eye on anyone’s land based on an historic background.”

Since Davutoglu’s bombastic words, the AKP leadership overestimated the potential of political Islam best exemplified by the surge of the Muslim Brotherhood parties during the Arab Spring in the region, and control of governments particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. The tens of millions of Egyptians who demonstrated against the Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood) government resulted in the military takeover, and the subsequent election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as President of Egypt on June 8, 2014. The Turkish government’s unqualified support for Mohammad Morsi’s government has caused a deep breach in Turkish-Egyptian relations. Turkey’s relations with Egypt reached a breaking point and Ankara does not even have its ambassador in Cairo. A similar freeze in diplomatic relations exists between Turkey and Israel, where there is no Turkish ambassador in Israel.

On a visit to Antalya in Southern Turkey last July, Erdogan accused Israel of “dishonesty.” He went on to say “Israel apologized to Turkey for what it did to the Mavi Marmara ship four years ago, and we were close to restoring normal relations with it if our conditions were fulfilled. But it was not honest.” In fact, Erdogan initiated the Navi Marmara provocation that sought to break Israel’s Gaza blockade, using violence against Israeli naval commandos enforcing the blockade. It resulted in nine Turks getting killed. Israel did, nevertheless, agree to compensate the families.

Erdogan’s conditions for restoring normal relations with Israel included compensation to the families of the victims, an apology to Turkey, and lifting the Gaza blockade. Encouraged by U.S. President Obama, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to Turkey. Erdogan, however, was not satisfied despite Obama’s urging to restore the relationship. Gaza remains a pretext for Erdogan to maintain his deep seated hostility towards the Jewish state. Turkish opposition presidential candidate Ekmelettin Ihsanoglu criticized the stance, claiming that Turkey should stay neutral vis-à-vis Palestine.

Umit Pamir, Turkey’s former ambassador to the UN, pondered Turkey’s deteriorating relations with its neighbors. He posited that “We came from a policy of having zero problems with our neighbors (Davutoglu’s heralded policy), and now we’re having problems with almost everyone.”

In the years before the Arab Spring, Turkey, Syria, and Iran cooperated in suppressing the Kurds, and eliminating any Kurdish call for self-determination. In 1998, Hafez Assad, Syria’s dictator, cut off his relations with Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK, following Turkey’s threat to invade Syria. What followed was a warming of relations. Then, in March, 2011, the Syrian civil war began. Bashar Assad (Hafez’s son) wasted no time, and began butchering his mainly Sunni opposition. Erdogan became the loudest voice calling for regime change in Syria. Taking sides against the Alawite (Offshoot of Shiite Islam) Syrian dictator brought about a chilled relation with Assad’s protector, Shiite Iran.

Turkey’s relations with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad have become downright hostile. A strong economic relationship between Ankara and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has infuriated Baghdad, particularly Turkish investments in the KRG, and Turkey’s purchase of oil shipped from Kurdistan.

Erdogan’s support for the MB has brought Ankara to conflict not only with Egypt but with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The MB vision of a Caliphate threatens the Saudis position as the guardians of the Islamic holy places.

Just before the Arab Spring arrived, Turkey appeared to be a model of Islamic democracy. However, Erdogan’s authoritarianism has dimmed Turkey’s image as an open and tolerant society. The crackdown on demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, and Erdogan’s move to censor the Internet created a backlash, particularly among urban and educated youth. His open quarrel with Turkey’s most influential Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who helped him remove the army from politics, widened the opposition against him.

Erdogan decided to phase out schools run by Gulenists that prepare students for university exams. In response, Gulen called Erdogan a “pharaoh”. Erdogan retaliated by removing Gulen loyalists from the security services and the judiciary, accusing Gulen of creating a “parallel state.” The Gulenists, in turn, possess evidence of AKP linked corruption. Erdogan’s shielding of his AKP associates from investigation of corruption has soured Turkey’s image abroad and angered Turkish audiences.

Soner Cagaptay, (Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy) writing in The Atlantic (December 11, 2012) suggested that “Turkey’s two halves are like oil and water; though they may not blend, neither will disappear. Turkey’s Islamization is a fact, but so is secular and Westernized Turkey. The historical roots and current manifestation of this synthesis indicate it is a model that will be difficult to replicate elsewhere in the region, as Islamist governments rise to power after the Arab Spring.”

Cagaptay was wrong about “Islamist governments rise to power after the “Arab Spring.” Egypt and Tunisia disprove his theory. What is rising in the Middle East is sub-governmental agents such as ISIS (or IS). Turkey however, is no longer a model for the region, and not just for the reasons given by Cagaptay. Erdogan’s authoritarianism and heavy hand in domestic and foreign relations has diminished Turkey’s appeal and influence.

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