Can Turkey Be a Source of Stability in the Middle East?

AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici
By Andrea Dessi

Over the past decade Turkey has considerably increased its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. From the stabilization of Iraq and Afghanistan, to Lebanon’s troubled politics, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, world leaders are increasingly coming to terms with Turkey’s growing regional influence. While some view this Turkish “return” to the region with suspicion and unease; one must acknowledge that Turkey’s growing influence is being spearheaded mainly by the country’s soft-power. 

Rather than threats or military muscle flexing, Turkey has overwhelmingly relied on diplomacy and economics to further its interests in the Middle East. And this, it must be said, is something of a novelty for the region. First elected in 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has revolutionized the country’s neighbourhood policy. AKP leaders have made no secret of their ambitions for regional influence and argue that Turkey’s unique geostrategic location, strong economy and multidimensional foreign policy can be a source for stability not only in the Middle East but also in the troubled Caucasus and Balkan regions. Years of economic growth and an increased political self-confidence, derived at least in part from Turkey’s traditionally close relationship with Europe and the US, have translated into an active foreign policy which seeks to engage all of Turkey’s neighbours through a combination of dialogue, economic cooperation and conflict resolution. Turkey is understandably preoccupied by the prospect of renewed conflict in its “backyard” as this would undoubtedly threaten the country’s continued economic growth. In the Middle East, where Turkey borders Iran, Iraq and Syria, the AKP has therefore prioritized efforts to de-escalate tensions while building stable relationships with all regional players.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, describes this regional policy as a strategy of “proactive and pre-emptive peace diplomacy” which aims to ensure a stable and conflict-free environment through dialogue and cooperation. In an article he authored for Foreign Policy last May, Turkey’s top diplomat speaks of how Ankara has “adopted a new language in regional and international politics that prioritizes Turkey’s civil-economic power” and has resulted in the “spread of Turkish soft power in the region”. While Turkey is by far the strongest military power in the Middle East (Israel aside), Ankara is pursuing a regional policy which aims for “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbours; something that in turn has set Turkey aside from Iran - the other main contender for a leadership role in the Middle East.

The most visible aspect of Turkey’s “zero-problems” foreign policy is characterized by Ankara’s efforts to mediate between regional adversaries. In the Middle East Turkey has mediated between Israel and Syria, between competing factions in both Lebanon and Iraq, as well as between Damascus and Baghdad, and Hamas and Fatah. In Afghanistan, where Turkey has deployed 1,740 troops in support of Internation Security Assistance Force’s training and policing roles in addition to running two Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Ankara has also been important in defusing tensions between the Afghan Government in Kabul and its neighbour Pakistan. NATO Spokesman James Appathurai has frequently highlighted Ankara’s important contribution to the mission’s objectives, saying last January that “no other NATO member can play the role Turkey has in Afghanistan - especially not its political role”.

But there is more to Turkey’s regional policy than simple conflict resolution. A primary aspect of this increased regional activism is in fact related to economics. Turkey averaged a GDP increase of 6 per cent over the past year making it Europe’s fastest growing economy and it is only natural for Turkish leaders to wish to protect and expand Turkey’s growing economic strength. While the EU continues to be Turkey’s primary export market, absorbing about 45 per cent of Turkish exports, Ankara has recently begun solidifying its economic ties with its eastern neighbours. In addition to a marked increase in trade with Russia and China, trade with the Arab world has increased from US$13 billion in 2004 to a total of US$29 billion in 2009. Turkey, which was recently described by The Economist as the “China of Europe” economically and the “Brazil of the region” diplomatically, has abolished visa requirements for nationals from Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Jordan as well as considerably increased investment for an improved region-wide transportation network. These developments, together with plans for what Turkey-specialist Huge Pope describes as a “seven-country, pan-Middle Eastern electrical grid” and “joint irrigation strategies”, are reflective of an increased spirit of cooperation among Middle Eastern states. In April 2010 Turkey’s state-run Radio and Television Corporation launched the country’s first 24-hour TV channel conducted entirely in Arabic; and Al-Jazeera will soon reciprocate by launching its own Turkish-speaking channel.

The most significant regional development is, however, due to be revealed in January 2011 when Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are planning to inaugurate a joint free-trade agreement. On 25 November Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, travelled to Lebanon where the two countries signed the first in a series of agreements that are meant to pave the way for a region-wide economic integration plan. Following that, on 3 December, leaders from Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan gathered in Istanbul to inaugurate the “Levant Quartet”, a platform meant to foster economic, cultural and political integration across the region. Seen as a precursor to the official launching of a Middle Eastern free-trade zone, according to media reports by 2015 there are plans to extend Quartet membership to Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman and Bahrain. Described by the International Crisis Group as “imitating the conflict-resolution philosophy of the early EU, including freer trade and travel, integration of economies and infrastructure and regular meetings of cabinet ministers”, Turkey’s free-trade project is no doubt a welcomed development for the region. The plan, which could be described as an experiment in economic peace theory, is however plagued by one major problem - it does not include Israel.

Despite the recent tensions between Turkey and Israel, there is little doubt that Ankara’s improved relations with the Arab world and its efforts to integrate the region both economically and politically represents a step in the right direction. Turkish policy in the Middle East has consistently been driven by efforts to induce stability and cooperation, and while AKP leaders have at times used fiery rhetoric and populist slogans to further their standing in the region, at no point have they seriously threatened its stability. Setting aside Israel and Iran, where Turkey’s approach differs from that of the West on tactics but not goals, the spread of Turkish soft-power in the region could indeed be considered an important force for stability in the Middle East. If the AKP goes on to win a third election in June 2011, Turkey’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs will surely continue to grow and perhaps eventually become what some analysts are already describing as a potential “third way” for the region to follow.


18 December 2010


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici


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