Turkey and the Middle East
Internal Confidence, External Assertiveness
Chatham House Briefing Paper
Fadi Hakura, November 2011
During a transitional period for the Middle East and North Africa numerous political commentators have become focused on the emerging role of Turkey as a newly influential force in the region. The crux of their analysis centers on the apparent success of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political blend of secularism with Islam, seeming to suggest that Erdogan has mastered a unique blend of leadership that can both contain military might and include once sidelined Islamist groups.
The Chatham House November briefing paper—by Fadi Hakura—comprehensively positions Turkey within the shifting vagaries of MENA international relations, and makes a series of lucid points regarding Turkey’s ability to take diplomatic advantage of the country’s relative stability in a tumultuous arena.
After offering the recent background of Turkey’s—particularly Erdogan’s—diplomatic travails, Hakura plainly addresses the country’s ambition to be the lead player in the region. Given the advances in economic and trade agreements with its neighbors over the past decade, this is not an unreasonable ambition. In today’s climate however, Turkey has been compelled to adopt a much more pro-US diplomatic stance, making relations with Iran in particular more of a balancing act. Syria is an even more problematic issue, as the crisis gripping Damascus seems to have all but iced-over the warming relations of recent years.
Turkey’s foreign policy is now characterized by a determinedly aggressive diplomacy, which Hakura believes to be misguided. It is true to say that Erdogan won many friends in the Arab World by dramatically ramping up his rhetoric towards Israel, specifically in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident and generally regarding the siege of Gaza. But, Hakura points out, so far there has been no significant reward in terms of any Israeli concessions—and popular enthusiasm amongst Palestinians has quickly turned to disappointment.
Significantly, in the context of a debate that places Erdogan’s charisma at the center of a new Middle East of so-called moderate political Islam, there is little evidence that groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ought to feel threatened by Erdogan’s popular appeal. Hakura points out that a September 2011 poll showed 41 percent of Egyptians consider Saudia Arabia as the best regional example to follow, with Turkey registering less than 10 percent.
Which leads to the real thrust of the report, that it is an overstatement to judge the nominally successful Turkish model as a natural framework for a region in flux. Hakura focusses on three internal factors that preclude Turkey from fulfilling its regional ambitions. Firstly, the Kurdish issue that continues to drive an ethnic wedge through Turkish society, in the community at large and even constitutionally—it is important to remember that tens of thousands of lives have been lost over this subject. Secondly, the separation of religion from matters of state is a long way from ensuring the rights of various religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey, despite the popular myth that it is a broadly secular country. And finally the demonstrably fragile democracy is an ongoing project, unable to guarantee political freedoms and rights of the press, for example.
Hakura argues that the profusion of similar problems—to greater or lesser degree—across the Middle East, means Turkey’s inability to resolve them at home makes Ankara a poor example to follow. The counter argument must be that there is hardly a system on the planet that does not find challenges in problems familiar to the Middle East, but that some of the hurdles Turkey has succeeded in overcoming will make many in the region take notice—not least Tunisia’s Ennahdha party, which has professed admiration for the Turkish model.
Nevertheless, the report pinpoints a series of areas in which Turkey would be wise to concentrate reform efforts, in order to get the most from its unlikely position as US ally and potential regional frontrunner. Central to these is domestic liberalization partnered with a return to a more conciliatory foreign policy, building international partnerships and patiently forming a solid base of credibility. Such conclusions are difficult to find fault with.
To read the report in full please click here