Analyzing Turkey’s Policy in the Middle East

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Alireza Miryousefi
Head of the Middle East Studies Group,
Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS)

Turkey’s policy in the Middle East after 2011 has been like the Pandora’s Box for many analysts. This policy is, in fact, a complicated, contradictory and multilayered policy and a more complicated model of analysis compared to usual single-dimensional analysis is needed to understand both that policy and contradictions hidden within it. To better understand Turkey’s regional strategy and policies, four issues should be differentiated around two major axes. These two axes include: firstly, differentiating between strategy and tactic, and secondly, differentiation between role of the agent and structure. Perhaps, the main weakness of most analyses offered in this regard is their mere focus on one or two of the above four issues, which finally lead to such erroneous highlights as Turkey’s emphasis on neo-Ottomanism, stoking differences between Shias and Sunnis, unconstructive media onslaught on political figures and the likes of them.

When it comes to structural and strategic factors declared by Turkey, the first point is that Turkey’s sole proclaimed and unequivocal strategy was the positive strategy of “reducing problems with neighbors to zero,” though unfortunately, some people now believe that it has been nowadays replaced with the “zero friends among neighbors.” Strategic goals that have been pursued by Ankara in the light of this proclaimed policy included such issues as keeping up Turkey’s stunning economic growth rate, turning Turkey into a hub or international route for energy transfer, ensuring secure energy flow to the country, controlling ethnic minorities in Turkey and across region, and similar goals. This proclaimed strategy was totally in line with characteristics and national interests of Turkey as a country that demanded continuation of a modern status quo. Although some analysts now consider this strategy as being part of Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism, such claims were rarely raised about Turkey before basic changes in its policy came about in February and April 2011.

The second point is that after February 11, 2011, and the rapid change of government in Egypt, and especially following the breakout of civil war in Syria during the same year and subsequent strategic mistake by Turkey in urging regime change in Syria, Ankara’s former strategy was challenged and in more accurate terms, was totally discarded without being replaced with any well-planned strategy. Since that time, Turkey has been trying to pursue its strategic goals in the region through temporary, and mostly impractical, policies that have not been successful in practice.

The third point is that since 2011, Turkey has gone without a formulated, clear and sustainable strategy and its policies have been affected by temporary tactics as the country has been trying to use other methods in pursuit of some of its traditional strategic goals, especially with regard to managing crises related to minorities and energy considerations. Of course, some analysts have been trying to propose strategic goals like access to Syria’s oil and gas resources or its energy transfer lines in order to justify Turkey’s current policy that seeks to topple the Syrian government. However, in reality, more than being a strategy, this approach has been a priority for Turkey’s foreign policy, which has its root in political psychology of the country’s leaders, and does not necessarily conform to national and strategic interests of Turkey.

Some analysts, on the other hand, claim that under new conditions that have come about since 2011, especially after the fall of the Iraqi city of Mosul to Daesh last year, Turkey believes that its interests will be met better through disintegration of Iraq and Syria, and this is the fourth point that must be taken on board here. Therefore, a plan is being pursued to divide Iraq into four, instead of three, regions – which will be controlled by Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, and Turkmen. There is also another apparently impractical plan that suggests creation of a region consisting of Turkmen people living in Iraq and Syria, which will cover a wide area from Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul all the way west to certain regions in Syria. The goal of this plan is that, despite its outwardly cordial relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Turkey wants to create a Turkmen region or territory between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the Kurdish regions in Syria as well as on its own soil to prevent possible integration of these Kurdish regions, while swaying control over energy transfer lines that run in those regions. According to this analysis, the recent attack on the Russian bomber plane by Turkish jet fighters – which took place over Syria’s Turkmen region that is being eyed by Turkey in its strategic plan – or sending troops to Iraqi city of Mosul, can be construed within framework of this impractical plan.

Last but not least, if Turkish politicians choose positive and suitable interaction with regional countries, Ankara can return to playing its past constructive and stabilizing role in the region and ultimately emerge as a real game changer in the fragile equations of the Middle East.

Key Words: Turkey, Policy, Middle East, Strategy, Tactic, Agent, Structure, Neo-Ottomanism, Shias, Sunnis, Civil War, Syria, Strategic Goals, Kurds, Turkmen, Daesh, Russian Bomber Plane, Impractical Plan, Miryousefi

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