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Arab World Revolutions: Turkey’s Strategic Choice

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Diako Hosseini

George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” provides an entertaining predicating account of the world’s geopolitical arrangement up to 2100. It contains an amazing forecast on Turkey’s future power. Friedman has predicted that by 2040, Turkey will be a major challenger power and what is going on in the Middle East right now is key to the realization of that prophecy.

Out of all turbulent Arab countries, none has been a litmus test for Turkey’s foreign policy approaches under the Islamist Justice and Development Party as the unrest in Syria is. The congruity between Turkey’s interests and those of its most powerful neighbor, Iran, was the sole factor which made political changes in Arab countries tolerable for Turkey. That congruity has given way to complete incongruity following unrests in Syria which aim to topple the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The Turkish daily “Today’s Zaman” which is close to Islamist politicians has written that Turkey resisted against anti-Iranian resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council for a long time and also distanced form unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union. If Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq threatens Turkey’s regional interests, Ankara may join supporters of unilateral sanctions against Tehran. The newspaper added that after restriction of trade exchanges by Iran along the southern trade routes which pass through the United Arab Emirates and other littoral states of the Persian Gulf, Tehran may also face further restrictions in trade through its northwestern neighbor.

Of course, Turkey would find itself in a complicated situation if it chose this option to approach the situation in Syria. It will not only threaten Turkey’s future security outlook, but also reduce its geopolitical role in the Middle East.

Turkey’s approach to the crisis in Syria is a result of Ankara’s compliance with the West’s, especially the United States’ policies, rather than aimed at promoting soft power of democracy in that country. Ankara is trying to break up the strategic alliance of Iran and Syria which has proved to be an effective barrier to Israel’s ambitions. That alliance has not only played a decisive part in maintaining the status quo in the Middle East by hampering Israel’s expansionism, but has also prevented Turkey from pursuing its idea of reviving the Ottoman Empire and turning Turkey into the control room of regional developments.

It may seem at the first glance that weakening the alliance between Iran and Syria will provide Turkey with more maneuvering room in the Middle East. However, an unbalanced Middle East will be as threatening to Turkey as it would be to Iran. Impairing the balance of power in the Middle East will make Turkey’s neighbors suspicious of Ankara’s true intensions. In that case Tehran and Moscow will have to redefine their ties to Turkey.

Both countries can disrupt Turkey’s access to Central Asian and Persian Gulf energy resources and markets. A Westernized and revisionist Turkey will make Russia cautious about Ankara’s ambitious plans in the area of the Black Sea. Iran, likewise, may embark on militarization of Caucasus and the common border with Turkey in order to create a new balance of power with Ankara. Arab countries that are suspicious of Turkey’s growing military and economic power, will consider Ottomanism and revival of the Ottoman Empire as a new threat to their interests.

Ibrahim Kalin, the foreign policy advisor to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had already pointed out that the Arab world’s feelings toward Turkey are a combination of resistance, respect, admiration, doubt, suspicion and even hatred. Conservative Arab governments along the Persian Gulf consider Turkey a threat to their internal stability, not just for its democratization process, but also due to special secular tendencies in the Turkish society.

Although Islamist politicians are apparently ruling Turkey, the country has remained loyal to strict separation of religion from politics. According to an opinion poll by Pew institute in 2005, 73 percent of Turkish people believe that religion is a personal matter which should be kept separate from the state. The corresponding figure of the United States was 55 percent and Turkey’s figure matched that of France. Is the Middle East, which is still a good breeding ground for Salafi tendencies, capable of tolerating another France in its neighborhood? In addition, political protests in the Arab world are challenging another aspect of Turkey’s foreign policy.

Those protests are not simply aimed at securing people’s political rights, but also mean to encourage Arab politicians to adopt independent policies from the West when it comes to vital issues of Arab countries. Those issues had been mostly ignored or forgotten by Western-minded Arab rulers. A more democratic Arab world will be, undoubtedly, a more nationalist one too. It would not remain silent toward Israel’s discriminatory policies in the occupied territories. If Turkey tried to remain a symbol of Western secularism in the Middle East region and ready to reconcile with a state which has occupied Arab territories, this would increase fears among Arab nations.

As far as Iran’s relations with Turkey are concerned, bilateral cooperation in containing PKK and PJAK separatist groups, mediation between Hamas and Fatah and Turkey’s role in Tehran Declaration on Iran’s nuclear program have been much more beneficial than animosity between the two neighboring countries. The international crisis group concluded after a survey in September 2010 that Turkey shares its Western allies’ views on many issues such as the necessity of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and solving the crisis in Gaza, but Turkey is much closer to the Middle East and more vulnerable to economic and security developments there.

This will force Turkey to adopt more cautious policies in comparison to adventurist policies of the United States in the Middle East because Turkey should respect vital interests of its neighbors. That discretion helped Turkey to increase volume of its trade with neighboring countries from 18 billion dollars in 2000 to 53 billion dollars in 2009. Justice and Development Party managed through modified Islamist tendencies and by playing a stabilizing role in the Middle East to also increase trade exchanges with Europe from 192 billion dollars in 1999 to 640 billion dollars 10 years later. Pursuing the zero-problem policy toward its neighbors, prompted the then Turkey’s president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, to visit Syria in 2005. His visit was reciprocated by Bashar Assad’s Turkey visit in the same year. As a result, bilateral trade between Ankara and Damascus increased three times after the election of Justice and Development Party. As a result of that constructive role, Turkey was appreciated not only by the United States and Europe, but also by its own neighbors.

If Turkey made the mistake of exposing itself to hatred of Arab nationalistic currents, conservative kings and such powerful neighbors as Iran and Russia in return for shaky trust of the United States and the European Union, it would forfeit its soft power capabilities and the strategic depth it has successfully gained so far.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD)
http://www.irdiplomacy.ir
Translated By: Iran Review

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