Turkey and the Arab World: From ‘zero problems’ to losing count

TURKEY ARGUABLY RANKS HIGHEST on the outside players’ score sheet after a first year of Arab revolts. Ankara responded fastest to the region’s paradigm shift, taking the lead in calling Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down; defined clear principles, pushed for sweeping reforms and denounced repression; avoided rushing into a questionable war to oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, but emerged on the winning side; satisfied the Arab public’s mood by challenging Israel and downgrading relations with the Jewish state, even though this occurred for mostly unrelated reasons; and could flaunt the “Turkish model” as a conveniently ill-defined way forward. The prize: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could tour the Arab world to a hero’s welcome.

Erdoğan’s soaring personal popularity has however eclipsed the fact that Turkey’s foreign policy has been turned on its head, and that Turkish and Western commentaries about the triumphant progress of this “model” remain premature. Turkey’s valuable if misleadingly named doctrine of “zero problems” with its neighbours, which rested on a slow build-up of pragmatic diplomatic engagement with all parties, economic integration, and people-to-people outreach, laid the groundwork for its current appeal in the region, replacing its previous image as a Western aircraft carrier moored to the shores of the Middle East.

But Turkey’s goal of a new, cooperative framework to make the region more secure and prosperous – a projection of its experience of the EU and of secular democracy – now looks idealistic, long-term and hard to pursue amid the current Middle Eastern tumult. At the same time, new and sudden damage to Turkey’s relations with Syria, Iraq, Iran and Israel begs the question: in a world where real foreign policy changes are usually slow and rare, what will come to replace Ankara’s carefully crafted, hard-won, and broadly effective strategic posture?

From being best of friends with Syria a year ago, Ankara is now engaged in a symbolic proxy war with Damascus, with Turkey publicly endorsing a Syrian opposition council and a dissident army faction, and Syria warming up old links to Turkish Kurd insurgents. Turkey’s stand-out cooperation with Iran in 2010 as it sought a diplomatic solution to Western suspicion of Iran’s nuclear program has turned to rivalry, and both now spar over the future of the Syrian regime, take opposite sides on NATO’s anti-missile defence shield, and compete for influence in the Arab world. Cosy relations with Iraq have taken a hit, first over Turkey’s open siding with a candidate that didn’t win the last Iraqi election, and more recently as a result of Baghdad’s partial alignment on Damascus and Teheran. Most spectacular has been the turnabout with Israel, from military cooperation and intense interaction to today’s minimal diplomatic contacts and blustery rhetoric about naval confrontation over aid flotillas to Gaza.

All this may have been inevitable. Ankara deserves praise for doing what most other actors have failed to do: reinventing itself in the face of a dramatically new era. It has not hunkered down defensively (like Israel and the surviving Arab regimes), championed uprisings selectively (like AlJazeera television and the Gulf backing predominantly Sunni uprisings, Hizbollah and Iran supporting Shiites in Bahrain), or promoted democracy while fearing the result of any vote (like the West, which would rather contain the Islamists and change nothing to its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

Nevertheless, Ankara’s foreign policy raises more questions than it gives answers. While Erdoğan’s statements in Cairo and Tunis in favour of secular constitutions were welcomed in the West, non-Islamist Middle East audiences are increasingly suspicious that AKP’s model is not the Turkish Republic but rather for pro-Islamic movements. Increasingly polarised relations diminish Turkey’s ability to bridge and mediate among the full range of regional and international players – a key factor of legitimisation of its regional role before the uprisings. The increasingly bloody Syrian crisis challenges the effectiveness of both Ankara’s soft and hardpower.

Above all, Erdoğan’s spectacular popularity on the Arab street may not last forever – partly because it has occurred in a vacuum while the Arab spring waits for indigenous heroes, partly because Arab governments are wary of anything that smacks of a Turkish big brother, and partly because that popularity is based on Erdoğan’s willingness to challenge Israel on a rhetorical and diplomatic level. After decades of exposure to empty propaganda, Arab public opinion tires fast of anti-Israeli bluster that changes nothing on the ground.

In short, when popular applause eventually subsides, Turkey may be left with a foreign policy with no conceptual framework to unite its many contradictions: an unsustainable mix of alliance with the U.S. and confrontation with Israel; a social-economic model built on convergence with Europe but in which the EU negotiation process has stalled; idealistic enthusiasm for Muslim democrats but continued links to other authoritarian leaders; public displays of Muslim piety alongside support for secular constitutions; and bitter arguments with all those keen to capitalise on the above to cast doubt on Turkey’s role in the Middle East – not least EU states happy to use any available pretext to further slow Turkey’s accession negotiations.

Turkey is weak on issues closer to home too, as bills come due that were left unpaid during Turkey’s forays in the Arab world. Following the collapse of on-off peace talks, a five-month escalation of the domestic Turkish Kurd insurgency has killed more than 250 people, including more than 115 members of the security forces and 31 civilians. The Turkish economy is also on the edge, as a credit-fuelled consumer boom peaks, Turkey’s current account deficit exceeds 10 per cent of gross domestic product and, after strong economic performance in the 2000s, the International Monetary Fund predicts growth will shrivel to 2.2 per cent next year. Internal political polarisation, the stalling of the EU reform process, increasingly authoritarian approach to freedom of expression, low rankings in gender equality, transparency and educational achievement, all mean that Turkey sometimes evokes aspects of the Arab world’s past as much as a possible path to a better, more integrated future.

Turkey’s “zero-problem” regional policy of the mid-2000s set fine targets. For the long term, Turkey needs to get back to what made that policy work so well – open channels to all from Iran to Israel, a rigorously balanced approach to all emerging Arab players rather than an embrace of like-minded Islamic movements, and a functioning EU accession process. It’s worth noting that it was in the peak year of EU accession reforms, 2004, that Turkey had its highest growth rate of the 2000s, 9.4 per cent. For Turkey to serve as a genuine model for Arab democrats to emulate, and thereby establish a lasting source of positive influence in the region, Ankara would be wise to step back and take into account the model that works best for itself.

Originally published, with Hugh Pope, by the International Crisis Group, 25 November 2011

Illustration credit: Drop of water / licensed by CC.