Turkish influence within the Middle East was widely hailed only a few months ago. The reasons for the laudation of Turkey are not hard to find. Turkey is an economically successful country, fairly rich and well developed, an important trading partner for many states in the region, militarily quite powerful, and a stable democracy. There is much in the “Turkish Model” to admire and aspire to, although the recent on-going assault on the free press and concerns about minority rights (the Kurds primarily) do tend to darken its record.
The AKP government expanded on these benefits with its “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy which sought to minimize state to state problems and focused on mutually beneficial interactions, mostly trade related. This approach has since collapsed. Turkey now has major problems with all of its neighbors and the recent Gaza conflict showed just how marginal Turkey is in the wider Arab world.
But why? Why is Turkey unable to take translate its numerous advantages into real political clout and influence in the Middle East?
One reason is that Turkey has missed opportunities. The Mavi Marmara incident is an excellent example. The botched Israeli raid was a chance for Turkey to shift away from the long association with Israel and to enhance its standing with Arab countries and publics. Following the UN report on the incident, Turkey “suspended its military ties with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, pledged to campaign in support of the Palestinians’ statehood bid, and vowed to send the Turkish navy to escort Gaza-bound aid ships in the future.” This stance generated a wave of support for Turkey and Erdogan among Arab citizens.
Erdogan, however, failed to capitalize. There was no attempt to make the Arab-Israeli conflict a central tenet of Turkish foreign policy, or even to push for new talks. Aid to Gaza or the PA was business as usual. No positive actions resulted. The AKP torched their relationship with Israel and failed to solidify another with the Palestinians.
The shift towards the Palestinians has largely been rhetorical while even the break with Israel has been largely symbolic. (There are rumors that Turkey is moving to resume ties with Israel; talks have been confirmed although Turkey stands by the demand for an Israeli apology.) Even a year later, Erdogan was still talking about the event saying that the incident was a “cause for war” which was avoided only due to Turkey’s “patience.” Erdogan continued to attempt to gain concrete benefits through rhetorical re-hashing and intensification instead of making policy adjustments or corrections.
This style of foreign policy may be popular. Israel bashing (deserved or not) in the Middle East is certain to boost your support among the street. Today Erdogan is the most popular world leader in the Arab world, but will be of limited utility in state-to-state relations.
Erdogan also puts a great deal of stock in his personal relationships with world leaders. Erdogan believed that Turkey could influence Syria during the early days of the civil war thanks, in large part, to his personal friendship with Assad (see also: here). Syria’s failure to agree to reforms was taken as a personal affront by Erdogan and, many claim, that this accounts for the rapid deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations.
This failure is indicative of the dangers of a foreign policy strategy relying on personal relationships. Much of the AKP and Erdogan’s foreign policy rests on the pillars of personal relationships and rhetoric. These are certainly helpful, assuming good relations and the lack of any conflict between states. Once conflict erupts, however, the utility of good personal relationships rapidly diminishes.
Beyond personal quirks and missed opportunities, however, the goals of AKP foreign policy also work to limit Turkish influence. Turkey’s foreign policy is really epitomized in the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy. The goal is to prevent instability and encourage trade. Not necessarily status quo, as evidenced by Syria and the rapid acceptance of the KRG, nonetheless Turkey seeks stability in the surrounding countries.
Stability helps to weaken the PKK and Kurdish insurgency (or at the least prevent any strengthening due to border instability) since stable powers are more capable of cracking down on terrorist activities within their territory. Similarly, stability helps to encourage trade and Turkish-Arab trade has historically been vital to the southeast and disproportionably impacts the southeast compared to the rest of Turkey.
Economic well-being in the region will also weaken the PKK and give Kurdish residents a stake in stability and quiet along and within the frontier regions. Economic development of the region is also one of the main goals of the GAP dam building project, which has a similar goal of increasing economic activity and limiting the appeal of the PKK.
The Kurdish problem is one shared by neighboring states but the centrality of the issue in Turkey’s Middle East policy is unique. The specificity of the Kurdish focus, combined with missed opportunities and an over-reliance on communication/rhetorical skills, have been the driving factors behind Turkey‘s lack of influence within the Middle East.