Aaron Stein writes on the blog of the Council on Foreign Relations:
The Arab uprisings have complicated Turkey’s approach to the Middle East. Both long before and after the dynamic events of the last 18 months began, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP was looked at as a model to emulate by many in the Middle East and the non-Arab world. Buoyed by strong poll numbers, a growing economy, and a record of democratic reform, there was a consensus that Erdogan himself would be the face of a new democratic Middle East. For now, the prime minister seems to enjoy playing the role of regional demagogue promising great things and standing up to Israel. But can it last? Or will fundamental antagonisms lead to tension between Turkey and the region in the future?
For all its efforts to establish itself as power from within the region, Ankara is still viewed by many as an outside power pursuing self-interested policies. This disconnect could, and already has, led to tensions between Turkey and its neighbors. The problems with Iraq and Iran are well documented, but many of the AKP’s previous foreign policy efforts were also a source of regional consternation.
For example, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was never thrilled with the Turkish efforts to mediate between Gaza and the West Bank; believing that Ankara was naïve in its dealings with Hamas and encroaching on Egypt’s political turf. This dynamic is unlikely to change. Eager to maintain political relations with the United States, and intent on keeping the cold peace with Israel, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is likely to hold on to the Palestinian card as tightly as he can. For now, it is one of Egypt’s few remaining foreign policy levers that it can use for influence with the United States. Morsi has already shown his independence when he declined to take a Turkish white paper on building democracy shortly after he was elected.
Moreover, true to form, an armada of Turkish construction companies and businessmen has followed Ankara’s diplomatic efforts in the Arab world. On one level, this is a positive development. The Arab world needs investment.
But the Turks are at risk of overplaying their hands. There remains negative underlying hostility throughout the region to Turkey’s Ottoman colonial legacy and the sense among some that Ankara sees the Arab world as just a market to be exploited. The negative association with so-called neo-Ottomanism, combined with Turkey’s relentless support for Sunni backed political parties, has led to a widespread belief that Ankara is not an honest broker. The AKP appears unwilling to accept this narrative, but has failed to deepen ties with non-conservative Sunni political parties. Relations with Egypt’s Supreme Councl of the Armed Forced remain icy and the region’s minorities are growing increasingly wary of what they perceive as a sectarian based foreign policy.
If one digs deeper, even the current alliance of convenience between Turkey and its Sunni Arab states appears to be tenuous, and has the potential to contribute to tensions in the future. The political circumstances in Syria and Bahrain have thrust Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar’s foreign policies into alignment. All four have found themselves supporting the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the fighters under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, and have turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s military put down of the revolt in Bahrain. However, if Assad is toppled, and a power struggle ensues, the current coalition could break apart. Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to be far more comfortable with the Salafi opposition groups, while Turkey appears to have thrown its weight behind the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Historically, Ankara has been uncomfortable with the Salafi movement, choosing instead to take a more moderate approach to political Islam. The Saudi’s have traditionally been uncomfortable with the Brothers. If you add the Syrian Kurdish issue on top of this, and how it relates to Turkey’s handling of the Syrian uprising, the foundation for the current political/security relationship appear to be a bit wobbly. Thus, Ankara could be faced with prospect of supporting different factions and different political outcomes than the Saudi and Qatari’s in a post-Assad Syria and beyond.
Beyond the ethnic divisions, the Arab revolts have also exposed the fundamental antagonisms between the Gulf monarchies, the new Revolutionary Arab States, and the principles underpinning the Turkish model. The Arab revolts have been a source of great concern politically for the Gulf Cooperation Counci states. To help prevent protests and demands for democratic reform, the GCC states have been pouring money into social welfare programs. In tandem, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have launched their own political efforts to cement their status as regional leaders. These efforts are aimed at shoring up political interests abroad, in order to ensure that the new crop of Arab leaders don’t get too aggressive in their calls for the export of their democratically inspired revolutions. These efforts are indicative of a larger discomfort with the fundamental ideas behind Turkish soft power. It also indicates that the GCC is uncomfortable with Ankara’s continuing efforts to cement its status as the democratic leader of the new Middle East.
As a result, any Turkish attempt to encroach further on Arab issues is likely to breed tensions. This is likely to grow more acute as new, popularly elected Arab leaders in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt rise to prominence, which will concomitantly diminish Erdogan’s appeal.
For Turkey, this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. In Central Asia, Turkish businesses have thrived, even though the once touted Central Asian Turkish model has failed. Turkey was able to accomplish most of its political goals only after it dropped the rhetoric and began pursuing a quieter foreign policy aimed at strengthening trade relationship and growing business opportunities. In the Middle East, Turkish businesses are likely to continue to have distinct comparative advantages in the medium to long term. However, gaining access to these historically difficult markets will be difficult and will require a close relationship between governments.
Moving forward, Turkey should consider taking a step back from its self-imposed leadership role, treading more carefully, and identify areas and avenues to maximize its own political and economic influence. It should pair these efforts with a more sober analysis of its current capabilities, and a more inclusive foreign policy that focuses on long term regional dynamics.