Since 2002, Turkey’s leaders have basked in the glow of their rising profile in the Middle East and Europe. During the past decade Turkey has transformed into the world’s 16th largest economy, tripling per capita income. Turkey’s pro-Palestinian stand and support for democratic movements in the Arab world have earned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plaudits on the Arab street. Europe and the United States, which were initially uneasy with Turkey’s growing intimacy with its Muslim neighbors, have more recently hailed Ankara’s role as the spearhead of the international effort to bring down the pro-Iranian Syrian regime. But amid the applause, or even because of it, Turkey may be sliding into perilous territory as the Assad regime teeters and Syria appears headed toward anarchy rather than democratic transformation.
Turkey emerged as a major regional player, one that serves as an example, perhaps even a political model, for Arab neighbors to the east by combining the values of a secular state – a Muslim, if not Islamic, society – and increasing civilian control over the military. Ankara’s stock in the Arab world rose between 2009 and 2011 because of its strong stance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Moreover, despite some ups and downs, Turkey has juggled its new foreign-policy initiatives in the Middle East, maintaining its traditional security ties through NATO with the United States and Europe.
The Arab Spring, which began with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s overthrow in Tunisia in December 2010 and picked up steam with the ouster of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, has been a mixed blessing for Turkey. On the one hand, it has enhanced the popularity of the Turkish model among Arab publics. On the other, it imposed painful choices for Ankara between its newfound, often authoritarian, friends in the Middle East and the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples, inspired in part by the success of Turkish democracy.
In this context, 2012 has been a momentous year for Turkish foreign policy. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s conception of “zero problems with neighbors,” an essential component of Turkish foreign-policy activism in the Middle East, has been tested, especially in relation to Turkey’s approach to Syria. Antagonistic relations between Ankara and Damascus have also had negative repercussions on Turkey’s relations with Iran. On the positive side, Turkey’s relations with the West and the United States have improved as compared to the 2009-11 period as Turkey’s policies coincided with those of the U.S. and Europe vis-à-vis Syria and, therefore, indirectly vis-à-vis Iran.
In fact, Turkey has plowed ahead of its Western allies on this issue by acting as the spearhead of political and military support for opponents of Bashar Assad’s regime. This has allayed fears in Western capitals that Turkey’s improved relations with Muslim neighbors to the east, some now in danger of being reversed, were taking place at the expense of Ankara’s traditional ties with the United States and Europe. This perception had been augmented in the West by Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel following the latter’s brutal December 2008 invasion of Gaza and the subsequent May 2010 killing of nine Turks, including an American citizen, aboard the Mavi Marmara in international waters by Israeli commandos.
Needless to say, this negative perception of Turkey was deliberately propagated by parties in the United States that would like to use Turkey’s relations with Israel as the yardstick for judging Ankara’s relations with Washington.
Ankara’s decision to vote against the latest round of Western-inspired economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council on Iran in 2010 further augmented negative perceptions in Washington, where the complex nature of Turkey’s relations with Iran, including its energy dependence and geographic proximity, was either not recognized or ignored.
Iran is the second-largest exporter of natural gas to Turkey, explaining why Ankara has attempted to circumvent American-imposed sanctions on bank transactions with Iran by paying Tehran in gold bullion.
In the final analysis, Turkey’s improved relations with the West in 2012, including the American decision to deploy two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey’s border with Syria, are unlikely to compensate for problems Turkey faces to its east – problems likely to become more acute in 2013 if Ankara does not rapidly reevaluate its policy. With the Syrian stalemate unlikely to be broken in the immediate future, Turkey could anticipate low-intensity warfare with the Syrian regime for a considerable period, thus draining its resources and upsetting economic prospects in the long run.
If the Assad regime falls, Turkey could face partition of Syria into several ethnic and sectarian-based statelets, including a Kurdish one on Turkey’s borders that could stoke Kurdish irredentism in the country. Such an outcome would likely include a continuing civil war of horrific proportions among sectarian and ethnic groups much as has happened in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the communist regime.
There is attendant danger that, in this event, foreign backers of the Syrian opposition, especially the United States and Saudi Arabia, would pull out and leave Syria to its fate as happened with Afghanistan in the 1990s. These powers have their own agendas related more to weakening Iran than democracy promotion in Syria, objectives achieved with the fall of Assad regardless of what happens to the Syrian people. Turkey, like Pakistan in the 1990s in relation to Afghanistan, would be left to deal with the Syrian mess alone. If anarchy and terrorism come to prevail in Syria in the wake of Assad’s fall, as they’re likely to do given the country’s sectarian divisions and the role of militant jihadists in the war, Turkey is likely to see a marked increase in Kurdish terrorism and in the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Alevis. Despite differences, Turkish Alevis empathize with Syrian Alawites because of similar nomenclature and, more importantly, fears of domination by the Sunni majority in both states.
This is a major reason why Ankara should rethink its policy of involvement in the Syrian imbroglio. As time goes on, it will become difficult for Turkey to pull away from the Syrian quagmire. Another reason is the negative effect Turkey’s current stance has had on its relations with Iran, the pivotal power in the Persian Gulf region just as Turkey is in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Levant. Turkey’s potential conflict of interest with Iran in Iraq, given Iranian support for the Shiite-dominated government and Turkey’s sympathy for the predominantly Sunni Iraqi opposition, has already muddied waters in terms of Ankara’s relations with Tehran. Adding Syria to this list could strain its relationship with the Islamic Republic beyond repair.
This may suit the interests of certain parties that would like to see conflict prevail between the two most important powers in the Middle East. However, it does not bode well for regional security and stability, which can only be guaranteed by a smooth working relationship between Ankara and Tehran. From hindsight, it appears that Davutoglu was fully aware that good relations with Iran formed the kingpin of his “zero problems with neighbors” policy. One hopes that he’ll have the political courage to return to the initial intent of this policy in 2013. No matter what happens, Turkey is likely to find itself in rougher regional and international waters in 2013 than it has been accustomed to in recent years. The Turkish leadership must muster all of its political wisdom and courage, changing course on Syria if necessary, to extricate itself from the looming predicament.
Mohammed Ayoob is university distinguished professor of international relations at Michigan State University, and an adjunct scholar with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright © 2012, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.