For several years now, Turkey has been a major player in the rapidly changing politics of the Middle East. Recent crises in Egypt, Syria and Iraq have made Turkey a key pillar of stability in a region of constantly shifting ground. While its role in the region was once praised as both positive and constructive, in the course of the last year or so, Turkey’s reputation has suffered.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s grandly touted and formerly praised “zero problems with neighbors” policy has become a source of black humor and has now come to be known as the “zero neighbors without problems” policy. With a new round of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians commencing in Washington, Turkey’s next step remains unclear. Will Turkey live up to the legacy of past policies and play a constructive role in the process, or will it continue with policies that undermine the legacy and spirit of the “zero problems” policy? The latter course of action risks Turkey being seen as a spoiler, left out in the cold at what could be a historic juncture in the politics of the Middle East.
The Legacy of Turgut Özal
Turkey has historically had a precarious and nuanced role in the Middle East. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s own desire to pursue Westernization and Europeanization kept Turkey from being a major player in the region until relatively recently. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel in 1949 but was also a consistent supporter of Palestinian rights, frequently withdrawing its diplomatic representatives from Tel Aviv in protest and becoming one of the first countries to recognize the declaration of the State of Palestine.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, under prime minister and later president Turgut Özal, Turkey aspired to play an active role in efforts to seek peace in the Middle East. In the mid-1980s Özal proposed the building of a pipeline to carry fresh water from Turkey to the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinian territories, in the hopes that functional interdependence would help to foster peace. More ambitiously, Özal aspired to have the first Middle East peace conference following the first Gulf War held in Istanbul. Instead, Turkey settled for a more modest but constructive role in both the Madrid and Oslo processes until their collapse at the end of the decade.
Erdoğan and Davutoğlu Pick Up the Baton
Years later, with Davutoğlu’s “zero problems” policy, Turkey once again embarked upon an effort to reshape the region through constructive diplomatic action, this one even more ambitious. In the Middle East, the cornerstone of this policy was Turkey’s ability to talk to all parties involved in the region’s disputes. In Lebanon, Turkey was able to engage with Hezbollah as well as with the Christian and Sunni leadership. The same was true of Iraq where Turkey maintained close contacts with Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and Turkmen parties during much of the 2000s. Longstanding tensions with Syria over territorial disputes, water rights and the Kurdish issue were replaced by much closer and warmer relations. Furthermore, Davutoğlu, in the spirit of Özal’s legacy, embarked upon a regional economic-integration project.
But the true political prize was the beginning of Turkish-sponsored indirect talks between Syria and Israel. Turkish efforts reached their peak in December 2008, when prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hosted Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Ankara for an hours-long dinner that ultimately produced a blueprint for direct talks with the Assad regime in Syria.
“Zero Problems” No More
But within weeks of the meeting, Turkish-Israeli relations were nearing an all-time low. Following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s December 2008-January 2009 military strike against Hamas in Gaza and the January 2009 incident at Davos in which Erdoğan chastised and wagged his finger at Israeli president and longtime peace seeker Shimon Peres, Turkey’s relations with Israel entered a tailspin. Tensions were only exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turks were killed trying to run an Israeli blockade of Gaza. While Erdoğan’s increasing truculence toward Israel made him a hero to the Arab street, it undermined his relations with many Arab governments who felt they were being shown up by the Turkish prime minister, and virtually destroyed any notion that Israel might be able to trust Turkey as an “honest broker” in future peace negotiations.
While the break with Israel may have been the first crack in the “zero problems with neighbors” façade, events in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran soon seemed to leave Turkey with “zero neighbors without problems.” At the outset of the Arab Awakening, Turkey looked poised to benefit the most of any regional power from the expected democratic transformation, and was even touted as a model for Muslim democrats across the Middle East. But as the promise of the region’s democratic movement has waned and peaceful revolutions have been replaced by civil war, sectarian strife and unpredictable, often violent changes of government, Turkey has become a party to the regional conflicts rather than an arbiter of them.
Turkey’s relationship with Syria, once presented as a resounding success and the crown jewel of the “zero-problems” policy, have deteriorated into virtual undeclared warfare even as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flood southeastern Turkey. Turkey’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq has declined precipitously as it entered the partisan fray in both countries on the side of predominantly Sunni groups. By casting its lot with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar, Turkey has positioned itself firmly, even if by default, in the camp of those confronting the alleged rise of the “Shia Crescent,” further aggravating the sectarian polarization that is tearing the Middle East apart.
The ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi is only the latest in a series of major blows to Turkey’s regional influence—a blow that was exacerbated by the Turkish government’s decision to categorically declare the new interim government illegitimate and demand Morsi’s reinstatement. Given Turkey’s own history with military interventions and the long repression of the country’s conservative religious movement, of which Erdoğan’s AKP is a part, the reaction is understandable and principled. But even so, unless Turkey adopts a more realistic, conciliatory and constructive approach to the ongoing instability resulting from the Arab Awakening, Turkey is in danger of being sidelined during what may be the most decisive moment of political change for the region in nearly a century.
A Golden Opportunity
If Turkey remains on its current path, the picture that emerges is not a promising one. The beginning of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington present Erdoğan and Davutoğlu with an opportunity to take the first step in reviving the once highly praised “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Not only would this be a meaningful symbolic gesture signaling Turkey’s reemergence as a regional power committed to peace and diplomacy, but it would also be a pragmatic step reminiscent of the earlier Özal and pre-2009 Erdoğan eras. This may be the last chance for redemption for the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu foreign-policy partnership, and the best chance they have to reverse Turkey’s growing image as an obstacle to progress.
This new round of peace negotiations faces tremendous challenges, one of which is the eventual necessity of bringing Hamas to the table. The odds are slim, but if Turkey could leverage its close relations with Hamas to encourage the organization to take a pragmatic approach to negotiations with Israel and Fatah, Turkey could once again find itself playing a major role in regional peace. It goes without saying that Israelis and Palestinians would benefit foremost from Turkey’s reengagement in the peace process—not to mention the broader implications for regional stability and Turkey’s own political and economic interests. But much more importantly, it would mean the fulfillment of a legacy reaching back to Turgut Özal and Erdoğan’s own early premiership of supporting policies to relieve the sufferings of ordinary people of the region from instability and violence.
Kemal Kirişci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, in Washington, DC. Rob Keane is a research assistant with the Managing Global Order project at Brookings.
Image: Flickr/Greek Prime Minister's Office. CC BY-SA 2.0.