Turkey is now a typical Middle Eastern state

Turkey has become a Middle Eastern state. In fact, Turks have always been proud of being part of several political regions, that is of “being European,” “being Middle Eastern” and “being Eurasian.” Today, however, Turkey’s Middle Eastern identity is becoming more dominant as, politically and culturally, Turkey leans toward the Middle East.

A few days ago, a Saudi-led coalition killed more than 90 Yemenis in an air raid. The purpose of the attack was to stop the Houthis, a Shiite group supported by Iran. Among those killed were women and children. Turkey is officially part of this Saudi-led coalition.

The Yemeni incident displays that Turkey is losing its traditional status in regional politics. What was that? In the past, Turkey was never part of such bloody incidents, not even politically. Today’s Turkey is different. Simultaneously, Turkey is supporting the al-Nusra Front in Syria in their fight against the Assad regime. Last week, the Libyan government attacked a Turkish ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The Libyan government argues the ship was carrying guns to Libya.

Turkey’s new Islamist rulers argue that we are living in different times, thus Turkey cannot stay neutral. One may accept the moral arguments, but these Islamists should also know that things are path dependent, which means that you may lose control of the events once you are involved too deeply.

By “typical Middle Eastern state” I refer to several features. The first is the departure from European values, such as freedom of the press. This is the road Turkey is on today. Second, I refer to a specific type of foreign policy: Turkey is now on the ground in many different battles — from Yemen to Syria, and from Syria to Libya. Third, the focal point of Turkish foreign policy is changing. It is no longer attempting to join the EU. Fourth, key allies are changing. Today, they are Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A prominent expert on Turkey, Cengiz candar, recently argued that Turkey’s new foreign policy has the potential to cause a change in regime in Turkey. This could be true. Pushing Turkey into the heart of Middle Eastern problems will naturally generate political and social outcomes. Worse, candar argues that Syria has the potential to become Turkey’s Vietnam. Can one guarantee that the radical groups that receive our support today will not change their stance tomorrow? Syria is likely to remain chaotic long into the future.

Many Turks fail to understand that the collapse of Syria is likely to be more dangerous to Turkey than the collapse of Iraq. The collapse of Iraq paved the way for various groups, such as the Kurds. The Syrian collapse is different in as much as it paves the way for various groups like the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Despite this, there exists a naive expectation about Syria among Turks. Ankara is convinced that the fall of Bashar al-Assad will be enough to solve many problems in this country. However, nobody knows how all the groups the war against Assad has produced will act in the future.

Finally, a key question is Iran. The Turkish-Saudi alliance is plainly an attempt to stop Iranian expansion in Yemen and Syria. How will Iran react? Engaged in a sensitive diplomatic process with the West, Iran’s reaction in Yemen is likely to be cautious and well-planned. But no matter what Iran’s reaction, the entire region is becoming increasingly sectarian at the international level. Today, the Sunni and Shiite split is no longer religious or cultural in nature, it is political — so much so that it results in the formation of international alliances on critical issues. Beyond the shifting alliances among Middle Eastern states, the evolution of the Sunni-Shiite split is the most critical factor in the region.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman