LALE – Turkey’s waning influence in the Middle East

Turkey’s waning influence in the Middle EastForeign Minister Ahmet DavutoIlu is the architect of a policy initiated in 2002 geared toward ending animosities with Turkeyand#39s neighbors Greece and Bulgaria to its west, Armenia and Georgia to the northeast, Syria and Iraq to its south, and Iran to its southeast. Turkey had initiated what looked like a true andldquozero problems with neighborsandrdquo policy.

Today, however, Turkeyand#39s zero problems policy has been replaced by many problems due to its ill-conceived policies with almost all of its neighbors, particularly those to its east, ie, the Middle East, where popular uprisings against dictatorial rulers have further destabilized the region, while radical Islamic groups have mushroomed with the prolongation of the more than three-year-long civil war in Syria as well as with a power vacuum existing in Iraq.A Sunni dominated, majority Muslim nation with a secular constitution which is a member of NATO, Turkeyand#39s initiation of accession talks with the European Union — which has stalled — in 2005, has been an element of inspiration for many Arab peoples who have long been oppressed under dictators.

Turkeyand#39s EU goal, however, has also become a thing of the past now.In addition to internal polarization as President-elect and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoIan has opted to pursue more authoritarian policies, externally, Ankara has begun losing its influence as well as credibility, not only in the Western world but also in the Arab world.

This is because Ankara has shifted its policies from those which have been effectively neutral, treating its neighbors equally, to those which mostly take sides with Sunnis, a clear sign of sectarianism and a potential destabilizing factorOn the ongoing civil war in Syria, Ankara has taken sides with the opposition against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and has now been accused internationally of providing support in the form of arms and logistics to radical Islamist groups fighting in SyriaPresident-elect and Prime Minister ErdoIanand#39s explicit support extended to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt and in many other Arab countries, in addition to his persistent criticism of Egyptand#39s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an army general who staged a military coup in 2013, removing President Mohammed Morsi from power, have become a source of a serious contention between Turkey and Saudi Arabia as well as with the Gulf States except for Qatar, who are behind Egyptand#39s Sisi leadership and who banned the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries.If Egypt is not secure, say Arab observers in Ankara, the Gulf States will not feel secure eitherYet ErdoIanand#39s frequent usage of the Rabia sign in his greeting of Turkish crowds at his rallies has further agitated Arabs, sending a clear message of Ankaraand#39s lack of neutrality in Arab affairs that would have otherwise offered it the opportunity to play a stabilizing role in this highly unstable region.

andldquoRabia,andrdquo meaning four or the fourth in Arabic, has become the sign of Muslim Brotherhood-supported anti-coup protests in Egypt.In the latest Israeli air and ground operations against Hamas-controlled Gaza, Ankara has underestimated the traditional and historical role of Egypt as a peace broker in the region, regardless of whatever criticisms can be leveled against it.

In the eyes of many Arab countries, Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long been seen as a soft, neutralizing power in the region. But as Ankara, under single party rule, has begun pursuing extreme policies such as extending support to radical Islamic groups in the Syrian civil war or on Egyptand#39s Sisi, openly taking sides with the Muslim Brotherhood, or taking sides with the Sunnis, it has lost its pivotal role in the Middle East region as an honest broker while losing its stabilizing influence.

The Arab League, an important gathering for Arabs in which Turkey holds observer status, has now reportedly been considering closing its office in Ankara, opened in 2010, in retaliation for Ankaraand#39s ill-conceived policies in the region in general and because of its strained relations with Egypt in particularArab countries have also been reconsidering their relations with Turkey, which has been reflected in the fact that the Turkish-Arab Forum has not been held since 2012.Turkish trade with Arab countries reached $57 billion in 2013, from $7 billion in 2002.

Hence, Ankara has not only been risking trade ties with its Arab neighbors but has also been risking losing the respect from them that it worked so hard to earn.Ankaraand#39s failure to pursue a neutral policy — on the contrary, creating animosity toward itself among its Arab neighbors — is helping Shiite-dominated Iran to become the regionand#39s hegemon as it has begun playing its cards well enough to reduce the long-term tension with world powers over its nuclear programIt is a great irony that DavutoIlu, once regarded as the architect of a policy of ending animosities with Turkeyand#39s neighbors, has himself ended this policy in cooperation with ErdoIan, damaging Turkish relations with its Arab friends.

As this column goes to press, DavutoIlu is expected to become Turkeyand#39s new prime minister, as ErdoIan will become the new president of Turkey. What irony.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman