Edition 9 Volume 7 - March 05, 2024

Turkey's emerging Middle East strategy

Syria and Turkey: A burgeoning courtship -   Rime Allaf

Turkey has become a new example to follow.

A new geographic imagination -   Bulent Aras

Turkey's reform process demonstrates that the negative characteristics of the Middle East are not an unavoidable destiny.

Miracles or interests: what keeps Turkish-Israeli relations going? -   Ofra Bengio

Israel could not afford the luxury of antagonizing such an important partner in a hostile region.

Syria and Turkey: A burgeoning courtship
 Rime Allaf

Arab nationalism and Alexandretta notwithstanding, a Turkish-Syrian affair is currently in full bloom, joining the proverbial hearts and minds across the border, letting bygones be bygones and picking up from where things were last left. This is a courtship in which people and regime are in full agreement, in contrast to certain marriages of convenience with other partners found less palatable by many Syrians. For all the noted rise in religiosity in Syria, as in other mainly Muslim countries, the easygoing Turkish balance of "secular Islamism" sits much better than the Iranian clerics' sternness.

There's a lot to like about Turkey that Syrians hadn't noticed for a long time, centuries of Ottoman occupation having dampened the appetite for most things Turkish. But Turkey has become a new example to follow, showing it can be modern, secular, developed, simultaneously western and eastern in its socio-political outlook and still hold on to oriental and Islamic values found endearing. In fact, even the television soap operas of both countries will confirm that customs on either side are still incredibly similar, increasing mutual approbation.

Of course, most of these factors were there a decade ago, but in very different circumstances. Years of political animosity had reached boiling point over the presence in Syria of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. With Turkish troops poised to take action in 1998, Syria finally relented and arranged for Ocalan's speedy departure from its territory. The hostility didn't vanish immediately, however, with one of the biggest issues remaining the dams built on the Turkish side of the Euphrates, squeezing Syria into an even tighter--and dryer--spot as water became scarcer. Under successive Turkish governments, the alliance with Israel had continued to consolidate, driving Syria into a more dangerous isolation.

It's hard to believe that the outlook was this bleak just a few years ago. But things did improve, even before the arrival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish President Ahmed Necdet Sezer had already made a point of taking a new approach with Syria, and the two countries found themselves increasingly joined by their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which the Turkish parliament refused to facilitate by denying the US military the use of its territory for any related action.

In Turkey, just as in Syria, there had been a strong popular rejection of American policies in the region and Iraq was but one case. In 2024, the antiwar Turkish movie "Valley of the Wolves" broke attendance records, even in the Turkish community in Germany. And in 2024, there was no question that popular sentiment strongly supported the position of the Turkish government in relation to Israel. For Erdogan, there was nothing to prove to a supportive populace.

Yet, the commotion following the famous Davos panel would have us believe that Erdogan's "emotional outburst" was merely a product of his "renowned temper" and a calculated maneuver for upcoming election campaigns in order to win more Islamist votes. Such ridiculous and condescending attitudes conveniently avoided the real issue of the Israeli president's own disrespectful behavior, his raised voice and his outright lies about Gaza. It was most telling that while Erdogan matched his actions with his words by walking out, the secretaries general of the Arab League and the United Nations, both wronged repeatedly by Israel, were practically nailed to their seats, unable to make a move or state a case.

These distinctions are not missed in the countries south and east of Turkey, as it continues to extend a hand to friendly neighbors in direct proportion to the determined rejection of an eventual Turkish adhesion to the European Union. For Syria, this is a win-win situation: there can be great benefits to having the first direct border with the EU should Turkey eventually make it there, but the status quo is just as attractive as Turkey continues to consolidate its position as an important regional player and an unavoidable Islamic leader.

The more Israel has demonstrated its violent treatment of Palestinians, the more Turkey has found that its denunciations were eagerly accepted at home and in the neighborhood. Erdogan had a great deal of influence on these developments, but to give him the entire credit would be unfair to the people of Turkey in their quest to be closer to their neighbors and more involved in their affairs. Erdogan will certainly continue to be instrumental, alongside a political environment that encourages such positions.

In turn, this is a position that the Syrians are finding increasingly attractive, both in their friend's policy and in their own. It is easier to face the critics when not alone, and similarly easy to make friends when accompanied. It would have been impossible to imagine, even just a few years ago, that Turkey would be the active matchmaker between Syria and Israel; today it seems that no other partner will do.- Published 5/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

A new geographic imagination
 Bulent Aras

Turkey is emerging as an influential soft power in the Middle East with a dynamic and multidimensional policy line. Turkey's active involvement during the Gaza war where it adopted a critical attitude toward Israel and its attempt to play a facilitator-mediator role in the chronic problems of the region have been interpreted as a sign of change in Turkish foreign policy. An alternative line of thought considers Turkey's Middle East stance as a deviation from the country's western orientation.

One way to understand Turkey's emerging Middle East strategy is to analyze the change of political rhetoric and practice through the prism of Turkey's new geographic "imagination" or conception of the region. This new imagination places different assumptions about the Middle East and regional countries in the minds of policymakers. The central elements that determine this geographic imagination have changed through a serious transformation in the domestic landscape. The new geographic imagination puts an end to the need for external enemies and paves the way for leaders to question alliance patterns in the region.

Political transformation in Turkey, which is partly a result of the European Union membership process, has had two pillars: democratization and consolidation of stability. This domestic reform process, especially in the fields of civil-military relations, national security and economic liberalization and stability, has significant implications for Turkey's foreign policy. Changes in these realms have led to a shift from a bad-neighborhood to a zero-problem policy toward the Middle East region.

The crux of the question lies within the transformation, which changed the geographic imagination and then reshaped foreign policy choices. The old nation-state-based geographic imagination was the result of domesticating the nation-state territories; this created a sense of a well-defined homeland in strict territorial terms. The regional rhetoric and language was built on the idea that the homeland was under continuous threat and was surrounded by enemies. This discourse helped policymakers to create a strong sense of homeland defense, mobilize support at home and preserve their hold on power.

In this sense, the new geographic imagination is shaped by the changing nature of the nation-state, whose frontiers have expanded beyond the homeland in the cognitive map of policymakers. Although there is no question of the viability of the borders that separate Turkey from the Middle East, the Turkish area of influence and, in another sense, Turkish responsibility go beyond the national borders under the impact of the new geographic imagination. The territorial limits to Turkish involvement in the Middle East disappear in this new mindset. The relationship between borders and "others" loses its meaning after removing the constraints of domestic threat perceptions in regional policy.

This transformation goes beyond the classical discussions of perception or misperception in foreign policy attitudes. It creates a widespread impact on the culture of national security and the culture of geopolitics and means widening the horizons of policymakers and the emergence of certain new attitudes in foreign policy.

The twin enemies of the state establishment in the 1990s--the Kurdish question and political Islam--created a pretext for problematic relations with Syria and Iran by blaming those countries for these problems. Turkey's transformation put these problems aside, and the country's agenda is now dominated by more concrete problems such as economic development, employment and political participation. Increasing self-confidence at home changes threat perceptions in regional terms and creates a more positive attitude for providing peace and stability. Turkey's transformation has already put an end to the Cold War-style state security apparatus that ruled the country for half a century and has changed the framework of the country's domestic and foreign policy.

The elimination of the range of "others" within the country and the immediate area led to the emergence of a new regional identity. In this sense, Turkey's political transformation is a key to a better understanding of the whole process. Turkey's bid for EU membership is at the center of the change in the domestic landscape. In order to prepare for EU accession, Turkey has undertaken vast and serious legal, political and economic reforms. Turkey's bureaucrats, politicians and citizens have united to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership and tolerate the pain of the IMF-directed structural adjustment programs.

This domestic transformation changed political attitudes and paved the way for decreasing the range of geographic others and redefining friends and enemies in the region. These are not temporary responsive policies to emerging situations but long-haul policy choices that will resist both domestic and structural factors. Societal forces are increasing their influence in Turkish foreign policymaking and competing with old bureaucratic-authoritarian tradition. At the same time, Turkish foreign policymakers are paying more attention to international legitimacy, values and norms. The flexibility and adaptability of the new geographic imagination seems greater than the previous imagination considering the dynamic harmonization process with the EU foreign policy line.

By modernizing and democratizing at home, Turkey's politicians have gained confidence in their ability to conduct a successful regional policy. As a result, Turkey's leaders are now willing to pursue active diplomacy in the Middle East in an effort to minimize problems with neighboring countries. The old geographic imagination regarded the Middle East as a chaotic region and a source of instability. The result was Turkey's conscious alienation and minimal involvement in the region. Turkey's domestic transformation, favorable international environment and the advent of a new geographic imagination changed this old pattern in regional policy.

The meaning of the nation's geography changed, territorial limitations for involvement in the region were eliminated in the perception of policymakers, domestic security was tied to regional security, societal factors increased their role in policymaking, de-securitization changed the security-first approach to foreign policymaking and, as a result, the altered geographic imagination created a new framework for Turkish policy in the Middle East. Turkey's immediate neighborhood is now perceived as an area of opportunity where Turkey's new regional profile is that of a civil-economic power.

Of prime importance is the fact that the new geographic imagination changed the regional rhetoric of the policymakers. They favor the idea that Turkey is emerging as a role model for those across the Middle East who are seeking reform and modernization. However, they are also careful enough to note that Turkey's influence does not imply a hegemonic relationship, but rather points to an alternative path for reform and economic development that other countries might take.

The new geographic imagination re-conceptualized the mental perception of the Middle East in policymaking circles. In the minds of Turkish foreign policy elites, the Middle East is more open to and more suitable than ever before for constructive Turkish involvement. However, Turkey's self-proclaimed role goes beyond this constructive involvement. Turkey's reform process has demonstrated that the negative characteristics of the Middle East are not an unavoidable destiny for the countries of the region.- Published 5/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Bulent Aras chairs the Department of International Relations at Isik University, Istanbul.

Miracles or interests: what keeps Turkish-Israeli relations going?
 Ofra Bengio

Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza in January 2024 threatened to wreck the unique relationship between Turkey and Israel. This begs the question: could or should a crisis between Israel and a third party bring about a deep transformation in the bilateral relations that have been developing between the two countries for more than 15 years?

The harsh Turkish reaction to the offensive was taken as a major indication of a Turkish volte face at both the official and popular level. In a series of unprecedented attacks PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Israel, declaring that the blood of dead Palestinian children would not be left on the ground and that Israel's deeds were "a crime against humanity". Worse still, he called for the expulsion of Israel, his ally, from the United Nations for ignoring the organization's call to stop the fighting in Gaza.

Then came the Davos incident at the end of January in which Erdogan demonstratively walked off the stage during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres. No wonder Erdogan came to be considered a hero by Gazans, Iranians and Syrians. Taking their cue from him, the media and the Turkish street escalated their anti-Israel and at times even anti-Semitic attacks to a point that in some instances surpassed those voiced in Arab countries. Huge anti-Israel demonstrations flooded the streets of Turkey's major cities and towns; demonstrators burned Israeli flags and waved anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans. One of the placards read: "Jews and Armenians cannot enter, but dogs can".

The reaction at the popular level was part spontaneous and part officially organized, including even the mobilization of school children that points to a political hand acting behind the scenes. Turkey, caught up in these dynamics, appeared to be coalescing with Hamas, Syria and Iran in the axis of evil.

In fact, Turkey's stance on Gaza should be understood as part of the AKP government's proactive foreign policy: as a diversionist ploy at home and a challenge to rivals at home and abroad. Evidently, there was genuine sympathy for the Palestinians among the Turkish people. But the government was also apparently attempting to manipulate this sympathy in order to mobilize support for the AKP in the upcoming Turkish local elections in March by deflecting attention from the domestic PKK problem, challenging the military--the architect of relations with Israel--and enhancing Turkey's role among Arab and Muslim countries.

Yet for all these rhetorical and emotional reactions, the Turkish government did not initiate any "punitive" move against Israel. It did not recall its ambassador from Israel as it had done on an earlier occasion. Moreover, at the very time that Erdogan was lashing out at Israel the two states reportedly signed a new bilateral arms deal.

Many Turks wonder why Turkey, a major power in the region, still needs strong relations with Israel at a time when the entire regional strategic map has drastically changed from that existing back in the 1990s when the two forged their strategic ties? The answer seems quite obvious. To fulfill its proactive role, Ankara needs to remain on good terms with Israel and thus enhance its stature and maneuverability as an honest broker. It has to preserve its image as a role model of a democratic Muslim country, maintaining the age old balances between East and West, between the Arab world and Israel and between Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Most important of all, Turkey needs to maintain its strategic alignment with Israel to ward off the primary dangers facing both countries, especially international terrorism and the nuclearization of the region.

In Israel, wisely enough, the official reaction to the Turkish attacks was low-key. Indeed, in the eyes of some Israelis it was even too conciliatory. In fact, Israel could not afford the luxury of antagonizing such an important partner in a largely hostile region. Jerusalem was willing to bury its resentment in the understanding that if it managed to contain the crisis in Gaza it would be able to weather the Turkish storm as well.

Past experience has shown that the two countries' bilateral interests are stronger than sentiments. Notably, the correlation between progress in the peace process with the Palestinians and Turkish-Israeli relations, first apparent in the early 1990s, continues to hold. In the interim, the collapse of the peace process in October 2024 and the ensuing violence caused considerable damage to relations, whereas Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in summer 2024 engendered a flood of visits by high-ranking Turkish officials and even the establishment of a hotline between Erdogan and then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon.

To sum up, for all the damage done to Turkish-Israeli relations due to the Gaza offensive, the historic bonds of amity between the two people and the two states are likely once again to prove strong enough to overcome the crisis, even though it might take much longer this time.- Published 5/3/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Ofra Bengio of the Moshe Dayan Center and the Dept. of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University is the author of "The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Changing Ties of Middle Eastern Outsiders" (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2024).

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