Can Turkey Become an Honest Mediator in the Middle East, Again?

Turkey has lost its opportunity to become the force for conflict resolution in the region.

When Turkey declared its new foreign policy, “zero problems with neighbors”, the government believed that historical and economic ties are enough to provide a leading role for Turkey in the region. At the time, Turkey’s good relations with both Arab states and Israel as well as increasing bilateral trade agreements in the region provided a solid basis for Turkey to mediate between conflicting parties, to spread peace and encourage democratization. However, Turkey squandered its chance. First, Turkey became increasingly obsessed with being a regional power with the aim of the revival of Ottoman heritage throughout the Middle East. Second, Turkey was unprepared for explosive and pragmatic nature of the Middle East politics. When these two factors came together, Turkey lost its opportunity to become the force for conflict resolution in the region. It veered into taking sides; thus moving away from the main goal of the new foreign policy agenda. Despite the foreign policy failures, Turkey could still become the source for peace and stability in the region. It just needs to fall back on the foundational principles of Turkish foreign policy: caution, neutrality and peace.

What went wrong?

The obsession with regional power status blinded Turkish policy makers to the ever-shifting realities on the ground and the power play of the international actors in the Middle East. Turkish policymakers, departing from the Neo-Ottoman approach, believed that the Turkish leadership can shape the Middle East. Such attitude, without a doubt, alienated Arab decision makers, who saw the Ottomans as a colonial power, rather than a benevolent state. Turkish activism was not a critical problem as long as Turkey did not force itself to the Arab politics and kept its distance. Unfortunately, Turkey has not refrained from attempting to shape the Middle East, although it was ill prepared for getting involved in the Middle East politics. In the end, Turkey was forced to make tactical decisions that defined Ankara’s policies and defused its influence in the region.

Turkey sided with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia because it planned to increase its power through the Brotherhood, which shares similar ideologies with the Turkish government. When President Morsi was deposed, Turkey reacted viscerally and burned the bridges with Egypt. Because Turkey invested its political capital into the Brotherhood, rather than taking a neutral position, the ousting of Morsi neutralized Turkey’s influence.

When rebellion started in Libya, Turkey was very successful in getting all of its citizens out the country. However, it failed to show same success in reacting to the changes in Libya. Initially, Turkey was cautious to get involved in the conflict, which was the right policy to follow in the face of uncertainty. The problem was that Turkey failed to alter its policy when European powers – France and the United Kingdom – got involved in the Libyan conflict and created a no-fly zone. Initially, Turkey was against the no-fly zone and criticized the coalition. Libyan rebels took note of Turkey’s action. When Turkey had a change of heart, it was too late. Failure to act and inconsistency alienated the rebels, and Turkey lost its position and possible influence in the future of Libya.

The Syrian conflict is another example of how Turkey was unprepared for the complexities of the Middle East politics. In Syria, Turkey was one of the first countries to take an anti-Assad stance and began supporting Syrian rebels, because Turkey wanted to be at the table to shape the future of Syria, and probably thought the conflict would be over within months, just like Libya. The problem was that Ankara again failed to read the international politics correctly. In Libya case, the European powers were eager to intervene, and the rebels were able to act under a unified command. In Syria, on the other hand, no one was willing to devote military sources to and get involved while the Free Syrian Army slowly disintegrated to smaller fractions with different goals. Furthermore, Russia took an unyielding pro-Assad stance since the beginning of the conflict. While Turkey insisted on deposing Assad, the realities on the ground have shifted significantly. ISIS, which capitalized the weaknesses of Syrian rebel alliances, got the control of swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq. Using the very radical misinterpretation of Islam, ISIS posed a greater danger to both the West and Russia. However, Turkey failed to recognize the ISIS threat and remained focused on Assad regime. Turkey was unwilling to shift its position despite the significant changes happening in the Syrian conflict. Had Turkey acted more cautiously and tried to find common ground with Syria and the rebels, the situation could have been much different, at least for Turkey. However, Turkey opted for becoming involved heavily in the conflict, supporting rebels groups with questionable allegiances. In other words, Turkey could be considered the “true loser’’ of the Syrian politics so far because of miscalculation and misperception of the developments in the Middle East.

Furthermore, Turkey’s uneasy relation to its Kurdish population has reflected upon its policy decisions regarding the Syrian conflict. Turkey is worried about the peculiar status of Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Ankara considers a possible emergence of any Kurdish state in the region the biggest threat to its national security. Consequently, Turkey positioned itself against strengthening Kurds in Syria because of the fear that their influence might spill over to the Kurdish minority in Turkey. To prevent this, Turkey dragged its feet whenever Kurds needed help. The prime example was Turkey’s inaction during Ayn-Al Arab (Kobane) siege when Turkey did not allow the Kurdish reinforcements to pass through the Turkish territory. As Turkey’s fight against the PKK intensified, the uneasy relations with the Kurds in the region became more complicated.

Because of the renewed fighting with the PKK, Turkey feels “betrayed” by the Kurdish groups and politicians altogether. While the West sees Turkey’s actions in its territory as legitimate, the fighting in the cities drives a wedge between the Turkish government and the Kurdish population. Consequently, the ongoing clashes stall initiation of a comprehensive “peace project” that continued in the last 3,5 years. On the other hand, Northern Iraqi leader Barzani also expects Turkey to fight against the PKK. Thus, failure to do so could worsen the relations between Turkey and Northern Iraq. Turkey’s close cooperation with Barzani, at times, alienated the Iraqi central government. For example, the Iraqi government was not happy to see increased number of Turkish troops in Bashika Camp without consulting with them. However, Turkey could have chosen a different path, a path that truly seeks peace and stability in the region, and this is still possible.


The pursuit of becoming the regional power is a fictional and damaging venture, and it is time for Turkey to leave that pursuit aside. Turkey does not need to be a regional power to become a major actor in the region. Turkey could have used its influence over the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to moderate its policies while trying to establish a common ground between different actors. Turkey could have helped the Kurds during Ayn-al Arab (Kobane) siege, which could have paved the way for reconciliation with the Kurds in the region as well as in Turkey. This help could have put Turkey in a much stronger position. However, these are the missed opportunities.

Turkey can still go back to its previous position of “honest mediator”, though it would be a tough task to do, given the positions Turkey had taken over the years. Nevertheless, this is the only way that is beneficial for Turkey, as well as for the international community. Current policy of Turkey is far from stabilizing the region, but also has the danger of destabilizing Turkey itself. The European countries should encourage Turkey to stand back and disengage from the Syrian conflict.

Turkey’s only problem is its uneasy relations with the Kurds. Although Turkey initiated the peace process with the Kurds at home, the recent clashes froze the peace process. The fighting also puts obstacles in front of a possible Kurdish-Turkish rapprochement in Syria, which could greatly benefit the war against ISIS. Turkey needs to make peace with its own Kurds; an issue on which Europeans and the United States have to support Turkey to find a resolution for peace within its borders. Without internal peace, Turkey could not influence the conflicts and support peaceful settlements.

At the moment, Turkey is far away from both influencing the conflicts and supporting peaceful settlements. Turkey’s ineffectiveness is the irony of the country’s fate: within less a decade it degraded itself from the “consciousness of the Middle East’’ to a “lonely country” as its “zero problem policy’’ turned to nearly “problems with all neighbors”. Turkey’s image is at its worst, something Turkey never experienced since the establishment of the Republic in 1923. Unless the AKP government sets aside these “inflexible” policies, the “failure” of Turkey’s foreign policy will continue.

Hüseyin Bağcı, Çağlar Kurç
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Introduction and Question: Our topic now is the Middle East, a general perspective and perspectives for the near future. The speaker will be Prof. Meliha Altunışık. Head of the International Relations Department of the Middle East Technical University. My first question goes to her: There are quite a number of developments, some which are chronic and some of which flare up from time to time. I would like to refer basically to two questions. One of them is Iraq. Second is Lebanon

The Most Complex Problem – Iraq

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Let us start with Iraq first. It is the most complex problem, I think, in the Middle East, albeit it is relatively new compared to, for instance, the Palestinian issue. In Iraq there are various issues and some of them are quite important for Turkey. Of course one issue is the issue of security. The security issue has not been resolved and it is going worse and worse. Related to that there is the issue of Shiite-Sunni conflict,, a civil war between the two sects which also is a detrimental factor in the regional politics as well, considering the relations between Shiites and Sunnis from different countries, particularly in the Gulf. There is the issue of political process and there are serious problems with that. What happens is that the whole political context is very much defined in terms of identities, religious identities and ethnic identities. So the political context was framed in that way. Therefore, politics is the politics of identities. This has been very detrimental. What happens is that all these communities are defining their interests in very exclusive terms and there is no win-win situation but there is zero sum game! My gain is the other’s loss. There is no ground for compromise. We have seen this in many issues, for instance the debate about federalism, the debate about Kirkuk issue, the faith of Kirkuk. The Kurds of Iraq have a very exclusivist position there. Similarly, we have seen this in the discussions of the Natural Resources Law. The communities there, unfortunately, because of how the politics are organized, they are adopting these very uncompromising positions. This is also very detrimental for Iraq and unfortunately there are not any external powers who could use their leverage to force them, force these communities to reach a compromise on the issues. When you look at the international community, the EU does not have any leverage on Iraq, the US is still the most important actor but it is not using the leverage that it has over the parties. So, in all these political issues we also have a deadlock. This is another problem. And in terms of the political process, there is the exclusion of the Sunnis from the political process and this is quite probable. There is the issue of what will happen to US presence. There is increasing expectation that the US is preparing to leave, at least parts of Iraq. Presidential election season is starting in the US. There are pressures on the US administration. We have seen what happened in the Congressional elections. Iraq was one of the issues. When US will withdraw and how it will withdraw, what will this mean in terms of security and stability in Iraq and the political situation in Iraq and even the territorial integrity of Iraq? These are all the questions out there. Similarly you have the problem of intervention of outside powers, particularly Iran has a tremendous influence in the Iraqi scene and this is creating further problems for Iraq. So the situation is very complex, still very volatile. It is hard for me to see that these conflicts will be resolved any time soon. I think, as Turkey we have to prepare ourselves to live with Iraq that is in turmoil in the coming decade or so. That is what we should expect.

Presence of PKK

Question – Of course, some of these developments in Iraq, particularly the presence of PKK in the Northern region and the possibility of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state with its implications on Turkey, Iran and partly Syria forces Turkey to adopt a certain political stand on the issue. What do you think will be the outcome? If these PKK attacks keep continuing on Turkey, could Turkey indefinitely stay put without doing anything to what is happening in Northern Iraq? What do you think?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – You are very right. Actually there are problems for Turkey since 1991, these are not new and Turkey has been trying to deal with these problems by using different tools since 1991. Of course there is the presence of PKK and this gives PKK enormous powers, logistical power in terms of armaments and things like that and training. This has implications for Turkey. Plus the possibility of a Kurdish state is considered as a development that will have implications for Turkey. The attitudes of Kurdish leaders are problematic as well, particularly Barzani. I find it quite unhealthy that Barzani is trying to build a Kurdish nationalism based on Turkish hostility. He is making the Turks as the “other” in trying to build a Kurdish identity which is very dangerous. This may bring him points domestically and he is playing to his domestic audience as well vis-à-vis Talabani in trying to show himself more nationalistic, to oppose the Turks and Turkey, etc. But this is, in the long run, very detrimental for them as well. After all, we are neighbours and we have to learn to live with each other. I think this is not a wise policy. So, this policy also exacerbates the reactions in Turkey, particularly in a year like 2007 when the elections will be held. This affects nationalism in Turkey as well. So, it is not a wise policy on their side as well. Whether there can be a possibility of intervention? Even before this was not being discussed, I always thought that there could be a possibility. People talked about the EU impact and other things, economic consequences, etc. They are fine. But this issue is very important for Turkey as well. If the PKK attacks continue to accelerate, as particularly like the ones we had in Ankara, for instance, and we have learned that similar attacks were stopped in Istanbul and Adana, for instance, if these continue to accelerate there would be a lot of pressure on the policy makers as well to take drastic measures and so I would not rule out completely this possibility of such an intervention. Although what type of intervention is something that can change, some kind of intervention is a possibility, if these attacks continue. That would have negative consequences for Turkey as well, unfortunately. So, I hope that it would be avoided. But I think the US should see this and should effectively work on these issues. There is this perception in Turkey that somehow the US is not doing enough on these issues. It is not just for Turkey but for stability in this region, too, the US should use its leverage on the Kurdish groups as well and to take effective and real measures in dealing with these problems.

How to Balance Turkey’s Interests and Relations with Allies

Question – Well, of course, you are absolutely right. But what seems to happen is that, Mr. Barzani is being met in Washington in the White House as President of Kurdistan and all that, I believe that US has certain contribution to the creation of a so called Kurdistan concept. Also former British imperial policy of creating a Kurdish State in the region and European assistance to PKK, which is already documented, that casts Turkey in a very difficult position. On one side it has its own allies, on the other side its own interests. So, there is a conflict of interest arising. Wouldn’t you think that it may effect Turkey’s relations with the West in general, as well?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Definitely. Especially the issues related with Iraq and within that context the Kurdish issue has been affecting Turkey-US relations in particular, since 1991, not only today, despite the fact that in 1990’s we talked about a strategic partnership with the US. But Iraq issue is eroding Turkish-US relations, eroding the trust between the two longstanding allies, even then. This has accelerated in recent years. I believe that the US officials should understand that , why is there anti-Americanism in Turkey, what is happening in Turkey? This is the main reason. Iraq issue is the crux of the problem for Turkey and Turkey feels that the US does not think that way. Somehow, Iraqi Kurds, US’s allies now because it is the only stable region in Iraq and the US does not want to affect its relations with these groups but, never the less, Turkey is a very important country. And Turkey’s importance goes beyond the Middle East. It is not just the Middle East. I was just talking with some American experts the other day. They were asking me, what is this strategic significance of Turkey to the US? I said, I can tell you about the importance of Turkey. But Turkey has a strategic importance which goes beyond that region. We have to realize today that that there is some sole searching within the Muslim World. There is real competition for leadership. What direction the Muslim World should take? Iran clearly represents one model there. Look at Ahmedinejad. Iran today is no longer a Gulf power, also a Mediterranean power via Lebanon. We will talk about that country later. Iran is trying to be the leader of the Muslin World. Ahmedinejad talks in Indonesia, in Malaysia, talking in those terms, “we and them”. Turkey here represents something else. Turkey represents, “You can be Muslim but secular at the same time. You can be Muslim and democratic at the same time. You can be Muslim and be part of the Western institutions at the same time.” This is the most strategic thing you can get, in this day and age.

Secularity is the Key for Modernity

Question – We have shifted a little from Iraq. But it is very important. I think that there is a misconception that there can be a “mild Islam” in Turkey, that there can be a “mild Islam” in Jordan, there can be a “mild Islam” here and there. And it does not matter whether mild Islam produces anything for the people. But mild Islam and human rights, equality of genders, democracy and rule of law can only be achieved in an Islamic country if there is secularity. Secularism is the key for modernity, key for economic development, key to social development. I believe we have to explain a lot on this subject to our Western friends. Because they think that mild Islam is something that is granted because when one person is Moslem the whole national system is considered as a Moslem entity. However, this Moslem entity can be mild or violent. This Moslem entity cannot be a static entity but it may develop in mild or violent directions, The religion is personal affair in Turkey and that is the model. I think that model if it is thoroughly understood by our Western friends we may teach them something. Let us go back what you were saying about Lebanon and Syria. Of course, Syria is smarting because it was forced to get out of Lebanon and Syria is considered as an ally of Iran. They are both considered as rogue states by the US. But we are in the region. So what is our perception for Syria, Lebanon and to a certain extent for Iran?

How About Syria and Lebanon?

MELİHA ALTUNIŞIK – Well in terms of Syria, Turkey-Syrian relations have developed quite well, especially since 1998 when we had the crisis over the return Ocalan and then we signed the Adana Agreement, and after 2003 they got much better, I think Turkey basically argues that we have to engage Syria. I think that is a smart policy. It is a smart policy in the sense that this engagement by help in creating a rift in Syria Iranian alliance. This alliance is very detrimental for the region as a whole because of the crisis in Lebanon this alliance assumes a destructive importance. So if this Syrian,-Iranian alliance can be brought to an end this would also have repercussions for the Palestinian conflict and for Lebanon. I think Syria by trying to start the peace process with Israel etc. and by opening up to Turkey has given the signals that it is ready to cooperate. I think that is some thing that should be tried. The other thing is that in terms of Lebanon of course Syria feels cornered therefore tries to create difficulties for US in Iraq and Lebanon, and in that it cooperates with Iran. Both of these states are considered rogue states and are targeted accordingly. It is a classical power game. So I think there are possibilities for engaging Syria in regional politics, like in the case 1990s. In Lebanon of course there are various dynamics that are going on. Actually in the North, around Tripoli we have been noticing that there are some increasing Sunni radicalization for some time now. Generally when Lebanon is considered, there is a lot of emphasis on Hizbullah which is a Shiite radical movement. These last events are related to Sunni radicalization around Tripoli. There are also speculations about Syrian involvement and that may be the case. Because it makes sense in terms of balance of power in the region. There are various conflicts in Lebanon; some of them are of domestic nature that makes Lebanon a very interesting place. There is a contractual system but it is based on the balance of confessional percentages. Therefore, there is a constant struggle in Lebanon in terms of economic and political power sharing. All these groups are vying for the bigger part of the cake, if I may say so. In reality Lebanon has historically been an arena of competition among regional powers as well. So there are two levels of conflict and external powers have also tried to settle their accounts in Lebanon. The same thin g is also happening today. Your have on the one hand US and Israel and on the other Iran and Syria, are trying to settle their scores in Lebanon. Actually Lebanese actors are only a part of this struggle. Hizbullah’s struggle last summer was clearly in these terms, not just a war Lebanon but also one for the region for the direction the region would take: whether it would turn into a US made regional order or would it go the other way. And similarly where would Lebanon stand in this. Would Lebanon be in the US axis or in the Iran-Syria axis? Therefore Lebanon may be considered as laboratory of the region. Domestic issues may be easier to settle but unless the regional issues remain unsettled we will not have peace in Lebanon. In other words if you cannot break the alliance between Syria and Iran there will not no peace in Lebanon unless Arab-Israeli conflict especially between Syria and Israel are settled there will be no peace in Lebanon. This is why question of peace in Lebanon is quite complex and hard to achieve.

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