Turkey and Arab anxiety

It is clear that there is a significant gap between how Turkey would like to project itself to the Middle East and the realities in key circles of the foreign policy establishment in these countries. Complicating matters more are the perceptions commonly held in the Arab street, which has been favorable to Turkey for some time now, and the unreasonably high expectations of Arab citizens from the Turkish capital to deliver what the regional and global powers have failed to do for a century, i.e., stability and peace in the region.

We discussed all these lingering questions at a panel discussion in Beirut’s Hotel Le Bristol on Friday, organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center, the İstanbul-based nongovernmental organization Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) and the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s think tank arm the Strategic Research Center (SAM). Looking at Turkey from outside in a “thinking out of the box” way, I think I was able to glean contrasting perceptions and different realities commonly held for Turkey in the Middle East.

For one, Turkish officials’ remarks that go beyond the boundaries of fair comment and facts have created an apprehension and at times anger against Turkey, despite the fact that some of these remarks were clearly intended to cater to the domestic constituency. For example, in response to the government’s critics of the Syrian policy at a Turkish Parliament debate late April, Turkish foreign policy czar Ahmet Davutoğlu said: “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East.” This statement created a lot of anxiety across the Middle East and even beyond, to the detriment of Turkey’s attempts to portray itself as a “smart power.” Frankly it was not smart at all to create this uneasiness in the minds of people in the Middle East.

Another example we heard was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks that Syria is an internal problem for Turkey. He said this time and again, probably meaning that Turkey has to deal with the refugee crisis spilling over from the Syrian side and needs to confront terror and civil/sectarian war threats. But the perception in the region was different as it invoked the specter of “neo-Ottomanist” ambitions by emerging powerhouse Turkey. That brings us to the sensitive language issue that Turkish officials should be extra careful in choosing their words.

Turkey’s close engagement with Iran is also another source of friction when it comes to relations with Sunni regimes in the Middle East, especially in Gulf monarchies. Though in private talks Ankara has time and again assured the Sunni regimes in the Gulf that it opposes a nuclear-armed Iran and has a vested national interest in containing Persian nationalism, it was not so forthcoming in its public remarks. The only exception was maybe the deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who accused Iran publicly of nourishing religious fanaticism and promoting a sectarian divide in the Muslim world. Interestingly enough, it was the same Bülent Arınç who ruffled feathers in Riyadh when he said the Arab Spring will catch up with monarchies in the Gulf as well. Turkey needs to be open and frank in its relations with the radical mullah regime in Tehran.

Even in divided Lebanon, perceptions towards Turkey were completely reversed in a few years’ time. The Shiites, especially Hezbollah, are not happy with Turkey’s Syrian policy, while Sunnis are siding with Ankara in bashing the embattled Bashar al-Assad’s minority regime. When Erdoğan was cozying up to Assad until only two years ago, Lebanese Sunnis were having deep doubts and questions over Turkish foreign policy. The lesson that needs to be learned from this is that if you take a strong position on the internal conflict of any one country in the Middle East, that makes you a party to the conflict, which is not easy to solve. Once the problem becomes deeply entrenched, it will be difficult to extract Turkey from the controversies without substantial damage to its reputation and perception. Lest we forget, perception is more important than the reality in the Middle East where principles of democracy, accountability and transparency do not mean much in vast tribal, sectarian and family networks.

The recent rapprochement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds is also worrying Arab countries, stoking fears of the possible breakup of Iraq, an Arab territory. Though Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki’s close ties with Tehran fuel suspicions among Arab rulers, the specter of Kurdish secession may nevertheless give rise to Arab nationalistic sentiments across the Middle East, pushing fears of Iran to the backburner on that specific issue. The intentions of the Kurdish minority in the Syrian north, who number around some 1.5 million, also trigger old Arab suspicions that Kurds will be carving out pieces from another Arab country, Syria, eventually. Coupled with that, Turkey’s overtures with its own Kurdish minority — the largest in the region — and what Ankara is ultimately hoping to accomplish with Kurdish initiatives, all raise further questions in Arab circles. Turkey needs to assure its Arab friends on the end game with Kurdish people in the Middle East.

In the panel discussion, it was made clear that Turkey, with its booming economy and relevantly successful marriage of democracy and Islam, is the only inspiration across the Middle East despite some serious shortcomings in many areas. It may very well be that there is simply no competing example we can find in the region at the moment, making Turkey visibly stand out from the crowd. Put differently, it is the only non-Arab power, apart from Israel and Iran, that can offer an alternative approach based on accountability, transparency and rule of law, an appealing political discourse to masses in Arab Street (and anxiety for the rulers) to replace heavily securitized policies that have maintained a tight grip on Arab politics for decades. In any case, this should prompt Turkish policymakers to refine its democracy and address its long-running problems at once to keep the appeal alive.

Another worry from the Arab perspective is the lack of a working relationship between Turkey and Israel. By severing ties with Israel, Turkey lost valuable leverage of being an “honest broker” in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was left out of the Middle East process. Though Erdoğan’s snub to the Israeli president at Davos in 2009, the flotilla incident and Ankara’s continuous bashing of Tel Aviv may have bought points in the Arab and Turkish street, it did not produce any profoundly favorable impact on government policies pursued by Arab regimes towards Turkey. In fact, it raised further suspicions that Erdoğan is aiming to become a champion of the Palestine cause to the detriment of existing rulers in Arab states.

It was only four years ago that Turkey was offering to mediate between Lebanon and Israel over land and border issues. Today it has lost Israel while having to face a confidence problem in Beirut. It was only three years ago when Turkey was mediating between Iraq and Syria. It severed ties with the latter while now having huge problems with the former. Ankara soothed tensions between Damascus and Riyadh a few years back. Now Saudi Arabia is displaying some reservations about Turkish foreign policy goals. Ankara got so close to Tehran that it even cast a vote against sanctions on Iran as a non-permanent UN Security Council member and brokered a deal with Iran over the transfer of enriched uranium. The unhealthy relationship with the mullah regime caused an unnecessary loss in credibility to Turkey when Iran, as always, reneged on its promise of cooperation with world powers. Going to the extremes on foreign policy initiatives does not look good on the scorecard of Turkey when viewed from the Middle East.

Last but not least, as a newcomer to the Middle East, Turkey does not have enough experience to deal with long-running problems in this part of the world. It lacks rich human resources with deep knowledge and understanding of the region. According to the April report published by the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) in Ankara, only six out of 135 people in Turkey’s 25 diplomatic missions in Arab countries can speak Arabic. I think this says a lot about the competence and capability of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Since addressing these structural shortcomings will take some time to rectify, Turkey needs all the partners it can get to pave the way for a not-so-bumpy Turkish role in the Middle East.

In conclusion, Turkey should capitalize on the general feeling of welcome by the Arabs states and their public as the non-Arab country in the Middle East. It must conduct a better public relations campaign to explain the intricacies of Turkish political and social structures as it appears there is a lack of full understanding how Turkey’s domestic dynamics work. In the meantime, Ankara should also heed Arab concerns over Turkey’s role, especially in its relations with Iran, refrain from inflammatory remarks heavily laced with overconfidence and a patronizing attitude and watch out for political fault lines in the quake-prone Middle East. In this part of the world, so many things can go wrong at once, and you might feel the ground shifting under your feet rapidly.

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