Earlier this year, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared that Turkey would be the 'owner, pioneer and servant' of the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But pressures from multiple challenges in the region could jeopardize the success of Turkey's more activist foreign policy.
Turkey's embrace of the Middle East is not new. Since 2002 the AKP/Erdoğan government has sought to be a major economic player in the region. Trade figures bear out the re-entry of Turkey into the Middle East. The share of Turkish trade with the Middle East, expressed as a share of its total trade, rose from 6% in 2002 to 16% in 2010. Assuming the continuation of current trends, Iraq may become Turkey's top trading partner within one or two years.
Yet, the momentum for mutual engagement has been stalled by a series of challenges in its eastern neighbourhood. Syria, in particular, is testing the limits of Turkey's foreign policy: its capacity to handle the influx of Syrian refugees (80,000 so far and counting) is stretched, and the conflict has led to an escalation of violence with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The US and Europe have so far rebuffed Turkey's calls to impose a buffer zone on Syria's side of the border. According to recent opinion polls, the Turkish public fear that Turkey's approach to the Syria crisis may even be encouraging Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria.
Relations with the three 'Is' – Israel, Iran and Iraq – are fraught with difficulties. Turkey has downgraded diplomatic outreach to Israel following the latter’s rejection of Turkish demands for an unequivocal apology over the June 2010 Mavi Marmara incident which resulted in nine Turkish deaths. This is far removed from Turkey's role as peace mediator between Israel and Syria only a few years ago.
Iran was incensed by Turkey's acceptance to host a sophisticated US-operated NATO-supported anti-missile radar system in Malatya, around 400 miles from the Turkish-Iranian frontier. Turkey's vehement anti-Assad stance is another source of friction. Furthermore, two years ago, Iran agreed to a Brazilian-Turkish initiative to exchange low enriched uranium for fuel rods on Turkish soil. Today, in light of the mutual mistrust and acrimony, such an agreement would be inconceivable.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been busy lobbing rhetorical attacks at one another. Al-Maliki was angered by Turkey's attempts to install his bitter rival Iyad Allawi as prime minister in the 2009 elections. In turn, Turkey is deeply frustrated by what it perceives as Al-Maliki's targeting of senior Sunni politicians such as Tariq Al-Hashimi.
Given that Turkey is falling out with non-Sunni Muslim personalities, there are growing accusations of a sectarian dimension to Turkey's external posture. True or not, this perception has dissipated the goodwill nurtured by years of patient and prudent diplomacy under the 'zero problems with neighbours' policy.
As unnerving as the on-going difficulties may be, the road ahead is likely to get tougher in part because of Turkey's decelerating economic growth. Turkey's economy is over-reliant on consumer demand and low-tech, low-margin exports that cannot achieve the government's objective of reaching $25,000 per capita income by 2023, the first centenary of the Turkish Republic. Arguably, the appetite for reform will be diminished by the vigorous election cycle of 2013-15.
If Turkey slides into a moderate long-term growth trajectory, it will not enjoy the resources concomitant with an ambitious Middle East orientation. Under this scenario, the regional challenges confronted by Turkey will become even more demanding.
View related content from the 2012 Istanbul Roundtable.