Following the capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire ruled a vast multi-ethnic expanse from its capital in Istanbul, stretching across the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Southern Europe. Following its defeat in World War I, the Allied Powers dismembered the Ottoman Empire. The Anatolian heartland of the empire subsequently fell to Turkish nationalists in 1923. Led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nationalists established the Republic of Turkey, which ceased to be the major regional power in the Middle East that the Ottoman Empire was, instead focusing on domestic development and Soviet containment with its NATO allies. In recent years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has reasserted Turkey’s role as a major regional power in the Middle East, independent of its NATO allies.
While the Republic of Turkey for the most part consists of historically ethnic Turkish lands, since the state’s creation there has been a substantial ethnic Kurdish minority living in the southeastern region. Due to what the Kurds believed to be violations of their natural rights as a people at the hands of the Turkish government, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched an insurgency offensive against the Turkish state in 1984.
In the ensuing conflict, which persists to this day, more than 40,000 people have died, including more than 4,000 civilians. Turkey, the United States and NATO have deemed the PKK a terrorist organization. This conflict has long been central to Turkish policy, but in recent years, the conflict has died down, and the AKP-led government has been able to focus on other policy issues.
The AKP has devised a foreign policy tactic called “zero problems with neighbors.” Under this policy, Turkey aims to create warm relations with all of its neighbors, which include Israel. Turkish leadership hoped that the zero problems doctrine would provide a way for Turkey to reassert itself as a regional great power in its own right, not merely just the most Eastern flank of NATO.
The zero problems policy’s first major test was during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Turkey was called on to respond to the uprisings because it is one of the Middle East’s most populous countries, the region’s largest economy and, at the time, considered a model of democratic Islamist government. The zero problems doctrine failed to be effective in the face of a multitude of regional problems.
In order to gain legitimacy amongst its Arab neighbors as a leading Muslim power, and not just a secularist Western pawn, Turkey took a dramatic stand against Israel in 2010 over an Israeli commando raid against a Turkish humanitarian aid flotilla headed towards the Gaza Strip. In response, Turkey ceased diplomatic relations with Israel. The Arab world lauded Turkey for its response. By creating this “problem” with Israel, Turkey was able to credibly demonstrate that it wanted to work constructively with its Arab neighbors as an independent actor of NATO.
The zero problems policy breaks with Turkey’s former foreign policy doctrine, which used to roughly coincide with that of the United States and NATO. For example, Turkey has helped Iran enrich its uranium, a measure that the United States dramatically opposes.
In Libya, Turkey helped unseat Gadhafi. In Egypt, Turkey supported the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi that replaced the Mubarak dictatorship. When Morsi’s government was ousted in a coup in June 2013, Turkey heavily criticized the military regime that replaced it. Since then, Egyptian-Turkish relations have frayed dramatically, with the two countries ceasing diplomatic relations. Also in response to Turkey’s condemnation of the Egyptian coup, Turkish relations with the various Arab states of the Persian Gulf’s relations have grown much colder.
Turkish foreign policy has gone from zero problems to lots of problems. Turkey has become particularly embroidered in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. While in the onset of the zero problems policy, Turkey reproached the pariah Assad regime, Turkey quickly denounced the government with the onset of the civil war. Turkey harbors rebels in its territory, letting them use Turkey as a staging ground for the war against the Assad government.
Tremendous controversy has emerged in the past few weeks regarding a recording of a government meeting that was leaked to YouTube where top political leadership, including the “top spy chief,” the foreign minister and a top military official, discussed secret plans to invade Syria. The New York Times reports, “One option that is said to have been discussed was orchestrating an attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is in northern Syria and is considered by the government here to be Turkish territory.”
This reemergence of Turkey as a dominant regional power in the Middle East has tremendous historical precedent. Turkey lies in a tremendously important geopolitical location, on the Anatolian peninsula, lying between the Balkans in Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
In addition to its strategic location, Turkey also controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates region, which gives it control over tremendous amounts of water, vitally important in the arid Middle East. While much of the geopolitical discussion of the Middle East revolves around oil, sufficient water is equally, if not more, important. Because of recent dam projects, Turkey has the ability to export water all over the region and can even export water all the way to the West Bank.
While geopolitics dictate that Turkey will be a major regional player, the domestic institutions affect the way that the Turkish power manifests itself.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Kemalist, western-oriented military led Turkey. They promoted Westernization and strived to join the European Union. But the EU did not reciprocate Turkey’s enthusiasm for the country to join the organization. This rejection worsened Turkey’s perception of the West, making it turn more inclined towards its old sphere of influence, the Middle East.
Concurrently, Turkey has become more democratic in the past 15 years. This democratization has also contributed to a foreign policy oriented more towards the Middle East. Turkey is a largely Muslim country, and its recent foreign policy has reflected this demography.
While the secular military leaders oriented Turkey more towards the West prior to the recent increased democratization, now that leadership is accountable to the public, its foreign policy has turned to the Muslim world. In 2010, when Turkey ceased relations with Israel over the flotilla incident, the public lauded the move.
In recent months, Prime Minister Erdogan has engaged in frequent anti-democratic measures that have brought into question the extent of Turkey’s recent democratization. After a round of recent elections, which Erdogan’s AKP did exceedingly well in, the Prime Minister swore “to make political enemies pay a price.” While the elections were free and fair, if these words are followed up upon, it does not bode well for Turkish democracy. In the past year, the Turkish government also brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters, imposed various constraints on free speech and free press and had high-level officials face corruption allegations.
It remains unclear the effects on Turkey’s recent autocratic policies, and if this frightening policies will persist. If these policies continue, the effects on Turkey’s foreign policy are unclear.
Regardless, Turkey’s recent rise as a regional great power in the Middle East will have dramatic effects on the unstable region’s future.
For decades, the Middle East has been subject to the influence of great powers not native to the region, such as most recently the United States. Hopefully the rise of Turkey, a mostly-democratic Muslim country, will provide a model example for this region that has so long been troubled by radical Islam, war and political unrest.
– By Ben Perlmutter