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Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Since the early days of the Arab Springs, Turkey has been rediscovering its vocation for an hegemonic role in the Middle East and in North Africa. Building on its powerful military, its renewed economic strength and its Muslim connotation, Ankara is reviving its ancient glory. It is a choice that is definitely related to Turkey's difficulties in joining the European Union; it has found  fertile ground in the political instability in the region; has been favored by the fact that the government in Ankara is guided by the leader of an Islamic party like Recep Erdogan and is now freed from a controversial close relationship with Israel. From a subordinate political position with respect to Europe and NATO, Ankara has now become a central player in Middle Eastern affairs.

Turkey now plays across the board: they are initially hostile and then become neutral with regard to an armed intervention in Libya (in the hope of carving out a role of mediation which did not follow). They host on their territory the Syrian political and armed opposition while at the same time Ankara is negotiating options or diplomatic sanctions against Damascus together with the U.S. and the Arab League, but clearly opposing an armed intervention. Prime Minister Ergodan visited Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, the Arab League in a crescendo of relationships and proposals. Turkey is increasing its influence in NATO, is developing unopposed military operations against the Kurds in Iraq and is colonizing Iraqi Kurdistan economically. Politically, Ankara has appropriated the democratization process in the Middle East by establishing close relations with the new leaderships, while it has broken its relations with Israel. In all this, on U.S. request Turkey has decided to authorize the installation on its territory of a radar system against Iran, but at the same time it is collaborating with Tehran in the fight against the Kurds (there was also talk of a possible joint military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan). Finally, Ankara cooperates with France on Syria, but then enters into collision with Paris on the Armenian genocide.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk


Behind all this activism, is Turkey's desire to be the star of a new political and social order that is sweeping through the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. There is also the Turkish belief - supported by the statements of those involved – that the strategic importance that the U.S., NATO and Europe now grant to Ankara is essential for any future balance in the region. If you add to this: Turkish nationalism which has been fueled by the role of the military over the years, the ill-concealed pride of being a military and economic power (Turkey is the 13th economy in the world) and the desire - better said  ambition - to return to the glory and prestige of the past, we reach the conclusion that this phase of expansionism is nonetheless aimed at re-establishing a military-political-economic turkish "neo-Ottomanism".

Here is an analysis of the current trend of Turkish politics and the strategies:

The freezing of the relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara took place in the wake of the attack against the Turkish ship "Marvi Marmara" by Israeli forces on May 31, 2010. In order to prevent her from reaching Gaza, nine Turkish nationals were killed by the Israelis. The situation was exacerbated by the failed Israeli apology and by the Palmer Commission's controversial opinion that led to the breakup of the bilateral diplomatic relations. Prior to that, in 2006 Turkey had condemned the Israeli attack on Lebanon and in 2009 the embargo on Gaza. The Turkish decision, combined with a subsequent and overt declaration on Palestinian rights (including the request for recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN), gained strong sympathies in the Arab world. But it has also caused a shift in alliances in the region, with Israel approaching Cyprus, Greece and Armenia and Turkey getting closer to the post-Mubarak Egypt and Palestine. In the background stands the fight for the control of the hydrocarbon reserves in the southern Mediterranean;

After the fall of Mubarak, the weakening of the strategic axis between Egypt and Saudi Arabia has allowed Ankara, in the absence of adequate competition, to exercise the role of leading country in the region. Since February 2011, at the beginning of the first rallies in Cairo, Erdogan had spoken to Mubarak inviting him to crush the opposition. After the fall of the Rais, the Turkish PM then embarked on a triumphal tour in Cairo along with about 200 entrepreneurs to strengthen the economic relations (Turkey exports approximately 3 billion dollars worth of products a year to Egypt), to formalize a strategic relationship (Erdogan proposed the creation of a bilateral strategic Council) and to export Turkey's secular islamic model (in this case going into apparent collision with the Muslim Brotherhood). The creation of an axis, now only political and economic, but hopefully tomorrow also military, between the strongest country in the region (Turkey) and the most influential one in the Arab world (Egypt) is a key element of the Turkish penetration in the region;

Demonstration in Palestine

The strategic importance of Turkey as a bridge and a crossroads between Asia and Europe, now geographically emphasized by the instability in the Middle East, was quickly transformed by Ankara in a negotiating element in the relationship with the U.S. and Europe. Turkey wants to represent American interests in the area - obviously with margins of maneuver for its own interests - to the detriment of the same role now played by Israel. They intend to do so thanks to the renewed prestige of a country that feels it can negotiate without any complexes with the leaders of the world. Ankara is savoring the taste of revenge against the European Union and their refusal of a Turkish membership in the EU.

The penetration of Turkish politics in the region has taken up the space once occupied by Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula. During the various Arab Springs, Ryadh has dedicated resources to the support of extremist religious groups. Ankara instead has worked in favor of moderate popular movements. Turkey intervenes in the region careless of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites and does not play with religious orthodoxy. Ankara has therefore more room for maneuvering. Moreover, Turkish secularism as opposed to Saudi Wahabi islamic fundamentalism is far more acceptable to Western powers. At the same time, Riyadh is concerned by the potential contagion that may arise from the libertarian gusts blowing in the region. In this regard, Turkish concerns are limited. Democracy and human rights are a tool for the Turks, while they are a reason for concern for the Saudis;

The electoral victories by Recep Erdogan and his success limiting the role of the military have allowed the leader of the AKP to pursue a more Islamic-centric foreign policy. In this new configuration Turkey has the ability to export its islamic secular model as opposed to other extremist religious approaches;

Turkey is currently also benefiting from other favorable exogenous circumstances: the Greek economic instability (Turkey's eternal rival and competitor), the possible transit of pipelines from their Asian deposits to Europe, its growing influence in the Caucasus.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama

New Challenges

The problem now facing Turkey is whether it will be capable of turning a series of favorable events into a stable political and economic sphere of influence at both a regional and possibly continental level. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish foreign policy had suffered a steep decline with respect to the former territories under its domain. A first phase of rejection, caused perhaps by a never dormant nationalism, led Ankara to refuse to treat with equal dignity the newly established States once under the Ottoman umbrella. For decades followed a Turkish foreign policy geared on isolationism and on the differences with the Arab world (the Turks being not Arabic), rather than on the commonalities (the Islamic religion was in ideological opposition with Ataturk's Islamic secularism). Erdogan's Turkey's has reversed the terms of the approach in the country's foreign policy.

Religion has become a vehicle of penetration, the Turkish political model is now offered as an example and not as a tool to differentiate the Turks from the Arabs.

A number of issues are still unresolved. The first one being what the real strategic aspiration of Turkish foreign policy is. Being the largest country in the Middle East – this being a theoretical element before the advent of the Arab Spring and now having taken shape - is taken for granted by the Turkish leadership - and not only for historical reasons - and thus may be only a tactical move in the direction of obtaining major objectives in the future. The Turkish desire to enter the European Union goes in this direction.

Then there is the issue of the increasing regional instability. If on one side this may favour Turkey's strategic importance, it could also determine a contagious backfire. We should not forget about the Kurdish problem with the upsurge in PKK attacks over recent months. This is an issue involving 15% of the Turkish population and concerning a geographic area spanning across Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Syrian crisis, the American withdrawal from Iraq, Erdogan's intention to negotiate with the Kurds (which saw the opposition of the military but also of the PKK's extreme wing) could trigger an escalation of terrorism.

Finally, we must not neglect the reactions from other political actors in the Middle East. While Turkey takes for granted its primacy in Middle Eastern affairs, it is not obvious whether such approach may be acceptable to other Arab countries. There is surely a conflict between the Turks and the Saudi's hegemonic interests in the Gulf. Egypt still has not the strength to exercise its cultural role in the Arab world, but this does not mean that it will passively accept Turkish expansionism in the future. In addition this, the Egypt of today - with the yet untouched role of the military leadership - could be radically different from the Egypt of tomorrow under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (who certainly have nothing in common with the Turkish view of Islam turkish) and/or the Salafists from the Nour (not coincidentally funded by Riyadh). Furthermore, there is Qatar's activism, whom, just like Turkey, has carved out a role for its policies during the various Arab Springs. This was done with the participation of its military in the bombing of Libya and continues thanks to the persuasive power of the al Jazeera network. The fact that Qatar is a small country is balanced by its economic and strategic importance as attributed by the U.S.. Finally there is Iran and its nuclear ambitions. They are a reason for concern to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States, but also for Turkey. What today is mere bilateral distrust or indifference could become outright hostility tomorrow.

In a nutshell, Turkey and its current Middle Eastern policy may provide opportunities to Ankara's expansionist intentions, but it could also become a source of problems. It is not enough to be a military power with a strong economy to assert a leading role in a region where instability is endemic, democracy is lacking and conflict is constantly forthcoming. It does not suffice to claim a historical legacy to claim a leading role over a geographical area. You cannot expect a re-edition of the Ottoman Empire with the same balance of forces and influences that it had in the past. It is not yet clear whether this concept has indeed been assimilated by Turkey.