Amidst the sweeping changes brought about by the Arab Spring, Turkey has found a window of opportunity to demonstrate its competency and capability for assuming a lead role in the Middle East, abandoning its previous “zero problems” foreign policy in the process.
The “zero problems” approach to foreign policy was spearheaded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) party first came to power in 2002. The term refers to Turkey’s pledge to maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors, as long as they respect Turkey’s interests in return. For many years, Syria seemed to be the major benefactor of this policy even though the two nations almost went to war in the early 1990’s over President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged support of Kurdish separatists. Under the “zero problems” policy, Syria became one of Turkey’s primary trading partners, and at one point the two nations were conducting joint cabinet meetings.
Turkey extended this policy to Israel following the 2005 Gaza Strip evacuation, after which ties between the two nations were lauded by both sides as “the best they had ever been” and included deep economic and military cooperation.
As far as Israel is concerned, the “zero problems” attitude largely ended when Turkey’s complicity in the 2010 “flotilla” incident became evident after activists from the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH) ambushed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops aboard the Mavi Marmara. After Israel rejected Turkey’s ultimatum for an apology following the leaking of the UN’s Palmer Report, relations between the two nations have sunk to their lowest point since the Knesset passed the Jerusalem unification law in 1981. In the aftermath of the Palmer Report, Turkey has sought to punish Israel by reducing diplomatic ties and military cooperation, while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself has used every platform possible to de-legitimize Israel on the world stage.
Given recent events, however, it seems that Turkey’s aggressive policy towards Israel is not an isolated one, but rather part of a broad strategy to achieve regional hegemony. The events of the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a weakened Iran have left a window of opportunity for this once-dormant power to reemerge as the leader of the Middle East.
Turkey’s recent actions in opposing the Assad regime signal perhaps the most extreme example of its abandonment of its “zero problems” policy. Assad’s brutal crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators has embarrassed the Erdoğan administration, which had previously invested tireless efforts in achieving a strong relationship with Syria. This turnaround came to a peak on Sept. 24 when the Turkish navy seized an arms shipment destined for Syria and subsequently announced an arms embargo on the embattled Alawite regime and Iranian ally.
These actions came after Erdoğan had consistently warned of his nation’s willingness to use its navy in a more aggressive fashion, offering to escort future aid flotillas to Gaza while threatening Cyprus over its intention to explore the eastern Mediterranean for natural resources.
In addition, Turkey has stepped up its use of soft power by attempting to influence the political processes of nations that have recently undergone “Arab Spring” revolutions, namely Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, Erdoğan has established close ties with the Ennahda party, a previously outlawed faction which is said to have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and now openly proclaims itself to be similar to Turkey’s AKP. On Sept. 13, Erdoğan made a high-profile visit to Egypt in what may have been the most visible demonstration of Turkey’s strategy to assert its influence. Erdoğan’s overall success in Egypt is questionable since he did not follow through on his intention to visit Gaza, while his speech in Cairo on the importance of a secular state drew criticism among Islamists in the country.
The fact that Erdoğan did not make good on his pledge to visit Gaza prompted some commentators to assert that his recent campaign of threats against Israel was nothing more than rhetoric. The Israeli government as well continues to maintain that Erdoğan’s fury is nothing more than a storm that can be expected to pass without inflicting real damage.
So what can be made of Turkey’s recent actions or inactions? The fact of the matter is that Erdoğan has found a window of opportunity in the Arab Spring to restore Turkey to regional hegemony at a time when it only serves to help his party’s standing at home. Turkey is currently facing a number of considerable challenges to its internal stability, including economic, security and political threats.
Since July 15, Kurdish militant groups such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have renewed their attacks in the southeastern provinces of the country, to which the Turkish government has responded with an ongoing cross-border bombing campaign against PKK bases in Northern Iraq. In Ankara and İstanbul, minority Kurds have stepped up their civil disobedience efforts, while their political leaders have since boycotted all parliamentary proceedings. In addition, Erdoğan and his AKP party are looking to use the political strength gained from the last election to promote controversial constitutional reforms, while wresting control of the country from the once-powerful Turkish military.
Just as these internal divides seemed to have boiled over, the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have opened up a comfortable window of opportunity for Erdoğan to unify his country on external issues, striving to increase his country’s prestige as a regional leader without any nation to challenge it. Turkey’s Sunni rival, Egypt, has been struggling to restore order since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and Iran, another non-Arab regional power, has been increasingly crippled by international sanctions, while internal divisions with the Ayatollahs have rendered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a lame-duck president. Israel’s increasing isolation over the Palestinian issue has not only weakened its regional influence, but provided Erdoğan with a popular issue for which he can lead the Arab world in opposing.
Given his recent actions, it can be assumed that Erdoğan will continue to flex his muscles as long as his AKP party stands to benefit. Erdoğan has much to lose from a naval confrontation with either Israel or Cyprus, as doing so would invite the wrath of the American Congress, which could compromise critical military cooperation between the two nations. On this note, it would be a mistake to think that Erdoğan will not use his military, should the need arise. The bombing campaign in northern Iraq is entering its third month and has continued without hindrance, while there has already been a reserve call up in response to Syrian Military maneuvers along the Turkish border. Lastly, Erdoğan’s last minute backtrack on his decision to visit Gaza signifies his ability to make pragmatic decisions and put his ego aside. Erdoğan likely understood that such a visit would have bolstered Hamas and drawn the ire of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both major players whose complacency needs to remain unhindered.
While Turkey is clearly looking to take a leadership role in the Middle East, it would be incorrect to compare its motivation to that of the Iranian regime. Despite his party’s Islamic roots, Erdoğan is not seeking to “Islamize” the region, nor restore the old Ottoman Empire. What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Turkey has staked its claim as the gate-keeper to the Middle East, abandoning indefinitely any aspiration to be a part of Europe. Instead of acting as a subservient nation begging to join the European Union, Erdoğan has used his new foreign policy to send a message to the world: Turkey is a strong, Muslim, Middle Eastern nation, which now has the final word on any and all action taking place within its realm.