Without putting too fine a point on it, Turkey has in the last few months been acting like a petulant child that doesn't get its dessert before the meal. This is a direct result of the all-too-commonplace assumption of Turkish leaders and outside analysts of Turkey's heavy weight in the Middle East. Both have, since the end of the Cold War, called attention to Turkey's expanding economy, large population, ability to act as bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, and unique position between Arabs and Israelis as factors making Turkey a very consequential actor in regional politics.
At the end of the Cold War and the sudden appearance of the Turkic republic in Central Asia, former President Turgut Özal might be forgiven -- given his flair for the dramatic -- for proclaiming in 1992 that the 21st century would be "the century of the Turks." And one might similarly shrug at the appearance of books at the time declaring, for example, Turkey as one of the world's new "pivotal states."
But the proclivity for exaggerating Turkey's centrality to regional politics seems to have remained firmly in place for subsequent Turkish foreign policy, and indeed has become enhanced under the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP in the Turkish acronym). However, this penchant may have finally caught up with Ankara, and now exposed the chimera that was Turkey's regional influence.
Although he only became Foreign Minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoğlu's conceptualization of Turkey's position in the region is representative of the AKP's perceptions of its importance and how other states will respond to this "given" fact. His "zero problems" framework is meant to prescribe a policy in which, so long as others "respect our values," it would be able to maintain good relations with everyone, including former enemies and antagonists. This, in turn, would form the basis for Turkish influence because it alone could use its ties to different, often feuding, countries to bring resolution to regional issues.
Take Turkey's policies toward Israel and Syria, two of the countries in the Middle East that Turkey worked hard to develop good relations with and with which it has had major problems since both have engaged in attacks against civilians. Yet in both cases, Turkey has failed to deliver on its ability to manage, let alone control, events. The public rhetoric of its leaders has raised expectations that neither country can possibly meet, thereby raising the stakes and putting Turkey in the position of being unable to explain why its demands are not met.
The problem stems from the AKP's perception of Turkey's position. As Davutoğlu's approach puts it, the AKP has defined Turkish values--in this case, the protection of civilian lives--as something non-Turks are expected to also conform to in the event. But the Middle East is not a place where one set of priorities, much less values, accrues.
With Israel, the Mavi Marmara incident is of course one of the more serious outstanding problems in the relationship. The AKP has consistently and publicly exhibited a sense of wounded pride that can be mended only by Israel--in the view of many of its own leaders--prostrating itself and agreeing to policies that would threaten it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to insist that "As long as Israel does not apologize, as long as Israel does not compensate, and as long as it does not lift the blockade [of Gaza], it is not possible for Turkish-Israeli relations to improve." And with the leaking of the UN's Palmer Report, Davutoğlu has said that because Israel did not apologize, it is time it "pays a price." It has downgraded relations with Israel, suspended military agreements, and apparently is threatening broader international legal and diplomatic actions. There is no indication that Israel will apologize, and it will certainly not lift the siege--especially now that the Report has noted that the blockade is legal.
Turkey appears to have painted itself into a corner as well with its policy toward Syria. Davutoğlu's messages to the Syrian regime to stop the killings or face important (Turkish) consequences reminds one of the Soviet endeavor to prevent or mitigate the 1991 Gulf War: more like an effort to remain relevant than anything of concrete value. Moreover, it has repeated this warning a handful of times, yet no real penalties have been forthcoming.
When Turkey expects others to abide by its declared principles, announces that those who don't respect them will have problems with Turkey, and then other actors don't abide by these stated values, Turkey is placed in a bind. Either it acts on its pronouncements and takes action against those who clash with Turkey's values; or it does nothing. If it does the former--as with Israel--but still doesn't get results, its influence is weakened further.
It is time for Turkish policymakers to acknowledge this and work within these constraints.
A more effective effort might be to adopt a Norwegian-type role in the region. In the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Norway took on a position few others were capable of or willing to: that of general facilitator of peace talks. Turkey has, in fact, done just that: recently Istanbul hosted a meeting of the Libya Contact Group, the grouping of states working with Libya's Transitional National Council as it takes power from the former regime. Turkey also channeled about $300 million in aid to the TNC to help jumpstart its ability to govern. And of course it hosted secret talks between Israel and Syria in the past.
It is these quieter, less public efforts that Turkey might focus on. They are more in line with the expectations of regional states--none of which have ever indicated a willingness to follow the Turkish lead on any issue of major regional importance. They would also move Turkey away from public pronouncements that build anticipation of policies that are unlikely to be delivered on.
Norway has been referred to as a "middle power" country, meaning it has the ability to get things done on issues that larger, more powerful countries can't. If Turkey moved into this type of position--and outside observers stopped raising other expectations--it could play a very successful role in the Middle East that it currently cannot.
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