Turkey Must Disengage from Intra-Arab Conflicts

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Turkey Must Disengage from Intra-Arab Conflicts

Turkey has been one of the few countries, and the only one in the Middle East, that has taken a principled stand on the military’s overthrow of the elected government in Egypt, characterized it unequivocally as a coup, and condemned it forcefully.
It has done so even at the risk of alienating some of its friends in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia, which shares Ankara’s strong antipathy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria although for very different reasons. Turkey’s stance has, not unexpectedly, given the military rulers of Egypt umbrage, leading to the withdrawal of ambassadors from each other’s capitals. More importantly, it has mired Turkey further in the mess that the Arab countries, and especially their self-serving elites, have created for themselves. In part this has been the result of the failure of the Arab Spring to take root thanks to the machinations of the same elites, with their narrow visions of self-interest based on class, sect and tribe.
Turkey’s foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors,” the brainchild of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is in deep trouble, and not only in Egypt, by no fault of Turkey or its visionary foreign minister. Turkey’s Arab neighbors to the east, at whom the policy was primarily directed, have over the last couple of years become embroiled in civil wars, state failure, coups d’état and every imaginable form of political malaise that precludes the formulation of any rational state-to-state approach by Ankara toward the Arab world.
Over the years I had been a staunch supporter of Turkey’s new “ostpolitik,” as I perceived it to be a good balancing act vis-à-vis its relations with the West, which had become too one-sided and detracted from Ankara’s autonomy in the arena of foreign relations. Moreover, strong religious and cultural bonds that exist between Turkey and its Muslim neighbors to the east, as well as the economic benefits, especially in the fields of energy imports and the export of manufactured products, that could accrue to Turkey from such a policy, appeared to make the adoption of such a policy a no-brainer.

The creation of disarray

What Turkey’s policy makers and sympathetic observers like myself neglected to factor in was the tremendous capacity of the Arab elites and political actors, trapped for decades in an undiluted authoritarian political culture, to serially create conditions of disarray of such a high order that even the most well-meaning regional power can get caught in a quagmire from which it finds it impossible to extricate itself.

What makes matters worse is the tendency of the Arab elites and counter-elites primarily responsible for creating the mess they find themselves in to turn to their non-Arab neighbors, Turkey and Iran in particular, to pull them out of these unsustainable conditions at great cost to the latter. This is especially the case regarding Turkey, whose involvement in several of the hotspots in its Arab neighborhood was undertaken with the best of intentions, but boomeranged on it because of the inability of the Arab protagonists to find solutions that could return their countries to normalcy.

Although Egypt is the most recent case that lends credibility to this argument, this tendency is demonstrated above all in the case of Syria, where Ankara took the decision to support the opponents of the Assad regime, at considerable risk to its strategic and economic interests in the region. It did so because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s own legitimacy rested on its democratic credentials, and it could not be seen to abandon a democratic movement next door without doing harm to those credentials. Turkey also vastly underestimated the staying power of the Assad regime and overestimated the unity of the forces opposing it.

However, the inability of the Syrian opposition to get its act together, the continuous squabbling among the hundreds of factions constituting the opposition, disagreements between the external opposition and the forces fighting on the ground in Syria, and the emergence of the Saudi and Gulf-financed local and transnational extremist groups that have fought pitched battles with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), have not only led to political immobilization on the part of the Syrian opposition but military reversals at the hands of Assad’s forces. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Assad regime not only has much more resilience than was initially assumed but that the military momentum has now swung in its favor, especially since it is aided by battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and material help from Iran and Russia.

The future for the Syrian opposition now looks bleak, and Turkey’s political and military support for it is clearly counterproductive, threatening to engulf parts of Turkey bordering Syria, which have a similar demographic composition in ethnic and sectarian conflicts imported from the neighboring war-torn country. Furthermore, Turkey seems to have inadvertently become a participant on the Saudi side in what amounts to a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria. Riyadh and Ankara form the strangest bedfellows in Syria, because the Saudi goal in Syria is not the installation of a democratic government, which is anathema to the House of Saud, but merely the overthrow of a regime friendly to its archrival Iran and its replacement by a Sunni strong-man preferably ideologically close to Riyadh.

Turkey’s stance on Iraq

Iraq, where Turkey is involved in supporting the Sunni opponents of the current Shia-dominated regime, presents a similar picture. Here the Sunni opposition to the Nouri al-Maliki government has transmuted into an armed insurgency increasingly dominated by extremist groups with links to the central al-Qaeda leadership, who have turned suicide bombing into a fine art and kill dozens of Iraqi Shia almost every day of the week. Just like the Syrian jihadis who are supported and armed by the Saudi and Gulf regimes, the Iraqi Sunni extremists are also funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies who are mortally afraid of growing Iranian influence in Iraq because of the demographic preponderance of the Shia in the Iraqi population and Tehran’s links to the al-Maliki government.

Turkey once again, possibly inadvertently, has become a participant in a sectarian war in Iraq that pits Wahhabi Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran. Ankara’s association with Riyadh not only detracts from its democratic image, it also portrays Turkey as a sectarian state hell-bent on fighting the Shia around the Middle East, an image that the Turkish government, and especially Foreign Minister Davutoglu, have desperately tried to disavow but to little avail.

Above all, Turkey’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq increasingly gives the impression that Ankara considers Tehran its primary rival and antagonist in the region despite the fact that Iran is a major source of energy supplies for Turkey and shares Turkey’s aspirations of forging a region free from the external intervention of the great powers. Given the fact that Iran and Turkey are the two pivotal powers in the region, whose cooperation with each other is essential for the construction of a legitimate and stable security order in the Middle East, their antagonistic perceptions of each other are extremely deleterious for the future stability of the region and for their own security.

Moreover, this is an antagonism that neither side desires, as has been stressed by responsible government officials more than once. Conflict between Ankara and Tehran not only detracts from the security of both countries, it also opens the way for external intervention, with harmful consequences for both. Turkey and Iran are heirs to hoary state traditions and have learnt the lesson from history that the Ottoman-Safavid rivalry and conflict in past centuries weakened both the major Muslim powers in the Middle East and opened the way for Western intervention and domination from which neither country has totally recovered so far.

All this leads to the conclusion that it is time for Turkey to reassess its involvement in conflicts in the Arab world and begin to retrench its interventionist proclivities in a region that seems incapable of putting its house in order. Egypt is the latest example of this malaise in the Arab world. Turkey has rightly condemned the military coup in that country and the subsequent massacres perpetrated by the security forces at the behest of the holdovers from the Hosni Mubarak regime. However, it should be wary of being seen as too much of a partisan for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which carries its own ideological and political baggage that is anathema to a significant segment of the Egyptian population. Turkey will, therefore, have to perform an intricate balancing act concerning Egypt. Once again, this is an argument in favor of Turkey keeping a healthy distance from the hotspots in the Arab world, despite the temptation to become embroiled further in the affairs of its unstable neighborhood.

This article was published by Today’s Zaman on August 19, 2013. Read it here.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and Adjunct Scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.