Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Arab Spring, Turkish Fall on

by Steven A. Cook
May 5, 2011

Protesters hold a Turkish flag and signs during a demonstration to show their solidarity with the protesters in Deraa, in the Syrian port city of Banias. The signs read, "Greetings to Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan" (top) and "Stop bloodshed." (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

Below is my take on Turkish foreign policy and the Arab Spring, which appears today on Foreign

The Arab uprisings seemed tailor-made for the “new Turkey” to exert its much-vaunted influence in the Middle East. Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power almost nine years ago, Ankara has actively courted the region, cultivating warm relations with certain Arab countries, winning plaudits from Rabat to Ramadi for its principled stand on Gaza, and using its prestige to solve problems in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. A central focus of Turkey’s so-called “zero problems” foreign policy has been a concerted effort to improve and expand relations with the countries to its south and east. Now, with millions of Arabs standing up and demanding their freedom, Turks are not the only ones to have held up the “Turkish model” — the democratic development of a predominantly Muslim society in an officially secular political system — as a possible way forward for the rest of the Middle East.

Yet five months into the turmoil buffeting the Arab world, it is hard to discern exactly if Turkey has a policy to deal with the change going on around it. Indeed, rather than a regional leader with a clear sense of purpose, Ankara has been downright clumsy in dealing with the Arab upheavals.

It didn’t have to be this way. The Arab revolutions actually started out pretty well for Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was way ahead of other world leaders in demanding that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak heed the desires of his people and resign. Whether or not Ankara saw the writing on the wall quicker than most, the position was entirely in keeping with the Justice and Development Party’s worldview — and the role Erdogan and other principle party figures fashioned for themselves — as promoters of democratic change at home and abroad. Of course, the difficult personal relationship between Erdogan and Mubarak made it easier for the Turkish leader to dump his counterpart in favor of the multitudes camped out in Tahrir Square. And there was a regional rivalry at play here, too: Ankara sensed that Cairo’s influence was waning and wanted to fashion itself as a new Middle East powerbroker. It seemed that once again Erdogan and his team had insights into the politics of the region that seemed beyond the grasp of others — most notably the Obama administration, which, hamstrung by Washington’s strategic relationship with Mubarak, was far more cautious and circumspect than Ankara.

Then came Libya. Despite the brutality and chaos instigated by Muammar al-Qaddafi, Erdogan found it difficult to decisively cut ties with the Libyan leader: Not only was the Turkish prime minister a personal recipient of the al-Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, but with 30,000 Turks working on $1.5 billion worth of construction projects for the Libyan government, there was a clear economic imperative to maintaining good relations. Indeed, when NATO members began discussing in late February the prospect of a no-fly zone, Turkey — an early member of the alliance — objected. On Feb. 28, Erdogan pointedly told the Turkish-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “NATO’s intervention in Libya is out of the question. We are against such a thing.” A few days later, the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared that foreign intervention on behalf of the Libyan opposition would rob the rebels of the satisfaction of bringing Qaddafi down on their own — this at a time when the Interim Libyan National Council was practically begging for foreign support.

Once the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, the Turkish position became truly strange. Erdogan expressed “heartfelt support” for prohibiting Qaddafi’s use of airpower while simultaneously rejecting the “foreign intervention in friend and brother Libya.” Even as NATO airstrikes took out loyalist air defenses, Ankara remained ambivalent toward Qaddafi’s use of force against his own people, curiously committed to the Libyan leader. And though the Turks positioned themselves as the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Libya, they consistently rejected the use of force to protect rebel fighters, arguing instead for a Turkish-brokered cease-fire after which Qaddafi could begin the process of political reform. To the Benghazi rebel leadership, the Turks were, in fact, the culprits behind the noticeable downshift in the NATO air campaign in the previous few weeks. In time, as Turkish diplomatic efforts — primarily through direct communication between the two leaders — to persuade Qaddafi to stand down bore little in the way of positive results, Ankara ultimately came to the conclusion that almost everyone but Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and a group of motley African countries arrived at months ago: Qaddafi must go. On May 3, Erdogan declared to a gathering of journalists in Istanbul, “We wish to see Libya’s leader step down immediately and leave Libya immediately for his own sake and for the sake of his country’s future.”

Turkey seems to be engaged in a similar diplomatic dance with regard to Syria. At one time, Ankara and Damascus were hostile neighbors in conflict over the downstream flow of the Euphrates river and Syrian support for the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which targeted the Turkish state in a quixotic campaign of Kurdish independence. During AKP’s tenure, however, relations between the two countries warmed considerably. Syrians and Turks no longer require visas for travel between each country and Turkey has become Syria’s largest trading partner. Although there has been precious little talk of foreign intervention in Syria, just to be sure, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that “internationalization” of the unrest there could lead to “undesired outcomes.” Chief among them, from the Turkish perspective, would be the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Turks have much to be worried about when it comes to a destabilized Syria — in particular a restive Kurdish region just to Turkey’s south. It would also be a setback for Ankara’s Middle East strategy, of which warm relations with Damascus have been central. Given those interests, it is unlikely that the Turks will break with Assad in the way they have now abandoned Qaddafi.

Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to “implement [reforms] without further delay” and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad’s efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, “What democratic reforms?” The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad — a distinct possibility — then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.

Among the many myths that the Arab spring has shattered is the legend of Turkish foreign policy in the era of the AKP. If officials in Ankara are to be believed, Turkey’s diplomacy has, over the course of the last decade — and very often over the objections of Washington — had a decisively positive effect on conflicts and problems from the Balkans and the Caucuses to Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But Turkey’s prideful rhetoric only masked the contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of its foreign policy. Erdogan, Davutoglu, and their advisors have to come to grips with how hard it is to master the Middle East.

There was always a lot less to Ankara’s influence in the Arab world than met the eye. Turkish leaders love the anecdotes about Arabs watching Turkish soap operas, the posters of Erdogan in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the comparison between the Turkish prime minister and Gamal Abdel Nasser — but the new Ottomans have found it as difficult to manage the politics of the region as the Sultans before them. At base, the Turks managed a measure of influence during a period of Arab decay.

It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara’s interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished — not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by David

    I am unclear, and I bet Steven Cook is too – if he stops to think about it – as to why Turkey must be consulted about every issue not just in the greater Middle East region, but seemingly every issue everywhere.

    When Turkey opens an embassy in, say, some tiny African country and vows to build condos there, should this really be frontpage news in the Western media, Mr. Cook?

    Is every pronoucement of the blustering, threatening Prime Minister Erdogan and his egotistical Foreign Minister’s “many problems with neighbors” policy to be taken seriously?

    Why, one wonders, is Turkey the only member of NATO that continually threatens, and makes demands on, the other members?

    If polls show that a clear majority of the European people do not want Turkey in the EU, and if polls show that Turks have vast antagonism towards Christians and Jews, why does the EU continue to have membership talks with Turkey?

    Why do the US State Department and the foreign policy establishment of which you are a member, Mr. Cook, quake in their boots whenever Turkey makes another threat?

    Is the U.S. the superpower or is Turkey?

  • Posted by Goliath


    Turkey is a regional power, with over 600,000 active military personnel. It has a democratically elected government. Its finances are excellent. Its economy is the 17th largest in the world. It will not be defaulting on its debts anytime soon, unlike Greece for example.

    The US is not the world’s police dog.

  • Posted by Fatih Erel


    First of all, while studying Political Science in the U.S, I witness American realist policies by going for its national interest and policing the world and trying to dominate world politics. is the U.S or Turkey superpower? l can easily say that if Turkey was the world superpower, world would not be such a crazy place to live in. we can easily criticize American International policies in ethical ways and at the end, we found them unethical. Turkey is the second strongest NATO member and in that region, Turkey is the superpower. Therefore, neither EU nor other international organizations can turn their back to Turkey.

  • Posted by Pushpo

    The writer seems to assume that intervention in Libya is justified, that it is a clear-cut case of “good” (rebels) versus “bad” (Gaddafi)in Libya. The conflict in Libya now looks more and more like a civil war, as does Syria now. Gaddafi is not the ‘isolated dictator’ that Western media portrays him to be, and does have supporters – hence the current mess.

    The justification given by NATO to intervene should not be taken on moral terms, but on political terms. Cameron and Sarkozy have their own political agendas for intervention, and both have been facing flak in their own domestic arena.

    On moral grounds of course Gaddafi, Assad, and also the Saudi Arabian forces in Bahrain ought to have been stopped. Why Gaddafi and not Saudi Arabia?

    Juxtaposed against these complex political motives, Turkey’s foreign policy doesn’t seem “truly strange” anymore. The writer here confuses his moral lens for a political one and is guilty I think of being a bit naive and western-centrism.

  • Posted by Omar

    Arab spring, Turkish fall off!

    The International Relations discipline could not thank enough to Mr. Davutoglu, the self-centric Turkish MFA who suffers from a somewhat strange inferiority complex, for his unprecedented contribution of being the master mind of the concept of “Balloon Diplomacy”: Seemingly travel a lot, speak a lot, be aggressive and at the end lose flatly!

    The mess created by this “Mr. Ego” will keep the Turkish foreign policy decision-makers extremely busy at least for the next two decades. No surprise that he represents an unrealistic school of politics that wanted once to introduce the “Islam Dinar”, an Islamic version of Euro that would be widely used among the Islamic states, from Indonesia to Nigeria, including Libya! Not to mention, an Islamic version of NATO too was on the agenda!

    True, the former Ottoman territories and their ongoing conflicts should be very carefully studied and understood by the wider international community. Yet, what is being done to Turkey by the ruling AKP party today is not more than hostage-taking the country’s future. Instead, as a friend, I would advise them to closely look into the legitimate demands (and rights!) of the Kurds before poking their nose in the “intra-Arab” disputes. If the Kurdish issue is not carefully handled, it may bring a freezing winter to the “Balloon Diplomacy” lovers and their followers inside/outside Turkey.

    Pity, Turkey with its potential deserves better!

  • Posted by London calling

    ‘Turkey is a regional power’

    Of what? Of a bunch of dysfunctional states reliant upon educated, wealthy Westerners visiting its off-the-beaten-track pre-islamic treasures? It is another Middle Eastern basketcase.

    Like all muslim-majority countries, it is doomed. The incidence of scarf-wearing (and note the very need to note this) is falling. Education will defang islam in Turkey within two generations.

  • Posted by B Culhane

    Not all uprisings are popular revolutions but one thing is for sure Mr cook and that is that the Saudi and Israeli regimes,the strange,dark hybrid of U.S. foreign policy,are withering as Islamic democracy begins to blossom in the middle east.But the west-and yourself as an ideological representative-can’t help but see yourself as head gardener.I was in Syria recently, and Egypt too, and while every man and his cat in Egpyt loathed Mubarak, I didn’t get that sense of popular discontent in Syria.If anything,quite the reverse.And I’m sure that there are many Syrians who assert-like Al Assad ,that there is “outside interference”,aka terrorism.This is not to discount genuine public grievances,but they are not”enmasse”.So why this western media-driven rush to condemn Al Assad? It can only lead to civil war,as per Libya,but the west seems keen on encouraging this potetial disaster.Why?Let me guess…Ultimate geopolitical strategic “gains” that assume that Syria will undertake a more Saudi-friendly position at the expense of it’s relations with Iran and Russia? This scenario is simply counter-revoluionary,western myth-making at it’s worst,and also extremely cruel.Just who is instigating the Syrian instability is up to conjecture,and you can be sure there is a lot of conjecturing going down on the street.But that is not the place that you inhabit.The Iranian revolution is historical fact,and as in China,the people are better off for it,both materially and also in terms of personal dignity.Some things are out of your control.History happens,don’t kid yourself that you can make it “right”.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required