Turkey is struggling to find its role in the Middle East. The past two years have upset plans for regional dominance
Turkey is struggling to find its role in the Middle East. The past two years have thrown a wrench into Erdogan’s plans for regional dominance.
When Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft in June, observers in Israel noted that Ankara might have actually enjoyed the conflict: Turkey seemed to be looking for a justification to intervene militarily in Syria, and the aircraft incident seemed to fit the bill. But just in case it wasn’t sufficient, additional motivation was provided by another tragedy a few days ago: mortar shells were fired from inside Syria on the Turkish border city Akçakale, killing five civilians, including three children. Syria’s democratically elected dictator Bashar al-Assad promptly delivered his apologies through the UN, claiming that the shelling had been an accident. Yet the political damage was too severe to be patched up with a few diplomatic words. The Turkish parliament in Ankara quickly approved “defensive” military intervention.
Turkey wants to play a bigger role in the Syrian conflict, escalating from diplomacy to armed intervention. This is a pivotal decision, as it signals another step in a strategic shift of Turkey’s presence and goals in the Middle East. In recent years, the country has been on the rise with its “neo-Ottomanist” strategy promoted by the popular prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and orchestrated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Turkey’s international approach was supposed to develop in two parallel directions: commerce and politics. As for commerce, strong pressure had been put on intensifying trade with countries from the region. Until the outbreak of chaos in Syria, the Turkish saw the country as “Turkey as it used to be some thirty years ago,” full of potential to be explored and exploited. Politically, Turkey was eager to showcase itself as an islamist-democratic alternative to Iran. Hence initiatives such as the “flotilla” to the Gaza strip: it was intended by Turkey as a humanitarian support initiative to help Palestinians, but a secondary goal was the discrediting of Israel and the collection of diplomatic street cred in the Muslim countries of the region. Turkey also hoped to strengthen its ties with Russia: besides energy connections - an area where Turkey’s geographic location has proven pivotal - the country had been dreaming of closer political cooperation, notwithstanding the considerable amounts of wars that the countries have started in the last century.
Yet all these efforts have brought few results. Neo-Ottomanism has failed. Politically, it has become clear that the “Arab Spring” was not much of a “spring,” and that it has been “Islamist” rather than Arab in many instances. The Islamism that has emerged isn’t predicated on a pan-congregational alliance of Muslims in the pursuit of peace and love, but often focuses on local dynamics, almost at the tribal level.