Turkey’s Middle East drive falters in Arab Spring

Regional turmoil, unrest threatens Ankara's allies like Gaddafi, Assad, while creating new rivals, such as Egypt.

Erdogan 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Erdogan 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, signed their long-awaited national unity agreement on Wednesday. But instead of the ceremony taking place in Istanbul, as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may have hoped, it happened in Cairo.
Less than a week earlier, Davutoglu was forced to cancel a planned meeting of Palestinian leaders after learning that he had been upstaged by Egypt, which brokered a unity pact behind his back. Davutoğlu attended the ceremony, but as a guest rather than as a sponsor.
RELATED:US mulls more sanctions against Syria in face of crackdownArab spring economies likely to shrink this yearUS hopes to unfreeze 'substantial sum' for LibyaThe setback for Turkey on the Palestinian front, where it had worked assiduously to end the four-year-old split between Hamas and Fatah, is the latest sign that the country’s drive to play a big and decisive role in the Middle East is unraveling in the face of the changes wrought by the Arab Spring.
Old friends, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad, are threatened by rebellion. Egypt, as the Palestinian rapprochement showed, is emerging as a competitor for regional influence. Divisions are sharpening in place like the Gulf, where Ankara has struggled to stay on friendly terms with everyone even as the Arab powers and Iran square off over Bahrain.
“Between 2002 and the Arab Awakening, there was a honeymoon period between Turkey and the Middle East,” Fadi Hakura, an associate fellow at the London-based Chatham House, told The Media Line. “Now, it has to make clear choices because of the deep changes taking place in the region. During the honeymoon period it didn’t have to make those choices.”
Davutoglu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been leading their country away from its traditional orientation towards the West. Their strategy upset the U.S., as Ankara reached out to Iran and distanced itself from Israel, but the drive boosted Turkish trade, made the country popular in the Arab street and eased tensions with neighbors like Syria.
Now, the regional turmoil in the Middle East has upset Turkey’s new order and may even cause it to turn again to the West, analysts said.
The new Middle Eastern realities have caught Ankara flatfooted. While Turkey quickly identified itself with the Egyptian opposition, calling for President Husni Mubarak to step down, Turkish policy has more often than not been characterized by flip-flops, as it tries to balance its affinities for democracy and stability and attach itself to the side likely to emerge victorious in the turmoil.
Turkey initially opposed Western intervention in Libya. But eventually agreed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Western alliance to which it belongs, supervising a no-fly zone aimed at Gaddafi forces. In early April, Turkey proposed a ceasefire, but the opposition balked because the terms didn’t include Gaddafi’s resignation. On Tuesday, Turkey came full circle, with Erdogan urging the Libyan leader to step down and closing Turkey’s embassy in Tripoli.
Closer to home, Turkey has struggled to find a stance on Syria, where the regime is trying to quash a seven-week-old rebellion. Over the last several years, Ankara had cultivated diplomatic and trade ties with Syrian leader Assad, ignoring his abysmal human rights record and viewing him as a bulwark against instability.
Hugh Pope, who is director Turkey-Cyprus project at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), said Turkey’s Syria policy was an example of the “universal theory” it espoused that put security and trade at the top of its priorities.
“It was used to justify to expanding trade and increasing Turkey’s security through deeper relationships with all kinds of regimes, some of which have changed while others are under a lot of pressure,” Pope told The Media Line. “Turkey is scrambling to retain the advantages it has.”
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But, with hundreds reportedly dead in Syria, Erdogan has to take into account that Syria’s anti-government opposition enjoys wide support in Turkish public opinion. Turkey hosted leaders of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and allowed a meeting of opposition leaders in Istanbul, enraging Syrian officials.
Erdogan tried to square the circle by urging Assad to undertake democratic reforms to assuage the opposition, but the Syrian leader turned a deaf ear and opted instead to dispatch troops against protesters.
Meanwhile, Turkey is also seeing new rivals for influence in the region emerge. Iran, interpreting the regional unrest as a continuation of its own 1979 revolution, has sought to make inroads in Egypt and perhaps Bahrain. Egypt, which sidelined itself from the Arab World for decades under Mubarak is making a new bid for power, as its Palestinian mediation demonstrates.
Hakura of Chatham House said Turkey doesn’t have much to teach emerging Middle Eastern democracies, although Erdogan’s moderate-Islamic Justice and Development AKP Party may serve as a model for Muslim groups testing out their countries’ new democratic arenas.
 “On the abstract level, Turkey does provide some lessons and some examples to the region. But on the issue of political and economic reform and nation-building, the key country remains Egypt,” Hakura said.
While the outlines of the new Middle East have yet to fully emerge, Pope said it is likely that Turkey will re-balance itself towards the West again.
“They had a good run in the last few years, but now the opportunities are going to be fewer. Turkey is going to have to revisit the EU relationship,” Pope said. “What makes Turkey what it is today is 80 years of integration with the European-Western norms. In the last few years they have neglected that in favor of the Middle East.”