Lion's Den: Ankara’s ambitions must be checked

Less provocative and more intelligent than the Iranian regime, Turkey aspires to reshape Muslim countries in its Islamist image.

Erdogan and Ahmadinjad Turkey and Iran_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Erdogan and Ahmadinjad Turkey and Iran_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu grandly proclaimed a few days ago “If the world is on fire, Turkey is the firefighter. Turkey is assuming the leading role for stability in the Middle East.”
Such ambition is new for Ankara. In the 1990s, it contentedly fulfilled its NATO obligations and followed Washington’s lead. Starting about 1996, relations with Israel blossomed. In all, Turkish policy offered an attractive exception to the tyrannical, Islamist and conspiracist mentality generally dominating Muslim peoples. That the country’s political leaders were corrupt and fumbling seemed of little consequence.
Those faults, however, proved extremely consequential, leading to the repudiation of longestablished political parties and the victory of an Islamist party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), in the elections of November 2002. By March 2003, in advance of the coming war in Iraq, the government signaled that a new era had begun by refusing to permit American troops to traverse Turkish territory.
Over the next eight years, Turkish foreign policy became increasingly hostile to the West in general, and to the United States, France and Israel in particular, even as it warmed to Syria, Iran and Libya. This shift became particularly evident in May 2010, when Ankara both helped Tehran avoid sanctions for its nuclear program and injured Israel’s reputation with the Mavi Marmara-led flotilla.
BUT THE full extent of Ankara’s Middle East ambitions emerged in early 2011, concurrent with the region’s far-reaching upheavals. Suddenly, Turks were ubiquitous. Their recent activities include: Providing a model: Gül holds that Turkey can have a “great and unbelievable positive effect” on the Middle East – and he has some takers. For example, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s newly legalized Ennahda movement, has stated: “We are learning from the experience of Turkey, especially the peace that has been reached in the country between Islam and modernity.”
Offering an economic lifeline to Iran: The Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, paid a state visit to Tehran in February, accompanied by a large group of businessmen, capping an evolution whereby, according to the Jamestown Foundation, “Turkey is becoming a major [economic] lifeline for Iran.” In addition, Gül praised the Iranian political system.
Obstructing foreign efforts in Libya: Starting on March 2, the Turkish government objected to any military intervention against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. “Foreign interventions, especially military interventions, only deepen the problem,” Davutoglu said on March 14, perhaps worrying about a similar intervention to protect Kurds in eastern Turkey.
When military operations began on March 19, Turkish forces did not take part. Turkish opposition delayed NATO’s engagement in Libya until March 31 and then hobbled it with conditions.
Supporting Gaddafi: Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan helped Gaddafi by issuing both demagogic proclamations (“Turkey will never be a party that points a gun at the Libyan people”) and practical proposals (e.g., that Gaddafi salvage his rule by appointing a president). Ankara also offered, according to the Hürriyet newspaper, “to be involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid in Libya, to manage the Benghazi airport and to deploy naval forces to control the area between Benghazi and the Greek island of Crete.” In gratitude, Gaddafi replied: “We are all Ottomans.”
In contrast, Libyan rebels marched against the Turkish government.
Helping Damascus: In January, Ankara agreed to train Syrian troops; in March, Erdogan publicly advised Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad how to stay in power, perhaps fearful that Syria’s 1.4 million Kurds might win more autonomy and cause unrest among Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
Anti-Zionism: Ankara has become the leader in delegitimizing Israel. Davutolu tries to unify its enemies while predicting Israel’s disappearance; a government-affiliated organization plans a new Gaza “freedom” flotilla with over 15 ships; and the deputy prime minister calls for a Libya-style bombing of Israel.
ANKARA’S AMBITIONS must be checked. Less provocative and more intelligent than the Iranian regime, it aspires to reshape Muslim countries in its Islamist image. The opening salvos of this effort have gone well, being both effective and largely unnoticed.
Possible methods of blocking AKP influence include: expressing displeasure with Ankara’s “neo- Ottomanist” policies; publicly questioning whether Turkish actions are compatible with NATO membership; quietly encouraging opposition parties in the country’s June 2011 elections; and, at this moment of AKP hostility and Kurdish uprisings in eastern Turkey, reconsidering the delicate question of Kurdish civil rights.
The writer ( is director of the Middle East Forum, and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.