How Turkey blew its chance to lead this troubled region

World View: The country could have enhanced its influence and saved a lot of lives. It did the exact opposite

Share
Related Topics

Whatever happened to the idea that Turkey was the coming power in the Middle East, with its surging economy and stable democracy under a mildly Islamic government which might be the model for Arab states as they ended decades of police state rule in 2011? Turkey seemed perfectly positioned to lead the way, with no serious enemies in the region and with good relations with the US and the EU. Oversimplified headlines comparing modern Turkey with the Ottoman empire in the days before it became a great power in the 16th century did not seem wholly exaggerated.

Two years later, none of these good things has come to pass for Turkey, and it is very short of friends in the Middle East. It has managed simultaneously to make enemies of the four Shia powers to its south and east: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon – as well as the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf with the exception of Qatar. Turkish pilots are kidnapped in Beirut and Turkish truck drivers arrested in Egypt. Turkish support for the former president of Egypt Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood has infuriated the military regime, which has even intervened to stop the showing of Turkish soap operas on Egyptian television.

Most serious of all, Turkey's entanglement in support of what may well be the losing side in the Syrian civil war is bringing nothing but disaster. It did not have to be like this: at the start of the Syrian uprising Ankara was well placed to play a moderating role in the crisis, since it was on good terms with President Bashar al-Assad but able to put pressure on the insurgents who depend on keeping open the 560-mile Turkish-Syrian frontier. But the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overplayed his hand, assumed that Assad would go down as quickly as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and gave full support for the rebels. Many other governments made the same mistake, but the consequences of the failure of the insurgents to win a decisive victory is most serious for Turkey. Whatever Turkey thought it was doing in Syria, it has not succeeded with jihadi and non-jihadi fighters in Syria as frightened of each other these days as they are of the Assad government. The question is less about the departure of Assad as Syrian leader and more about the long-term survival of the rebels as more than a coterie of warlords.

The ability and patience of Erdogan and the AK party in gradually taking over the levers of powers in Turkey over the past 12 years is in marked contrast to the crudity of their policy in Syria and Iraq. Perhaps the best explanation is simple hubris stemming from Erdogan's election victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011, when he outmanoeuvred the Turkish army which had been the nemesis of previous Islamic and democratically elected Turkish governments. But beyond the Turkish frontiers, his sure political instincts deserted him and he became the master of miscalculation, involving Turkey in a ferocious civil war in Syria and a near civil war in Iraq. Iraqi politicians were alternately bewildered and amused by Turkey's blundering interference.

Turkey could have played a constructive role that would have much enhanced its influence and saved a lot of lives if it had taken a more neutral stance enabling it to mediate between different sides. Instead, it did the exact opposite, joining a coalition of Sunni powers of which other members such as Saudi Arabia were viscerally sectarian, and thereby ensuring that the Shia powers were alienated. Even within this Sunni coalition, Turkey is isolated because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and is paying a heavy economic price. Trade routes through Iraq and Syria have been cut and the UAE is reported to be cancelling a $12.5bn investment in coal extraction that would have provided 4,000 jobs. Investors in Dubai and Kuwait are wary of deeper involvement in Turkey.

The poison of sectarian hatred in Syria is slowly spreading into Turkey with the 15 to 25 million Turkish Alevi sympathising with their fellow Alawites in Syria.

Erdogan's denunciations of the Alawite-dominated government in Damascus can seem as having implications for the Turkish Alevi who have long complained of discrimination against them by a Sunni state that denies them separate religious rights. This sense of discrimination still has a long way to go before it resembles the blood-drenched sectarianism of Iraq and Syria. But the potential for an explosion is growing and, once violence starts, it will be difficult to stop because the Syrian civil war gives a greater sense of crisis to Turkey's other deep political differences.

Whatever happens, Turkey's moment in the Middle East seems to be passing with strange speed and may be one of the great lost opportunities of regional history. The New Ottoman rhetoric, aside from forgetting how unpopular rule by the old Ottoman empire was among its subjects, now seems delusory. It could also get worse. Relations with Iran are showing slight signs of improvement but, if they were to deteriorate again, Iran would have an incentive to undermine any understanding between the Turkish government and Turkey's Kurds. Erdogan will this week reveal what concessions he is willing to make to the Alevi and the Kurds, which will not be as much as they want but may be enough for them to feel they are making progress in acquiring full civil rights.

Erdogan's blunders in the sectarian political swamp that stretches between Iran and the Mediterranean remind me of Tony Blair's misadventures in the Middle East. Blair, like Erdogan, was a consummate politician on his home turf with sure political instincts and, again like the Turkish Prime Minister, won three elections in a row. He was accustomed also to dealing with US and EU leaders. But when it came to Iraq and Lebanon, his judgement deserted him and hubris misled him.

The picture Blair presents in his autobiogaphy of Iraq post-invasion shows astonishingly little understanding of what was happening. Al-Qa'ida and Iran appear out of nowhere like aliens from a neighbouring planet, as agents of disruption. Erdogan, likewise, seems baffled about why his venture into the Middle East has gone so very wrong.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album