Since 2009, the Economic and Political Studies Foundation of Turkey [TESEV] has been conducting comprehensive annual studies in to how Turkey is perceived in the Middle East. This year’s report has both positive and negative signals.
The good news is that in 16 countries from the Gulf to North Africa, Turkey is still viewed as a leading actor and a role model. The bad news is the backslide in people’s sympathy and support for Turkey as compared to last year.
In short, Turkey is liked and respected in the region but our current image is not as glowing as in previous years.
It would be useful for Turkish government officials and opinion makers to carefully study the TESEV 2012 report and derive the necessary lessons.
What are some salient points of the report?
— In 16 countries as a regional whole, those who have positive impression of Turkey is 69%. This was 78% last year. The figure is particularly low in Syria and Iraq and higher in Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan. But the common trend is regression.
— Those who see Turkey as a role model have gone down to 53% from 61%. Those who approve of Turkey’s regional influence are down to 61% from 70%.
— This year, there is a sectarian dimension to the Middle East’s perceptions of Turkey. Overall, 26% of respondents think Ankara is following a sectarian policy. This ratio goes up to 50-60% in Iran, Iraq and Syria. These countries believe the Turkish government follows a pro-Sunni policy.
— A majority of people in Syria and Iraq perceive Turkey as an enemy. In other Arab countries, most see Turkey as a friend.
— Syria, Iran and Iraq don’t approve of Turkey’s Syria policy. Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries find it positive.
What could be the reasons behind the regression in these perceptions?
According to what was discussed yesterday when TESEV made the report public, some conclusions can be reached:
— Turkey has abandoned its former neutral and balanced attitude to developments in the region and is seen as an interventionist in Iraq and Syria.
— Many regional people believe Turkey follows a sectarian policy. This may not be accurate but certain Turkish actions have created this impression.
— In previous years, Turkey had appeared as a role model. Now, forces in regional countries look at Turkey from their own political or ideological viewpoints and behave accordingly.
In short, Turkey is still an important, effective and prestigious actor in the Middle East. Turkey must not waste this asset by avoiding actions harming its image. The TESEV report contains both opportunities and warnings.