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Turkey’s 'Precious Isolation' In the Middle East

Foreign policy decisions by the Erdogan government, including on Egypt and Syria, have left Turkey without any influence over events in the Middle East.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi (R) meets with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Cairo November 17, 2012. REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTR3AINS

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be something of a folk hero for the disenfranchised masses in the Middle East, but Turkey’s political influence with the powers that effectively continue to govern the region’s established order is all but gone.

Having seriously fallen out with Iran over Syria and with the Palestinian Authority over Hamas, Ankara is now in the process of alienating itself from other Arab powers — headed by Saudi Arabia — over Egypt, thus further deepening its regional isolation.

As for Turkey’s ties with Egypt, it appears these will take considerable time to normalize since no one expects the situation in that country to be resolved anytime soon in a way the Erdogan government expected. Meanwhile Turkey continues to have zero relations with Damascus, while its support for Islamist elements in the Syrian opposition has turned into a serious headache.

Concerned about their credibility among supporters, government officials in Ankara are now trying to capitalize on the aloneness Turkey has fallen into in the region by inventing new concepts that stretch the imagination. One such official is Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s principal foreign policy adviser.

Kalin tweeted on July 31 that he did not accept the assertion that Turkey has become isolated in the Middle East, but added that even if this were true, it would be a “precious isolation.” He was clearly trying to impute a unique moral stance to Turkey, the implication being that it is the only country, East or West, that is taking principled positions in regional crises.

The bottom line in all this, however, is that until such time as there is a preponderance of Muslim Brotherhood administrations in the region, there is little chance that Turkey will be allowed to play a key role in any of the dynamics that will determine the fate of the Middle East. This is not, however, because of “nefarious Western schemes,” as most AKP followers like to believe.

If anything, this is exactly the time when the West needs Turkey to use its soft power over an Islamic world increasingly in turmoil. To the contrary, however, it is regional powers that will ensure that Turkish political influence remains out of the Middle East and that have now united in their efforts to do away with the collective threat they perceive from the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a strange twist of fate that while Saudi Arabia and Iran may be on opposite ends in the Middle East’s sectarian Shiite-Sunni divide, and involved in proxy wars with each other because of it, as is the case in Syria, both have reasons to oppose what they see as Turkish meddling in regional affairs. That is quite a distance for Ankara to have traveled given the high hopes it once had toward the region. These ambitions included not just having “zero problems” with neighbors and providing Turkey with new economic and political alternatives to the West, but also aspiring to be a “game setter” and principal moderator and mediator in all regional disputes.

There were also hopes that Turkey could be a beacon of democracy and modernity for the Arab world. In the end, however, the ruling Justice and Development Party could not transcend its Islamist-based sectarian ideological leanings, which ensured that it would fail in almost all of these ambitious projects.

Ankara’s regional influence began plummeting when it made its Sunni leanings apparent in the Syrian crisis and later became head cheerleader for the Muslim Brotherhood, especially after the coup in Egypt against a leadership with which Erdogan and his party were closely affiliated politically.

Islamists in Turkey and the Middle East continue to laud the “principled” stance of the Erdogan government on Syria and Egypt and blast away day and night at a West that they not only accuse of failing to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but also for not calling the Egyptian coup by its name.

Whatever the sentiment may be at the street level, it is patently clear that Erdogan and his overreaching foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, grossly miscalculated the realities that continue to govern the region. It is also clear that these realities are not likely to change anytime soon, or in a peaceful manner, if the keepers of the Middle East’s established order have any say in the matter, which, its appears, they do.

For example, Ankara never expected Iran, with its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, to upset its plans in Syria. Nor did it expect Saudi Arabia and the overwhelming majority of Arab states to throw their full economic might behind the Egyptian military, all while stating openly that they were prepared to provide even more funds should the West withdraw financial support from Egypt to protest the coup.

As an aside, for all the self-righteous moralizing emanating from Ankara over Egypt, the Erdogan government is nevertheless keen to reassure the estimated 260 Turkish companies generating billions of dollars through trade and other operations there that everything remains “business as usual.”

Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan held a press conference in Ankara on Aug. 16 during which he not only revealed that a special desk had been set up in his ministry to respond to questions from concerned Turkish businessmen, but also said he did not foresee any problems in bilateral trade with Egypt or crucial transit trade  with the rest of the region through it.

It seems in light of Caglayan's remarks that the only real expression of Ankara’s ire over the military coup in Egypt will be the recalling of its ambassador. According to the Arab media, even the planned military maneuvers with Egypt that were canceled, were called off by Cairo, although some pro-government papers in Turkey tried to present it the other way around.

Given the overall situation, it appears that working closely with the West is the only option left for Turkey in terms of exercising any political influence it might have in the region. An Aug. 18 New York Times article, citing senior US and European officials, indicates that the United States and the European Union have in fact been far more active than Ankara in trying to stabilize the situation in Egypt, through close contacts with the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Rather than continuously blaming the United States and Europe for the sake of its Islamist gallery at home and in the region, Turkey, if it is truly concerned about democracy and human rights in the Middle East, has to cooperate with the West and oppose countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which clearly have no interest in democracy or human rights and are out to protect their strategic interests by any means.

Having painted himself into a corner with his virulently anti-Western rhetoric, Erdogan will find it hard to be seen as cooperating with the West on the Middle East now, especially given the negative signals this will send to his grassroots Islamist supporters, who are by nature anti-Western.

All Ankara has left in this case is “precious isolation,” with no shortage of ineffective rhetoric that only appears to be exacerbating its isolation and which in the final analysis is “precious little.”

Semih Idiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News. His articles have also been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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