In a high-powered visit to Cairo, Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Turkish Foreign MinisterAhmet Davutoglu met March 3 with the members of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). In addition to meeting with the military elite, the Turkish leaders are also talking to the opposition forces. On March 3, Gul and Davutoglu met with the Muslim Brotherhood and over the course of the next three days they are expected to meet with opposition figures Mohamed ElBaradei and Arab League chief Amr Mousa, as well as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.
” Whether Ankara is ready or not, the Middle East is accelerating Turkey’s rise.”
Turkey’s active role in trying to mediate the unrest developing in its Islamic backyard should not come as a surprise (at least not for STRATFOR readers). Turkey has been on a resurgent path, using its economic clout, geographic positioning, military might and cultural influence to expand its power throughout the former Ottoman territory. In more recent years, this resurgence has largely taken place at Turkey’s own pace, with it managing a post-Saddam Iraq, intensifying hostilities with Israel for political gain, fumbling with the Russians in the Caucasus over Armenia and Azerbaijan, fiddling with Iranian nuclear negotiations, and so on. With geopolitical opportunities presenting themselves on all of its borders, Turkey, having been out of the great power game for some 90-odd years, could afford some experimentation. In this geopolitical testing phase, Turkey could spread itself relatively far and wide in trying to reclaim influence, all under the Davutoglu-coined “zero problems with neighbors” strategy.
Geopolitics teaches that politicians, regardless of personality, ideology or anything else, will pursue strategic ends without being necessarily aware of their policies’ contributions to (or detractions from) national power. The gentle nudges guiding Turkey for most of the past decade are now transforming into a firm, unyielding push.
The reasoning is quite simple. The Iraq War (and its destabilizing effects) was cold water thrown in Turkey’s face that snapped Ankara to attention. It took some time for Turkey to find its footing, but as it did, it sharpened its focus abroad in containing threats and in exploiting a range of political and economic opportunities. Now, from the Sahara to thePersian Gulf, Turkey’s Middle Eastern backyard is on fire, with mass protests knocking the legs out from under a legacy of Arab cronyism. Whether Ankara is ready or not, the Middle East is accelerating Turkey’s rise.
In surveying the region, however, Turkish influence (with the exception of Iraq) is still in its infant stages. For example, in Egypt (where the Turks ruled under the Ottoman Empire for 279 years from 1517-1796), there is not much Turkey can do or may even need to do. The Egyptian military very deliberately managed a political transition to force former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out and is now calling the shots in Cairo. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) welcomes the stability ushered in by the military, but would also like to see Egypt transformed in its own image. Having lived it for decades, the AKP leadership has internalized the consequences of military rule and has made the subordination of the military to civilian (particularly Islamic) political forces the core of its political agenda at home. Turkey’s AKP has a strategic interest in ensuring the military inEgypt keeps its promise of relinquishing control to the civilians and providing a political opening for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has tried to model itself after the AKP. Davutogluhas in fact been very open with his assertion that if the military fails to hand over power to the civilians and hold elections in a timely manner, Turkey’s support will go to the opposition. The Egyptian SCAF is unlikely to be on the same page as the AKP leadership, especially considering the military’s concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood. This will contribute to some tension between Turkey and Egypt moving forward, but Turkey will face serious arrestors if it attempts to change the military’s course in Egypt.
Where Turkey is needed, and where it actually holds significant influence, is in the heart of the Arab world, Iraq. The shaking out of Iraq’s Sunni-Shia balance (or imbalance, depending on how you view it) is the current pivot to Persian Gulf stability. With the United Stateswithdrawing from Iraq by year’s end and leaving little to effectively block Iran, the region is tilting heavily toward the Shia at the expense of U.S.-allied Sunni Arab regimes. Exacerbating matters is the fact that many of these Arab regimes are now facing crises at home, with ongoing uprisings in Bahrain, Oman and Yemen and simmering unrest in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is spreading real concerns that Iran is seizing an opportunity to fuel unrest and destabilize its Arab neighbors. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on March 2, in the first public acknowledgment of this trend, that the Iranians were directly and indirectly backing opposition protests in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, and “doing everything they can to influence the outcomes in these places.”
Another piece fell into place that same day when Saudi Deputy Defense Minister PrinceKhalid bin Sultan said during a meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul in Riyadhsaid that the Saudi royals “want to see Turkey as a strategic partner of Saudi Arabia.” Egyptand Saudi Arabia are the pillars of Arab power in the region, but that power is relative. Egypt is just now reawakening after decades of insularity (and enjoys a great deal of distance from the Iran issue) and Saudi Arabia is feeling abandoned by the United States, that, for broader strategic reasons is doing whatever it can to militarily extricate itself from the Islamic world to regain its balance. The Saudis are thus issuing a distress signal and are doing so with an eye on Turkey.Will Turkey be able to deliver? Ankara is feeling the push, but the country is still in the early stages of its revival and faces limits in what it can do. Moreover, filling the role of an effective counter to Iran, as the United States and Saudi Arabia are eager to see happen, must entail the AKP leadership abandoning their “zero problems with neighbors” rhetoric and firming up a position with the United States and the Sunni Arabs against the Iranians. Regardless of which path Ankara pursues, Turkey’s time has come.