When asked what the most demanding challenge is for a seasoned politician, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was reported to have said, "events, my dear boy, events". The events of the last nine months in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria have shattered the game of politics that the elites played in the Arab countries along with the political dreams of many, including those of Turkish foreign policy-makers.
Turkey has in recent years followed a policy of peaceful mediation between the parties of conflict in the Middle East/North Africa region, further accentuated since 2007 with a wish to achieve "zero problems" with neighbors. Such a foreign policy posture seemed to have depended on the assumption that Turkey had the capacity to sustain dialogue with all of the countries of the MENA region, while its geostrategic location and capabilities were at such a significant level that Turkey could project sufficient soft power to make a difference in the region as well.
It was also assumed that Turkey "mattered" to such an extent that unless Ankara participated, no peace settlement could take place. Turkey's membership in the G-20, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, its strategic relations with the United States and Russia, and its good relations with China, Brazil and Iran meant that states of the MENA region had to take Turkish soft power projection into perspective. Neglecting to do so would bring risks to them but not to Turkey.
Accordingly, the AKP government moved to reciprocally abolish visas with Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen. On October 14, 2009, the Turkish and Syrian councils of ministers held a joint meeting with great fanfare, as if they were fused into one single government. As the human rights award accorded to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by Muammar Gaddafi's government indicated, relations between Turkey and Libya were quiet amiable in 2010. A high-level Turkish entourage that visited Yemen in January 2011 received red carpet treatment from President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government. The AKP government seemed to have developed intimate relations with all the authoritarian Arab governments, from Syria in the north to Yemen and Libya in the south and west of the MENA region.
Then the "Arab spring" arrived in early 2011.
From February to October 2011, relations between Turkey and Syria went from intimacy and integration to hostility and confrontation. Relations between the Mubarak and Erdogan governments were less than cordial. The Arab spring created a rapprochement with Egypt, yet Erdogan's visit to Egypt in September 2011 was stymied when his request to visit Gaza received a cold shoulder. Relations with the Muslim Brotherhood also cooled when Erdogan suggested that Egypt should adopt "laiklik" (laicite; state secularism) in regulating relations between the state and religions of Egypt.
As Egypt began to move to the center stage, Turkey's only contribution to the hostage exchange between Gilad Shalit and 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israel was the hosting of 11 Palestinians in Turkey. It seems as if relations between Palestine and Israel can move forward mainly with Egyptian mediation, with Turkey playing a marginal role.
As the Egyptian government has favorably addressed prospects of joint oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean with the Greek Cypriot government, Turkey seems to be left to its alliance with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey now seems to be facing Israeli, Egyptian, Greek Cypriot and US collusion in eastern Mediterranean energy politics, where neither Lebanon nor Syria appears to have a pro-Turkish stance. It appears as if Turkey's current policies have not only failed to materialize zero problems with these countries, but have also managed to generate the immaculate isolation of Turkey herself in the energy politics of the eastern Mediterranean.
The Turkish performance with democracy and "laiklik" seems not to have impressed the elites of the Arab countries, who are looking elsewhere for inspiration for their multi-party systems. The only performance that led the Turkish government to gain plaudits from Arab voters and elites alike has been Erdogan's criticism of the Olmert and Netanyahu governments' policies toward the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, Turkey seems to have lost its ability to play the role of trusted and honest broker with the parties to conflict in the Middle East--a role it played for so many decades in the past.
Ankara's policies of promoting zero problems with neighbors and peace through mediation have become ever farther goals to reach. Turkey is now perceived with suspicion by some countries of the MENA region. Problems have begun to mount with all of its southern neighbors, from northern Iraq through Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the Greek Cypriots. Thus far the Arab spring appears to have led mainly to unfulfilled expectations, falling trade figures, rising tensions and loss of direction in Turkish foreign policy.-Published 27/10/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org