[email protected]

October 09, 2013, Wednesday

Steering Turkey through the troubled Middle East

It is by now public knowledge that the turbulence emanating from the Arab Awakening has posed significant challenges to Turkish foreign policy. The deliberations at the fourth İstanbul Forum demonstrated clearly that we have important issues to grapple with along our southern borders. Where does that lead us vis-à-vis the region? How should Turkey's foreign policy reposition itself in view of these monumental changes? This column will advocate a new strategic outlook and a concomitant reprioritization of Turkish foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

Turkey's reintegration into its neighboring areas has been ongoing since the late 1990s but has rapidly accelerated since 2003 thanks to the “Strategic Depth” concept. This is a process most Turks supported and felt was successful. It was a period of relative stability in the Middle East and Turkey's penetration in the region was marked by soft power and proactive diplomacy. Yet even when things were going rather well, there were signs of shortcomings. Turkey's human resources and its knowledge and expertise of the region were too limited to support the diplomatic activities from below. We are still in the process of learning about the region. Further, the falling out with Israel, the Arab Spring and especially the civil war in Syria have radically altered Turkey's position in the region. The coup in Egypt has added insult to injury. Consequently, Turkey is confronted with significant challenges on all fronts in the region.

What needs to be done? Turkey needs to begin a gradual disengagement from the more peripheral parts of the region. Ankara's primary focus and attention should be on its immediate neighborhood. Political and diplomatic capital should be invested in the southern belt across our borders. As discussions at the İstanbul Forum demonstrated, the Arab state system established after World War I is collapsing. We are seeing fragmentation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Instead of wasting its energy on the periphery, Turkey must concentrate on developments in these areas. While Turkey's outreach to Africa is commendable, we need to make sure to spend and act strategically there. There is limited wisdom in spending resources there if we could use those funds to further improve lives and fortunes in our immediate neighborhood.

Given the slowdown in our economy, resources are likely to be scarce in the coming years.

One of the strengths of our neighborhood strategy early on was that there was equal focus on all regions, including the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Since 2011 those regions seem to have been put on the back burner, and Turkey's diplomatic attention is unevenly distributed. The Middle East is consuming all of our energy. The EU process has effectively halted. Our diplomats are exhausted. We need to recognize that the southern belt around us, namely Iran, Iraq and Syria, will be our first priority areas for some time to come. At the same time, developments in these countries have direct ramifications for our own Kurdish issue.

Turkey must focus its human and diplomatic capacity on these regions. Egypt, Tunisia and other countries are important, but should not take priority over these pressing issues. Egypt is a key actor in the Middle East. There is a clear need to calibrate the language directed at Cairo as well.

Turkish foreign policy has a long tradition of adjusting to major changes. Once Turkey puts things in order in its immediate neighborhood, and conditions permit, I am all for Turkey playing a more central role in the region. We need to recognize that the pre-Arab Spring Middle East is no more. Turkey's greatest foreign policy challenge is to further its national interests in the midst of a major regional collapse of Arab state architecture.

Previous articles of the columnist