Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.
Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply. What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?
There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause. If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.
Population-wise, the two countries are among the largest in the region, and both have industrial bases in an area of the world where industry was actively discouraged by a century of colonial overlords (the Turks among them). Ankara recently offered $2 billion in aid to cash-strapped Egypt, and both countries have moderate Islamic governments. Cairo and Ankara have also supported the overthrow of the Assad regime. “Apparently now Egypt is Turkey’s closest partner in the Middle East,” Gamel Soltan of American University in Cairo told the New York Times. But while Egypt was once the Ottoman’s wealthiest provinces, 2012 is not the world of sultans and pashas, and, in this case, old memories may well be a trap.
Egypt is deeply mired in poverty and inequality. Indeed, it was as much the economic crisis gripping the region as issues of democracy and freedom that filled Tahrir Square. Cairo is in serious debt and preparing a round of austerity measures that will sharpen that inequality. The government of President Mohamed Morsi announced it will slice gas subsidies, which will fall particularly hard on the poor, especially given a jobless rate of over 12 percent and youth unemployment running at more than double that.
At first glance, both governments have a lot in common, particularly because Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are considered “moderately” Islamic. But many in the Brotherhood consider the AKP and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan far too “moderate”—in Turkey it is still illegal to wear a head scarf if you run for public office or work in a government office.
While the West considers Morsi’s and Erdogan’s government “Islamic,” some of the jihadists groups Cairo and Ankara are aiding in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria consider the Egyptian and Turkish government little more than non-believers or apostates. As Middle East expert Robert Fisk puts it, the jihadists are a scorpion that might, in the end, sting them both, much as the Taliban has done to its Pakistani sponsors. Turkey apparently hopes to construct a triangle among Ankara, Cairo, and the wealthy oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (Jordan and Morocco, two other monarchies, have been asked to join). The combination of population, industry, and wealth, goes the thinking, would allow that alliance to dominate the region.
The Council does have enormous wealth at its disposal, but how stable are autocratic monarchies in the wave of the democratic aspirations raised by the Arab Spring? Bahrain’s king rules through the force of the Saudi Army. Saudi Arabia itself is struggling to provide jobs and housing for its growing population, while weighed down by inequality, high unemployment, rampant corruption, and a restive Shia minority in its eastern provinces. Jordan’s monarch is wrestling with an economic crisis and a political opposition that is pressuring king Abdullah II for a constitutional monarchy. How this new alliance will affect the Palestinians is not clear. Turkey had a falling out with Israel in 2009, and Egypt and Qatar have been sharply critical of Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Palestinians. So far, however, it appears the Islamic group Hamas in Gaza will benefit more than the secular Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.
With the exception of Bahrain, all the countries involved have large Sunni majorities that, at first glance, would put them on the same page religiously. But most the Gulf monarchs are aligned with radical Islamic groups, some of which have morphed into al-Qaeda-like organizations that have destabilized countries from Pakistan to Iraq. On occasion, these groups have turned on their benefactors, as Osama bin Laden did on Saudi Arabia.
Such Islamic groups are increasingly active in the Syrian civil war, where Turkey finds itself in a very similar role to the one played by Pakistan during the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war. Some of the groups Pakistan nurtured during those years have now turned on their patrons. Will Turkey become the next Pakistan? In an interview with the Financial Times, one Syrian insurgent said that many of the rebels were stockpiling ammunition for “after the revolution.” Bulent Alizira of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Financial Times that Turkey is in danger of becoming “like Pakistan, which became the forward base for the Afghan rebels. If that were to happen, it could confront all the pressures that Pakistan faced and from which it has never recovered.”
And why would the Erdogan government pick a fight with Russia? Russia is a major trading partner, and Turkey is keen on establishing good relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded by Russia and China in 2001. The organization includes most of the countries in Central Asia, plus observers from India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. The SCO accounts for 75 percent of the world’s energy resources and population, and coordinates everything from trade to oil and gas pipelines. Why would Ankara irritate one of the major players in the SCO?
Might it be pique at Moscow for blocking more aggressive measures by the UN Security Council to intervene in the Syrian civil war? Russia, along with China, has consistently called for a political resolution to the Syria crisis, while Turkey has pursued a strategy of forcible regime change. Erdogan has a reputation for arrogance and letting his temper get the best of him. “His personal ambitions and overweening certainties may be eclipsing his judgment,” Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation told UPI, “and affecting Turkish interests.” Abramowitz served in the Carter and Reagan administrations and was appointed ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991. He is also a director at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Relations between Turkey and Iran have also cooled, in part because of the U.S. anti-missile system, but also because Ankara is trying to overthrow one of Iran’s few allies in the region. In any case, backing Sunni jihadists against the Alawite Assad regime is hardly going to go down well in Shia Iran, or for that matter, in Shia Iraq. The Alawites are a branch of Shism. Why, too would Turkey alienate major trading partners like Iran and Iraq? It is possible that the wealthy monarchies of the Gulf—who are anti-Shia and view Iran as their greatest threat— made Ankara an offer it can’t refuse. Whether the monarchies can deliver in the long run is another matter.
In the meantime, the Syrian war has unleashed the furies. Car bombs have made their appearance one again in Lebanon, the Kurds have bloodied the Turkish Army, hundreds of thousands of refugees have poured out of Syria, and the fighting inside the country is escalating, anti-aircraft missiles—the Russian SAM-7, or Strela, most likely “liberated” during the Libya war—have made an appearance, the hand-fired missiles may indeed discomfort Syrian aircraft, but if they get into the hands of the Kurds, Turkish helicopters will be in trouble as well, as will any number of other air forces, from Lebanon to Jordan and a Strela was fired at an Israeli aircraft in the Gaza Strip Oct. 16.
Turkey’s role in the Syrian civil war finds little resonance among average Turks. Some 56 percent disagree with the policy, and 66 percent oppose allowing Syrian refugees into the country. “We are at a very critical juncture,” journalist Melih Asik told the New York Times. “We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China. Behind us we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the US.” Four years ago Turkey set out to build strong ties with other countries in the region—“zero problems with the neighbors”—and decrease its dependence on the US. Today those policy goals are in shambles. But that is where illusion and hubris lead.