THE MIDDLE EAST IN TURKISH FOREIGN POLICY IN THE 21ST CENTURY: LEADERSHIP PERSPECTIVES


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Abstract

The article is devoted to the analysis of the prospects for Turkey's leadership in the Middle East. When the Justice and Development Party came to power, the transformation of Turkey's foreign policy started. In relations with the countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia and North Africa, Turkey declared its leading positions, reinforcing them with traditional rhetoric about the link between the West and the East. Changes in the domestic political life of Turkey and the approval of the concept of Neo-Ottomanism encouraged Turkey to strengthen its leadership position in the region. At the moment, there are obvious transformations in the role and position of Turkey in the Middle East region, associated both with geopolitical reasons and with the specific features of the ruling regime in the country. Turkey's relations with the Middle Eastern countries are also examined within the article. The conclusions are drawn on the basis of the analysis of the Turkish successes and failures in achieving its ambitions to take the leading position in the region.

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Introduction. Since the foundation of modern Turkey, the country has been an adherent of the principles of Kemalism, democratic values and acted in the wake of Western sentiments. Due to the fact that the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, developed a special political concept for the country, which abandoned the expansionist ideology of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey's foreign policy was largely aimed at cooperation with the Western world and the United States. Ankara sought to strengthen its position in the Middle East region, using extensive ties with Western powers, which allowed it to achieve its goals. However, at the beginning of the 21stcentury Turkey's foreign policy is undergoing a major transformation. When the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, the gradual departure from the pro-Western course started. The Republic of Turkey began to pursue an independent policy, refusing the role of the "little brother" of the United States. The problem continues to be topical as Turkey’s changing orientations in the international arena have a significant impact on the state of affairs in the region. In the light of the rapid changes in the Turkish foreign policy this topic requires constant study through deep and thorough analysis.

The purpose of the research is to estimate the leadership perspectives of Turkey in the Middle East. In order to achieve it the following objectives are set: to identify the problems and the perspectives of Turkey’s leadership in the Middle East.

 

Methodology.

The present study draws primarily on the work of former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu “Strategic Depth” [1], which became the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy. The qualitative content analysis of the information from Turkish and Russian newspapers is provided within the current research. The empirical material is also represented by the book of Russian turkologist Avatkov V.A. “Turkish Foreign Policy from 2002 to 2018”, where the author expresses his views on the problem [2].

The modern Turkish Republic considers the Middle East to be one of the main regions of its foreign policy, and itself as the leader of this region. This position is reflected in the Turkish Foreign Policy Concept of 2014, authored by the former Prime Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu. This concept emphasizes the importance of pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy by Turkey, as well as balanced interaction in various areas of cooperation. This is a strategic course that is aimed at returning “the Ottoman past”, taking into account modern realities. In the terms of its geostrategic vision, Neo-Ottomanism is devoid of imperialist expansionism, but is determined to advance Turkey’s diplomatic, political and economic role in the Middle East [3]. According to the author, Turkey should take the leadership position in this region, closely interacting with the countries that were the part of the Ottoman Empire, thus spreading its influence, both regionally and globally.

Moreover, the author is of the opinion that in the absence of an effective policy in the Middle East, Turkey will not be able to take strategic steps at the global level, nor to take diplomatic initiatives in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf.

In the "Political Vision 2023", the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) emphasizes that Turkey is the guarantor of regional peace and stability through its democratic and economic development. Turkey is destined to play a decisive role in its region, AKP claims [4]. Within the framework of the "zero problems with neighbours" doctrine, Turkey began to pursue a multilateral foreign policy aimed at rapprochement with the Middle Eastern states [5].

In fact, in relations with the countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia and North Africa, Turkey quickly declared its leading positions, reinforcing them with traditional rhetoric about the link between the West and the East.

However, despite Turkey's ambitions to take the leading position in the Middle East, the country's Neo-Ottoman course brought a series of painful setbacks, which calls into question the country's ability to become a regional power.

 

Results and Discussion.

Having thoroughly analysed the sources mentioned above we have come to the following results. We should start with the fact that since the beginning of the "Arab Spring" that started at the end of 2010, the Middle East and the policy of Turkey have undergone significant changes. Arab uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other countries have caused unrest in the region, resulting in the overthrow of many regimes and internal conflicts in several countries. Since the Arab Revolt, regional geopolitics and security challenges have opened up new channels for Turkish foreign policy, prompting Ankara to intervene in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. Thus, Ankara's involvement in the Middle East has expanded and it has become a third party in regional disputes [6].

The Arab uprisings initially heightened Ankara's hopes for the possibility of expanding Turkey's influence in the region. However, it soon became clear that the uprisings would not lead to a transition to more democratic governance, but either to the restoration of authoritarian rule or to civil wars, as had happened in Syria, Libya and Yemen, prompting external intervention and intensifying competition between regional powers. These post-uprising events exposed Turkey's limitations in its pursuit of regional leadership [7].

It is necessary to mention that before the “Arab Spring” Turkey gave priority to “soft power”, but since 2015 Ankara has increasingly begun to use military force to achieve its goals. This was especially the case in Syria, where the Turkish military launched several military operations: “Euphrates Shield”; “Olive Branch”; “Source of Peace”. All these military operations were aimed at preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria as Ankara began to recognize direct threats to its national security.

The growing role of Turkey in regional conflicts and the conduct of military operations have provoked concern among most countries in the region, intensifying the rivalry for regional leadership. Saudi Arabia and the UAE expressed deep concern that Turkey might have aggressive intentions, and that it can interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and expand its influence in the Arab world [8]. This way, Ankara has developed extremely difficult relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, which is also associated with countries' distrust of the Neo-Ottoman ideology.

A serious split between the Arab countries occurred in 2017, when a number of countries, namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, presented a number of demands to Qatar: termination of relations with Iran; termination of security and defence ties with Turkey, including a ban on the establishment of a Turkish military base in the country; taking tough actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as stopping the broadcast of Al-Jazeera. After Qatar refused to comply with the above requirements, the countries imposed a blockade of Qatar [9]. Turkey and Iran supported an ally in this conflict, but Turkey also found itself isolated, that worsened relations with the Arab countries. On the other hand, Turkey has expanded its military contingent and influence in Qatar.

It’s worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia has recently shown a desire to take the leadership position in the Middle East, actively competing with Turkey. For instance, Riyadh has begun to create regional anti-Turkish alliances that curb Turkey's plans. Saudi Arabia also increasingly supported the anti-Turkish bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean, coordinating with Egypt and Greece.

Moreover, this confrontation between the Middle Eastern countries and Turkey provoked an economic war against Ankara. As part of countering the growing Turkish influence, the leadership of Saudi Arabia introduced a number of restrictions on Turkish business: a complete ban on the purchase of Turkish-made goods; restriction on the work of Turkish construction companies, etc. As political tensions erupted, the UAE also canceled some of its investments in Turkey.

As it was said the major obstacle to leadership is the Syrian crisis. Turkey's involvement in the civil war on the side of the opposition aggravated relations with the countries of the Middle East, in particular with Iran. Relations between Ankara and Tehran can hardly be called allied or hostile. There is a rivalry for leadership in the Middle East. In Syria, Ankara and Tehran respectively supported the opposition and the regime. Therefore, the countries have to look for the ways to normalize the relations avoiding stalemate.

Syrian conflict also attracts the flow of refugees to Turkey. According to the Intelligence Portal, more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees are registered in Turkey in 2022, which is a destabilizing factor in the domestic political situation, which, of course, hinders Ankara's ambitions to achieve its goals.

However, despite significant problems and almost the complete absence of allies in the region, the Turkish leadership does not lose hope to become the leader of the Middle East.

Firstly, a favorable geopolitical position allows the country to claim the leadership position.

Secondly, Turkey's active foreign policy consists in participation in military operations, the creation of military bases in Qatar and Somalia. On the one hand, these factors worsen relations with neighbouring states, but on the other hand, this way, Turkey demonstrates its military-political potential.

Thirdly, Turkey is trying to build special relations with Iran within the framework of the Astana format to resolve the Syrian crisis. The convergence of views on the Kurdish issue can also smooth out sharp corners between the states [10].

At the end of 2020, the Arab countries lifted the blockade from Qatar, which means that Turkey has a chance to give a new impetus to the relations with the countries of the Middle East.

Over the past year Turkey has stepped up its efforts to restore relations with its neighbours in the region. The worsening economic crisis in Turkey forced it to improve relations with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel to strengthen regional economic ties.

In addition, the soft power used by Turkey can also have a positive impact on the implementation of "Neo-Ottomanism". For example, Turkey is opening up new Arabic-language media and has been successfully demonstrating the Turkish way of life to Middle Eastern audiences for years.

It is also worth noting that R. T. Erdogan is increasingly positioning himself as a defender of all Muslims, increasing his popularity in the Middle East. He opposes the oppression of Muslims, the growth of Islamophobia, etc. Such activity is supported by the inhabitants of the Middle East and, undoubtedly, adds sympathy to the Turkish president. This is evidenced by the results of a survey conducted by the Air Force Arab Service in the Middle East and North Africa which took place in 2019. According to its results, 51% of the inhabitants of these countries support the policy of the President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Thus, he became the leader who received the most support in the Arab countries [11].

Thus, Turkey's foreign policy has undergone significant changes in relation to the Middle East since the start of the "Arab Spring". The idea of ​​Neo-Ottomanism also became an object of distrust on the part of the Arab countries. Turkey, of course, is an influential player in the Middle East, however, it can hardly be called an absolute leader in this region. Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE are serious rivals of Turkey on the way to achieving their goals. However, Turkey is already occupying its firm position in the new world, despite the sanctions and the resistance of the external environment. It is already being talked about as a new leader, a new regional superpower, and even as a new global actor. The change in Turkey's foreign policy image is caused not only by the excessive growth of its geopolitical ambitions, but also by the increased influence, which Ankara is seeking both through negotiations and military methods.

Conclusion

It can be assumed that today Turkey has a historical chance to become the leader in the Middle East. Despite the fact that the economy of the Republic of Turkey is in a deep crisis, the rise in foreign policy is helping to increase the popularity of the incumbent president.

It is worth noting that in 2023 the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey will be celebrated. President R.T. Erdogan wants to celebrate this holiday with a big victory, which will secure his status as the "father of the nation". Back in 2010, the Turkish leader promised that by the anniversary of the proclamation of the republic, the country would become a strong and powerful world actor.

Considering the analysis carried out Turkey is seemed to continue increasing its influence in the Middle East and will make every effort to achieve stability in this region. The involvement of non-regional actors in conflicts in the Middle East also forces Turkey to be more diplomatic and active, as Ankara, appears to be afraid of the excessive spread of the influence of non-regional powers in the Middle East region.

The results of the analysis undertaken make it possible to suggest that Turkey's leadership in the Middle East will be determined by success in overcoming the most important foreign policy problems: the Kurdish issue, the Syrian crisis, and the establishment of relations with the countries of the Middle East. At the moment, these factors are holding Turkey back on the path to leadership. Therefore, it can be assumed that effective resolution of regional conflicts will allow the country to become an influential player in the Middle East.

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About the authors

Аида Ичметовна Логманова

Самарский национальный исследовательский университет им. С.П. Королева

Author for correspondence.
Email: aida.logmanova@mail.ru
Russian Federation

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