Turkey’s Middle East Policies: Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism

Turkey’s increased engagement in the Middle East reflects its desire to become a self-confident regional superpower. Yet, Ankara’s fraught handling of the Kurdish issue has been reactive, alarmist, and insecure. Unless Turkey learns to balance its opposing priorities, the country will witness an increase in ultra-nationalism and isolationism.

Turkey’s increased engagement in the Middle East reflects its desire to become a self-confident regional superpower. Yet, Ankara’s fraught handling of the Kurdish issue has been reactive, alarmist, and insecure. Unless Turkey learns to balance its opposing priorities, the country will witness an increase in ultra-nationalism and isolationism, concludes a new paper from the Carnegie Endowment.

Ömer Taspinar explains the two conflicting drivers of Turkey’s new activism in the Middle East: “Neo-Ottomanism,” which encourages engagement and projection of influence recalling Turkey’s multicultural, Muslim, and imperial past, and “Kemalism,” which aims to eliminate the perceived threat of Kurdish nationalism and protect Turkey’s secular, nationalist identity. He examines the impact of recent political developments, the re-emergence of the Kurdish challenge for Turkey’s foreign policy, and explores Ankara’s relations with the West and the Middle East, including its close ties with Syria and Iran. 
Key conclusions
  • Neo-Ottomanism motivates the foreign policy of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP. Critics of the AKP, including the military and national security establishment, view neo-Ottomanism and its use of soft power in the Middle East as a threat to Turkey’s Kemalist secular identity.  
  • Turkey’s secular, nationalist establishment resents the West for supporting the Kurds and “moderate Islam” in Turkey, while the AKP’s neo-Ottomanism favors good relations with Washington and Brussels—an important realignment of Turkish foreign policy.
  • Both groups favor improved relations between Ankara, Tehran, and Damascus. Neo-Ottomans view engagement with Iran and Syria as part of Turkey’s growing regional influence, while Kemalists see a shared interest in containing Kurdish nationalism and preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish nation on their borders.
  • Should a military or judicial coup overthrow the AKP—as almost happened in April 2007 and July 2008—a radical form of Kemalism could dominate Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy, leading to a more confrontational position on the Kurdish challenge, notably in Iraq.

Taspinar concludes:

“The stakes for Turkey and the future of the Middle East are high. Home to more than 70 million Muslims, Turkey is the most advanced democracy in the Islamic world. A stable, western-oriented, liberal Turkey on a clear path toward the EU would serve as a growing market for western goods, a contributor to the labor force Europe will desperately need in the coming decades, a democratic example for the rest of the Muslim world, a stabilizing influence on Iraq, and a partner in Afghanistan.
An authoritarian, resentful, and isolated Turkey, on the other hand, would be the opposite in every case. If its domestic politics were to go wrong, Turkey would not only cease being a democratic success story but also could become a destabilizing factor in the Middle East.”
Click on icon above for the full text of this Carnegie Paper.
A limites number of print copies of this Carnegie Paper (in English) are available.
About the Author
Ömer Taspinar is professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College and the director of the Turkey Program at the Brookings Institution. Taspinar was previously assistant professor in the European Studies Department of the Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he remains an adjunct professor. He has held consulting positions at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights in Washington, and at the Strategic Planning Department of TOFAS–FIAT in Istanbul.
End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.

Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2008/10/07/turkey-s-middle-east-policies-between-neo-ottomanism-and-kemalism/z9i

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.