As the Arab Spring rolls on, the regional balance of power is shifting. Turkey’s earlier success in integrating Islam, democracy, and economic growth is causing countries undergoing revolutions to look to the regional heavyweight for inspiration on how to effectively reform. But Turkey is also under pressure and Ankara’s reaction to the unrest—and arguably its muted criticism of violence instigated by regimes—is causing some observers to question its intentions in the region.
In a Q&A, Henri Barkey analyzes how Turkey is responding to the shifting landscape in the Middle East and whether it can serve as a role model for others. Barkey contends that it is a new game in the region and Turkey needs to rethink its foreign policies to adapt to the change.


How has Turkey responded to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa?

Turkey—just like the rest of the world—was caught unprepared by the uprisings in the region. Ankara has a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors, but in reality this means zero problems with regimes rather than with countries and populations.

So when the revolt started in Tunisia, the Turkish government kept quiet. At the outset of the Egyptian protests, Ankara—unsure as to how they would play out—did not initially say anything. But sensing that President Mubarak was on his way out and that President Obama was getting ready to call on him to step down, Prime Minister Erdogan ultimately made an emotional speech calling for his departure.

In some ways it was easier for Erdogan to call for Mubarak’s departure because Turkey and Egypt had been at odds with each other. Mubarak’s Egypt had been uneasy with Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab street and with Turkey’s attempts to take over some of the diplomatic files Cairo thought it owned, including Gaza and reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. 

Today, Turkey is an important commercial power, but its economic well-being is largely dependent on exports. This means that when Turkey designs its foreign policy, it has to be mindful of its commercial interests and investments. In fact, Turkey’s policy has been to push for greater integration with the Middle East, wanting more trade, bilateral agreements, and visa-free regimes. To a large extent this policy has been quite successful. In many countries, Turkish entrepreneurs have set up shop, invested heavily, and won contracts as Turkish exports to these countries have increased dramatically. 

In pursuing its economic interests in a region such as the Middle East, where the state is heavily involved in economic decision making, Turkey has had to create strong bonds with many—though not all—existing regimes. Paradoxically, these linkages have made Turkey into a status-quo power, unwilling to see dramatic change. And not surprisingly, first Libya, and now Syria, is creating serious headaches for Turkey.

What does Turkey’s position on foreign intervention into Libya indicate about its foreign policy?

Libya’s civil war is a serious crisis for Turkey. At the onset of the fighting, there were around 25,000 Turkish workers in Libya and billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, particularly in the construction sector. All of the contracts are with the regime, meaning that the possibility of Libyan leader Gaddafi being forced to leave was quite frightening for Ankara, especially in the face of an unknown alternative. The size of Turkish investments in Egypt paled in comparison to Libya.

And even with all of Erdogan’s talk in support of democracy, in December he had accepted the annual Gaddafi international prize for human rights. Ties to the Gaddafi regime were not insubstantial. This and the prospect of an uncertain future without Gaddafi is why Ankara first objected to a no-fly zone and any form of military intervention to support the Libyan rebels.

Erdogan’s objections to, and then vacillation on, the no-fly zone over Libya cost Turkey. Anti-Turkish demonstrators—notably in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city—burned the Turkish flag and tried to overrun Turkey’s consulate.

Turkey has had to awkwardly backtrack from some of its initial positions. Despite its original concerns over the extent of the military intervention into Libya, it eventually signed onto NATO taking over command and control of the no-fly zone. It has sent a number of ships to Libyan shores and evacuated wounded Libyans from the besieged city of Misrata. But Turkey has not fully cooperated with UN-mandated efforts aimed at freezing Gaddafi’s assets.

With the protests damaging Turkey’s standing in Libya, Erdogan was spurred to come up with a three-point plan for the country that includes the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to allow assistance to enter, a ceasefire in the cities surrounded by the regime’s military forces, and negotiations that will lead to some kind of democratic transition. Erdogan has also come around to the idea that Gaddafi ought to leave power. He has reportedly had numerous conversations with the Libyan leader, but these have been exercises in futility. While Turkey is late to the party, the three-point plan is still an interesting and serious idea that is worth considering. In fact, many of its ideas form the basis of the plan recently submitted by African countries.

More than Tunisia and Egypt, Libya represented a major challenge to Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Erdogan became one of the most popular leaders in the Arab street primarily due to his confrontation with Israel—Erdogan had a heated exchange with Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, over Gaza at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009. But now Turkey’s desire for good relations with all of its regional neighbors is clearly running into trouble. Turkey has to reckon that in some cases of the Arab Spring, it just may be on the wrong side of history.

Syria is the ultimate test case.

How has Turkey responded to intensifying clashes in Syria?

Syria is a real challenge for Turkey. Ankara made its greatest effort with Syria to improve relations. But the effort was made with President Assad just like with all other regimes in the region. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government came to power, Assad had already taken over and Turkey built its ties with what it found in Damascus. Turkey finds itself wedded to the Baath regime. One can almost say that at the current pace of economic integration, in fifteen years—if not earlier—Turkey would have emerged as the dominant force in the Syrian economy. 

With the revolts in Syria spreading, Turkey is now desperately trying to figure out what to do. Just like Assad, the Turkish government did not fully comprehend the depth of the malaise in Syria; Ankara does not want Assad to lose power. However, unlike the Iranians, it has been counseling Assad to reform. The Turkish foreign minister has visited with Assad, and the Turkish intelligence chief was dispatched to Damascus. Unwilling to publicly criticize the Syrian regime, the Turkish foreign ministry finally issued a veiled criticism following the particularly bloody events of April 23-25.

All Turks, from the government on down, are finally coming to grips with the real character of the Syrian regime—it is not only the adulation for Assad and the cult of personality it thrives on, the illegitimacy of the Baath Party, and the fact that no other party is allowed to exist, but also the ferocity with which riots have been suppressed and the number of unarmed protestors who have been shot. Syria and its narrow family regime is anathema to everything Turkey stands for. For Erdogan, who has benefitted from and genuinely believes in democracy, Assad must be an embarrassment. 

Unlike Libya, Syria has a sectarian regime. It is a majority Sunni Muslim country ruled by a minority Islamic sect of Alawites, and thus the revolts metamorphosed into a violent and bloody inter-sectarian struggle. In the long run, the Alawites are destined to lose such a struggle due to sheer numbers.

In the event of such developments, Turkey may face an onslaught of refugees from Syria since Syrians can enter the country without visas. If Turkey has learned a lesson in Libya, it is that it cannot appear to be siding with the regime; this is why the Turkish government has tried to engage Assad in order to convince him to ease the draconian controls over society and politics. In the end, when push comes to shove, Assad is likely to choose what is best for him, not necessarily opt for an orderly democratic transition.

At this stage, there appears to be no good outcome for Turkey in Syria.

Is Turkey a model for other countries as they undergo reform?

Turkey is a prosperous and democratic state—albeit with some serious internal problems—and thus certainly a model many countries in the region would like to emulate. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how regional states can replicate its development. The transformation that made Turkey a vibrant economy, the sixteenth-largest one in the world, started in the early 1980s. It is only now that the fruits of the transformation are being enjoyed.

Similarly, the Turkish democratization process is one that is difficult to emulate. It is important to note that Turkish democracy was both hindered and helped by the military. It was hindered in the sense that the military kept putting restrictions on democracy, but helped because the military made so many strategic and tactical mistakes that it ultimately undermined its control of the political system. Similar militaries do not exist in the Arab countries currently undergoing revolutionary change.

Erdogan is probably right when he argues that Turkey is not a model, but a source of inspiration. He has in mind his own party’s rise to power and how Turkey has recently managed Islam and democracy at the same time. That said, Islam in Turkey has always been far more moderate than in many Middle Eastern countries and strictly controlled by the state.

Regardless of whether Turkey can serve as a role model or not, there is no question that the rise of Turkey’s ruling AKP appeals to the Arab world. It stands in contrast to previous U.S. exhortations of the Turkish model for the region that fell on deaf ears precisely because of Turkey’s overbearing military.

Today there is a political party in Turkey that has succeeded in pushing the military back into its barracks—admittedly with the help of the military’s own errors. As a result, Turkey enjoys the ability to speak with authority in the region; irrespective of domestic controversies, its government appears to be the genuine item. AKP’s success has given Turkey a certain amount of cachet and influence in the region.

Is Turkey gaining power and influence in the region?

Turkey enjoyed a number of advantages in the Middle East that helped it increase its influence—its cultural affinities, its relative economic might, its role as both a Muslim and a Western country, the fact that it successfully curbed the military’s role, and its outspokenness against Israel—until revolution erupted in the region. 

It had a powerful hand in the regional poker game, but the Arab Spring has suddenly changed all the rules of the game. Instead of a royal flush, Turkey is left with an ace, king, queen, jack, and ten—still strong cards, but in a new and different game.

The long-term trajectory for Turkey is still that its influence will grow. But in the short term, Turkey is in a difficult position. It was shocked by anti-Turkish sentiments and demonstrations in Libya, and there is a danger that the country’s reputation will suffer in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube when information travels so quickly and widely.

Turkey faces the same contradictions of other countries. Ironically, as much as Turkey thought it was on the side of change, it has become a status-quo power; herein it may come to resemble the U.S. position in the region. One can see how Turkey has become a mini-America in the region with its own vested interests, commercial concerns, and close ties with regimes. Change, therefore, may not be good for its economic and commercial interests. Turkey’s challenge is not that different than the one faced by the United States.

With Turkey approaching parliamentary elections this summer, is Turkey at risk of protests or a revolution of its own?

Erdogan is responding to the Arab Spring in the midst of an upcoming election. Regardless, the AKP is almost assured of winning the vote. While it is impossible to rule out a dramatic, unpredictable, and unforeseen event that could play a role at the polls, this election will be largely based on the economy. And while Turkey’s economic prospects are hurt over the medium term by the regional unrest, the impact has yet to be felt in the country.

Turkey does have its own time bomb that is waiting to go off—the Kurdish issue. Erdogan has promised a new constitution after this summer’s elections to redress some of the Kurds’ grievances. Lest anyone forgot, the recent arbitrary, if not capricious, decision by the Supreme Electoral Council to disqualify many candidates supported by the Kurdish political party gave rise to mass protests throughout Turkey.

As much as Turkey hates to be reminded that it has a Kurdish problem, this is by far the most serious problem the country faces and will likely come to a crisis point after the elections.

Kurdish leaders insist that the question of their civic rights must be addressed immediately. Turkey remains deeply divided on this. In the absence of any movement, it is possible that the Kurds will emulate nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, as seen in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and other places across the region. The Kurds have already started a campaign of civil disobedience, but it could gain fervor after the election and more directly challenge the government. Ironically, the Arab Spring could end up as an example for an important constituency in Turkey.

How is Turkey’s relationship with the West changing as a result?

The truth is that Turkey has unique attributes and not an insignificant amount of clout in the greater Middle East. Turkey can be useful for the West if Ankara’s energies can be harnessed. For that to happen, however, Turkey will need to accept and understand both its limitations and relationships.

Wavering as it did in Libya and questioning its allies’ intentions harmed its ties and standing in the Western alliance and the region.

Turkey approaches the region with a great deal of hubris; it claims it understands the region better than the West. But in reality, the Arab Spring has demonstrated that Ankara isn’t doing any better than the West. Ankara needs to come to grips with the fact that we are all in the same boat. And at the same time, there is certainly something to be gained by working together. The Arab Spring has provided an opportunity for stronger cooperation between Turkey and the West. 

Syria could emerge as the most important test case of this. Unlike Libya, Syria is far more important to the regional balance of power and change in Syria will have severe repercussions—not necessarily negative, although certainly messy. One suggestion is to create an American-Turkish crisis group to monitor events in Syria, exchange information, and even draw up contingency plans. This would be a positive step for both countries.