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.”
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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.