Turkey's Changing Regional Role

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

In just one year, relations between the United States and Turkey have moved from tension to cooperation. This was the focus of remarks by a Turkish journalist speaking at the opening session at the second convention of the Turkic American Alliance. After reviewing the differences in the bilateral relationship, then and now, he asked rather pointedly, "What happened to account for this change and where will it lead us?"

The journalist recalled that when he had appeared at the group's founding conference, in 2010, relations were at an all-time low. Turkey had broken with Israel over its blockade of Gaza and its deadly assault on the Gaza-bound flotilla. And the U.S. was none too happy with Turkey's efforts to negotiate a compromise that might ease international concerns with Iran's nuclear program. In reaction, Congress and the Administration had been harshly critical of Turkish "meddling" and Turkey's new "anti-Israel" bent.

Today, in contrast, relations seem warmer than ever. President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan speak often, as do their respective staffs, and there appears to be some degree of cooperation in dealing with critical regional issues from the continuing conflict roiling Syria to the imminent departure of U.S. forces from Iraq.

What happened to account for this change? In short, it was the "Arab Spring", and the difficulties the U.S. has had finding its way through the maze created by the region's new political realities. What were constants have now become variables changing the Arab World's landscape.

All this has occurred at a difficult time for the United States. Despite its economic and military dominance, the ability of the U.S. to maneuver in this changing environment has been hampered by several factors. First and foremost, has been the damage done by the Bush Administration's reckless and deadly war in Iraq which created deep resentment across the Arab World, tarnished the American image, and emboldened and empowered Iran. Add to that the failure of the Bush Administration to act to halt Israel's four bloody wars against Lebanon (2006) and the Palestinians (West Bank in 2002 and Gaza in 2006 and 2009), which only deepened Arab anger at the U.S. And finally, despite President Obama's intention to change direction, Israeli intransigence and the deep partisan split in Washington have repeatedly frustrated his efforts. This obstruction culminated, last May, in the GOP's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to humiliate the President before Congress.

As a result, at the onset of the Arab Spring U.S. policy in the Middle East was adrift. One by one allies had fallen or were at risk, and Washington found itself in a bind. The Administration could talk about supporting popular revolts, but it knew all too well that should the revolts succeed the resulting transformation would only complicate further the U.S.'s already difficult situation in the Arab World. Furthermore, Washington's "unshakable" bond with Israel, had, in effect, "taken it out of the game" reducing its ability to play a meaningful regional role.

It was at this point that Syria exploded.

Like the U.S., Turkey was also caught off-guard by the unfolding Arab Spring. They, too, initially meandered in response to developments in Egypt and Libya. But with their southern neighbor boiling over, Turkey made a determined effort to intervene: first urging reform, then negotiations, then demanding an end to the bloodshed, before finally embracing the opposition, giving up on the Assad regime, and announcing far-reaching sanctions against their one-time ally.

The U.S. now appears to be deferring to Turkey as an invaluable ally in handling the Syria file for one important reason. As a result of its demonstrated support for Palestinians, Turkey has earned "street cred" in the Arab World, while the U.S. has none. Turkey can meet with the Arab League as a partner, the U.S. cannot, and Turkey can house and endorse the Syrian opposition in a way that the U.S. cannot.

But several cautionary notes are in order. Turkey cannot overplay its hand in Syria. It is neither the "leader of the Arabs", nor does it, I believe, intend to play that role. It is true, as our recent polling demonstrates that Turkey's standing is quite high across the Arab region. But that is not an invitation for Turkey to reassert a new "Ottomanism". In fact, our polls also suggest that Turkey may be but a "placeholder. When Arabs are asked who is currently playing a leadership role, they respond "Turkey". But when asked who they want to lead, Arabs say "Egypt". Turkey is respected, but as a regional partner, not as an Arab leader.

Secondly, Turkey must be careful not to allow either hubris or frustration or external pressure to force it to get dragged too deeply into a Syrian quagmire. Some Syrian oppositionists may want Turkey to militarily intervene in Syria, but that might prove to be a fatal mistake. It would exacerbate an already bloody conflict causing even more killings and unrest in an already unstable region, and would compromise Turkey's hard won regional credibility.

The wiser course would be for Turkey to resist these pressures and to continue to work in concert with the Arab League to insist that the Syrian regime enter into negotiations leading to broad reform and an orderly transfer of power. The Ba'ath leadership may be arrogant and frustratingly blind to the problems they have created for themselves and their country; but that should not provide the pretext for an overreach in response. Sanctions and other forms of pressure to weaken the regime make sense, thought they will take time to work. But Turkey should avoid making the mistake in Syria that the U.S. made in Iraq. And it should know that Syria is not Libya. Should Syria implode, the regional consequences would be grave, affecting the entire region for decades to come.

Relations between Turkey and the United States have changed in response to dramatic changes occurring in the Arab World. But even with these changes, some constants remain. And primary among these are the dangers associated with the region's limited tolerance for foreign intervention.

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