Turkey has sought to exploit the Qatar dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to grab a historic opportunity in the region. The dreams of a strong, regional Turkey necessitates great financial capabilities that cannot be achieved in light of the decline of the Turkish economy and its suffering from several crises, especially with its strained relations with the USA. Thus, Turkish President Erdogan found his relations with Qatar and Russia a decisive solution to Ankara’s financial problems.
Turkey has maintained its footprint in the region and has expanded its influence in 2011, principally with the historical opportunity of the so-called "Arab Spring" in the Middle East, which was exploited by many countries including Turkey and Iran. As for Turkey, the Arab Spring has enabled political Islam Movements (Muslim Brotherhood) to jump to power in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and Ankara has become the major supporter of these movements. On the other hand, Iran has benefitted from the demonstrations in the Arab World to have a say in the region and to expand its influence as well.
Turkey has intervened vigorously in many regional crises in order to achieve its objectives and interests in the beginning with full support from the United States of America with which it has strategic relations until both Washington and Ankara had taken a new approach after Turkey had chosen to form its foreign policy that serve its own interests, deviating away from the course that was drawn for the country for many years.
Turkey's involvement in the Middle East has increased due to its effective use of soft power, such as the public debate between Erdogan and the then Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos a few years ago, the flotilla incident, and Turkey's support for some Arab demonstrations, including those of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as Syria.
The Cold War has largely defined Turkey's strategic perspective vis-à-vis the Middle East in general and the Arab world in particular. Ankara's strategic perspective to limit the influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East has been shaped. The Arab Nationalist trend was also a means of supporting the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. This view was formed according to the perspective of the Western Camp to ensure the flow of oil from the Middle East region in a safe way to world markets. At that stage, Turkey has adopted a Western Camp stand.
Two political tremors
Since the end of the 1980s, changes in Turkish politics have been clear as there have been international and regional transformation as well which had driven Ankara to change its foreign policy. This has affected Turkey's view of the Middle East after the end of the bipolar world in the aftermath of the Cold War. There were two political tremors that have affected the Middle East since 1980-1990s: The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf crisis.
Turkey was deeply affected by these tremors, and the Gulf War increased Turkey's interest in the Middle East. Everyone is aware of the importance of the region; mainly Iraq and Syria for Turkey. The Turkish government has started to consider how to develop a new vision that better serves its interests in the Middle East.
Turkey has abandoned its defense policy after 2011, years after the adoption of "zero problems" policy. The godfather of this policy is Ahmet Davutoglu, former Turkish prime minister. Turkey is no longer waiting for the problems of the region to come to its borders, but rather it is acting to defend itself as the Turkish foreign policy stipulates. Davutoglu said on October 19, 2016: "As of now we will not wait for problems, we will not wait for the terrorist organizations to attack us, but we will attack the areas where these organizations are hiding, and we will destroy their bases over their heads and we will uproots of all parties supporting them."
That is the policy adopted for their attack on Afrin and even beyond Afrin that would take them to Idlib and east to the Iraqi borders. Turkey saw the attack as the best way to defend itself and contribute to the formulation of new maps instead of being imposed on Ankara, especially after the attempted coup d'état in mid-July 2016. This has been the justification for the Turkish parliament to approve military operations outside Turkish borders, chiefly in Syria and Iraq for an additional year.
The Turkish moves in the context of the Turkish foreign defense policy, which Ankara has adopted recently to protect its national interests, are based on its belief that soft power is no longer effective to achieve its external ambitions, especially in light of the competition between regional and international powers. Therefore, Turkey has incepted to activate its military tools for several reasons as follows:
First, the desire to open up new markets for Turkish weapons. Turkish military industries rose in 2015 to reach $4.3 billion, of which $ 1.3 billion was exported. Second, the new military tool aims to strengthen its presence in the Arab region and Africa by controlling the international crossings to protect its economic interests and national security interests from any regional or international interventions or sanctions that would be imposed in the future on Turkey as a result of its foreign policies. Third, the other motive is the desire to participate in the international coalition against terrorism not only to counter the threat of terrorists near its borders, but to stop the expansion of Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria for fear of independence.
Moreover, Turkey has the intention to besiege its enemies in their areas of influence and to cut off all logistic support for them that some regional and international powers are extending. Besides, Turkey is keeping abreast regional and international moves towards the region in order to limit its future negative repercussions on Turkish power, particularly in light of mounting Iranian and Russian dominance.
These Turkish accounts would put Ankara in the circle of friction with Russia and the US at a time the world is passing through a new type of Cold War and the Middle East is passing through its Cold War as well with many alliances and axes being formed. On the issue of the Kurds, Turkey has a spat with Washington regarding the future of the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. While Ankara is moving to prevent the Kurds from strengthening their power and influence, especially in the areas near Turkish borders, Washington regards them as a key ally in its strategy to counter extremism and terrorism; this justifies why the Americans provide the Kurds with weapons and help train them.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME