Turkey: a rock in shifting sands

Ceylan Ozbudak
Ceylan Ozbudak
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Like a fine Persian carpet, the Middle Eastern peoples are an intricate weave of communities, joined together in beautiful distinctive of interlocking language, religion, and communities, established over time, and sustained by a provident grace from age to age. In the early 20th century, foreigners visited a Great War of conquest on our lands, dissolving centuries of community and disrupting this rich brocade with artificial divisions which they contrived among themselves in secret before the guns had gone silent, in a plan to exploit the resources which they themselves coveted. I refer, of course, to the Sykes-Picot Treaty of May, 1915, in which the British, the French, and Russia cooperated to divide the Ottoman lands.

One incidental consequence of the Arab Spring is that these watercolor lines have begun to fade, and their dissolution brings an opportunity to acknowledge the cross currents of interest which drive action, conflict and the potential for unity in the Middle East. In my own readings, I am struck by the predominant assumption of so many analysts who presume that Turkey, perhaps because of her membership in NATO, has some interest, or even a duty, to use her influence to maintain the integrity of the Sykes-Picot borders.

A style of Turkish diplomacy that involves playing on the front foot would be to their advantage, and to the advantage of everyone they interact with.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Borders in the Middle East are becoming more and more fluid every day as a result of the Arab Spring – difficult to believe but this process did have some results – and the current public discourse is focusing on trying to maintain these borders. I hear and read many analysts saying Turkey has a role in maintaining these borders and the safety of the regimes within those borders but frankly, Turks had nothing to do with the Sykes-Picot order and couldn’t care less about maintaining it. It’s not our duty to uphold an order drawn by Europeans for the Middle East and we don’t think it’s beneficial to keep divisions between people and groups which didn’t exist before. Rather than viewing the Middle East through a political prism, we in Turkey prefer rather a geographical map; marking the influential groups, sects, tribes and schools of thought which have prevailed for centuries in this place.

Turkey’s best interests

Is the complaint about fluid borders in the region Turkey’s only problem in its foreign policy? Some analysts hold that Turkey is morally bound, in the interests of economic stability, to maintain good relations with any political regime, regardless of its principles and its actions. Obviously, this sentiment is absurd. The Turkish understanding of “stability” does not only include economic policies and GDP growth. Our own long-term interests call us to consider how the policies of a regime in a neighbor nation may impact our own tranquility.

Turkey has been left alone in the region because of this foreign policy lately but this is nothing new. This process started with the Turkish Prime Minister criticizing Israel publicly in 2009 about their offensive on Gaza Strip. I believe criticizing the actions of IDF at the time was necessary but I also have to say Turkey could have handled this process with a little more finesse because this direct action left Turkey out of the proceeding Arab-Israeli peace process, which is not a favorable standpoint for any of us in the region.

The changing desert of foreign policy

We all know Turkey has been the first to side against the dictators during the Arab Spring. Taking sides in issues concerning Arabs is well known to turn the issue into a knotty problem for those who are involved. But Turkey didn’t shy away from commenting about these issues. We all know you can’t trust a sand dune since it turns its face to wherever the wind blows so you find yourself looking at an empty desert. For many people, Turkey’s position is as a lost Bedouin in a windy desert plane. But if you jump to future and see 15 years from now, Turkey will have a solid grounding of rules she never broke under any circumstance, no matter how much ground or money we lose. I believe this is a better place to be. Because in the Middle Eastern deserts where the sand dunes turn to wherever the wind blows, there is no possibility to ride the dunes. We can only expect to drive a stake and maintain our place. Spending weeks to try to decide if a military intervention was a coup or not is not going to make either Sisi or Mursi supporters happy about America and in the long run, the relationship will never turn into something more than daily pragmatic deals.

Is Turkey perfect in how it is dealing with this coup and its outcomes in Egypt? Calling a spade a spade makes you reliable, whether or not we want to admit it. Calling it a coup was the right thing to do. On the other hand, the criticism about Turkey’s expected role as a mediator rather than being a Muslim Brotherhood apologist is also right. We said it’s not a desirable action in an embryonic democracy to intervene with military action, and now we need to turn another page, start mediating between the sides. If we don’t, it will soon start to look like supporting a soccer team rather than a foreign policy choice.

Turkey’s current foreign policy decisions might seem a bit bewildering to outsiders, and certainly that view is understandable. Unlike other nations who are always quite anxious to be involved in the affairs of others, Turkey rarely acts outside of its own borders except when its own national interests are directly involved. The Prime Minister always has a variety of interesting comments to offer to reporters, but rarely does this translate into any form of direct action or intervention. Turkey is very happy with the position they are in, and they are wary of involving themselves in the problems they see all around them.

The members of the ruling AK Party in Turkey are domestic policy experts, but foreign policy novices. Therefore it is no surprise they have chosen to park the bus on matters of international affairs in most situations. However, for me, I would like to see a Turkish government that is a bit more forward leaning. Turkey has a variety of substantive things to contribute to the region and to the nations around them who face such challenging obstacles in this moment. By this, I don’t simply mean financial aid or military intervention, or a U.S.-style approach to international involvement. Turkey has no need to bribe anyone, as most countries in the region already see them as a dear friend. What they can instead offer is the advice and guidance which good friends often offer each other. They can be there in the time of need for others, and help them to develop a roadmap to future peace and prosperity. A more aggressive diplomatic effort is a good thing, and doesn’t necessarily involve money or guns. Turkey can serve a role as a mediator, a mentor, and most importantly, a friend.

A style of Turkish diplomacy that involves playing on the front foot would be to their advantage, and to the advantage of everyone they interact with. In times of need, friends help friends, and Turkey is a good friend to the entire region. It’s become obvious at this point that the problems of the region are too big for any other nation, or even a group of nations, to solve. It is going to require a collective of the entire region to solve some of these problems. If this collective does not involve Turkey, it will never be nearly as strong or nearly as effective as it could or should be. This is a wonderful opportunity for Turkey to step onto the regional and global diplomatic stage in a massive way, and help to create a better future for the region and a proud legacy, which might well last for generations.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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