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What went wrong with Turkey’s Mideast policy?

What went wrong with Turkey’s Middle East policy which turned it from a country admired by the regional states to the odd man out in the region?

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

Turkey was not invited for a major Islamic conference that took place in Egypt last week, according to media outlets. Similarly, there was no Turkish participation at another major meeting, the Jeddah Economic Forum, held in Saudi Arabia.

More importantly, the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum, which aims to strengthen cooperation between Turkey and Arab League countries, hasn’t taken place so far since no Arab country has offered to host the annual meeting.

Needless to say, the honeymoon that Ankara and Cairo enjoyed during the one-year presidency of Egyptian President, Mohammad Mursi has turned into a bitter divorce with the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood leader last July.

It is not a secret that with the straining of the relations between Ankara and Cairo, Turkey’s relations with the other regional countries have also entered a troubled period.

Here comes the question. What went wrong with Turkey’s Middle East policy which turned it from a country admired by the regional states to the odd man out in the region?

Turkey's heyday in the Mideast

Turkey, which had turned its back to its immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood for decades, re-engaged with the region with its Middle East initiative which started during Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Turkey’s policy of taking sides with particular groups in the regional countries, including Egypt and Iraq, also backfired. This policy has cost Turkey friends in the region and has limited its room to maneuver.

Sinem Cengiz

It was the “zero problems with-neighbors policy” of the Turkish government that enabled Turkey to enjoy political, cultural and economic with the region. Turkey’s sincere efforts to further regional integration in the Middle East was welcomed and appreciated by the regional countries.

Some incidents, such as the “one-minute” incident at Davos in 2009, have further contributed to the strengthening of ties between Turkey and Arab countries. The attitude adopted by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan towards Israel has made him a “heroic” political figure in the streets of most Arab countries.

Shifting dynamics

However, things started to change when the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt led to the toppling of the leaders in those Arab countries. The uprisings have not only changed the dynamics and shifted the balance in the region but have also turned Turkey’s relations with the regional countries upside down.

For Turkey, things have become more complicated with the crisis in Syria and the ousting of Mursi in Egypt. From Turkey’s perspective, everything would have been perfect if the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria had come to an end.

However, Turkey got it wrong in Syria and in fact in the Middle East in general. Assad didn’t fall and there is still no hope to end the conflict in the foreseeable future. Due to its deep involvement in the Syria issue, Turkey has felt the deep impact of the war, not only in refugee terms, but also through threats that radical groups in war-torn country pose towards country’s security and stability.

Rather than avoiding further complications and becoming a part of the war, Turkish government did not bother to revise its Syria policy.

Although, the goal of the “zero problems with neighbors’ policy” was to develop friendly relations with neighbors and not use tensions for short-term domestic political gains, Turkish government started to abuse the crisis in Syria and Egypt as a tool for domestic political gains. The Turkish government took both the crises personally and reacted as if they were Turkey’s internal issues.

Furthermore, Turkey’s policy of taking sides with particular groups in the regional countries, including Egypt and Iraq, also backfired. This policy has cost Turkey friends in the region and has limited its room to maneuver.

Miscalculation

Turkey thought that by siding with a group it would have the ability to turn the tide in the politics in its favor. However, running after a new regional order and supporting particular groups for short-term political calculations did not help Turkey to turn the tide to its favor.

Therefore, once a country praised both at home and abroad for its role in mediating between conflicting parties, is now at odds with the countries that it used to mediate. A country that was admired for its success in foreign policy based on the philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors” is now having troubled relationships with countries in its neighborhood.

Not so long ago, the country which was main contributor of the international conferences that took place in the regional countries is now excluded from those same meetings.

Turkey, in order to avoid losing strength in international politics, should have taken the changing balances of power in the Middle East into attention and have pursued more neutral and balanced foreign policy towards regional countries.

Ankara’s adventure in the region was based on the delusion that it will be the major player to shape the new regional order. However, that adventure came to an end at a time of tectonic changes taking place in the region.

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Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the latest circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. Cengiz has conducted several interviews with presidents, foreign ministers, and heads of the political parties in abroad and diplomats based in Ankara. She is experienced on covering issues in foreign countries with field research. She has also covered major international conferences abroad and in Turkey. Cengiz participated to programs in several organizations and institutions. Cengiz graduated from the department of International Relations and still continues her master studies on Middle East issues at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. She currently works on her thesis regarding Turkish-Saudi Relations in the past decade. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

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