When Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft in June, observers in Israel noted that Ankara might have actually enjoyed the conflict: Turkey seemed to be looking for a justification to intervene militarily in Syria, and the aircraft incident seemed to fit the bill. But just in case it wasn’t sufficient, additional motivation was provided by another tragedy a few days ago: mortar shells were fired from inside Syria on the Turkish border city Akçakale, killing five civilians, including three children. Syria’s democratically elected dictator Bashar al-Assad promptly delivered his apologies through the UN, claiming that the shelling had been an accident. Yet the political damage was too severe to be patched up with a few diplomatic words. The Turkish parliament in Ankara quickly approved “defensive” military intervention. Turkey wants to play a bigger role in the Syrian conflict, escalating from diplomacy to armed intervention. This is a pivotal decision, as it signals another step in a strategic shift of Turkey’s presence and goals in the Middle East. In recent years, the country has been on the rise with its “neo-Ottomanist” strategy promoted by the popular prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and orchestrated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey’s international approach was supposed to develop in two parallel directions: commerce and politics. As for commerce, strong pressure had been put on intensifying trade with countries from the region. Until the outbreak of chaos in Syria, the Turkish saw the country as “Turkey as it used to be some thirty years ago,” full of potential to be explored and exploited. Politically, Turkey was eager to showcase itself as an islamist-democratic alternative to Iran. Hence initiatives such as the “flotilla” to the Gaza strip: it was intended by Turkey as a humanitarian support initiative to help Palestinians, but a secondary goal was the discrediting of Israel and the collection of diplomatic street cred in the Muslim countries of the region. Turkey also hoped to strengthen its ties with Russia: besides energy connections – an area where Turkey’s geographic location has proven pivotal – the country had been dreaming of closer political cooperation, notwithstanding the considerable amounts of wars that the countries have started in the last century. Yet all these efforts have brought few results. Neo-Ottomanism has failed. Politically, it has become clear that the “Arab Spring” was not much of a “spring,” and that it has been “Islamist” rather than Arab in many instances. The Islamism that has emerged isn’t predicated on a pan-congregational alliance of Muslims in the pursuit of peace and love, but often focuses on local dynamics, almost at the tribal level. Those who control the levers of power in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya aren’t interested in what happens outside the respective countries – and are even less interested in Turkish political marketing. As for the rest of the quadrant, the old oil-producing Sunni kingdoms (and even those without oil wealth) barely raised their eyebrows – a traditional reaction ever since the real Arab revolt of 1918. The failure of the Gaza flotilla is an epitome for the struggle of Turkey: it resulted in no gains for Turkey whatsoever. In addition to carrying goods and activists, the ships also ferried a delegation of members of the Muslim Brotherhood – the same organization that won the elections in Egypt. Any group as large as the Brotherhood will include moderate and extreme factions, but conservative sources “in the US”:http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/muslim-brotherhoods-flotilla “and in Israel”:http://jcpa.org/text/Turkey_Muslim_Brotherhood.pdf have claimed that those aboard the ships wanted to reinforce contact with Hamas. Turkey ended up entangled in an operation that alienated Israel without creating tangible advantages. Indeed, the relationship between Turkey and Israel points to another crucial aspect: politics and commerce can hardly be separated. After the toughening of sanctions against Iran, and after a series of revolts and civil wars, Israel remains the only country in the region with booming trade relations with Turkey. All this is despite Erdogan’s attempt to undermine the relationship: in September 2011 he merrily declared that he was in the process of “interrupting any military and trading agreement with Israel.” The bilateral trade relationship grew nonetheless, passing the mark of four billion dollars in 2011. By the time the Israeli Defense Forces intercepted the flotilla and raided a ship on May 31st 2012, bilateral commerce had grown by more than one third. All of this doesn’t even include tourism: half a million Israeli adolescents used to flock to Turkish beach resorts packed with fast food chains and nightclubs every year. Today, that number has shrunk to 60,000. We can expect that entrepreneurs in Bodrum and Antalya will prefer hard Israeli shekels over their own government’s adventurous maritime undertakings. Turkey enjoys an export surplus with Israel (meaning that its exports to Israel exceed imports from Israel), and hitting a growing market – one of the few in the region – may not be the most thoughtful plan. Economic necessities have even forced Turkey to reconsider its attitude towards the Kurdish minority, who once were the targets of police repression and political bashing. Turkey is trying to connect with Kurdistan as a whole, in particular with Kurds living in Northern Iraq, and is trying to make amends. Due to the post-Saddam federal structure in Iraq, Ankara can now make oil supply agreements with Northern Iraq instead of having to cope with the political quagmire of the central government in Baghdad. Turkish companies buy oil from Iraqi Kurds, refine it, and then sell it back or pump it to their own commercial channels. But despite Turkish rapprochement attempts, Kurds official political organizations – and mainly the PKK – aren’t satisfied. The PKK claims that the most important issues, like political representation and autonomy, have not been addressed by the government in Ankara. Last August, the organization carried on an attack on a police station in the city of Sirnak using rocket grenades. This was just one episode that illustrates how tensions have risen over the years. It’s no coincidence that Syria’s regime appears to have supplied Kurdish rebels with arms and training. But what about Russia? Turkey understood too well that it cannot rely on Moscow to solve the Syrian question. The Russians have their own interests to protect in the Middle East. Weakening Israel also wouldn’t extend Turkey’s reach towards Jordan or Egypt, but would only help the Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. The organization backs Assad – and Iran has recently decided to supply Hezbollah with the know-how necessary to assemble a rudimentary drone to fly into Israeli territory. Hezbollah fighters “have also been active in the Syrian conflict”:http://www.timesofisrael.com/hezbollah-calls-for-ceasefire-to-extract-its-fighters-from-syria-rebels-report/. Turkey has been forced to transit from Neo-Ottomanism to realpolitik. The country must rely on its traditional “enemies” Israel and Kurdistan to solve the Mideast puzzle. Such a solution is urgent both politically and economically, and it has become even more important in light of the unstable state of Turke’s economy. Recently, “The Economist” “reported”:http://www.economist.com/node/21552216 that the country likely underestimates the problem of inflation. The open question remains whether Erdogan’s attempt to orchestrate an Islamic national consciousness after a century of secular Kemalism is an attainable goal in the absence of a real “cultural enemy.”
Turkey is struggling to find its role in the Middle East. The past two years have thrown a wrench into Erdogan’s plans for regional dominance.