Ayşe Zarakol, Washington and Lee University
PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 207
More than a year after the inception of the so-called Arab Spring, Turkey’s much-ballyhooed regional rise is teetering on the brink. Especially in its ability to influence outcomes in Syria, but also in its reading of regional dynamics in general, Turkey finds itself consistently outmaneuvered by other regional powers like Russia and Iran with longer standing interests in the Middle East. Furthermore, the convergence between the positions of Turkey and the West on Syria, when so explicitly pitted against the Russian position (whether or not by design), recalls to mind Cold War dynamics where Turkey was hardly more than an extension of the United States in terms of its role in the region. In other words, Turkey may finally be in the big leagues, but it is also dangerously close to a strikeout.
This means that soon the AKP government of Turkey may face the very real possibility of having to reduce its regional ambitions to little more than Turkey’s traditional (and mostly irrelevant) twentieth century role in the Middle East. That this would be so despite the economic, political, and social strides Turkey has made over the last decades would make such an outcome an even worse failure than it was in the past. This is also bad news for the United States and the EU, because a Turkey perceived not to be autonomous will have no credibility at all in the Middle East and hence will be entirely useless as a middleman between the West and the region.
Not all is lost for Turkey, and for its friends in the West who believe that active Turkish involvement makes the Middle East a better place. There is still a window for Turkey to regain its foothold in the region, but first it needs to stop making rookie mistakes. This requires getting a better read on regional competitors like Russia and playing to Turkey’s strengths in foreign policy, which involve neither religion nor the military.
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