Analysis

February 16, 2011

Summary: The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will change the strategic landscape from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, and Turkey will be one of the countries most affected by the transitions ahead. At the same time, events in Egypt, in particular, have given new meaning to Turkey’s increasingly active regional diplomacy. The new revolutionary climate offers some opportunities, but also some risks for Ankara. Without question, it will place the issue of Turkish-Western relations in sharper relief, and may offer a new pole for U.S.-Turkish-European partnership.

The Revolutions in Turkey’s Near Abroad
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser

A Prompt Response In the opening days of the Egyptian revolt, the Turkish government was among the most forward leaning in its rapid response, and its unequivocal statements of support for democratic forces in Egypt. The prime minister himself was in the vanguard in expressing this line. The Turkish response was all the more striking against a background of dithering and hand-wringing in most European capitals, with very mixed messages about the need to balance change and stability. Even in Washington, where the crisis was taken seriously from the beginning, there was a notably cautious response, even if the president himself seemed inclined toward a more direct posture of support for the opposition. What explains this strongly prodemocracy, transformational line in Turkish policy? One explanation is that Turks simply found it easier to be on the right side of history. Many Western analysts saw, early on, that the Mubarak regime was unlikely to hold on to power. But in the event that the old guard held sway, Europe and, above all, the United States would still need to deal with an embattled and embittered regime. The United States

is deeply invested in Egypt’s place in the Middle East peace process, Israeli security, and stability in Gaza. Europe is directly exposed to the security and commercial risks inherent in Egyptian turmoil. Egypt’s Western partners may have seen the writing on the wall, but they were understandably tempted to hedge and await developments on the ground. Turkey, by contrast, had greater freedom of action. Despite growing economic ties, Ankara was not heavily vested in the stability of the Mubarak regime per se. Prime Minister Erdoğan has enjoyed considerable popularity with the Egyptian public since he has emerged as a visible champion of the Palestinian cause, and a sharp critic of Israel. But this constituency is precisely the constituency that had been drawn to Tahrir Square, and formed the backbone of the struggle against the regime. So too, policies are influenced by personalities, and it is not unreasonable to speculate that there was no great warmth in pre-revolutionary relations between Cairo and Ankara. The leaderships were not on the same page when it came to Iran or Hamas, and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s new popularity in the Arab world cannot have been welcomed by ruling circles

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in Cairo. In general, Turkey’s foreign policy activism has been seen as an indirect challenge to Egypt’s traditional regional influence. The predominant role of the military in Egyptian governance was — and remains — an uncomfortable reminder of past Turkish realities. Turkey’s Opportunities Turkey stands to gain a great deal from a successful democratic transformation in Egypt and elsewhere around the region. First, Turks genuinely believe that their experience of democratic politics, economic openness, and reformed civil-military relations offers a model for change in the Muslim world. To be sure, much discussion of the Turkish model in the context of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt has been naïve, even misleading. Few Turks today would accept the simple analogies about the role of the Turkish military as offered in much Western media commentary during the crisis. Parallels with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are equally prone to exaggeration. Yet, there is an element worth exploring in terms of Turkey’s path to modernization and convergence with Europe, however troubled.

A Turkish neighborhood policy will have far greater scope to the extent that Turkey’s interlocutors are modern, reformist, and interested in regional integration.
policy will have far greater scope to the extent that Turkey’s interlocutors are modern, reformist, and interested in regional integration. Closed, repressive, nationalist regimes will be far more difficult political partners for Ankara, and perhaps less reliable partners for Turkey’s commercial engagement. Third, political flux around the region could reinforce Ankara’s longstanding argument that Turkey can serve as a valid interlocutor with Muslim societies. At a minimum, politically driven crises will present multiple new tests of Turkey’s significance as a regional actor. This phenomenon was on display at the height of the crisis in Egypt, when Turkey was among the few regional states consulted at the highest levels (President Obama made a point of speaking to Prime Minister Erdoğan, together with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan). A decade ago, it is most unlikely that Ankara would have been at the top of the list of capitals to be consulted as a crisis unfolded in Egypt. American policymakers may be uncomfortable with some aspects of Turkey’s new foreign policy, but Ankara’s growing Middle Eastern role and influence is now widely acknowledged. Some Risks and Complications Yet, Turkey also faces some risks and challenges in the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the prospect of further unrest to come. It has been relatively easy for Turkey’s leadership to adopt a forward leaning stance when it comes to popular revolts and calls for regime change at some distance from Turkey’s borders. As serious protests unfold in Algeria and Yemen, even in Jordan, Turkey is likely to weigh in on the side of change — not least because

What explains this strongly prodemocracy, transformational line in Turkish policy? One explanation is that Turks simply found it easier to be on the right side of history.
Second, if political change in ossified regimes resolves deep-seated grievances and promotes longer-term stability, Turkey will surely benefit. Turkish foreign policy remains conservative and status quo oriented in key respects. Ankara does not look to foment regime change or, much less, to alter borders. To the extent that Turkey becomes more deeply involved in North Africa and the Middle East, Ankara may come to see these areas as part of Turkey’s “near abroad,” not unlike Europe’s view of southern Mediterranean neighbors. Indeed, a Turkish neighborhood

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Analysis
it is perceived in many, although not all, Turkish circles as a vindication of the changes in Turkey in recent years. The trouble begins when revolution strikes closer to home. Observers are already contrasting the Turkish government’s early support for popular revolt in Egypt with Ankara’s somewhat embarrassing rush to endorse the results of the last Iranian elections, results widely seen as illegitimate. Whether from concern about the stability of TurkishIranian relations, out of affinity with the leadership in Tehran, or simply from a desire not to shake things up in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood, Turkey’s leadership has been reluctant to support opposition protests in Iran. This stance is likely to face some new tests. Even as Egyptianinspired protests are suppressed in Tehran this week, President Gul is in Iran for discussions aimed at building Turkish-Iranian economic ties. Political questions have been politely avoided. This equivocal stance vis-à-vis democracy and repression in Iran may not be sustainable in the wake of the recent revolutions elsewhere, and as international opinion begins to take the potential for popular regime change in Tehran more seriously.

Turkey can probably live with a range of political outcomes around its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern near abroad. More troubling is the potential for prolonged turmoil and insecurity if revolutions remain half-made or are violently suppressed.
insecurity if revolutions remain half-made or are violently suppressed. In some respects, this is the kind of dilemma Turks have faced since 2003 in Iraq. The worst scenario is a chaotic one, in which borders are uncontrolled and central authority collapses. In the event of a collapse in Iran or Syria, Turkey may face a range of risks, from uncontrolled migration to cross-border terrorism. These risks are already present on the regional scene, but a collapse of governance could lead to a marked deterioration of the strategic environment on Turkey’s borders. A chaotic Middle East may also cause further difficulty in Turkey’s already troubled European Union candidacy, as existing European concerns about acquiring new borders with an insecure hinterland are reinforced. The Next Big Project for Turkey and the West? These revolutionary dynamics are likely to become increasingly central to transatlantic relations over the next year. In different ways, Turkey, Europe, and the United States are leading stakeholders in the nature of change from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. In Tunisia and Egypt, regime change must now be consolidated and institutionalized. Longstanding aid relationships will be reassessed, refashioned and probably expanded. New priority areas for support will emerge, from security sector reform to assistance for political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

The trouble begins when revolution strikes closer to home.
Syria may provide another challenge. Here, too, Turkey has a stake in the status quo, including expanding trade ties, cooperation in containing the PKK threat, and security and border control more generally. But the potential for unrest in Syria cannot be dismissed, and if past experience is any guide, the regime in Damascus is likely to respond to dissent with violent suppression. Under these conditions, the prevailing Turkish policy will come under great pressure, especially from Turkey’s transatlantic partners. Even closer to home, Ankara will need to consider the potential demonstration effect of youth and communications-driven protests in the neighborhood on Turkey’s own restive groups, including the Kurds. Turkey can probably live with a range of political outcomes around its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern near abroad. More troubling is the potential for prolonged turmoil and

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Analysis

The winds of change in the region provide an opportunity for transatlantic partners to reinvent their troubled security and development strategies.
More broadly, the winds of change in the region provide an opportunity for transatlantic partners to reinvent their troubled security and development strategies, from EU’s Union for the Mediterranean, to NATO’s partnerships in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. The stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are part of the equation, along with the badly frayed Turkish-Israeli relationship. The prospect of further regional change underscores the need for a comprehensive transatlantic strategy, with Turkey as a critical partner. Over the last decade, Turkish-Western, and especially Turkish-American relations, have suffered from the absence of a big, defining project to animate cooperation with Ankara. Strategy toward the revolutions across Turkey’s near abroad may just be the “new big thing.”

Dr. Ian O. Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF
As a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, Ian Lesser leads GMF’s work on the Mediterranean, Turkish, and wider-Atlantic security issues. Prior to joining GMF, Dr. Lesser was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and vice president and director of Studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy (the western partner of the Council on Foreign Relations). He came to the Pacific Council from RAND, where he spent over a decade as a senior analyst and research manager specializing in strategic studies. From 1994-1995, he was a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, responsible for Turkey, Southern Europe, North Africa, and the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process. He is also a senior advisor to the Luso-American Foundation in Lisbon, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council, and the Pacific Council on International Policy.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www.gmfus.org/ turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.gmfus.org/ reaction.

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