Analysis

March 30, 2012

Summary: Turkey’s foreign policy has traditionally been most powerful when it acts in the name of universal values and not of ethnic or religious affinities that is when it is not driven by its “Muslim” or “Sunni” identity, but rather by international rights and law. But Turkey’s emergence as a maturing power player in the Middle East means the country runs the risk of becoming entangled in the region’s most enduring and challenging division: sectarianism. Some have claimed that Turkey has been arming Syrian opposition forces secretly. At the same time, the sectarian split between Iraq’s ruling Shia coalition and the Sunni vice president provoked a harsh and immediate public rebuke from Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan. Ankara seeks to promote an air of proactive confidence and of being above the region’s sectarianism. Yet, having promoted a proactive strategy and template for regional order, the Turkish leadership has been caught off-guard by this confluence of regional factors.

Staying Above the Middle Eastern Fray: Turkey’s Sectarian Temptations
by Joshua W. Walker

Offices Washington, Dc • Berlin • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara Bucharest • Warsaw

Turkey’s emergence as a maturing power player in the Middle East means the country runs the risk of becoming entangled in the region’s most enduring and challenging division: sectarianism. This seems ironic, because Turkey itself has not practiced sectarian politics, and indeed has in the past openly eschewed becoming aligned religiously on a landscape increasingly polarized between its Sunnite and Shiite factions. Yet, as seen in the most recent recriminations from both Turks and their neighbors, Sunnimajority Turkey’s need to underline its own universal values cannot be left untended in Ankara. The complexities and internal contradictions of the region, not the lack of sincerity on the part of Turkish leadership, prove the former policy of “zero problems with neighbors” untenable. Turkey now faces the danger of being dragged into rising sectarian tensions in the Middle East, having initially inspired great admiration in both the Arab world and the West for its early and proactive embrace of the “Arab Awakenings.” The Arab Spring, which has heightened sectarian tensions within and between Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran, has forced Ankara to confront

the sectarian realities of the Middle East directly. Turkey’s active involvement in its neighborhood’ post-Arab Spring has followed a general trend of regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, of playing larger roles, as proxy wars and zero-sum logic have replaced the previous Turkish talk of “win-wins.” Particularly since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 and increased terrorist attacks within Turkey, Ankara’s cautious foreign policy has reflected a more active and vocal role in the region that has occasionally dropped Turkey into the middle of these sectarian disputes. Neighborhood in Turmoil Since the beginning of 2012, concerns for renewed sectarian warfare have increased as neighboring regimes have attempted to reinforce their legitimacy through communitarian fear-mongering and threats of the deep instability that would resultif revolutionaries were to unseat established leaders. President Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on the Syrian people has continued unabated as Ankara

Analysis
stuck by the regime longer than any other Western friend — to the point of risking its own credibility in the transatlantic community. Following a similar pattern to Libya, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to play the role of mediator and empathetic friend until it became painfully clear that Damascus was no longer listening. Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu’s statement during his 2012 Washington visit, “We wanted Assad to be the Gorbachev of Syria, but he chose to be Milosevic,” was the most recent and clearest sign of Ankara’s disappointment.1 As refugees have crossed into Turkey, Ankara is publicly hosting Syrian opposition leaders along with insurgents who have based themselves across the border. Some have claimed that Turkey has been arming these forces secretly. While Ankara has called on Assad to step down, it is deeply worried about the potential for civil war in Syria that could affect Turkey’s own internal security. As Syria has spiraled into chaos, another of Turkey’s neighbors has exhibited worrying signs. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, never a close friend of Ankara, has sought to consolidate his power by trying to arrest Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, a critical ally of Turkey. The sectarian split between Iraq’s ruling Shia coalition and the Sunni vice president provoked a harsh and immediate public rebuke from Erdoğan: “A sectarian understanding has started to be brought up in Iraq; this sectarian approach has unfortunately almost turned Iraq into a blood bath. If you direct the tank towards the house of your own minister fellow within the same government, if you threaten them this way, you can never find a healthy approach within that society.”2 Maliki did not back down but rather responded by accusing Erdoğan of interfering in Iraq’s domestic affairs: “Turkey plays a role that can bring disaster and civil war to the region. However, Turkey would be the party with damages, because it consists of many sects and ethnic groups of different origins.”3 By pointing out Turkey’s own internal problems with such an ominous warning, Maliki touched on a set of worrying trends for Turkey more broadly in the region.
1 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-w-walker/davutoglu-washingtonvisit_b_1282821.html 2 http://www.orsam.org.tr/en/showArticle.aspx?ID=1541 3 http://www.orsam.org.tr/en/showArticle.aspx?ID=1541

A “new” Turkey that boasts the fastest growing and largest economy in the region has far more tools to push its agenda in its own neighborhood.
The historical rivalry between the Ottoman and Safavid successor states in Turkey and Iran respectively has only increased in the wake of the Arab Spring, as both regional powers try to position themselves in the context of weakened states and regimes. Turkey did not transform itself from a defeated post-Ottoman Empire state to a flourishing market-based Muslim-majority democracy overnight; it has been almost a century in the making. The lessons learned and the opportunities offered by Turkey are unique, yet it is still being offered as a “model” for how neighbors might be able to transform themselves. Universal Inspiration vs. Sectarian Model Erdoğan, who prefers Turkey to be an “inspiration” rather than a model, has been showcasing Turkey’s attitude toward sectarian conflict by frequently inserting himself as a mediator in the region’s many quarrels. His participation in Ashura Allevi ceremonies in Turkey on December 2010 and his visit to the Shia tomb of Caliph Ali in Nejef on March 2011, both firsts for a Turkish leader, were intended to underline Turkey’s chosen role as a mediator between the Sunni and Shiite world. To do so effectively, Turkey must convey the right message and tone. Turkish policymakers have long been sensitive to the Shia crescent stretching from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Iraq, into Lebanon. Yet, Turkey’s weapon sales to the Bahraini regime have not escaped the attention of observers throughout the region. Despite Turkey being only one of several Western arms suppliers to Bahrain, some observers have suggested that Turkey’s transaction has a sectarian overtone at least. Thus, the sectarian shadow cast by Turkey’s support for a minority Sunni regime against its Shia majority unintentionally creates a dangerously misleading image of Ankara.

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Analysis
Ankara seeks to promote an air of proactive confidence and of being above the region’s sectarianism. Yet, having promoted a proactive strategy and template for regional order, the Turkish leadership has now been caught off-guard by a confluence of factors: first by Assad’s unwillingness to listen to their advice, second by Tehran’s intransigence in the face of hardening international positions, and finally by Maliki’s visceral reaction. Turkey’s foreign policy has traditionally been most powerful when it acts in the name of universal values and not of ethnic or religious affinities that is when it is not driven by its “Muslim” or “Sunni” identity, but rather by international rights and law. Ironically it was Syrian President Assad who unequivocally underlined the significance of the fact that Turkey must have good relations with all neighbors if Turkey wanted to play a constructive regional role.4 While traditional Turkish foreign policy has been conservative and inward focused, a “new” Turkey that boasts the fastest growing and largest economy in the region has far more tools to push its agenda in its own neighborhood. As a result of its own process of reform, it is uniquely placed to play a decisive role in the Middle East. Turkey’s emergence as an international leader is a sign of a more responsible stakeholder in regional stability and long-term democratization. At a moment in which Western leadership is being questioned and sectarian tensions continue in the Middle East, the timing has never been more opportune to refocus on the core principles and universal values that have led to the emergence of Turkey as a regional leader.
4 Interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by Ertuğrul Özkök, Hurriyet, November 9, 2009.

About the Author
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan 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 seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. 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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