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Wednesday, 08 June 2011 03:00

Turkish activism in the Middle East and the consequences for Turkish-American relations

Written by Raffaele Borreca Genevieve Theodorakis
The 2011 Arab Spring has not only tested the Turkish and the American role in the MiddleEast. Rather, it constitutes a major challenge to the consistence and the achievements of the AKP’s (Justice and Development Party) “zero-problems” foreign policy, and threatens the preservation of Turkish and American regional interests. However, the Arab uprisings also have the potential to engender other, more positive changes in the context of the Turkish-American relationship.


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Since the moderate Islamic party came to power in 2003, Turkey has played a more active and autonomous role in Middle Eastern affairs. Thus far, the Erdoğan government has sought the establishment of a cooperative environment across the Middle East, pursuing a policy of “zero-problems” with its neighbors in the hopes of increasing Turkey’s regional prominence[1]. In the last decade, Ankara asserted itself as a major commercial power in the region thanks to its fast-growing economy. The Turkish expansion into Middle Eastern markets was fostered by the same Anatolian business groups who supported the AKP’s ascent. The economic priorities of these groups have overtaken the Western-oriented interests of the metropolitan Aegean businesses, who are traditionally linked to the Kemalist elites. Thus, though the EU is still Turkey’s main economic partner, the volume of Turkey’s trade with its Arab neighbours has enjoy strong and sustained growth in the last ten years, while the European share in the Turkish commercial balance has slightly decreased[2]. Indeed, Ankara’s commercial expansion requires mutually beneficial policies and the reduction of s trategic competition with its neighbours. The establishment of a free trade zone with Syria and the will to extend it to Lebanon and Jordan is the most important example of a series of bilateral cooperation mechanisms that Turkey has set up to this end[3]

This multi-dimensional approach favouring the Middle East has replaced the traditional Kemalist security-oriented attitude, which often constrained Turkey’s interest into the regional policies of its Western allies, notably the US[4]. In effect, Turkey’s new regional outlook has produced a major change in its relationship with the US. Turkey and the US have enjoyed six decades of cooperation and as a legitimate Muslim ally, the Turkish-American partnership has produced innumerable benefits for the US[5]. However, the last decade has witnessed a slow deterioration in bilateral ties, leading many US officials to conclude that Turkey has effectively “switched sides”[6]. The rise of the AKP, coinciding with the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, ended Turkish “blind complicity” with American interests by rejecting US requests to invade Iraq from Turkish territory[7].

Unlike Turkish anti-American sentiments[8], Washington’s relationship with Ankara continued to decline, despite the glimmer of hope provided by Obama’s electi on and the Cairo Speech. Obama’s call for a new beginning between America and the Islamic world[9], as well as his description of US-Turkish relations as a “model partnership”, failed to erase Turkish ill-will[10]. Specifically, Congress’s efforts to pass a bill recognizing the 1915 Armenian massacres as genocide, US failure to support Ankara in the 2010 Turkish flotilla incident with Israel[11], and US rejection of the Turkish-Brazilian nuclear agreement brokered with Tehran have soured Washington’s appeal to Turkish politicians and civilians alike. Similarly, Turkish diplomatic hostility towards Israel, Ankara’s recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political force[12], and Turkey's conciliatory attitude towards Iran's nuclear ambitions incited anti-Turkish sentiments in US politics, with the rise of a new US Congress critical of Ankara further complicating ties.


Confronting the Arab Spring 

The events of the Arab Spring caught the world unaware, ridding an already complicated region of its few guiding foreign policy principles. The Arab uprisings have effectively demonstrated that no country has a foreign policy sufficiently flexible to meet the protean challenges of the new Middle East, for both Washington’s and Ankara’s policies have been found wanting, though in different cases. With every new uprising, USA and Turkish officials have generally responded with caution, supporting the status quo when it suits national interests, and calling for regime transition when change is beneficial or inevitable. Subsequently, dissonant reactions and attitudes emerged. In the first months of the Arab Spring, coinciding with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings and the fall of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, Turkey seemed able to ride the revolutionary wind. Turkish official discourse warmly welcomed the Arab people’s struggle for democracy, while Ankara’s political model was promoted as a successful paradigm for reforms and democratic transition in the Muslim world[13]. However, though Turkey had little to lose from Ben Ali’s departure, America lost a regime committed to the US counter-terrorism policy in North Africa[14], and only cautiously supported the “Jasmine Revolution” after the president fled Tunisia. While Ankara could benefit from Mubarak’s fall, Washington lost a client regime in a pre-eminent Middle-Eastern country and therefore called for Mubarak’s removal only when there was no viable alternative.

But Turkish patronage of the Arab Spring was not extended to the uprisings that threaten the achievements of a decade of patiently weaved bilateral relations. The Libyan war exposed the weakness and uncertainties of Ankara’s regional policy. While the US endorsed the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, Turkey voted against the resolution in hopes of preserving the status quo under Al-Qaddafi, which entailed the jobs of 30,000 Turkish workers, and billions in Turkish investments[15]. But Ankara’s stance increasingly isolated Turkey as the West and the Arab League backed the no-fly zone. Finally, Turkey moved to support the NATO-led mission[16] and on May 3rd, Erdoğan invited Qadhafi to step down.

Syria will prove to be the ultimate test of American, and specifically Turkish, foreign policy, with Assad showing little inclination towards implementing democratic reforms amidst widespread regime-endorsed murders and detentions[17]. The rapprochement and the economic partnership with Assad’s regime has been a central part of Ankara’s “zero-problems” policy and a great success of Erdoğan’s government. The Syrian border has long been a source of conflict due to the Hatay province sovereignty question, the disputes over the management of the water resources[18] and the Syrian support to the Kurdish guerrillas. Turkey’s reluctance in taking a firm stance towards Assad’s harsh crackdown and its attempts to mediate the conflict reflect Turkish anxiety that a new regime in Damascus, or, even worst, a chaotic Syria, will render Turkey’s southern border a conflict zone and threaten its economic penetration of the Levant[19]. If Assad refuses to reform, Turkey will be hard-pressed to find the middle road.


Towards a new Turkish-American Middle Eastern partnership? 

The Arab Spring has effectively thwarted significant elements of US and Turkish foreign policies in the Middle East. Both governments have faced a great deal of public criticism for their hesitancy and inaction in responding to the new developments. The uprisings have exposed the flaws of Turkey’s foreign policy, with Ankara’s interests contained in the “old regional order”. As the new regional order emerges, “the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished -- not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired”[20]. Indeed, despite Turkey’s claim of “understanding” the Middle East, there are far more similarities in US and Turkish foreign policy than both administrations perceive. In the face of serious threats to its political and economic interests, as in the case of Libya, Turkey is willing to abandon its moral high ground to save them, though it is quick to criticize the American administration for doing the same. Moreover, Ankara and Washington share the same uncertainties over how to react to regional developments and have limited control over the outcome of events. Though it is a superpower, military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have ultimately exhausted the reach of the US military in the region. Additionally, considering the many domestic challenges faced by the US, Washington’s leeway to utilize its soft power, whether in the form of aid or other tools, is limited[21]. However, what each administration can control is the relationship between one another.

The Middle Eastern turn of Turkey’s foreign policy and its increasing role in the Arab world have led to a divergence in American and Turkish interests and priorities. Turkey’s recognition of Hamas, its support for the Palestinians, and its demands for an ease of the blockade on Gaza[22] have lengthened the Turkish-American rift. Ultimately, however, the fight for Palestine is a quarrel with an inflexible Israel; a conflict in which outside powers realistically have little leverage, that is slowly de-legitimizing the Israeli state in the international community[23]. Additionally, though Turkey has disagreed with the American policy towards Tehran’s nuclear program, it is against Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons[24], and the emergence of new evidence supporting US fears may lead to Turkish reconsideration of its Iranian policy, uniting the two allies[25]. The crisis in Syria could fuel US-Turkish disagreements, for though both powers seek stability, escalating violence may lead to differed prescriptions for how to restore peace. A final source that could enhance US-Turkish tensions is the imminent Turkish general election, which is projected to maintain Erdoğan and the AKP party's hold on power. A strengthened AKP could reinforce Turkey’s pursuit of a leading role in the Middle East, while further sidelining its interests in Europe.

Despite current disputes over Israel, Palestine, and Iran, the depth of this strategic distance cannot discount the mutual benefits and concerns shared between them. Before the Arab Spring, Turkey and the US both sought a peaceful ending to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a stable Afghanistan, a secure and unified Iraq, and an Iran free of nuclear weapons. The Arab uprisings have arguably further united Turkish and American regional ambitions, as both fear a war-torn Libya, a chaotic Egypt, and an unstable Syria.  With a turbulent Middle East and faltering ties with the European Union, Washington remains a crucial ally to Ankara, serving as a link to Israel and the West. Though a new AKP government would reinforce Turkey’s image as a Muslim power, it is unlikely that it will abandon its strategic partnership with the West, notably with the US. Washington plays a significant role in Middle Eastern affairs; to increase Ankara’s regional autonomy, Turkey will need its support. On the other hand, the US needs a stable, democratic, Muslim supporter that could potentially serve as a role model for the Arab democratic transitions. Additionally, Ankara could aid in negotiating changes in Syria, and serve as a mediator in future diplomatic initiatives between Washington and Tehran. Though disastrous in many facets, the Arab Spring could precipitate a true “new beginning” to the model partnership[26]

[1] For the Zero-Problems foreign policy’s principles and aims see Davutoglu, Ahmet, “Turkey’s Zero-Problems Foreign Policy”, Foreign Policy, 20/5/2010, The text is also available on: (Accessed on 24/5/2011).

[2] Habibi, Nader and Walker, Joshua W., “What Is Driving Turkey’s Reengagement with the Arab World?”, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Middle East Brief 44, April 2011 (Accessed on 21/5/2011),,.

[3] For the Turkish-Syrian economic and trade cooperation see:, (Accessed on 23/5/2011).

[4] Şaban Kardaş, “Turkey: Redrawing the Middle-East Map or Building Sandcastles”, Middle East Policy, 17:1, Spring 2010 (Accessed on 23/5/2011),

[5] Migdalovitz, Carol, “Turkey: Selected Foreign Policy Issues and U.S. Views”, Congressional Research Service, 28/11/2011 (Accessed 30/5/2011),

[6] Walker, Joshua W., “Turkey: Still America’s Best Ally in the Middle East”, Foreign Policy, 25/6/2011 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[7] Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S.-Turkey Relations Seriously Damaged by Iraq War, Finds Council Special Reports”, 21/6/2006 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[8] In May 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that the lowest approval rating for the US came from Turkey, with only ten percent of Turks supporting the US. Champion, Marc, “U.S. Falls Out with NATO Allies”, The Wall Street Journal, 18/5/2011 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[9] Wilson, Scott, “Obama Calls for Fresh Start with Muslims”, The Washington Post, 5/6/2009 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[10] Cook, Steven A., “How do you say Frenemy in Turkish?”, Foreign Policy, 1/6/2010 (Accessed on May 30, 2011),

[11] Champion, Mark, “US Falls Out of Favor with NATO Ally”, The Wall Street Journal, 18/5/2011 (accessed on 19/5/2011),

[12] Migdalovitz, Carol, “Turkey: Selected Foreign Policy Issues and U.S. Views”, Congressional Research Service, 28/11/2010 (Accessed on 1/6/2011),

[13] In a speech given on the 1st of February, Erdoğan openly sided with the Egyptian popular protests, inviting Mubarak to step down. Furthermore, he asserted Turkey’s regional leadership by declaring that, Turkey is playing roles that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history: “Erdoğan’s Cairo Speech: Birth pangs of a New Middle East as Obama’s Cairo Moment fades”, The Mideast Wire Blog, 2/2/2011 (Accessed on 29/5/2011), A month later Foreign minister Davutoglu pointed out at the Al Jazeera Forum how the Arab uprisings are part of an inevitable historical process in which the Muslim people have demonstrated their desire for democracy and are ready to restore regional interdependences and the ties severed by colonialism and the Cold War. Al Jazeera Forum: Ahmet Davutoglu, Al Jazeera, 13/3/2011 (Accessed on 23/5/2011),

[14] Ghattas, Kim, “How Does the US View Tunisia’s Revolt”, BBC news, 16/1/2011 (Accessed on 1/6/2011),

[15] Cook, Steven, A., “Arab Spring, Turkish Fall”, Foreign Policy, 5/5/2011 (Accessed on 23/5/2011),

[16] However, Turkey has not fully cooperated with UN sanctions to freeze Qaddafi’s assets. Barkey, Henry J., “Turkey and the Arab Spring”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 26/4/2011 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[17] Libnan, Ya, “Syrian Human Rights: Over 800 killed in Syria so far”, News from Middle East, 7/5/2011 (Accessed on 30/5/2011),

[18] Once part of the French mandate of Syria, the Republic of Hatay became independent in 1938 and following a referendum it was annexed by Turkey. This annexation was never recognized by Syria. The water disputes concern the construction of several dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers before their flows enter Syrian territory.

[19] Billion, Didier, “La Turquie et les révoltes arabes”, Observatoire de la Turquie et de son environnement géopolitique,  Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, 4/5/2011 (Accessed on 24/5/2011),

[20] Cook, Steven, A., op. cit. (endnote No. 15)

[21] In a recent article, US officials admit the limited American influence over the course of Middle Eastern events. Wagner, Norbert and Machnowski, Michal, “Evolving U.S. Reaction to the Protests in Tunisia and Egypt”, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Washington Office, Country report, 25/1/2011 (Accessed on 1/6/2011),

[22] Cook, Steven A., “How do you say Frenemy in Turkish?”, op. Cit. (endnote No. 15)

[23] Grenier, Robert, “On deaf ears: Obama’s message to Israel”, Al Jazeera, 5/6/2011 (Accessed on 7/6/2011),

[24] Walker, Joshua W., “Turkey: Still America’s Best Ally in the Middle East”, op. Cit. (endnote No. 6)

[25] Broad, William J., “Inspectors Pierce Iran’s Cloak of Nuclear Secrecy”, The New York Times, 30/5/2011 (Accessed on 7/6/2011),

[26] There is already evidence of a warmer relationship between the US and Turkey as the Arab Spring settles in. Tanir, Ilhan, “Washington, Ankara grow closer as wave of revolts continues”, Hürriyet Daily News, 4/3/2011 (Accessed on 16/5/2011),