Turkey is growing into its role in the Middle East, but it should be careful not to repeat the United States' mistakes.
Turkey, like the US, needs to tread lightly in the region
In just one year, relations between the United States and Turkey have moved from tension to cooperation. It has been a remarkable change in the bilateral relationship, as noted at the second convention of the Turkic American Alliance last week. Detailing the recent highs and lows in relations, one Turkish journalist at the event asked a pointed question: "What happened to account for this change and where will it lead us?"
At the organisation's founding conference in 2010, relations were at an all-time low. Turkey had broken with Israel over its blockade of Gaza and its deadly assault on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla. And the US was none too happy with Turkey's efforts to negotiate a compromise that might ease international concerns about Iran's nuclear programme. In reaction, Congress and the White House were harshly critical of Turkish "meddling" and its new "anti-Israel" bent.
In contrast, relations today seem warmer than ever. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speak often, as do their staffs, and there appears to be a degree of cooperation on critical regional issues, from the continuing conflict in Syria to the imminent departure of US forces from Iraq.
What happened? In short, it was the "Arab Spring", and the difficulties that the US has had finding its way through the maze created by the region's new political realities. What were constants are now variables in the Arab landscape.
All this has occurred at a difficult time for the United States. Despite its economic and military dominance, the ability of the US to manoeuvre in this environment has been hampered by several factors. First and foremost is the damage done by the Bush administration's reckless war in Iraq which created deep resentment across the Arab world, tarnished the American image, and emboldened and empowered Iran.
As a result, US policy in the Middle East was adrift at the onset of the Arab Spring. One by one allies fell or were at risk, and Washington found itself in a bind. The administration could talk about supporting popular revolts, but it knew all too well that if the revolts succeeded, the transformation would only complicate Washington's difficult situation in the Arab world. Furthermore, Washington's unshakable bond with Israel had in effect taken it out of the game.
It was at this point that Syria exploded. Like the US, Turkey was caught off guard by the Arab uprisings and initially waffled as developments unfolded in Egypt and Libya. But with their southern neighbour boiling over, Turkey made a determined effort to intervene: first urging reform, then negotiations, then demanding an end to the bloodshed, before finally embracing the opposition, giving up on the Assad regime and announcing far-reaching sanctions against its one-time ally.
The US now appears to be deferring to Turkey as an ally in handling the Syria file for one important reason. As a result of its support for Palestinians, Turkey has earned credibility in the Arab world, while the US has none. Turkey can meet the Arab League as a partner and endorse the Syrian opposition in a way that the US cannot.
But several cautionary notes are in order. Turkey cannot overplay its hand in Syria. It is neither the "leader of the Arabs", nor does it, I believe, intend to play that role. It is true, as recent polling demonstrates, that Turkey's standing is high across Arab countries. But that is not an invitation for Turkey to assert a new Ottoman era. In fact, Zogby International polls suggest that Turkey may be a placeholder: when Arabs are asked who is playing a leadership role, they respond Turkey. But when asked who they want to lead, they say Egypt. Turkey is respected as a regional partner, not as an Arab leader.
Secondly, Turkey must be careful not to allow hubris, frustration or external pressure to force it too deeply into a Syrian quagmire. Some Syrian opposition figures may want Turkey to militarily intervene in Syria, but that might prove to be a mistake. It would exacerbate a bloody conflict, causing even more killing and unrest in an unstable region and compromise Turkey's hard-won regional credibility.
The wiser course would be for Turkey to continue to work in concert with the Arab League to insist that the Syrian regime enter into negotiations leading to broad reform and an orderly transfer of power. The Baath leaders may be arrogant and blind to the problems they have created for themselves and their country, but that should not provide the pretext for an excessive response.
Sanctions and other forms of pressure to weaken the regime make sense, thought they will take time to work. But Turkey should avoid making the mistake in Syria that the US made in Iraq. And it should know that Syria is not Libya. Should Syria implode, the consequences would be grave, affecting the entire region for decades to come.
Relations between Turkey and the United States have changed in response to dramatic changes occurring in the Arab world. But even with these changes, some constants remain. And first among these is the danger associated with excessive foreign intervention in the region.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute