x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Turkish rhetoric meets new reality in Arab spring

Turkey's ability to reach across borders and its standing as one of the few countries that can act not only as a broker of regional stability, but as a model for nascent governments, remains critical as the Arab spring continues to blossom.

When Turkey's prime minister vowed that Israel would "absolutely be punished by all means" after its raid on the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza last May, the country's standing soared in many corners of the Arab world.

From Syria to Egypt, Arabs praised Turkey's newfound confidence, calling Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan one of the few leaders in the region brave enough to publicly admonish Israel over the killing of nine activists on board.

But it takes more than bravado to become a leading regional power. And like many countries in recent months, Turkey has found itself caught between support for pro-democratic movements and quiet attempts to maintain the status quo.

Syria has proven the most frustrating of cases for Turkey, and will stand as a litmus test for Ankara's "zero-problem" neighbour policy. Unlike events across the Mediterranean in Egypt and Libya, Syria is a challenge in its backyard. With 900km of shared border and warm relations after decades of antagonism, Turkey is reluctant to upset this newfound detente. It's also wary of harming Turkish investment interests: while it has invested close to $1 billion in Syria, there is an opportunity for tens of billions more.

Hesitant to take a hard-line against Syria's government, Ankara is also aware that it could be accused of sympathising with the regime if it does not support reform. Turkey will undoubtedly mediate a crisis in which its political and economic interests are at stake, as talks between Bashar al Assad and Mr Erdogan have already shown. But Ankara will find itself in a difficult position if "brotherly Syria" does not enact the reforms Turkish officials are pressing it to make behind the scenes.

While Turkey is undoubtedly growing in economic and political clout, it risks inviting the accusation that it cannot deliver on what it promises. Its recent track record has been mixed. Turkish mediation attempts in Lebanon failed last year, as did efforts to broker talks between Israel and Syria. It has also been unable to replace Egypt as a Palestinian peace broker. But these are heady ambitions. A deal to negotiate a nuclear fuel swap with Iran was more successful, though outside forces conspired against their proposal.

Ankara's ability to reach across borders and its standing as one of the few countries that can act not only as a broker of regional stability, but as a model for nascent governments, remains critical as the Arab spring continues to blossom.