'Zero problems' in Ankara is havoc for the neighbourhood
Much hyperbole has been deployed in describing Turkey's reorientation towards the Middle East. Partly, this has been the fault of the Turks themselves, who have sought to ride the wave of Ankara's popularity in the region - primarily a result of its rift with Israel and vocal support for the Palestinian cause. But the reality is considerably more complicated, as Turkey is increasingly drawn into the treacherous byways of Arab and Iranian affairs.
In a much-discussed book he wrote before taking office, Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, enunciated what he called the policy of "zero problems with neighbours". This has shaped Ankara's approach to the Middle East in past years. However, today the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds itself managing problems - open or more subtly stated - with virtually every country in its perimeter, especially those to the south and east.
This was predictable. For nearly a century Turkey has focused on Europe. Ankara's renewed attention southwards poses a challenge to Arab states and Iran, which are little prepared to make room for what can come across as an overbearing Turkish government with a tendency to overplay its hand. Arab regimes have publicly embraced Mr Erdogan. But they have also set limits to Turkish actions involving them.
Take Mr Erdogan's recent visit to Egypt. Although it was hailed as a success, Egypt regards Turkish involvement on the Palestinian front, particularly in the Gaza Strip, as an irritant. Cairo views itself as the interlocutor of choice with the Palestinians, and President Hosni Mubarak's ouster has not changed that. Anything that strengthens Hamas could have damaging repercussions for Egyptian internal security. The military leadership in Cairo is also watching carefully how the mildly Islamist government in Ankara inspires elements of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which the generals mistrust.
Turkish spokesmen erred in announcing before the Egypt trip that Mr Erdogan might enter Gaza. Neither Egypt nor the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, relished such a prospect, and ultimately the Turkish prime minister backtracked. Here was a classic example of Mr Erdogan going too far. Mr Abbas opposed a move that would have legitimised Hamas at his expense. The military council in Cairo surely agreed, seeing no reason to hand Turkey a new wedge to insert itself politically on Egypt's eastern border.
Mr Erdogan justifiably expressed outrage with Israel after its soldiers killed Turkish protesters trying to breach the Gaza blockade in May 2010. Israel's government refused to apologise, leading Turkey recently to downgrade diplomatic ties. Early on, the Turkish prime minister caught the mood of exasperation with Israel for its intransigence toward the Palestinians, which he has used to his advantage to garner Arab approval.
However, once the indignation is used up, does Turkey really gain from having undermined the mediation role it once could play between Arabs and Israelis? Did Mr Erdogan need to go as far as he did? He has made an apology and the lifting of the blockade of Gaza conditions for the resumption of normal relations with Israel. The first demand is defensible, but is Gaza enough of a Turkish national priority to justify the prime minister's second, tougher stipulation?
Mr Erdogan's ability to exploit regional transformations has been neutralised by his outspokenness. A resumption of Arab-Israeli, even Palestinian-Israeli, negotiations is, admittedly, unlikely in the foreseeable future. However, Turkey could have seriously aspired to play a key role in a revived peace process. But today, Israeli ill-feeling against Mr Erdogan, the Palestinian leadership's refusal to see their position undercut by the prime minister's demagogical instincts, and international recognition that Turkey is now more a part of the problem than the solution, have effectively sidelined Ankara.
In Syria, Turkey has broken with President Bashar Al Assad's regime. That was to be expected. But Syria is tricky for the Turks. If the country collapses into civil war, this might not only push Syria's Kurds, who have no affection for Ankara, to seek autonomy. It might also drive Arab Alawites in Turkey's Hatay province to assist their Syrian brethren.
At the same time, Mr Erdogan cannot afford to do nothing. The prime minister heads a Sunni Islamist party, a substantial part of whose appeal is that it can build bridges to Arab Islamists. To allow Mr Al Assad to pursue his slaughter of peaceful protesters, many of whom happen to be Sunnis, represents a humanitarian and religious affront to the values Mr Erdogan claims to espouse. More cynically, as the uprising in Syria takes on an overtly sectarian colouring, thanks principally to the brutality of Alawite-dominated security services and military units, Ankara does not want to be on the losing side.
That Mr Erdogan has turned against Mr Al Assad is to his credit. Yet Turkey's worsening ties with Syria have also heightened tension with Damascus's ally Iran - which lately has also opposed Turkey's decision to host a Nato early-warning radar system. Iran and Turkey are vying for regional influence, so they are destined to clash many more times. Not surprisingly, this rivalry has affected Lebanon, where Turkey has invested in predominantly poor Sunni areas. Earlier this year Mr Davutoglu helped Qatar mediate in the Lebanese political crisis. Their efforts were thwarted by Hizbollah and Syria.
As Turkey gets caught up in the Middle East's contradictions, it can no longer seriously portray itself as being above the fray, on friendly terms with all. Words are cheap, and when Mr Erdogan hears praise he should be wary. No one will give Ankara a free ride in a region that cheerfully grinds down the self-assured.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle
Updated: September 29, 2011 04:00 AM