The Arab awakening and the role of Turkey

7 June 2012

Turkish Insights Policy Dialogue: The Arab Awakening and the role of Turkey

Gökhan Bacik, director of the Middle East Strategic Research Center at Zirve University (Turkey), said Turkey’s role in the Arab Spring could be summarised as follows:

  1. Turkey is learning what it can do in Syria and what it can’t do in Iran.
  2. The Arab Spring came after the Iraq war, so US soft power as a source of inspiration for democracy is no longer valid. People in Iraq and Syria now look elsewhere for legitimate voices: Turkey plays a role here.
  3. Turkey has a transformative effect on Islamic actors in the region. Hillary Clinton talking about democracy in Egypt has no effect. But Turkey’s voice counts.
  4. Turkey tries to push the international community to keep Syria on the agenda.
  5. The demonstrative effect of Turkey in the Middle East: people watch Turkey’s development, with its mix of Islam, democracy and economic growth.   

“The Arab Awakening is an interesting definition. The end of the post-colonial era is another. These are once-in-a-generation events,” said Alfredo Conte, head of the Strategic Planning Division at the European External Action Service.

“The relative decline of the Western model has deeper roots than the Arab Spring. Decolonisation heralded the beginning of this decline. Now we’re seeing a search for models of development that are based more on local traditions and cultures,” Conte said.

“Turkish protagonism in the region doesn’t always follow a linear path. It anticipates change and is sometimes contradictory, for example U-turns on Libya and Syria,” he said, arguing that Ankara’s positions were prone to significant change.

“Turkey is a successful example of bridging East and West, tradition and modernity, secularism and Islam. Turkey is close – and seen as close – to the EU. The EU plays a role as a catalyst of internal change in Turkey too – don’t forget that,” Conte said.

“Turkey has the ability to play as a team player, blending Eastern and Western allies,” he argued.

Philip Robins, a reader in Middle East Politics and a faculty fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, said Turkey’s response to the Arab Spring could be characterised in three ways:

  1. Let the people decide.
  2. A mature response to the Libya crisis.
  3. Turkey’s response to the Middle East is less well-calibrated and has proven less effective.

The complexity of regional politics makes it more difficult for Ankara to define a policy response to neighbours like Syria, Iraq and Iran, Robins explained.

“Turkey started by having a ‘good’ Arab Spring, but now its response has become less effective,” he said, referring to the unrest in Syria.

Turkish foreign policy has traditionally taken a cautious approach, but the past decade has been characterised by the gradual abandonment of that policy – epitomised by closer personal relationships between Turkish leaders and their counterparts in the US and the EU, Robins argued.

“We must continue to remind ourselves that Turkey is a player in multiple different sub-regions, which it neglects at its peril. Turkey needs an energy policy, a Balkan policy, a Kurdish policy, a foreign policy for crises on its doorstep and a long-term objective,” he concluded.