Turkey’s role in the Middle East

Marc Lynch thinks that Turkey is poised to play an important role in regional relations.  Its president, Recip Erdogan, is in Washington this week.  Lynch writes:

Erdogan, of course, heads the government of the mildly Islamist AKP. The electoral success and governing style of the AKP has proven absolutely fascinating to many in the Arab world. I’ve had many conversations with, and read hundreds of papers and op-eds by, Muslim Brotherhood members keen to figure out the lessons of the AKP’s success. As a model of workable political Islam, the AKP offers an important model — if a dual-edged one.  Many Turkish secularists continue to sound the alarm bells of creeping Islamism, complaining that even if the AKP is committed to democracy it is using its governing power to radically reshape Turkish political culture and governing principles. These strike me as healthy debates and normal politics, though, not the stuff of political apocalypse.

Erdogan burst into a new level of Arab popularity with his much publicized outburst at Davos, when he stormed off a panel with Shimon Peres in protest over Gaza as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sat by bemusedly. This demonstration captivated Arab audiences and become the talk of Arab politics for weeks. Turkish diplomacy has built effectively on Erdogan’s sudden personal popularity by seeking a more active and independent diplomatic role. Its diplomacy in many ways resembles that of Qatar, also an important American ally which has found considerable popularity with Arab public opinion. Like Qatar, Turkey explicitly and determinedly talks to both sides of the great Arab political divide, maintaining relations with Israel and the United States while also engaging regularly with Syria and Iran. It isn’t for nothing that Turkey was well-positioned to mediate the secret Syrian-Israeli talks last year….

Turkey’s cultivation of good relations across the spectrum makes perfect sense for a player on the periphery without a direct stake in old battle lines which wants to maximize its diplomatic clout. And it is potentially extremely  useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Turkey is exactly the sort of player which the Obama foreign policy needs:  one able to talk to both sides of deeply rooted conflicts, while maintaining its credibility and protecting its own interests. Turkey can mediate Syrian-Israeli talks in a way which no Arab country could (I heard a rumor a few weeks back, which I couldn’t confirm, that Syria was actually urging Turkey to rebuild its ties with Israel so that it could resume an effective mediation role). Turkey can bridge the gap with Iran in ways which few Arab states could — and without the vulnerabilities of, say, a Qatar.


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