The outreach to the Middle East has already reaped substantial dividends, allowing for the normalization of relations with historically hostile neighbors, including unprecedented diplomatic initiatives with the Iraqi Kurds, Syrians, and Iran. To Western critics, this outreach predicated on the basis of shared religion has been deeply alarming, amounting to an Islamization of Turkish foreign policy. Their bewilderment has not been assuaged by Erdogan’s frequent touting of controversy as when he grandly declared Sudanese Prime Minister Omar al-Bashir to be innocent of Western charges, arguing, “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide” or by stating on Ahmadinejad that “there is no doubt that he is our friend.”
Turks themselves have sought to downplay these concerns, denouncing the West’s obsession with “limiting paradigms” and insisting, “one side of Turkey’s face is looking to the West, and the other to the East.” They argue that Turkey is merely seeking to break out of a self-imposed exile from the Arab world, which is to the direct benefit of their Western allies by affording them access to actors they would otherwise be unable to reach. Hugh Pope, a Turkish expert with the International Crisis Group shares this belief arguing that as Turkish links with ‘rogue elements’ in the Middle East increases, so does their utility to the West. “They have open channels of dialogue with everybody. A lot of people underestimate how much Turkey can do behind the scenes.”
Furthermore, while Erdogan has often played the ‘Islam card,’ a brief glance through history shows that this ‘Eastward’ policy began not with the AKP but in the 1980s and intensified in the post-Cold War era. Staunchly secular elites such as Prime Minister Turgut Ozal and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem laid the groundwork for the AKP, brainstorming means to reduce Turkish dependence on their Western allies and beginning engagement with the Palestinians and Syrians. Nonetheless it is indisputable that it has been the eight years of AKP rule that has rapidly catalyzed this process, transforming Turkey regionally from a “tepid observer to influential player.”
So far these attempts to court Arab support coupled with an unremitting barrage of criticism at Israel has played well to its intended audience. A recent survey sampling various groups across the Arab world demonstrated that 75% held favorable views of Turkey and 61% saw Turkey as a positive role model, despite its secularism. In a dramatic turnaround from the traditional antipathy towards Turkey’s Ottoman past, 78% also saw Turks today as friendly to their countries. This watershed has been facilitated by Turkey’s cultural exports, most notably their wildly popular soap operas that have introduced the Bosphorus to the Middle East. The most notable example of this ‘soft power’ is the show ‘Noor’ that drew over 85 million Arab viewers for its finale. It is credited with securing a significant increase in Gulf Arab tourists to Turkey, as well as introducing Turkish secularism with its unveiled women, alcohol, and premarital sex, apparently tremendously intriguing when placed in an Islamic context.
Turkish engagement has also helped enrich its coffers. Trade with Lebanon leapt from $225 million in 2002 to $900 million today, while in the first year alone, Turkish rapprochement with Syria saw Turkish exports jump from $1.1bn to $1.4bn. With Iraq bilateral trade rose from $3.7bn in 2007 to $9bn in 2009 and excluding oil deals, Turkey is already Iraq’s largest commercial partner and looking to further increase trade volume to $20bn by 2013. Trade with Iran increased six-fold between 2002 and 2007, reaching $7.5bn with agreements inked in May 2009 to attempt to raise the number to $20bn. The Turks have also been proactive in Africa, building mosques, madrassas, and schools. Their deepening links have facilitated a rise in Turkish exports to the continent from $1.5bn in 2001 to $10bn in 2009. Trade with Sudan in particular has tripled from 2006. The AKP government has also lifted visa requirements with many Arab countries including Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Syria, with Erdogan to create a “regional schengen system” to facilitate trade.
In the Iraqi vacuum created by the U.S. invasion, Turkey has made strong advances with its influence rivaled by only Iran. It has forged good terms with all Iraqi factions and urged Sunni groups to participate in the electoral process. Most surprising has been the pragmatic nature with which the Turks have engaged with the Iraqi Kurds. The traditional fear that autonomy for Iraqi Kurds would inspire its own Kurdish minority has driven Turkish strategic doctrine for decades and was a major contributor to its vocal opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion. Today, they have overridden these fears to facilitate stability along its Iraqi border and secure Iraqi energy.
Erdogan ended the demonization of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, allowing him an unprecedented trip to Ankara in 2010 in reciprocation. The Turks have also opened a consulate in the Kurdish capital of Irbil and secured Iraqi inclusion in the Nabucco pipeline exporting oil to Europe and Istanbul-based Cukorava and Dogan Holdings are investing in Iraqi oilfields in Kurdistan. Plans are underway for a $1bn oil pipeline shipping oil from Kirkuk to the port city of Ceyhan where Turkey hopes to create a major energy export hub for Caspian and Middle Eastern oil. This policy has been mutually beneficial with the Iraqi Kurds seeing Turkey as their door to the West and a diplomatic ally in defending their interests should Iraq disintegrate along ethnic lines.
In Syria, traditionally acrimonious relations that almost saw the countries go to war in the late 90s have been normalized to the point where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now calls Turkey “Syria’s best friend.” Admittedly this recalibration has largely been spearheaded by Assad himself in an attempt to break out of his diplomatic isolation, but renewed outreach has allowed Turkey to resolve key lingering issues such as Turkish sovereignty over the disputed Hatay province and securing Syrian support against Iraqi Kurdish rebels in 2007. In addition to burgeoning trade, joint industrial projects have been initiated and joint military exercises conducted, all helping resolve one of Turkey’s thorniest borders.
In Lebanon, the Hariri government and their Hezbollah allies have found a gracious partner in Turkey with Saad Hariri affectionately referring to Erdogan’s Turkey as “big brother” during a trip to Ankara. With Saudi Arabia, Turkey has signed protocols agreeing to military cooperation as well as announced its intention to invest as much as $400bn in Turkey over the next four years while boosting their bilateral trade to $10bn.
It has been in Iran, however, where cooperation has garnered the most attention. Erdogan was one of the first politicians to congratulate Ahmadinejad’s disputed June 2009 electoral victory and has declined to comment on the subsequent crackdown on the opposition Green Movement, arguing it would represent “interference” in Iranian domestic affairs. Much of this placatory outlook may stem from pragmatism. With Turkey importing over 70% of its energy needs, and 17% of it from Iran, efforts to increase that share have been a priority. The policy is, however, fraught with problems. Iran is a technical mess. The South Pars field is not yet fully operational despite constant reassurances and in the winter Iranian oil exports are tenuous at best as outflow is diverted to meet their own domestic shortfall.
Erdogan has, however, sought to go significantly beyond these concerns in utilizing Iran as the centerpiece of a Turkish diplomatic revival. He recently persuaded Iran to accept a uranium exchange deal that would take place in Turkey. The deal would see Iran send out low enriched uranium in exchange for higher-enriched fuel rods needed for Iran’s aging medical reactor. To Western — namely American and Israeli — critics, this deal is a non-starter today, being that the amount negotiated is believed to be insufficient, still leaving Iran with a nuclear breakout capability. They have lamented perceived Turkish naivety in their seemingly genuine interpretation of Iranian goodwill, seeing it instead as a hijack offering the Iranians a face-saving opportunity to circumvent Western sanctions pressure.