MESOP New Middle East: Turkey from Being a Playmaker to Seclusion in the New Middle East

Author: Professor İlhan Uzgel, International Relations Department, Ankara University Date: Jan 29, 2015   Foreign Policy, New Post

Geographically spread over a wide area –from Tunisia to Yemen–, the Middle East and particularly Arab countries are experiencing the most severe crisis of the last century. The crisis does not seem to be overcome in the short-term, as the emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during the bloody Iraq-Syria war has shown how deep and destructive it is. Along with its various dimensions such as political, ideological, religious, financial and social, it also carries the risk of worsening the economic troubles due to the emergent decrease in oil prices since the mid of 2014.

The transformation and instability waves involve mainly Syria and Iraq, as well as some other Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt; but in addition to Afghanistan and Somalia where instability persists, the violent acts carried out by Islamic movements have started to accelerate in Nigeria and Kenya too. In the beginning of 2011, however, a new source of hope has emerged after the toppling of Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and then the quickly-toppling of Mubarak in Egypt. Unfortunately, the current situation in this region gives even more negative impressions compared to the process before 2011, without any possibility of speaking about an improvement in any spheres of life, or in the quality of life.

The ISIS as a symptom of the intense crisis in the Middle East societies and their politics, has transformed quickly and deeply geopolitics of the region. In an environment that the whole world has focused on ISIS’s violence and the way it is presented, ISIS actually started to provide the conditions to form a new Middle East. This deep crisis presented and represented by ISIS and that contains the widened Middle East region means also the crisis of political Islamism. The Islamic movements who have the most ubiquitous organization as a result of the waves of Arab Spring could not achieve to transform what was expected from them due to partly their inherent problems and partly the pressures of the external actors outside the region. Particularly, while the mistakes of Morsi government brought its own end in Egypt where the operation centre of Muslim Brotherhood movement is located, they also led the Islamic politics to a stalemate. Turkey was also remaining close to this problem. The USA and European countries had two important expectations from Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party-AKP) government, and there was an implicit consensus on this issue between these countriesduring the years before and after AKP acceded to power. Firstly, AKP would have changed to moderate Islamism in itself and secondly it would have been a model for the other Middle Eastern countries (joint model) as a part of this implicit consensus. However, the bargain has come to an end following the problems that AKP has started to make troubles related to internalization of democratic values which is one of the most important elements of the moderate Islamism, it gradually digressed from the principles of democracy such as pluralism, freedom of the press, respect to rule of law, additionally it put efforts to draw a wide centreline in the region in terms of its own anti-democratic moves by advising those values to Morsi government in Egypt.

Consequently, the West neither supported a government that broke unilaterally the agreement which was the adoption of the values of the moderate Islamism, nor took any risks to experience the same results in a critical country like Egypt by moving relatively earlier there where AKP’s path was being attempted to follow. After the collapse of the coalition government that El Nahda cooperated, and the victory of Nidaa Tounes in the elections[1], today there are no actors remaining in the region, that have come to the power with Arab Spring, and unfortunately the formerly existing actors are not able to provide solutions to those problems, from a political, ideological and social perspective developed from and coherent with the interests of the region. In other words, the Middle Eastern societies cannot develop an alternative political discourse and projects originated from the region itself, to find an exit from the situation in which they have been stuck. While a return to Mubarak period has been happening in Egypt; Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen are driven to violent conflicts with no winner. By eliminating the effects of the Arab Spring, the monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the States of Gulf, and Morocco and Jordan, seek to sustain outworn model with legitimacy problems that stands with Western support for a while. In this context, the AKP, by engaging in a sectarian way with the conflicts especially in Libya, Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia, tries to manipulate the regional politics, and it keeps away the possible instability that might target it. By doing so, it somehow helps the ‘controlled instability’ policy that West maintains silently in the region.

The collapse, which reached the top by the rise of ISIS, and the discussions it created are providing the conditions for the birth of new policies. In the last 50 years, no state or non-state actors have defined themselves by showing the violence they engaged in. None of the political movements has tried to establish their image through violence. Instead, they had to present the violence as a temporary tool that has to be accepted to achieve a supreme goal. However, ISIS has preferred to show the violence that almost leaves aside the Islamist ideology, which is the ideology it defends, by using all tools of postmodern visual era. On one hand, its formation shows how radical Islamism is a deadlock, a dilemma and inapplicable with our era. On the other hand, it laid the groundwork for opening the region to the intervention of the West and for the redefinition of the borders. ISIS enabled the USA to regain its legitimacy to be in the region after it has been lost due to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, it made it possible to call for an intervention of USA as Erdoğan stated that “24 hours of intervention is not enough, it has to be done as it was done in Kosovo”[2]. Hence, USA is now able to attack ISIS in Syria and Iraq without any dual agreement or a decision of UN Security Council, and neither the Syrian regime nor the other countries such as Iraq, Iran and Russia can reject its intervention. In fact, the possibility that those countries counteract against a probable intervention of USA land forces in the region is very unlikely.

Secondly, the struggle against ISIS has opened the doors to rapprochement between the USA and Iran. By referring to Obama’s letters to Iranian President Rouhani four times in two months, it is visible that the military aircrafts of the USA and Iran started attacking to ISIS within an implicit coordination.[3] Iran becomes increasingly visible in the new Middle Eastern politics, and in return it will probably be a less problematic actor for the USA in the new Middle Eastern system.

Thirdly, the USA and France acknowledged the ruling power of Assad. Apparently, Assad approved the loss of an important part of its country, the displacement and the escape of a quarter of the population in order to remain in power. The situation in which Syria collapsed has already crossed the line where Russia and Iran could have defined it as a political/geopolitical gain.Syria’s existence as being a forceful actor to affect Middle Eastern politics will be beside the point for years to come.Normally, Hezbollah has been under the auspices of Assad regime. However, now it spends its energy and makes effort to help Assad regime to stand, and it risks its credibility in Lebanon.[4]

Fourthly, ISIS has deeply affected and started to change the dynamics of Kurdish issue in the Middle East. Even though there have been tactical losses to ISIS in the region, such as its occupation of Mosul, its extension to Erbil, its threat to Kirkuk and lastly the siege of Kobane in the short term. In the long term, the various components of Kurdish movement will gain from these changes. A process has happened; it strengthened the creation of common identity through the case of Kobane that has helped to consolidate the Kurdish national identity by reuniting not only the Rojava Kurds but also other Kurdish groups. After all, one day ISIS will leave the region as an outlander and the history of the resistance of Kobane will remain for the Kurds. By virtue of Kobane, the Kurds in Northern Iraq and in Turkey experienced resistance together that enabled them to engender a new form of national unity and to gain political solidarity.

In this process, following its protector role for Kurdish Regional Government, the USA had the chance to be a protector for Syrian Kurds in Rojava as well. Under the threat of ISIS, the Kurds, who had no Turkish support and who thought that Turkish government was provoking ISIS against them, reluctantly welcomed the USA’s arm supply and air military intervention Turkish. Hence, the Syrian Kurds has come through a sort of Kosovo syndrome. As the USA came to the position of ‘saviour’ for Kurds in the Middle East, in addition to the existing ones, another group of Kurds who sympathize it and express undoubtedly its sympathy appeared as an ally for the USA. In return, the Kurds in Rojava accepted to loosen its autonomous structure and to have closer relationship with Kurdish Regional Government. The USA invited the PYD leader Salih Muslim to Washington and played a role in the reconciliation between the Kurds of Rojava and of Northern Iraq in Erbil, and declared the removal of the biggest two Kurdish parties in Iraq, PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), from the terrorist organisations list. Moreover, according to some news, he sees the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party-PKK) leaders in Kandil. Regarding its moves, it will not be a surprise when the USA removes PKK from its terrorist organisations list.

The Insistence of Turkey on Assad and Its Fault in Kobane

While being busy with forming the ‘New Turkey’, the AKP government misses the fact that a new Middle East has being formed and hence, it has increasingly been marginalized in this new Middle East formulation. Any improvement in the region puts Turkey into a negative position, narrows its margins in foreign policy and isolates it.

To put in a nutshell, Turkey has put itself in a deadlock because of two miscalculations. The first miscalculation was the insistence on forming its whole strategy on the toppling of Assad by excluding the other alternatives even in a time when there was no possibility to achieve this aim, By failing to revise its strategy, it opposed to Saudi Arabia, a country that it has mutual interests and to Russia and Iran that it was trying to get closer with. Although, it has already been shown that there was no possibility for a regime change in Syria by the attempts of the opposition or by the attempts of Turkey and Qatar without the USA’s engagement and its intense pressure in the politics, Turkey has not relinquished the politics depended upon the toppling of Assad, in one sense it took the responsibility of possible consequences. The USA has never attempted to change the Assad government although it expressed its opposition to Syria with Assad’s rule. For instance, Western press critiques Erdoğan and AKP government, but disregards the Assad regime. Besides, the USA attacks ISIS in Syria, not Assad. Despite Turkey’s warnings on the no-fly zone, it ignores those warnings.

There are some reasons why Turkey wants Assad gone. First of all, Turkey still thinks that the policy that it has been insisting on will be achieved. If the Assad regime falls,   AKP will get a chance to present it to the world as its own foreign policy success via media tricks that it has learned thoroughly. After all, we have a government that demonstrates the release of the consular offices that were taken hostages as a show of strength. Secondly, the government has an optimistic expectation that if the government in Syria falls, the new government will have closer relations with Turkey. In this case, Turkey has some plans such as having closer relations with Syria that would be even better than the relations before Arab Spring, and taking financial and political advantages of the reconstruction of this country. Thirdly, the government thinks that if Assad regime falls, the Syrian refugees in Turkey will start to return to their home country, hence the pressure on Turkey will be lightened. However, it disregards the possibility that the new government after the possible fall of Assad regime might also cause instability in the region since the one who would succeed Assad is undetermined. Ignoring the fact that Assad was not overthrown, the regime forces started to find the opportunity for new moves while ISIS have been hit and weakened; they re-conquered the most of Aleppo, and this change might initiate new migration flows. Turkey narrowed its options without any possibility to win as it did not seek any solution other than the departure of Assad. Hence, it doomed its goals in Syria and the Middle East to failure.

The other problematic policy of AKP government was its attitude during the siege of Kobane. While Turkey has been using delaying tactics in the Peace Process for Kurdish conflict, it also disrupted its relations with Iraqi Kurds who were remaining as its last ally in the Middle East since it did not help while Erbil was under the threat of ISIS. Moreover, owing to Kobane, it created a significant issue of trust for everyone. Turkey preferred a policy that seems to have humanitarian purposes for migration flows such as buffer zone and no-fly zone policies but in reality it aims at domination on Kurdish movement in Rojava. However, when this policy failed, it tried to label the Rojava Kurds as the partners of the Assad regime. By taking position against to the strengthening of the Kurdish national identity in Kobane resulting from the ISIS attacks; Turkey, in one sense, contributed to this process. Moreover, even though Turkey insisted on not allowing peshmerga forces to pass through Turkish territory at first, it was forced to change this strategy with the pressures and to allow them to pass. Hence, Turkey has been regarded as an actor who did not have strategic plans, instead who had difficulties in adapting the policies to the evolving problems and continued with the inconsistent policies.

While Arab region is dealing with inner conflicts and Turkish politics is getting more and more polarized, Kurdish politics, in the opposite direction, is experiencing a historical process that carries its unity to the highest level and is trying to take the advantage of the reconstruction of the Middle East politics at most. By complicating the Kurdish issue and adding new parameters, every incident in the Middle East complicates Turkish position in the region.

The relations between Turkey and the USA have historically been unstable. However, for the first time, these relations have become heavily complicated due to the crisis in Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish issue, and moreover the imbalances in domestic policy. Considering the deadlock of Islamist politics, the problems that AKP government faced in foreign policy aggravate this situation. The government cannot develop a policy and a vision and cannot present a new perspective to solve this impasse like any other actors in the Middle East. The only discourse that it could develop so far is a populist claim that a ‘superior mind’ (referring to the USA) tries to liquidate it. Besides, after the reconciliation of Qatar and Egypt, Turkey has become the sole country without any powerful diplomatic relations and communication with the USA. Turkey that was claiming that it would bring peace and establish the order in the region five years ago, now seems like an actor who is withdrawing, anxiously trying to find the solution through wrong moves and who does not know what to do.

Professor İlhan Uzgel, International Relations Department, Ankara University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Uzgel, İlhan (January, 2015), “New Middle East: Turkey from Being a Playmaker to Seclusion in the New Middle East”, Vol. IV, Issue 1, pp.47-55, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


[1] The Guardian, 30th of November 2014

[2] Milliyet, 31th of August 2013

[3] “Iranian Air Forces Targeting Isis in Iraq, Says Pentagon,” The Guardian, 3th of December 2014

[4] “Lebenon’s Once Mighty Hezbollah is Facing Attacks in Syria,” The Washington Post, 27th of November 2014.