Turkey Asserts Its Role in the Middle East

For decades, Turkey was a dutiful ally that mostly followed America’s lead. But since the Justice and Development Party’s re-election in 2007, it has asserted a more independent foreign policy in the Middle East, which often puts it at odds with Washington.

There have been sharp disagreements over the 2013 coup in Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for intervention in Syria. Turkey’s critics have called into question its reliability as a NATO ally, including in the fight against the radical Wahhabi group known as the Islamic State.

But much of this concern is misguided. The ongoing crises in the Middle East have only underscored Turkey’s pivotal geostrategic position: It’s no surprise that Pope Francis, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain have visited Ankara in the past few months. And Turkey’s detractors, partly because they do not understand the sources of its new assertiveness, fail to see that its transformation actually serves America’s long-term interests.

Turkey’s new foreign policy is often credited to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister from 2003 to 2014. But its roots lie in the political and economic reforms of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal during the 1980s, which accelerated the country’s democratization and the rise of the Muslim middle class in the Anatolian countryside.

After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, a small, secular and authoritarian establishment tore the country away from its magnificent Islamic heritage. By the late 20th century, however, many Turks were looking back on the unity and leadership provided by the Ottoman Empire with nostalgia. Today, they no longer simply accept the West’s problematic policies in the region, such as its support for the coup that brought Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in Egypt.

When the United States government refuses to help impose a no-flight-zone in Syria or to enforce its own red lines on chemical weapons, Turkish officials are reminded of previous instances when the West seemed indifferent to onslaughts against Muslim populations in Bosnia and Chechnya to which many Turkish citizens trace back their ancestry. Such perceptions were underscored in recent months, as Washington attempted to pressure Turkey into entering full-blown combat against the Islamic State while ignoring the greater bloodletting caused by the Assad regime against Sunni civilians, with whom many Sunnis in Turkey identify.

Critics of the Turkish government also argue that it is becoming intolerant of domestic dissent and promoting an ethno-sectarian agenda in the Middle East. The Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., has been rightly condemned for its harsh response to the 2013 Gezi Park protests and for weakening democratic institutions. Yet Turkey remains far more democratic than its neighbors. Its elections are free and fair, and it does not eliminate its political opponents or persecute its ethnic and religious minorities.

Turkey is also trying to move the region away from the cycle of despotism, conflict and outside intervention that has plagued it since the end of the Ottoman era. After President Bashar al-Assad’s first visit to Turkey in 2004, the A.K.P. leadership embraced the young president’s promises of reform and relations with Syria improved. It was only after Mr. Assad ignored the Turkish government’s appeals for reform and carried out mass killings of Syrian civilians that Ankara demanded his removal.

Mr. Erdogan’s party followed its election in 2002 by strengthening ties with Israel, signaling that Turkey would treat Israel as a legitimate partner in its attempt to broker comprehensive peace in the region. But after hundreds of Palestinian civilians died in the Gaza War of 2008-9 and Israeli forces raided the Mavi Marmara, an unarmed Turkish vessel, in 2010, Turkey decided it would no longer indulge the belligerent fantasies of Israel’s ruling Likud party.

The A.K.P. has also done more than any other Turkish leadership to end the Kurdish conflict. Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees, including 200,000 Kurds, Christians and Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State. Ankara has provided military aid to the Kurdish pesh merga fighting Sunni radicals in Syria, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has become one of Turkey’s closest strategic and economic partners.

The United States has long allowed client states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel to pursue shortsighted goals in the Middle East. This has only brought despotism and strife. Washington’s failure to fully support the democratic government of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt contributed to its collapse, and so to the instability and violence that have occurred there since. And it was President Obama’s cynical abandonment of the Syrian opposition during the first two years of the uprising against Mr. Assad that set the stage for the advent of the Islamic State.

To avoid any more such calamities, policy makers in Washington, and other Western capitals, should abandon their counterproductive approach: They should embrace Turkey’s growing, and positive, engagement in the Middle East.

M. Hakan Yavuz is a professor of political science at the University of Utah and the author of Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey. Mujeeb R. Khan is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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