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Walking the Tightrope: Turkey in the New Middle East

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Enea Gjoza is a policy analyst specializing in foreign policy and criminal justice. He is also an intelligence research fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a writer for Young Voices.

The Arab Spring and subsequent events have dramatically re-arranged the power dynamics of the Middle East. Formerly stable nations like Syria and Libya have descended into near-anarchy, while others, like Iraq and Jordan, have been significantly weakened by the rise of the Islamic State and the flood of refugees fleeing conflicts in the region.

Not all have been affected equally, however. While most of their regional neighbors are still reeling from the aftermath of war and revolution, the Turks have emerged almost entirely unscathed. This has left them in a position that is both enviable and vulnerable as they navigate the geopolitics of the new Middle East.

The upheavals of the last few years have diminished the ability of many of the leading nations in the region to project power outside their own borders. While Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria, much of the country is either contested or under the control of various rebel and Islamist militias and the economy is utterly ruined after four years of war. Jordan, which has long been a bulwark of stability, is finding its resources stretched to the breaking point as it tries to absorb an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, or 20% of Jordan’s population. Iraq’s fragile political framework has degraded considerably since the conquest of much of the north by ISIS, and Iran is still the subject of strict sanctions and international isolation. Meanwhile, Egypt is in the process of rebuilding its economy, confronting domestic Islamist insurgents, and promoting stability and investor confidence, leaving little capacity for regional engagement.

In this environment, Turkey enjoys a number of advantages. With one of the most powerful militaries in the world, membership in NATO, a strategic position between Europe and Asia, and a fast growing population of over 70 million, Turkey possesses a level of security that has escaped most of its neighbors.

Despite the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the violence has been almost entirely relegated to the other side of the border, and its contentious domestic politics aside, Turkey has been able to maintain a relatively high measure of internal stability. Much like Jordan, Turkey has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria, and although this has strained the nation’s resources, its much larger economy has so far been able to handle the refugees without large negative spillover effects.

Another key contributor to Turkey’s improved strategic position is the conflict between Russia and the E.U., which has left the Turks in the enviable role of being an essential partner to both sides. The South Stream pipeline, which Russia envisioned as a way to deliver gas to the European market while bypassing Ukraine, was cancelled after the E.U. pressured Bulgaria to block passage through its territory. It has been replaced by the proposed Turkish Stream, which would run a pipeline underneath the Black Sea and through Turkish territory. Although negotiations are still ongoing, Russia has already taken steps to signal its commitment to the new plan, and the continuing hostility between Russia and the E.U. makes it highly likely that any alternative gas route to Europe will run through Turkey.

This leaves Turkey in an ideal negotiating position. It will likely be able to secure a significant discount for its own considerable energy needs from Russia (and in fact is already aggressively negotiating for one), which is seeking access to the large and growing Turkish gas market as well as an economically and politically viable alternative to the aborted South Stream route.

The proposed pipeline will not actually go through any E.U. states, so Europe will now have to purchase its gas from Turkey. A similar project, the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline, conceived as a way to connect Europe to Azerbaijan’s gas fields and thus help it diversify away from Russian gas, also runs through Turkey. This places Turkey squarely in the middle of regional energy politics, and hands significant negotiating power to a state that has long been denied entry into the eurozone.

In this favorable climate, Turkey has taken an active lead in the Middle East, operating in alignment with its perceived interests and often in defiance of the United States and Europe. Nowhere is this clearer than in its interactions with the Assad regime and ISIS. Since the early days of the Syrian civil war, Turkey explicitly signaled its desire to see the regime fall, and took several steps to bring this outcome about. These included providing training, weapons, and shelter to the Free Syrian Army, as well as allowing the rebels to cross the Turkish border freely to resupply their positions in Syria. Four years later, this policy has produced no tangible gains. More alarmingly, the power vacuum in Syria has allowed numerous jihadist groups to flourish.

A group of ISIS soldiers
ISIS does not present an existential threat to Turkey.

Despite the apparent failure of this policy, and recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry hinting at a softening U.S. stance toward Assad, Turkey appears to have every intention of staying the course. While neither an Islamist takeover nor anarchy across the border are desirable, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government has apparently concluded that some measure of chaos advances Turkey’s interests. ISIS and similar groups, while a potential problem in the long term, do not present an existential threat to Turkey.

In fact, their continued existence serves a useful purpose: prolonging a grinding stalemate that keeps Assad from decisively winning the conflict, while also keeping Iraq’s Shiite-led government bogged down. Just as importantly, ISIS serves to keep the Kurdish populations of both nations in check, preventing them from exploring the potential for a unified Kurdish state on Turkey’s doorstep.

Considerable evidence has emerged that ISIS has been receiving at least tacit support from Turkey. According to documents obtained by Sky News, Turkey stamped the passports of ISIS militants crossing the border to fight in Syria. Kurdish activists in the Syrian city of Kobani have also reported ISIS suicide bombers attacking the town through the Turkish border. In an interview with Newsweek, a former member of ISIS confirmed that he had witnessed extensive cooperation between Islamist militants and Turkish security forces.

While the militants were apparently able to move freely across the border, Turkish Kurds were prevented from reinforcing besieged Kurdish cities in Syria. Given Turkey’s contentious history with its own Kurdish minority, it appears the threat of an autonomous Kurdish state is considered much more severe than any potential danger that ISIS poses. The Turkish government seems to have found the radical group to be a useful multi-front counterweight to its regional rivals, simultaneously undermining Syria, Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces in both nations, and by proxy, Iran.

While Turkey is well served by the current state of affairs, and has benefitted considerably from the conflicts currently playing out in Europe and the Middle East, this upward trajectory is not without its risks. If there’s anything to be learned from the region’s experience in the past few years, it’s that even seemingly stable states can suffer massive upheaval. Turkey is not immune to this phenomenon.

Syria in particular presents an intractable problem. The current equilibrium cannot persist forever and none of the potential outcomes are especially appealing. One thing that now seems evident is that the moderate rebels, who Turkey and the United States supported at the onset of the conflict, have no chance of emerging victorious. A complete victory by Assad would leave the Turks with a hostile neighbor who could be relied on to counterbalance Turkey’s influence regionally.

Meanwhile, an outcome that balkanizes Syria would inevitably result in the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity on the Turkish border. This would set a dangerous precedent, creating a permanent base of operations for an alienated ethnic group that has long sought a unified and independent Kurdish nation.

Should ISIS or a similar group decisively win in Syria, the outcome would be a hotbed of radical Islam uncomfortably close to home. While some officials in Turkey’s conservative government appear to sympathize with the Islamist group, their policy of tacit support could easily backfire.

Although ISIS is not a military threat to Turkey, it could create considerable problems through terrorist attacks and insurgency style campaigns in Turkish territory, should it ever pursue that path. The 500-mile-long border with Syria is porous, and the Turkish heartland of Anatolia would provide a fertile base for recruiting extremists. Such a destabilizing influence would be especially dangerous if current economic growth, the foundation of the ruling AKP party’s power, tapers off.

The example of Pakistan is quite instructive here. The Pakistani security services have long provided considerable assistance to the Afghan Taliban as a means of wielding influence over their strategic neighbor. With Taliban offshoots now entrenched in both countries, Pakistan finds itself locked in a battle with this problematic entity within its own borders.

Iran presents another–perhaps more imminent–complication to Turkey’s regional ambitions. The Islamic Republic appears close to a nuclear deal that would result in the lifting of international sanctions currently in place. If that happens, it would regain the economic clout to more effectively combat Turkish influence. Iran, already an ally and supporter of both the Assad regime and Iraq’s Shia-led government, would be able to significantly reinforce both in their fight against Sunni Islamists when no longer faced with the crushing burden the sanctions imposed.

Most of the current conflicts in the Middle East are microcosms of the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shias for regional dominance, with Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms leading the charge on the Sunni side, and Iran serving as the patron of the Shiite bloc. Should Iran strike a deal that both ends the prospect of a foreign attack and allows for an economic recovery, it would significantly counteract the current dominance of the Sunni powers.

A coalescence of factors, including rapid economic growth, energy geopolitics, the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring, and an activist foreign policy have made Turkey the pre-eminent Muslim power in the Middle East. Despite the current strength of its position relative to its neighbors however, Turkey walks a delicate tightrope. Having made a number of bold and risky strategic choices to disrupt regional rivals, it could well face significant blowback should its strategy backfire. If that happens, Turkey will not only have squandered many of the gains it has achieved over the past decade, it will also leave behind a region that is more dangerous and more unstable than even the current paradigm.

Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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