Turkey’s EU Reset?
Turkey’s EU Reset?
Following a string of setbacks that has left it increasingly isolated in Europe and the Middle East, Turkey has started a push to repair ties with key neighbors and partners.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met top EU officials in Brussels this week for the first time in five years, is also due to visit neighboring Iran next week. One day before he flies to Tehran, on Jan. 28, Erdogan will host French President Francois Hollande, whose country has been one of the actors slowing down Turkey’ process of joining the EU.
It’s a significant about-face for a government that in recent years has sought to portray Turkey as the rising heavyweight in the region, flush with investment money and content to turn away from the floundering EU. But the Arab Spring and its ongoing fallout in Egypt, along with the spiraling crisis in Syria, both combined to catch Erdogan off guard and significantly diminished his influence on Europe and the Middle East.
When Erdogan’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, assumed office in 2009, he formulated a “zero problems” doctrine with the aim of creating an area of peace, stability and rich export markets around Turkey. At the time, Turkey was spurred by rapid economic growth, inspired by its history as the heir to the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East for centuries, and buoyed by a sense that the country—as a Western-style democracy with a Muslim population—could be a model for the region, projecting its “soft power” through diplomacy, trade and popular culture like TV soaps.
But that policy has failed resoundingly. “Today, Turkey does not even have ambassadors in Egypt, Israel and Syria, three important countries in the region,” columnist Murat Yadkin wrote in the Radikal newspaper this week.
When the Arab Spring swept across Tunisia and Egypt three years ago this January, the Erdogan government declared that Turkey would cut ties with dictators and encourage democracy. That approach quickly took on a sectarian bent, with the predominantly Sunni Turkey seeking close relationships with groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose power seemed in the ascendant after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Erdogan’s government also declared itself an early backer of the Syrian uprising, giving safe haven to the mostly Sunni rebels seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But as fortunes have shifted in Cairo and on the ground in Syria, Turkey has found itself on what—at the moment at least—seems to be the losing side of the region’s power struggles. Erdogan’s support of Syria’s rebels—who are now plagued by infighting between moderates and Islamists and among the various jihadist groups inside the country—has pitted Turkey against Assad’s most important financial backer, Iran, along with its allies in the Shiite-led governments in Iraq and Lebanon. (Ties with Iraq have also been soured by disputes over oil trade and the Syrian conflict.) Moreover, after Egypt’s generals ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi last summer, Erdogan angered the country’s new military rulers by demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.