Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Contraints

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By International Crisis Group

Istanbul/Brussels: Turkey's sometimes controversial new Middle East activism is an asset to the EU and U.S., and attractive in the region, but only if Ankara pursues its long-standing integration with the West.

Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints, the latest International Crisis Group report, assesses the country's growing regional engagement within the broader frame of its foreign and trade policy. In the past several years, Ankara has launched multiple initiatives aimed at stabilising the Middle East by facilitating efforts to reduce conflicts and engaging in multilateral regional platforms.

At a time when negotiations to join the European Union (EU) have faltered, Turkey has adopted as its model for healing the divisions of the Middle East economic and political tactics similar to those that Western European states employed after the Second World War to secure peace on the continent. This includes expanding visa-free travel, ramping up trade, integrating infrastructure and forging multiple strategic relationships.

Turkey's new engagement with the Middle East and the charismatic appeal of its leaders among Middle Eastern peoples have made it a player that the region and the world need to take into account, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. Turkey has achieved notable economic expansion and has provided a living example to Middle Eastern societies of useful new ways to mix progress, tradition and democratisation.

Ankara's facilitation in regional disputes has had a mostly positive impact, notably in the 2008 Turkish-hosted proximity talks between Israel and Syria, and it can claim a supporting role in the search for ways to avoid clashes with Iran over the nuclear issue. It has been less effective, however, in the intra-Palestinian dispute between Fatah and Hamas. The sharpening tone of bilateral relations with Israel has raised Turkish leaders' popularity among Middle Eastern publics but has undermined trust among leaders of traditional allies in Washington, Brussels and even some Arab capitals.

While it is clearly carrying more weight than before, there are constraints to Turkey's influence. It should prioritise achieving breakthroughs in conflicts close to home like those involving Cyprus and Armenia, before pursuing ambitious initiatives in intractable conflicts where it has only indirect leverage. Ultimately, this would do more to help its prospects both in the European Union and the Middle East than would incremental regional progress.

As long as Turkey does not let its self-confidence give way to over-confidence, its influence and ability to improve regional peace will grow, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group's Europe Program Director. Turkey is not breaking away from the West - indeed its attraction to Middle Eastern states has much to do with its strong ties to Europe. It simply has become a more modern, ambitious and versatile country that feels secure enough to take on new challenges. Read the full ICG report.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:26

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