Historical Background of Turkish Rule in the Middle East
Ottomans governed the region for 400 years and before the Ottomans there were other Turkish origin groups, such as the Mamluk Dynasty, Aq (Ak) Qoyunlu, Qara (Kara) Qoyunlu Turcoman. Apart from them, many Turks occupied important positions in the Abbasid Dynasty’s military and governed Iran, one of the most important countries in the Middle East, for hundreds of years. For example, the spoken language in the Shah Ismail’s palace was Turkish, and many of the Iranian shahs were of Turkish origin.
Although there were many ethnic groups in the region, Turks quickly gained a privileged status among them. Of course their ruling style and positive/negative aspects of their governance are debatable. But, when compared to French, British or American powers’ rule in the 20th Century Middle East there is no doubt that the Turkish periods were more successful in providing security and stability in the region. Palestine, for instance, was one of the most significant symbols of coexistence during the Ottoman period in the region, and witnessed bloodshed after it broke off from the Ottoman State in 1917; dreadful conflicts have not stopped in the region since that time. Likewise, Lebanon was a place in which different ethnic and religious groups lived together for centuries but after the governing passed from the hands of Turks to the French, Lebanon became a symbol of conflict, ethnic-religious intolerance, and civil wars. French did not respect the Lebanon’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious structure and made efforts to Christianize the country. They support some of the groups against other groups, they brought Christian Armenians and encouraged the internal intolerance among the groups for their narrow national interests.
On the issue, Iraq was also not so different from Lebanon or Palestine. Under the governing of the Turks, Shia and Sunni groups, Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other groups all lived together without any serious conflict among them. At that time Baghdad was called "the Sultan of the cities" and Iraq was at the forefront with its welfare and calmness compared to other regions. We see decentralization approach was adopted in the Middle East under Ottoman sovereignty. Each region’s conditions were taken into consideration by Istanbul Government and special measures were taken according to region’s demographic features.
Despite the Turks’ successes in governing, after the First World War, British and French powers blamed the Ottoman Turks for everything that went bad in the colonized Middle Eastern countries and they tried to create an animosity among the Arabs towards the Turks. In time, the Middle Eastern countries began to declare their independence from the colonizers one by one, after which some leaders, such as Gamal Abd Al-Naser and Saddam Hussein, used the rhetoric of Arab Nationalism and tried to decrease local people’s interests in Turkish people. In other words, colonizers, followed by Arab nationalists in the nation-state process, supported anti-Turkish policies.
Indeed, changes in Turkish policies towards the Middle East also contributed to this process. Kemalists in Turkey searched for the reasons of the Ottoman collapse in its religious and traditional roots, and in this context they related the Ottomans’ underdevelopment and ‘backwardness’ to its Islamic roots and eastern orientation. Even in the conservative-liberal Adnan Menderes period, Turkish understanding didn’t change drastically and Turkey’s alliance with NATO prevented it from developing an independent Middle Eastern policy. For a long time Turkey’s relationship with the region remained on the basis of its urgent and conjectural necessities and security issues. In the 1950s, Turkey identified its interests in the region with Western World’s interests, and as a result, it was perceived as an agent of the West in the region. However first the Jupiter Missile (IRBMs) Crisis, then the Johnson Letter Crisis in 1964 and the arms embargo on Turkey in 1975, the ban of opium poppy cultivation in 1971, and all other disappointing experiences with the US made Turkey conscious about the problems with one-dimensional foreign policy.
United States’ president in the Johnson Letter threatened Turkey not to intervene in Cyprus problems. NATO and the US clearly told Turkey that it would be abondoned before the Soviet threat if Turkey does not strictly follow the Western ‘orders’. The Johnson letter represented a complete failure in Turkish foreign policy. Until the letter, Turkey was one of the rare countries, where ‘no one said go home to the Americans’, yet when the US did not behave like a ‘normal’ ally, Turkey searched new alternaties in foreign policy. Imagine the US imposed an embargo in 1975 on military shipments to Turkey during the high tension years of the Cold War. The US thus became may be the first country in history who imposes embargo on its own military ally. Apart from the US, other European countries’ pro-Greek attitudes let Turkey down, and forced the Turkish policy makers to search a new foreign policy. In the Cyprus crisis particularly Turkey turned its face to the Muslims states and the Third World to balance its NATO allies ‘partial policies’. Turkey was now aware of the disadvantages of its fully Western foreign policy and paid a heavy price for it. As a result, Turkey realized its need for a multi-dimensional foreign policy. In this context, Turkey tried to improve its relationship with the Middle Eastern countries too, but for many reasons, could not develop a foreign policy approach different from the West’s till the 1980s.
The first reason for this inefficiency in Turkish Middle Eastern policy was the Cold War. With such strong competition between the US and the Soviets, it was not possible for Turkey to follow an independent foreign policy. The Cold War hostility left very limited manoeuvre area for the regional small and mid-size countries.
And Turkey’s own economic problems also prevented it from following a different foreign policy in the region. It is not easy to understand Turkey’s situation at that time by approaching the issue with today’s conditions. We are talking about difficult times in which even the costs of government officials’ visits to other countries were a problem. Imagine the intercity between Ankara and Istanbul was not paved asphalt before the 1950s. If you are poor, your foreign policy will not improve.
Another reason was ideological. In these years Turkey saw the Arab world as a source of Islamist extremism, backwardness and instability and viewed the Islamic world as an obstacle in its path to improve its relationship with the EU as well as for its own regime. Towards the end of the Cold War years the efforts of Turgut Ozal to improve relations with the Middle East were seen as being religiously biased, and Ozal’s attempts to develop relations with Central Asia were seen as fascist by the Republican Orthodoxy. In other words, it is very difficult to understand the political perceptions of the past. We are talking about the days of powerful symbols and conflicts between the right and left wing.
The last reason preventing a powerful link between the Middle East and Turkey during the Republic period stemmed from ignorance of Turkish elite and the State about the region. Although Turks governed the region for many years, disinterest gave rise to relative ignorance, and ignorance gave rise to more prejudice and more ignorance. Apart from people in the street, even some politicians were speculating that Iran was an Arab country, and some most secularist countries, such as Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq, were claimed to be more religious for the sole reason that they are Arab.
As these barriers have been eliminated one by one, the Turkish vision began to be reflected in the region. Most of the time attention arose out of necessity, and when the interest and relationship increased, important improvements in knowledge were also observed.
First, Turkey turned towards the Middle East because of its disappointments with West and its search for diplomatic support in the Cyprus issue.
Second, by 1970s, economic needs motivated Turkey’s attention to the region. The growing Turkish exports forced Turkish policy makers to look at the neglected regions such as the Balkans, the Black Sea and the Middle East. Despite the crisis with Bulgaria, Greece, Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s, Turkey’s relations with these regions improved, particularly in the economic sphere. When Turkish companies won million-dollar contracts in the Gulf countries and Libya (About 18.3 billion dollars worth contracts from the Middle Eastern countries between 1974 and 1990), Turkish workers were sent to these countries as well. The development of the import and export business motivated a search for new markets, and as a result trade with Middle Eastern countries exploded. With the leadership of Turgut Ozal and the change in ideological orientation, a radical change appeared in Turkey’s Middle Eastern policy. In his different perspective, Ozal did not see any contradiction between religion and development, and Turkey realized that it did not have to choose between any of its different identities. And as we said before, the disappointment of a one-dimensional foreign policy proved its impracticality to decision makers and highlighted the need for a political and economic relationship with all regions. In brief, although exports to all regions grew substantially during the 1970s and 1980s, trade with the Middle Eastern countries exploded. Thus the economic factors became more important in shaping relations with the Middle East.
In this context it is beneficial to mention the 12 September coup d’tat. At that time, as a result of the West’s reaction, Turkey felt isolated and focused on countries and markets which it had previously ignored.
Furthermore, we should note that in the 1990s, Turkey had more self confidence. And the end of the Cold War gave Turkey, as well as other regional powers, more room to maneuver against the super powers. During the 2000s, Turkey became one of the biggest economies in the world. Some of the international organizations say that Turkish economy is the 16th largest economy in the world. There is no doubt that Turkey is the biggest Muslim economy on the globe although it has no rich gas or oil sources. Such a big economy fist needs close markets like the Middle East. Second, the big economies need a stronger regional foreign policy to protect and expand the national interests. In addition, the need for Turkey’s help to solve the regional problems increased to a large extent. The American, Israeli or European approaches caused disasters in the region. Turkey’s constructive role has considered as an alternative by many regional countries.
9/11 and Turkish-Middle Eastern Relations
When we look at the pre-September 11 situation, we see the failure of the French, British, the US, and Israeli approaches in the Middle East. These countries, whether deliberately or not, created chronic problems in the region due to their myopic views and their egocentric, superficial, and sometimes militaristic approach. The US, along with the UK and Israel, has adopted a slipshod approach in the reason, raising understanding of the clash of civilizations and the power imbalance since the end of the Cold War. September 11 is also a result of the faults there and cannot be explained by a few Arab men’s obsessions or fantasies. Al-Qaida and other extremist trends arose as a result of Israel’s and the West’s socio-economic policies. In other words, for the September 11 the West should not blame the Middle East. The 9/11 was a result of the West’s failure in the region. It was like a funeral of the Western Middle Eastern policies.
Frankly, September 11 would have been a good opportunity for the US to understand its faults in the region. But on the contrary, the event had the opposite effect and caused further blunders. The US’ Middle East policies have attempted to shape the region since September 11. When the US talks about the Greater Middle East Project, it argues the need for more human rights, democracy, liberalism, women rights, and economical development; as a matter of fact that many countries, including Turkey, share these ideas. However, the US’ Middle East policies were based on three totally different goals: First, change the leaders; second, change the regimes; and third, change the borders. The US thought that it could easily change leaders, then regimes and finally the borders. The Bush administration used an Israeli-centric approach in planning its short-term goals. One reason for this was the lack of regional support for leaders, regimes, and artificial borders in the region.
As a well known fact that the borders of the Middle East were drawn after the First World War by British and French secret agreements. Both the English and French did not give any importance to the natural borders, and the Middle East borders were drawn according to the French and British interests. The US wanted to redraw the ME maps assuming that it could use the same methods British and French used in the past to redraw the map. It has been seen that the US approaches to the matter have been very superficially, without any detailed scenarios or research on leader, regime, and border changes. It was assumed that the leaders would be replaced by pro-Western and pro-Israel leaders. Take, for instance, the case of Saddam Hussein, who was replaced by a very weak leader, proving the US does not know Iraqi politics very well. When the US was overthrowing Saddam, it worked with many different people in the country without considering their real influence in Iraq. But the US finally learned through its bad experiences.
Besides, the US failed to consider the possibility that more undesirable regimes might arise in the wake of the overthrown government. Furthermore, it is not true that artificial borders are easier to change, but makes changes much more difficult. As the borders were arbitrarily formed in the past, any change in a country’s border may affect its neighbors in a very short time. These countries have intra-ethnic and religious structures which are not reflected by the borders, making crisis management difficult. For instance, problems of Iraq made the other countries (Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and even Egypt) a side and affected the domestic affairs of the neighboring countries more than expected. If you consider how Iraqi issue affected the Kurdish question in Turkey, you may understand the matter better.
The US’ Middle East policies during the Bush terms demonstrated that leader, regime, and border changes are not so easy and may have dangerous results in the region and the West. It must be also noted that the US, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan policies also led to instability and radicalization in the region. Before the US’ intervention in Iraq there was no terrorism problem in this country, but today terrorist groups run rampant.
Turkey agrees with much of the rhetoric of the post-September 11 US. It has expressed its desire for citizens in the Middle East to expand their participation in democracy, economy, and politics; called for governments to be more respectful of human rights; and expects the region’s regimes be more open to cooperation. Turkey still fully supports the US in these matters, and contributed troops to the war in Afghanistan. Despite its constructive criticism, Turkey supported the US’ Iraq intervention. Although the March 1Bill in 2003 (the US’ request to base US troops in Turkey for an assault on Iraq) did not pass the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM) at first, the TBMM did approve another bill which allows Turkish troops for Iraq. However, as the US did not want Turkish military and approach in Iraq, it started a punishment policy against Turkey. Turkey has been kept outside of Iraq and PKK terrorism against Turkey was ignored in Iraq.
After September 11, the US developed a large contradiction between its rhetoric and its actions. The US, advocating the concepts of democracy and the will of the people, first accepted Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian elections. But when the party the US supported did not win the elections, it began to oppose and eliminate Hamas in the same way it moved to punishment policies towards Turkey when the Turkish Parliament refused to pass the 1 March Bill, an indication of democratic maturity. The problem of the US in the region is its egocentric policies and its impression of a double standard in the Middle East. Of course countries will orient their policies to their own interests. However, the success of a foreign policy depends on countries’ reconciliation between their interests and the realities of the region, and coherent actions on their basic principles and values. Another problem with the US’ policies is its ignorance of the region’s people and its efforts to apply its policies on the state level even though it seems that, except Israel and Turkey, almost all of the region’s regimes have a legitimacy problem. In the Middle East, there is quite a large gap between the leadership and the people; it is not possible to conduct policies only on the state level. Under these conditions, support from the US to the region’s countries and from the region’s countries to the US weakened most of the regimes’ legitimacy in the Middle East and increased role of the non-state actors in these regimes. Powers like Hamas and Hezbollah emerged as a result of failure of the secular and nationalist regimes, and in time replaced their governments.
In this context, Turkey thinks that changing Middle Eastern leaders, regimes, and borders by using force is not a solution. Certainly leaders and regimes in the Middle East don’t please Turkey either. However leaders, regimes, and borders are not the source of problems but their results. You cannot eliminate problems by only tackling their results. Politics is shaped on economic, cultural, and ideological ground. Middle Eastern countries have quality and quantity problems in their educational systems. Women’s participation in the labor force is very limited. If the one product-and one family-oriented economy continue to exist in many ME countries, changing of the regional politics will be difficult and fruitless. The region needs to be empowered by socio-economic change, but it may take time and money. There may be some people who claim the change will take a long time. Nonetheless, when we take into account the speed of globalization, transportation, and communication techniques (internet, satellite broadcasts, etc.) and the desperate need for a change, this would happen in the region. Besides, material sources needed for the change already exist in the region.
In this context, Turkey’s approach must be established on more regional integration, trade interaction, and a social and cultural relationship. Turkey’s soft power, of course with the Western allies’ support, is enough to transform the region’s closed regimes and integrate them into the world.
First the relationship with its neighbors must begin with the least problematic ones and only after it may be improved. Regional cooperation and integration must be defined as an ultimate goal. Turkey launched a successful cooperation with Syria and through this cooperation a significant change has seen in Syria. If Turkey initiates a strong and organized project it is not so difficult to reach the aforementioned goals.
The Main Elements of Turkey’s Soft Power
The first and foremost important element of Turkey’s soft power is that it is carrying the Ottoman inheritance in the region. The last developments proved that this inheritance, which was perceived by some Turks as a heavy burden until recently, may constitute an important piece for regional integration.
Second, the US scared not only its opponents but also its allies with its wrong policies and aggressive attitudes, and forced the region’s countries to cooperate. Thereby, the US unconsciously caused the countries to become closer. For instance, Turkey, Syria, and Iran have come together because of the US’ Iraq policies.
Moreover, since September 11, Turkey has proved to the Middle East that it is neither an agent nor a puppet country of the West in the region. Maybe the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s (TBMM) rejection of the US’ request to base US troops in Turkey for an assault on Iraq on March 1, 2003 damaged seriously Turkey- US relations, but empowered Turkey in the Middle East. With its independent policies and confessed agenda, Turkey proved to the countries that it doesn’t intend to harm them. Turkey is the most trusted country in the region, and it is known that what it says it implies the same. The common feature of some of the opponent countries in the region is that they trust Turkey and can have a dialogue with Turkey. In short, Turkish diplomacy constitutes one of its soft power elements.
The third important element of Turkish soft power is its economic power. Turkey is the biggest economy among Muslim countries in the world. While Turkey’s GDP was 930.9 billion in 2008, the GDP of Saudi Arabia was 600 billion dollar for the same period. However, Turkey reached these numbers without large oil and natural gas revenues; the Turkish economy has diverse industrial and service sectors. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, the economy is mainly (almost 80-90%) based on oil and related industries. Depending on mainly one product affects the quality of their economic development and prevents their democratization process. From this point of view, it is not so easy to find a similar economy to Turkey in the Middle East. Israel may be similar, but when flowing foreign aid and advantages of ethnic -religious sovereignty funds are decreased, one will see that its economy is not as strong and dynamic as Turkey’s. Turkey’s advantage here is that it has an import and export-based economy. In other words, more than politically, Turkey perceives its aim to increase cooperation with the Middle East as an economic need. Turkey has no escape route except to find new markets in the Middle East. Although security and wealth are also important in the region, stability is more important for Turkey.
Apart from imports and exports, Turkish businessmen’s adaptation to difficult conditions and their ability to invest in some places which many people hesitate to go, contribute to Turkey’s soft power in the region. Middle and large scale Turkish companies improved their practices and gained experience in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia and the Balkan countries. Recently, we see that Turkish entrepreneurs are spreading in the Middle East region as well. For example, Turkish entrepreneurs are good in the construction sector. (Construction of and running Cairo’s Airport project is only one example.)
Another element for Turkish soft power is tourism: many people from the Middle East have been visiting Turkey. For example, about a half million tourists come to Turkey from Iran annually. And it is very meaningful that even from Israel, which is relatively smaller country, almost half a million people are visiting Turkey each year. One may predict that in ten or fifteen years almost all of the Israeli population will visit Turkey.
Other soft power elements for Turkey are in media and culture fields. Turkish cultural products correspond to the needs of region. Turkish serial films have remarkable potential in particular, and the TV series Nour for example was in high demand throughout the region. Thanks to the Turkish cultural products many people in the region see Turkish way of life as a model.
In the past years, Turkish economical investments have also increased in the Middle East. From Turkey to the region and from region to Turkey, there has been an outburst in demographic, cultural, and economic relations, and political dialogue recovered. When the region’s needs, Turkey’s power, and its desire to contribute to the region are considered, it can be said that Turkey may play an important role in the Middle East.
Certainly, when we are talking about these circumstances we should not exaggerate the power of Turkey. We are aware of that Turkish power has also a limit. For the transformation of a region like the Middle East, Turkish efforts alone are not enough and it is not only under Turkish responsibility. The issues such as Iraq, Palestine, security of energy sources, terror, democratization of the Middle East, and stability in the region require the cooperation and support of all humanity. At that point, we want to say that Turkey has the potential to be a mediator country and deserves the support of the Western world. If its advantages are nourished by the US, Canada, the EU, and other willing countries, it is sure that Turkey will contribute to the world’s stability and security. In this context US-Turkey and EU-Turkey cooperation is of vital importance. Any development in the Turkey-EU process will also have a constructive contribution and, at the same time, set a successful example for the Christian West-Muslim East relationship, which will help to eliminate fanatic religious groups."
Can Turkey Integrate The Region?
Turkey with the help of the regional and non-regional partners can lead an integration process in the Middle East. Accepting the formidable security problems of the region, a step-by-step economic and social co-operation and integration approach may isolate the security problems and finally may allow a full regional integration. Turkey for that end first must build regional integration corridors starting from Turkey: The first integration corridor may include Turkey-Syria-Lebanon-Jordan-Egypt and may be called the North-South line. Certainly there must be an effort to expand the line to Israel and Palestine too. In the Egypt-Turkey corridor, communication, finance, and transportation lines such as electricity, internet, highways, and banking must be integrated. Firstly, all of the sectors must be brought together and after that they must be united. And furthermore the success of the corridor may even go beyond the Mediterranean to the Atlantic (Morocco) and constitute a broader integration project. Thus this line will expand production and transportation in these economies and decrease production costs. Rapprochement of Egypt and Syria will also contribute to solving the problem of radicalization and fragmentation of the Arab World.
The second important corridor to unite the region is the Turkey-Iran-Pakistan corridor. We may call it the West-East line. The total population of these three countries is about 300 million and when we consider the Turkey-Iran-Pakistan surroundings, it may be said that these countries have the capacity to affect many other countries. Cooperation in the Turkey-Iran-Pakistan line will also affect some countries such as Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq in a positive way.
The third Turkey-centered line in the integration of the region could be the Turkey-Iraq-Basra (Persian) Gulf line. From the north of Iraq to the south and from there to the Gulf countries there may be an integration and cooperation project.
The Middle East has a huge source of natural resources and financial power to fund an integration project. The common past, ethnic and religious similarities of the regional peoples are also advantages for integration policies. As a matter of fact that not the borders divide the Middle Eastern peoples but the politics. All the advantages of the region have been seen as disadvantages. Middle East needs more local communication and co-operation. In this process Turkey will play a key role, it is obvious. However that does not mean that Turkey has shifted its foreign policy from the West to the East. Turkey needs both of them at the same time. Without the East, Turkey cannot be successful in the West. Turkey has to change the Middle East, it has no alternative. Restoration of the region is a must for Turkish security and economic interests. Therefore the Middle Eastern peace, stability and co-operation are not a Turkish strategy, but a fate. If Iraq for instance is not secure, Turkey cannot be a secure country. That’s why Turkey has no secret agenda and it is maybe the most sincere Middle Eastern actor.
What is needed here is for the West to support Turkey, at least not hinder it. And other countries of the region must also take advantage of Turkey’s offer before they are overthrown by their own people or the West.
English edit by Kaitlin MacKenzie