Last year Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East was largely determined the constraints of the Syrian problem. Despite this Turkey managed to increase its influence in the Middle East by creating a strategic relationship with Egypt. Meanwhile it is now virtually essential that Turkey increase its foreign policy involvement in Africa in order to protect its interests.
Confronting the new geo-strategic environment created by the regional, continent-wide, and general international off-shoots of the Arab Spring turned out to be a heavy test for Turkish foreign policy in 2012. Despite all the difficulties involved, countries like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen made progress towards democracy, but events in Afghanistan, Syria, and Mali meant that these countries became focal points forcing the creation of new balances between regional and international powers.
As for the countries which were not affected by the Arab Spring, they are currently experiencing serious anxiety about how they should preserve their stability. In the midst of all these tremors, Turkish diplomacy undertook active initiatives, sometimes to protect national security as it happened in Syria and sometimes –as in Somalia—in order to undertake humanitarian and political tasks. In some situations, Turkey supported Tunisia and Egypt in a bid to take up ts rightful place on the geo-strategic map of the South Mediterranean.
Turkey and Egypt: A newly created axis
Because of the troubles in Syria, Turkey opted to develop its relations with Egypt as part of its search for new allies in the Middle East to protect its interests. The clearest illustration of this new relationship is the flow of visits by senior government officials in both directions between the two countries and the economic and strategic agreements signed as a result of them. Indeed the work done by the two countries to protect their national security does not just define the relations between them; it has an undeniable impact on the whole of the Middle East.
Despite the fact that it was overshadowed by the Arab Spring last year, the most important topic on which Cairo and Ankara reached agreement last year was the Palestinian problem. It is the reason why the question of giving Palestine Observer State status was brought back onto the agenda at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly which followed the Israeli attack on Gaza in November. Nor should one overlook the fact that the alliance of Turkey and Egypt carried out its mediation task without any objections from either the U.S. or Israel. The attack on Gaza was of course aimed at bringing to an end in the long term the activities of Hamas and other armed organisations. All the actors involved are aware that Egypt was preoccupied with its domestic problems at the time and could not follow developments outside the country, Israel included. Because of this, the Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi was in Israeli eyes the person who most wanted Hamas to obey the cease-fire. The USA is currently planning to scale down its responsibilities in the Middle East and redirect towards the Asia-Pacific region.So, because of its awareness that its relations with Egypt may deteriorate in the future, the USA is doing its best to secure an improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Hopes in Egypt and Tunisia
When the countries of the Arab Spring are told that Turkey is a model for them, the majority of their people tend to focus on military-civilian and secular-conservativerelations and are inclined to overlook political and economic changes in Turkey and the liberalisation movement that began with the acceptance of the Copenhagen Criteria. There is a section of the population in Arab countries which, for justifiable historical reasons, tends to view ideas of European origin with suspicion. These groups pretend not to have seen the intellectual and social changes which have taken place inside Europe and which directly concern the future of the continent. There are now some European analysts of the opinion that, as the economic crisis, and more especially the centre of international competition, shifts to the Asia-Pacific region, their future can be protected by ensuring stability in the South Mediterranean.
After the economic agreements which Turkey has signed with Egypt and Tunisia, there seems also to have been a desire to add a further Europe-related dimension to these relations. So in October a three-party project was launched in Istanbul, called “International Bridges”. Its aim is to secure strategic agreements between more than a thousand European companies and their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey.
Turkey and Africa
Ankara continues to support the political process in Somalia. Mr Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey Foreign Minister, has had the honour of being the first foreign guest ever to address the Somali Parliament. As far as humanitarian aspects are concerned, Turkish institutions and organisations are continuing to send aid to Somalia. The Somali Chief of General Staff visited Ankara last September, and with the visit military and security relations between the two countries have begun to grow in importance.
At the same time, it is also abundantly clear that the fact that Turkey’s position in regional affairs is steadily growing strongerhas made certain powers anxious. There are also some tribal leaders and “war chieftains” who object to Turkey having such a role. A glance at the history of Somalia shows that the situation there has to do with the interaction of regional and national short-comings and that a struggle over its security can be discerned coming over the horizon. It may be recalled in this context that an armed attack was carried out in October against Mr Mustafa El Haşimi, Africa Chief of TIKA [the Turkish International Aid Organisation] in the town of Galkayo in central Somalia and details of it have never been made public. Then there is the fact that a Turkish petroleum company made an investment of $1 billion in Somaliland, and that some officials in the region have interpreted this as support for the Somaliland declaration of independence. Another section of opinion in Mogadishu believes that the investment was aimed at detaching that region from the other Somali territories.
Then there is Algeria. There was a silent crisis there over the Syrian problem and an announcement by the Turkish ambassador supporting the Islamists in the Algerian Parliamentary elections. The crisis was obviously chiefly about the desire to strengthen bilateral economic relations, most importantly over petrol. That is because that the implementation of the embargo against Iran has caused Turkey to lose an important source of its petroleum imports.
Talk of the point now reached in Turkish-Algerian relations takes us on to the greatest crisis in Africa, the one which began with armed groups taking control of northern Mali. This crisis could trigger demands for independence in southern Algeria. During a recent visit to Algeria, Turkey’s foreign minister that he would take this issue up and would visit Mali.
Preserving the unity of Mali and finding a political solution to the problem are important to Ankara. However against this, the decision of the West African Economic Community to send in 3,000 soldiers to liberate northern Mali from armed groups—a decision taken under pressure from France—is another negative scenario to be confronted. One may wonder whether Turkey is really prepared to pay the price of creating tensions in its relations with Nigeria, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast.
So Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East last year in general developed within the constraints of the Syrian problem. Despite this Turkey extended its influence in the Middle East and created a strategic relationship with Egypt. It is now virtually essential for Turkey to enhance the effectiveness of its foreign policy in Africa in order to protect its interests. This is because the crises now under way in the Arab countries have the potential to affect its newly acquired interests there in both the short and the long term. It is worth noticing the remark of a Russian arms dealer made in South Africa: “My country will come here to stay for the long term.”
*Fuad Ferhavi is a researcher at USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. The original version of this piece was published in Turkish ANALIST Journal on January 2013.