The terms “Arab revolutions” and “dramatic events” have seemingly gone hand in hand in 2011, but one of the most dramatic developments of the year has been the course of non-Arab Turkey, under its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey has made its position known on some of the key Arab uprisings, such as Libya and Syria, and seen these positions change based on developments on the ground. Turkey provided a forceful voice of support for Syria’s President Bashar Assad, and an equally forceful voice of condemnation for its neighbor more recently.
As the United Nations prepares to deal with the request for recognition of a Palestinian state, Turkey has been at the forefront, demanding action. Meanwhile, Erdogan has harshly and publicly rebuked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, over the freedom flotilla massacre incident and the United Nations response to the killings.
Today, Erdogan is making a tour of the “Arab Spring” countries, in the most politically symbolic visit of its kind in the Arab world, in this year of change.
Turkey under Erdogan has seized center stage for several reasons. One obvious one is the lack of a unified and effective Arab role; this was true before the uprisings, as well as after, but with the region in flux, and the Palestine issue looming large, Erdogan has been able to capitalize on the developments to boost Turkey’s standing.
This standing isn’t a matter of prestige. Erdogan and his country’s officials are no doubt working hard to secure key commercial deals and arrangements in Arab countries, as they seek to rebuild and recover from the unrest of this year.
This economic clout will be added to Ankara’s political clout, as it benefits from the Arab world’s apprehension about Iran, another key regional player, and portrays itself as a leading Sunni state that can stand up to Tehran.
By offering to host radar installations (to defend against Iran) and predator drones (to defend against terror), Erdogan’s Turkey is reaping considerable benefits from a policy of realpolitik.
It’s also a policy that satisfies Saudi Arabia, which shares Turkey’s concern with Syria, and about Iran.
Ankara has changed its earlier strategy of promoting “zero conflict” with its neighbors to taking a stand and not being afraid to anger supposed allies, whether the ally in question is Syria, or Israel.
By standing up to Israel (and for the Palestinians), while standing up to Assad (and for the Syrians), Erdogan has tapped into wide sources of popular support. He hasn’t cut relations with Israel completely, and compromises might be worked out, but the policy has certainly stood out in a year of general Arab drift at the top.
Turkey will rely on these sources of new power to play its growing regional role, which might be the most striking development of the Arab Spring.