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Walking the Tightrope: Turkey in the New Middle East

Enea Gjoza is a policy analyst specializing in foreign policy


and criminal justice. He is also an intelligence research
fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and a
writer for Young Voices.
The Arab Spring and subsequent events have dramatically rearranged the power dynamics of the Middle East. Formerly
stable nations like Syria and Libya have descended into nearanarchy, while others, like Iraq and Jordan, have been
significantly weakened by the rise of the Islamic State and
the flood of refugees fleeing conflicts in the region. Not all have been affected equally, however.
While most of their regional neighbors are still reeling from the aftermath of war and revolution,
the Turks have emerged almost entirely unscathed. This has left them in a position that is both
enviable and vulnerable as they navigate the geopolitics of the new Middle East.
The upheavals of the last few years have diminished the ability of many of the leading nations in
the region to project power outside their own borders. While Bashar al-Assad remains president
of Syria, much of the country is either contested or under the control of various rebel and
Islamist militias and the economy is utterly ruined after four years of war. Jordan, which has long
been a bulwark of stability, is finding its resources stretched to the breaking point as it tries to
absorb an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, or 20% of Jordan's population. Iraq's fragile
political framework has degraded considerably since the conquest of much of the north by ISIS,
and Iran is still the subject of strict sanctions and international isolation. Meanwhile, Egypt is in
the process of rebuilding its economy, confronting domestic Islamist insurgents, and promoting
stability and investor confidence, leaving little capacity for regional engagement.
In this environment, Turkey enjoys a number of advantages. With one of the most powerful
militaries in the world, membership in NATO, a strategic position between Europe and Asia, and
a fast growing population of over 70 million, Turkey possesses a level of security that has
escaped most of its neighbors. Despite the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the violence
has been almost entirely relegated to the other side of the border, and its contentious domestic
politics aside, Turkey has been able to maintain a relatively high measure of internal stability.
Much like Jordan, Turkey has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria, and
although this has strained the nation's resources, its much larger economy has so far been able to
handle the refugees without large negative spillover effects.
Another key contributor to Turkey's improved strategic position is the conflict between Russia
and the E.U., which has left the Turks in the enviable role of being an essential partner to both
sides. The South Stream pipeline, which Russia envisioned as a way to deliver gas to the
European market while bypassing Ukraine, was cancelled after the E.U. pressured Bulgaria to
block passage through its territory. It has been replaced by the proposed Turkish Stream, which
would run a pipeline underneath the Black Sea and through Turkish territory. Although
negotiations are still ongoing, Russia has already taken steps to signal its commitment to the new

plan, and the continuing hostility between Russia and the E.U. makes it highly likely that any
alternative gas route to Europe will run through Turkey.
This leaves Turkey in an ideal negotiating position. It will likely be able to secure a significant
discount for its own considerable energy needs from Russia (and in fact is already aggressively
negotiating for one), which is seeking access to the large and growing Turkish gas market as well
as an economically and politically viable alternative to the aborted South Stream route. The
proposed pipeline will not actually go through any E.U. states, so Europe will now have to
purchase its gas from Turkey. A similar project, the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline, which was
conceived as a way to connect Europe to Azerbaijan's gas fields and thus help it diversify away
from Russian gas, also runs through Turkey. This places Turkey squarely in the middle of
regional energy politics, and hands significant negotiating power to a state that has long been
denied entry into the euro zone.
In this favorable climate, Turkey has taken an active lead in the Middle East, operating in
alignment with its perceived interests and often in defiance of the United States and Europe.
Nowhere is this clearer than in its interactions with the Assad regime and ISIS. Since the early
days of the Syrian civil war, Turkey explicitly signaled its desire to see the regime fall, and took
several steps to bring this outcome about. These included providing training, weapons, and
shelter to the Free Syrian Army, as well as allowing the rebels to cross the Turkish border freely
to resupply their positions in Syria. Four years later, this policy has produced no tangible gains.
More alarmingly, the power vacuum in Syria has allowed numerous jihadist groups, of which the
Islamic State is the worst, to flourish.
Despite the apparent failure of this policy, and recent comments by Secretary of State John Kerry
hinting at a softening U.S. stance toward Assad, Turkey appears to have every intention of
staying the course. While neither an Islamist takeover nor anarchy across the border are
desirable, Prime Minister Erdogan's government has apparently concluded that some measure of
chaos advances Turkey's interests. ISIS and similar groups, while a potential problem in the long
term, do not present an existential threat to Turkey. However, their continued existence serves a
useful purpose, prolonging a grinding stalemate that keeps Assad from decisively winning the
conflict, while also keeping Iraq's Shiite-led government bogged down. Just as importantly, ISIS
serves to keep the Kurdish populations of both nations in check, preventing them from exploring
the potential for a unified Kurdish state on Turkey's doorstep.
Considerable evidence has emerged that ISIS has been receiving at least tacit support from
Turkey. According to documents obtained by Sky News, Turkey stamped the passports of ISIS
militants crossing the border to fight in Syria. Kurdish activists in the Syrian city of Kobani have
also reported ISIS suicide bombers attacking the town through the Turkish border. In an
interview with Newsweek, a former member of ISIS confirmed that he had witnessed extensive
cooperation between Islamist militants and Turkish security forces. While the militants were
apparently able to move freely across the border, Turkish Kurds were prevented from reinforcing
besieged Kurdish cities in Syria. Given Turkey's contentious history with its own Kurdish
minority, it appears the threat of an autonomous Kurdish state is considered much more severe
than any potential danger that ISIS poses. The Turkish government seems to have found the
radical group to be a useful multi-front counterweight to its regional rivals, simultaneously

undermining Syria, Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces in both nations, and by proxy,
Iran.
While Turkey is well served by the current state of affairs, and has benefitted considerably from
the conflicts currently playing out in Europe and the Middle East, this upward trajectory is not
without its risks. If there's anything to be learned from the region's experience in the past few
years, it's that even seemingly stable states can suffer massive upheaval. Turkey is not immune to
this phenomenon.
Syria in particular presents an intractable problem. The current equilibrium cannot persist forever
and none of the potential outcomes are especially appealing. One thing that now seems evident is
that the moderate rebels, who Turkey and the United States supported at the onset of the conflict,
have no chance of emerging victorious. A complete victory by Assad would leave the Turks with
a hostile neighbor who could be relied on to counterbalance Turkey's influence regionally.
Meanwhile, an outcome that balkanizes Syria would inevitably result in the creation of an
autonomous Kurdish entity on the Turkish border. This would set a dangerous precedent, creating
a permanent base of operations for an alienated ethnic group that has long sought a unified and
independent Kurdish nation.
Should ISIS or a similar group decisively win in Syria, the outcome would be a hotbed of radical
Islam uncomfortably close to home. While some officials in Turkey's conservative government
appear to sympathize with the Islamist group, their policy of tacit support could easily backfire.
Although ISIS is not a military threat to Turkey, it could create considerable problems through
terrorist attacks and insurgency style campaigns in Turkish territory, should it ever pursue that
path. The 500-mile-long border with Syria is porous, and the Turkish heartland of Anatolia
would provide a fertile base for recruiting extremists. Such a destabilizing influence would be
especially dangerous if current economic growth, the foundation of the ruling AKP party's
power, tapers off. The example of Pakistan is quite instructive here. The Pakistani security
services have long provided considerable assistance to the Afghan Taliban as a means of
wielding influence over their strategic neighbor. With Taliban offshoots now entrenched in both
countries, Pakistan finds itself locked in a battle with this problematic entity within its own
borders.
Iran presents another, perhaps more imminent complication to Turkey's regional ambitions. The
Islamic Republic appears close to a nuclear deal that would result in the lifting of international
sanctions currently in place. If that happens, it would regain the economic clout to more
effectively combat Turkish influence. Iran, already an ally and supporter of both the Assad
regime and Iraq's Shia-led government, would be able to significantly reinforce both in their
fight against Sunni Islamists when no longer faced with the crushing burden the sanctions
imposed. Most of the current conflicts in the Middle East are microcosms of the broader struggle
between Sunnis and Shias for regional dominance, with Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms leading
the charge on the Sunni side, and Iran serving as the patron of the Shiite bloc. Should Iran strike
a deal that both ends the prospect of a foreign attack and allows for an economic recovery, it
would significantly counteract the current dominance of the Sunni powers.

A coalescence of factors, including rapid economic growth, energy geopolitics, the chaotic
aftermath of the Arab Spring, and an activist foreign policy have made Turkey the pre-eminent
Muslim power in the Middle East. Despite the current strength of its position relative to its
neighbors however, Turkey walks a delicate tightrope. Having made a number of bold and risky
strategic choices to disrupt regional rivals, it could well face significant blowback should its
strategy backfire. If that happens, Turkey will not only have squandered many of the gains it has
achieved over the past decade, it will also leave behind a region that is more dangerous and more
unstable than even the current paradigm.
Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan
organization. All views expressed are the authors own.