Turkey's foreign policy ambitions now in tatters
The year 2016 will perhaps go down in Turkish political history as the year in which the Turkish government under the direction of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally got the measure of itself in the international arena.
In an unsurprising turn of events considering Turkey's rapprochement with Russia last month, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was reported as announcing that, just as Turkey had mended bridges with Russia and Israel in the past month, he was "sure [Turkey] will normalise relations with Syria as well".
This can only be described as calamitous for the people of the Middle East, many of whom had hoped that Turkey would act as the standard bearer leading the region's people to a freer, more prosperous future.
A return to the "zero problems" with neighbours policy
With this signal that Turkey is considering ways to return to the pre-2011 status quo with the Syrian regime of the increasingly emboldened Bashar al-Assad, we can argue that Ankara has finally realised that its aspirations for the region must be constrained and shaped by the will and ambitions of more powerful rivals, with Russia and Iran on one axis, and the United States and Israel on another.
Although it is highly unlikely that the Erdogans and Assads will ever holiday together again, on a diplomatic, economic and military-strategic level, Turkey has indicated that it is willing to consider a future that includes Assad despite the ruling AKP's attempts to douse the flames ignited by Yildirim's statement.
|Turkey made a valiant, though arguably vain, attempt to create a new regional order with Ankara at its head
Since the eruption of the Arab Spring that toppled several Arab dictators in Africa and the Arabian Gulf and threatened to upend the regimes of many others in the mashriq, or the Arab-Orient, Erdogan believed that he could realise his dream of reasserting Turkish leadership and hegemony over the Middle East by backing the revolutionaries. His reasoning was not without merit, as the revolutionaries had been successful - at that time, anyway - in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
However, Erdogan now feels that he backed the wrong horse as, while revolutions can seem successful in the initial stages of euphoria, counter-revolutionary forces almost immediately begin to push back. In the case of the Arab Spring, the counter-revolution was successful in cowing the people with terrorism - state or non-state in origin - in all but Tunisia.
At the same time, regional players such as Iran support the regimes that served their interests, such as in Syria, while fomenting unrest in countries it opposes, as in Bahrain. The chaos that resulted in these regional and international countervailing forces, created a situation that was far beyond Turkey's ability to control and mould.
Turkey made a valiant, though arguably vain, attempt to create a new regional order with Ankara at its head. They broke away from their "zero problems" foreign policy devised by arguably Turkey's most successful diplomat, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, and took sides in domestic political conflicts that they thought would be a rapid, foregone conclusion that would leave governments grateful to Ankara in power.
However, the only rapid element of the outcome was the speed with which democracy in Egypt was overthrown by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the smothering of the Arab Spring in its cradle.
|The Syrian revolution could well collapse should Turkey decide its interests and stability are best served by abandoning its Arab Spring calculus
Davutoglu's original foreign policy is arguably unfeasible, particularly now that he is out of the picture. Also, the strategic context has changed since the "zero problems" policy was last viable. Turkey attempted to gain the support of the region by standing against Israeli aggression in Gaza, and to stare down Russia - Assad's most powerful ally - by shooting down her warplanes.
Erdogan found his government the subject of not only Russian sanctions, but suffered the abandonment of his supposed NATO allies who clearly suggested that Ankara would be on its own in a war against Moscow.
The future of Turkish influence
In the above context, Turkey has undoubtedly lost face, and has been forced to swallow a bitter pill of increased terrorism within its own borders. It now suffers a savaged economy and tourism sector, and an increased global perception that Turkey is a much smaller power than it first let on. Meanwhile, the moderate Syrian revolutionaries who have made Turkey their home and base of operations since 2011 will now be wondering what the future holds for them.
Erdogan is unlikely to turn over the Syrian opposition to Assad, and has instead suggested plans to grant Turkish citizenship to many refugees. Regardless of Turkey's laudable hosting of millions of Syrian refugees, the Syrian revolutionaries will see any Turkish move to normalise relations with the Assad regime as not only a capitulation, but a betrayal.
The Syrian revolution could well collapse should Turkey decide its interests and stability are best served by abandoning its Arab Spring calculus.
Even domestically, there are signs of discontent as the Turkish state-backed aid agency, IHH, expressed anger at the normalisation of ties with Israel. In response, Erdogan blamed IHH for sailing the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza without his permission, an action that led to the deaths of 10 Turkish citizens, and tried to claim that his conciliation with Israel was in the benefit of Palestinians.
|Turkey has not only pivoted from what seemed like key foreign policy objectives, but it has pirouetted away like the whirling dervishes the country is famed for
This claim is unlikely to sit well with many who believed Erdogan to be something akin to the next Saladin, the Muslim hero who liberated Jerusalem in the 12th century, especially as he indicated that he would deploy Turkish warships to escort the next aid ship.
Turkish influence has undoubtedly weakened as a result of the painful political and economic blows it has suffered since 2011. Turkey has not only pivoted from what seemed like key foreign policy objectives, but it has pirouetted away like the whirling dervishes the country is famed for.
Turkey's international standing has now suffered, and any future speeches by Erdogan conveying strength will now inevitably be viewed in light of the diplomacy and concessions of the past month.
Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues". Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.