The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Will the United States Entrust the Middle East to Turkey?

January 14, 2011

Diplomatic Successes for Ankara

Turkey’s recent diplomatic achievements demonstrate what momentum can do. The nation has been enjoying remarkable levels of success in all its diplomatic endeavors.

As the Ottoman Empire, Turkey once controlled large swaths of the Middle East. In those days, there were few nation-states in the Arab-speaking region and other parts of the Middle East. This was part of the reason why the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of the modern Turkish state, was able to exercise such power in the region. Recently, a number of developments strongly reminiscent of Turkey’s imperial past have been discernable throughout the Middle East. As the result of Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives, many nearby countries have reciprocally revoked visa requirements with that country, so that their own and Turkish citizens are free to come and go throughout the region as though they were in their own home countries.

This trend began in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and has since spread to encompass Syria, Libya, and Jordan. An agreement to abolish visa requirements has also been reached with Albania.

Naturally, the implications of these developments go beyond simple visa-free travel. In addition to the movement of people, shipments of goods and the activities of businesses are also now unfettered by national borders in the region.

Reaching Out to Neighbors

Turkey’s special relationship with Kurdish areas of Iraq was initially born of concerns about armed confrontation between the Sunni and Shia populations in Iraq and the Iraqi desire to use Turkish capital to carry out reconstruction work. This was also the wish of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslims, but the continued presence of the United States in Iraq has thus far prevented the plan from proceeding as smoothly as anticipated.

Reports from Japanese business people who travel regularly to Iraq, however, suggest that Turkish businesses are nonetheless flourishing in Baghdad. Sooner or later, it may well be that responsibility for rebuilding the country is passed from American to Turkish hands.

Likewise, Turkey’s relations with Syria were once poor as a result of Syria’s support for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a separatist movement calling for the independence of Turkey’s Kurdish population. But relations between the two countries have improved steadily since Syria essentially handed the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan (himself in fact not a Kurd but an Armenian), over to Turkish authorities.

This rapprochement was followed by disposal of the numerous landmines scattered between the two countries, and eventually by the introduction of visa-free travel. The area around the Syria-Turkey border has long been marked by extensive exchanges between the two peoples. Syrian cuisine is common in southern Turkey, and Arabic is also widely spoken. Many Turks also live along the Syrian side of the border.

Many Syrians have been enjoying traveling to Turkey for tourism and shopping since visa requirements were scrapped, and economic and development cooperation efforts are being promoted. From Syria’s perspective, Turkey’s water resources make it an important country, and it was Syria that stood to lose most had its relations with Turkey remained hostile.

In addition, Syria has been regarded in a hostile light by the United States and Israel, and has come under substantial economic, military, and diplomatic pressure. For Syria, therefore, improved relations with Turkey were essential for many reasons, not the least of which was the need to boost its relations with the West and ensure its national security.

An Alternative to Western Partners?

Libya, too, has improved its relations with Turkey dramatically in recent years. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Libya in late November 2009, when the two countries agreed to scrap visa requirements and signed off on a wide range of measures to strengthen their economic relations.

Libya promised to repay outstanding debts to Turkey and signed contracts with Turkish companies for major development projects. The proud Colonel Gaddafi is allegedly to have told Erdogan that “Istanbul has returned as our capital,” though whether he actually said this has not been substantiated.

Struggling to cope with the long-standing sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries, particularly Britain, Libya made wide-ranging compromises, and has begun to normalize its relations with Europe and the United States. This has included the payment of huge reparations to the families of those killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Once Libya began to normalize relations, Western businesses sought Libyan oil and gas drilling rights and competed for contracts on projects to rebuild the country’s aging infrastructure. A complete normalization of relations between Libya and the West has yet to materialize, however. Westerners have continued to allude to the past, which Libyans believe is an attempt to gain better terms.

As a result of these dealings with the West, Libya appears to have opted for Turkey as a partner it can more fully trust, even if its technology may not be as advanced as the West’s. Turkey has become a spokesman for the Islamic world as a whole, proudly voicing the discontent of Arab Muslims to the West.

For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos conference in January 2009, Erdogan launched a blistering attack on Israeli President Shimon Peres, describing Israel’s war in Gaza as “not humanitarian” and accusing Peres of ignoring what was happening there.

Turkey declined to participate in North Atlantic Treaty Organization military exercises scheduled for October 2009, objecting to Israel’s participation. This resulted in the cancellation of the exercises, a fact that was widely welcomed by governments and citizens in many parts of the Arab world. Turkey has also demonstrated its opposition to the Swiss referendum calling for a ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.

Jordan is another country that has followed Libya in improving relations with Turkey. Following a meeting in Ankara and a basic agreement reached during the visit to Jordan of Turkish President Abdullah Gül at the beginning of December, Turkey and Jordan have agreed to cooperate on a wide range of issues, including the economy and technology, and have agreed to abolish visa requirements.

Growing Economic and Diplomatic Clout

There will likely be advantages for each of the countries that have entered close relationships with Turkey, but the country that stands to benefit the most is Turkey itself. One aspect of the arrangements is that Turkey will invest money, resources, and technology to support its new partners, but even so, the advantages to Turkey will be even more significant.

At present, Turkey has acquired free access to Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Libya, enabling it to carry out economic activities in those countries. In addition, Turkey has also reached a bilateral no-visa agreement with Albania in Eastern Europe.

It is plausible that the Gulf countries and Tunisia will be next to exchange visa-free agreements with Turkey. The speed of progress cannot be ignored, and it is likely that other Arab countries will hurry to court Turkey’s favor and enter into similar agreements themselves.

It seems likely that in exchange for visa-free entry and the right to engage freely in trade, Turkey will cooperate with these countries in such areas as diplomacy, national security, economic and national development, education, and medical treatment.

Another important factor to bear in mind is that Turkey will henceforth supply water to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and the Gulf states. Water is a uniquely important resource for the Arab world, and it is remarkable that water resources have not been more important in the past.

Recently the Arab states have become acutely aware of the necessity of securing water resources. It would be no exaggeration to say that whoever controls water controls the Arab world.

The desalination of seawater is one option, but the costs involved remain high. Additionally, many elements are lost along with impurities at the purification stage, resulting in water that may not be healthy for humans. When it comes to drinking water, nothing beats natural freshwater. Israel is another country with a demand for Turkey’s water.

Building a Regional Energy Hub

In addition to water pipelines, Turkey has plans to extend its network of energy pipelines throughout the Middle East. An oil and gas pipeline already reaches from Azerbaijan via Georgia to the Turkish city of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean; a similar pipeline brings natural gas from Iran.

Turkey’s recent resolution of its century-long dispute with Armenia and the opening of diplomatic relations with that country is also related to its pipeline plans. Armenia demanded almost nothing in return when it agreed to hand back Nagorno-Karabakh, which it occupied during its war with Azerbaijan in 1991, suggesting that the agreement brought considerable benefits to Armenia as well.

The Iranian pipeline connects with Turkmenistan and will in the future bring natural gas from Russia and Central Asia to Turkey via Azerbaijan and Iran. The Iranian and Central Asian gas will then be distributed to Europe and Asia, as well as to countries en route including Syria, Jordan, and Israel.

Considered from this perspective, Turkey as a Middle Eastern country seems likely to become the region’s dominant presence in the future. What are the implications of this development for the West and for Israel, itself a Middle Eastern nation?

The West’s View of Turkey’s Rise

Turkey’s transformation into a major power in the Middle East represents an implicit threat to Israel, and Turkey’s growing influence in the Middle East and Central Asia may not be welcomed by the West or by Russia. Given this, we need to consider why the expansion of Turkish influence has gone unchecked. My guess, at this stage, is that the United States has begun to acknowledge Turkey as a leading nation in the Middle East and hopes to make use of it in those terms.

The United States currently faces three serious problems in the Middle East: Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Domestically, it is confronted by issues involving its declining economy, health insurance, and unemployment.

In this context, the United States may be able to create breathing space by delegating to Turkey responsibility for all but the top-priority issues. In that case, there is no obstacle to American encouragement and support for Turkey’s rise in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Although they may still harbor some reservations, Western countries currently find it more preferable to allow Turkey to shoulder a degree of responsibility in the Middle East and Central Asia. For Turkey, these circumstances represent an unrivalled opportunity.

So long as Turkey commits no blunders, it should eventually be able to secure major-power status in the region. While I do not wish to make sweeping statements about the rise and fall of great powers, it is possible that a major new power is emerging from the relative decline of the United States and Europe.

It is fair to conclude that Turkey is beginning unconsciously to learn from the administrative and economic systems of the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, not a single scholar, specialist, bureaucrat, or politician in Japan has noticed this development or shown the slightest concern. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has recently started to refer to the “Ottomans.” Is this not proof that Turkey is now consciously seeking to remake itself on the Ottoman model? (Translated from a report in Japanese published on December 17, 2009 )

    • Senior Fellow
    • Yoshiaki Sasaki
    • Yoshiaki Sasaki

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