At the height of Turkish foreign policy's seemingly liberal era, when discourses like "zero problems with neighbors" and Turkey’s soft power were popular, pro-AKP writers were also boasting that its policy had moved from being realist and security-oriented to being liberal and focused on problem solving. Eventually, Turkish foreign policy started to go through a Europeanization process. With the start of the EU accession negotiations in 2005, and due to harmonization law packages, the anchor of the EU played a transformative role in Turkey’s state structure and had an impact on its foreign policy. Especially critical at that time was the curbing of the military’s role and influence in the making of foreign and security policy.
The Europeanization of Turkish politics has already become a forgotten concept, and in hindsight, it is now clear that the AKP was merely toying with the idea of democratization: it was not a genuine endeavor. Rather, it served the purpose of image- building, cementing an alliance with the liberals, and breaking the obstinacy of the statist anti-AKP sections within the state apparatus. In this way, Europeanization was the most short-lived policy orientation in the history of the country. When Ahmet Davoğlu assumed the position of foreign minister, Turkey’s pivot to the Middle East gained new momentum — momentum that reached new heights even after he was forced to step down from his position.
In this ever-growing Middle Easternization of Turkish policy, the Erdoğan government has made Turkey a party to all conflicts in the broader Middle East. Turkey has sided with Qatar in the Gulf, is part of the conflict in Syria, supports Hamas on the Palestinian issue, the Sunni sections in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Sarraj government in Libya.
Turkey hosts opposition figures on its soil, provides financial, military aid, and training to warring factions, sets up military installations and directly engages in conflicts. It should be noted that none of its involvement in regional disputes brought any kind of benefit for Turkey, and the country had to devote energy to these ongoing conflicts, most of which have no end in sight. Turkey remains one of the only protectors of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Middle East. Besides, with each additional involvement, Turkey makes new adversaries, even enemies. Strangely enough, Turkey’s new rivals in the realm of foreign policy are figures such as Mohammad Dahlan, Mohammad bin Zaid, Mohammad bin Salman, and Khalifa Haftir. Those names were unknown not only for ordinary people but also for attentive followers of the events in the region. Turkey’s president openly targets some of those figures internationally, and the pro-AKP media holds them responsible for the troubles in Turkey and in the Middle East.
The Middle East occupies a central place in Turkey’s foreign policy; all its discourses, themes, and agendas have long been defined by the developments in the region. The AKP government has tied Turkey ideologically, culturally, militarily and politically to the region.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate and the suspicious death of the former British agent James Le Mersier, both in Istanbul, are also cases in point. These two high-profile incidents highlighted the geographical imaginary of Istanbul and accentuated its growing Middle Eastern character.
Turkey’s over-engagement in the Middle East does not help it balance its ties with the West. Initially, the idea was that an influential Turkey in the Middle East could have been a valuable ally of the West, and eventually it could have played a constructive role in bridging this region with Europe. However, Ankara’s involvement in the region has turned out to be a mess, and instead of playing a positive role, Turkey has been grappling with the consequences of its deep involvement in the region.
What’s more, each involvement has brought broader engagement in the geographical sense of the term. Turkey’s involvement in Libya forced Ankara to ask for Tunisia’s permission to use its territory for military purposes because the relatively small area controlled by the Tripoli government carries the potential risk for attacks. A military incursion in Syria necessitated other military operations. Protection of the Afrin area requires the military presence in the Idlib area, and so on. This has drawn Turkey into a spiral of political and military engagements stretching across Qatar, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
In fact, Turkey’s involvement in these conflicts, disagreements and problems in the Middle East cost it sympathy both at the political and popular levels. For instance, Egypt is no longer secure for Turkish citizens. Once hailed as a soft power and model, Turkey is now regarded as a country that interferes in the domestic affairs of regional countries, uses its military extensively and in an expansionist way to achieve its strategic aims, and the Gulf countries, with the exception of Qatar, have an overly negative perception of Turkey. While Saudi Arabia set up ties with the PYD in Syria, a first-time event in which the Saudis develop a tie with the Kurds, the Arab League condemned Turkey’s military incursions in Syria and criticized Turkey’s decision to send military personnel to Libya.
With Turkey’s ties with the West having become problematic, and its relations, image and position degraded internationally, what Turkey needed was to have stable relations with the Middle East. Middle Eastern issues have come to play a central role in Turkey’s relations with the EU and the U.S.
With an authoritarian regime, growing efforts at the Islamization of the education system, the rise of religious brotherhoods and their expanding infiltration into the government offices, and a foreign policy that almost solely focused on Middle Eastern problems and intra-Arab conflicts, Turkey has now turned into a Middle Eastern country from a country that was trying to democratize itself domestically and pursue EU membership only a decade ago.
Even if a new government comes to power, under current circumstances, a dissociation from Middle East-oriented politics may be both very difficult and very costly.