Alliances and rivalries in the Middle East have become liquid. The proliferation of regional conflicts and a more acute sense of regime vulnerability across the region explain why realignments are more frequent and countries are able to ally on one particular front and be at odds on another one. In the past, alliances shifted but were far more consistent. Making sense of Turkey realignments is paramount to understand both the geopolitical shifts in the MENA region and tensions in transatlantic relations.
The first element to be considered is that since the end of the Cold War Turkey has claimed its role as a regional power in the Middle East. Many may refer to 2011 as the critical year when Turkey, as a country, and then Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, as an individual, understood that the political shifts in the region were an opportunity to increase its political leverage and even to become some sort of regional leader. However, it is worth reminding that before 2011 Turkey already proved its willingness to play a part in reshaping the Middle East. It mediated between Syria and Israel in 2008 and took a firm stance against Israel following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (December 2008-January 2009).
The second key element is that Turkey has rescaled its ambitions and modified its alignments as a result of developments both in the region and in Turkey. In 2013, Turkey started to realise that its hopes to become a regional leader, one that would have accompanied and promoted change in the Middle East and North Africa, were deceived. Instead, Turkey started to face an increasingly adverse regional environment. The first setback was the toppling of a friendly government in Cairo in 2013. Since then Egypt-Turkey relations are at new a low. 2016 was another turning point. The fall of Aleppo, in Syria, and the coup attempt in Turkey, forced Ankara to reconsider its priorities and refocus the energies. Northern Syria became the number one priority and the goal was to break the Kurdish People’s Protection Units’ control of large parts of the border. In August 2016, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, just a few weeks after Erdogan had apologised for the downing of a Russian military jet, starting a process of normalisation of relations with Russia. The ups and downs in Turkey-Russian relations are, indeed, one of the best examples of the fluidity of alliances in the Middle East.
Something similar could be said when analysing recent oscillations in Turkey’s relations with both Iran and Iraq. The battle over Mosul, in Iraq, was a moment in which Turkey resorted to sectarian and irredentist rhetoric. However, few months after Ankara found itself cooperating with Baghdad and Tehran. Arguably, their mutual rejection of the secessionist referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan was an element that brought their positions closer.
In contrast to this fluidity, Turkey’s alignment with Qatar seems to be far more solid. Both countries were enthusiastic towards the 2011 protests and had similar positions when it came to the major conflicts that unfolded, mainly Syria and Libya. Both also opposed the change of regime in Egypt in 2013. Yet, the most important test was the boycott that four Arab countries imposed over Qatar in 2017. Turkey had to decide whether to stay neutral – as many other countries did – or take sides. It opted for the latter. Turkey’s aid, including the deployment of additional troops in the Turkish military base in Qatar, was seen as one of the most decisive elements of support that Qatar received. Unsurprisingly, this move worsened Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This became even more visible after the assassination of a Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul as Erdogan himself became very active in blaming Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle.
The third key development is that all this coincided with a severe crisis in confidence between Turkey and its Western allies. This is related to both diverging views on major regional issues but also to a perceived lack of solidarity when it comes to Turkey’s domestic challenges – ranging from the coup attempt to the deteriorating economic situation. Although this is particularly visible in the case of Turkey, this is part of a more general trend in the region. Countries in the Middle East do not only mistrust their enemies but their friends too and this is particularly true for countries that had traditionally relied on the support of the United States. The Obama administration was blamed for eroding its traditional alliances and US President Donald Trump has become an uncomfortable partner because of his erratic, impulsive and almost always controversial decisions and statements. Jerusalem and the Golan are the latest examples.
We shall assume that one-off events will continue to substantially modify threat perceptions in the Middle East and the ways to counter them. Both alliances and rivalries have become more liquid and, despite some solid engagements and priorities, Turkey will continue to play a major role in this regional game of constant and sudden realignments.