Turkey’s Geopolitical Interests and Middle East Revolts

15:00 20.07.2011 • George Protopapas , Media Analyst, Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS), Athens, Greece



“Arab Spring” is dramatically shifting the regional balance of power in the Middle East and North Africa creating a new status of winners and losers. Arab uprising challenges Turkish foreign policy which is based on ‘’zero problems’’ policy with its neighbors. Turkey’s most significant challenge is to define its role in  “New Arab Order” as a regional soft power. Moreover Ankara is facing risks and dilemmas in an unstable neighborhood which extends from the Middle East to Mediterranean Sea.

Ankara’s statecraft could be analyzed by four parameters which expose vital strategies and useful conclusions: a. the consequences of Arab revolts on Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s doctrine of “zero problems” with neighbors, b. Ankara’s reactions to upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Syria, c. the Turkish moderate Islamic model, d. the redrawing of geopolitical alliances in the Middle East.

The regions of the Middle East and North Africa are great importance for the Turkish government.  In his victory post- elections speech prime- minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled his foreign policy for the  Muslim populations.  He selected to address as Mideastern leader stating “all friendly and brotherly nations from Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Sarajevo, Baku and Nicosia…The hopes of the victims and the oppressed have won,” and, “Beirut has won as much as İzmir. West Bank, Gaza, Ramallah, Jerusalem have won as much as Diyarbakır. The Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans have won, just as Turkey has won.”[1] Thus, “Arab Spring” enforces Turkey to review its foreign policy in order to adjust its orientation to the new geopolitical regional environment.   


“Zero problems” and challenges

The last years Turkish policy became increasingly friendly to the Middle East states enhanced Ankara’s relations with Syria, Iran and Libya.  The attitude of Turkish government was based on Davutoglu’s doctrine of “zero problems” with neighbors following a foreign policy often independent of the United States and hostile to Israel. Ankara aimed to build close relations with Arab leaders and Muslim states. According to Davutoglu, Turkey should focus on the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia, regions with common cultural and history links. Turkey is the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire and it could play a strategic role in order to become a Muslim regional power. [2] The main targets of Davutoglu’s foreign policy doctrine could be summarized by : [3]  a. the post- Cold world and Turkey’s changes, b. Turkey is at the center of a new order, c. Turkey has a unique strategic position as it is located on many different regions and basins, d. regional crisis could create preconditions for an effective Turkish diplomacy and e. Turkey’s great asset are its democracy.Thus freedom and security cannot be rivals.

According to Ahmet Davutoglu, “Turkey has a great deal of say in the international arena. More importantly, there is a critical group of countries that lends a careful ear to Turkey's stance on a myriad of regional and international issues. At this point, the world expects great things from Turkey, and we are fully aware of our responsibility to carry out a careful foreign policy”. [4]

However, Muslim revolts have been changing the geopolitical platform of the Middle East and North Africa and they have been unavoidably influencing the Turkish foreign policy. The doctrine of “zero problems” is challenged by regional instability and the demands by Muslim populations for democracy and human rights. The Turkish regional and international policy should be reconsidered by drastic transformation of Islamic nations such as Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia.[5] Thus, Ankara is compelled to reexamine old and new alliances, former friends and enemies. The majority of the Middle East’s states are governed by authoritarian regimes who are watching closely the revolts. Turkish’s foreign policy priority is “zero problems” with neighbors but that doctrine seems to mean no problems with authoritarian regimes rather than with states and populations.[6] The prime-minister Erdogan had not criticized the president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he had used violence against to opposition of “Green Movement”.


A “New” Egypt

The post – Mubarak’s  Egypt poses a challenges to Turkish’s foreign policy which aspires to play a vital role in the post- uprising Middle East. When the revolt started in Egypt against to Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Turkey initially stayed silent waiting for reactions of the international community.  When the president of the USA Barak Obama was getting ready to call Mubarak to step down, then Erdogan called Mubarak to abandon the power. Turkey and Egypt under the rule of Mubarak’s regime had been two antagonistic regional powers for influence in the Middle East. Mubarak concerned by Erdogan’s popularity on Arab populations, his strong criticism against Israel’s policies and Turkey’s increased profile as soft power.

Mubarak’s fall has created new diplomatic avenues for Ankara in the new political arena of Egypt. The rise of Muslim Brotherhood to Egypt’s political spectrum consists a unique opportunity for Ankara to exert influence. The Turkish Islamic ruling party Justice and Development  (AKP) could become a de facto protector of Muslim Brotherhood and a potential power-broker in new Egypt.[7]  Asharf Abdel Ghraffar, a leader of Muslim Brotherhood has praised Turley for its support to the demonstrators and he said that AKP could be a model for post-Mubarak Egypt.[8]

Ankara should engage drastically with the power’s transition in Cairo in spite of military’s leading role in transition process. The Muslim Brotherhood could win a large number of votes in Egypt’s elections and it could become a significant ally of Turkey’s ruling party and  its voice in Cairo.   According to Soner Cagaptay  “the AKP will defend the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally and strive to maximize its role in Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood will, in return, seek to provide its foreign policy vision, shared by the AKP, with leverage in Cairo”. [9]

Nevertheless, a post- Mubarak’s   Egypt hides risks and traps for Ankara foreign policy, if Egypt appears as the key Arab voice on pivotal political and security affairs in the Middle East. That political outcome would undermine Turkey’s emerging role as regional leader.[10] The military is leading the transition of process in Egypt and the government of Ankara has negative experiences by military’s interventions on political affairs. Ankara will find difficult to influence the future transitional governments  and to secure that they do not cross the democratic boundaries. [11]


The “game” of Libya

Turkey played a smart communicative game on Libya’s civil war in order to achieve geostrategic benefits in Mediterranean Sea.  The prime – minister Erdogan harshly reacted to the establishment of no –fly zones for the protections of rebels who fight against Colonel Muamar Qaddafi’s army.  Ankara finally gave its permission in return for the control of maritime territory between Crete and Libya and for the southern Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Greece.  The main aim of Ankara is to participate to the post-Qaddafi Libya oil sector and to exploit the reserve of hydrocarbons in southeastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey has managed to unify operational (using naval patrol) the maritime territory which is extended beyond its coasts and it is located under Greek island Kastelorizo/Megisti until Libya’s territorial sea; according to International Law the  maritime territory belongs to Greece.  

Turkey had actively developed close relations with Qaddafi’s regime before the crisis. Tens of thousands of Turkey’s workers lived in Libya and billion of dollars were invested by Turkish companies. The Islamic ruling party Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) initially aligned with Qadaffi because a fall of regime would destroy the Turkish national interests.  Finally Ankara’s government followed the US- western policies against to Libya and it fully changed its foreign policy. Ankara decided to abandon Qaddafi adjusting its policies to Libya’s new world order.

Ankara signed on NATO taking command and control of non fly zones and it has sent a numbers of ships to patrol Libya waters to enforce a U.N. arms embargo on Libya’s armament.  The prime-minister Erdogan issued a clear call on Muammar Qaddafi to leave power. Furthermore Ankara recognized the opposition rebel transition council as the country's legitimate representatives during a visit by foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to the rebel capital of Benghazi.  [12] At the same time Ankara officially withdrew its ambassador from Tripoli and offered $200 million in aid as part of a diplomatic shift away from Qaddafi’s regime.

The civil war of Libya offers an opportunity for the Turkish side to emerge once again as mediator and to forge a peaceful solution. Turkey’s   policy is based on two key features: a. it is the only muslin state in NATO and b. it has relations with nation of Africa and the Middle East.[13]  Ankara has tried to solve Libya’s civil war in the past and its last essential effort was a meeting in Constantinople on 15 July 2011 which was attended by officials from more twenty states, including foreign ministers of the USA, France and Britain. [14]  Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had proposed a ceasefire plan for Libya which included a seven-day implementation period before a political transition phase could begin. In early April, Ankara proposed a "roadmap" to end the conflict, urging an immediate ceasefire, the lifting of sieges by regime forces of rebel-held towns and the initiation of a "transformation process" that would lead to free elections.


A dangerous Syria

The uprising against regime of the Syrian president Bashar al Assad consists a real challenge for Turkish foreign policy. Syria was the most successful example of its “zero problems doctrine” and Ankara managed to transform the problematic relation with Damascus to strategic cooperation. The former enemy became one of the significant ally and Turkey invested economic and political capital to rapprochement with Assad’s regime. [15] 

Initially Ankara tried to persuade Assad to offer audacious reforms but the violence crackdown on demonstrators changed Turkish attitude. Activists claim that the security forces have killed more than 1.600 civilian from the beginning of the revolts in mid-March.[16]  The Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan   criticized Assad implying a significant reversal of Ankara’s policy.[17]

The instability in Syria is affecting Turkey which is made vulnerable and the confrontation between Assad and protesters seems to be in a stalemate with no sign of ending soon. [18]

The political unrest across the border could spill over into Turkey. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey to escape the ongoing crackdown on anti-government protests. A humanitarian crisis could aggravate the flow of refugees and it could compel many more Syria Kurds to cross the Turkish- Syrian borders.[19]

At the same time, Turkey worries that a potential break up of Syria would lead to a Kurdish uprising. Syria and Turkey have an uneasy Kurdish minority.  The destabilization of Syria gives a powerful impetus to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as it preserves close ties with Syria’s Kurdish minority. For many years president Assad has managed to control his Kurdish minority with an iron fist.  In addition Turkey closely watches the political developments in Iraq, especially in Kurdish Northern Iraq. The creation of an independent Great Kurdistan threatens to a large extent the Turkish national security.  The political stability and territorial integrity of Iraq are an essential priority of Turkish foreign policy. Furthermore the cooperation between Ankara and Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is crucial because it determines the effectiveness of Turkish actions against PKK. An unstable Iraq would provoke the establishment of an independent Northern Iraq, a nightmare scenario for Ankara.  Thus Kurdish aspirations for the creation of Great Kurdistan would be reality and the borders of Middle East would be reshaped by winners and losers.  Turkey would be one of big losers if Kurdish revolution expands to the entire region. The dissolution of the Turkish state will start and southeastern Kurdish regions will be absorbed by new state of Great Kurdistan. The scenario of Kurdish revolutions could be used by external centers of power, if Ankara continues to preserve strong bilateral relations with Iranian regime and Muslims movements of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

However Turkey now is threatened by Syria uprising.  If the protests escalate and Assad continue to kill demonstrators Syria state institutions could collapse and a civil war between Sunnis and minority of Alawites would start to sink  the country into chaos.[20]


Moderate Islamic model

Arab revolts reveal the long-standing democratic deficit and the needs of peoples for radical changes. Turkey’s moderate political Islam is studied by scholars as a model for the countries with undergo transition and reforms. The Turkish model is characterized by two important pillars:[21] the first pillar is a bottom – up connection with Islam as opposite to a top –down and revolutionary Islamic interpretation and, the second pillar is based on special relation with economy. 

At the same time, the political movements and groups in the Middle East and North Africa have competing views on what the Turkish model means:[22] 

The authoritarian secular elites realize Turkey as an exemplar which is characterized by controlled modernization under military tutelage and integration of Islamic actors into the political system. The group argues that the Middle Eastern people are not yet mature to adopt immediately democracy and military must lead the transitional period.

The main Islamist movements consider Turkey transformation under Justice and Development Party (AKP) as an example of democratic country. That group believes that AKP came to power through democratic electoral process and it managed to combine a successful reconciliation of Islam with democracy, rule of law and economic development. The Islamic movements realise Turkey as an independent and prominent actor because it have criticized Israel.

The peoples in the streets are inspired by Turkey’s moderate Islam and they want a similar model for their countries. The democratic transformation, liberal political life and economic development are the attractive elements of Turkey’s political Islam. However the military tutelage has been provoking negative sentiments to the peoples who want to expunge injustices and poverty in their countries. 

According some analysts, the Turkish model has their own unique features which could not apply to the movements and streets of the Middle East.  Hugh Pope argues that “   in fact, this Turkish model doesn’t fit into any regional or ideological bloc. Erdoğan’s  government has pro-Islamic factions, for instance, but it is by no means Islamist. Indeed, Turkey’s key achievement has been a rough-and-ready balance between authoritarianism, militarism, statism, religious fundamentalism and nationalism -- all dynamics from which it suffered for decades, and which still plague the Middle East”. [23] In parallel   B. Duran and N. Yilmaz argue that “Turkey, because of its unique political culture, cannot be a model for the Islamist movements of the region. Turkish political vocabulary does not provide for such concepts as shura or sharia to advance an "Islamist" political agenda, as promoted by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Turkey would not stand out as an appropriate model for many Muslims who would be unable to reconcile pseudo-democratic practices with their expectations from a democratic regime”.[24]

The Middle East could not easily copy the Turkish model due to different political culture and social background.  According to H.J. Barkery “Islam in Turkey has always been far more moderate than many Middle Eastern countries and under the strictly control by the state”[25]. On the other had the Turkish political system must implement serious reforms if it wants to approach the western democratic standards. Turkey is a country “where a media group suffers exorbitant tax fines after criticizing the prime minister, where the prime minister and not couples decide how many children they’re going to have, where the prime minister and not the free market knows who’s going to build a new petrochemical complex, and where deep socioeconomic injustices still prevail, will have serious trouble appealing to other Middle Eastern countries for the simple reason that those countries already have all that”. [26]


Geopolitical challenges

The Muslim revolts are affecting the existing geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East.  The outcome of Syria’s uprising could be proved a key factor for the future of entire region. The competition between Iran and Turkey for influence on Damascus could create preconditions for the redrawing of existing alliances.  The balance of power could be defined by the following three factors:

The rift between Turkey and Syria, because of Bashar Assad’s violence reaction against to demonstrators.  Ankara has criticized Assad and a hostile Turkish foreign policy could end the role of Syria as a strategic ally of Iran and it could drastically affect the developments in the Middle East. [27] According the international Press Turkey has agreed that NATO can use its airbase for ground operations into Syria. Ankara has already created its own military bases close to the common border with Syria. [28]

The common interests of Washington and Ankara. The uneasy relations between Syria and Turkey are considered the most important concern for Washington and Ankara.  A hot incident in Turkish –Syrian borders could provoke a military conflict which would change the geopolitical status quo of the Middle East.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that “U.S. saw the situation as volatile and very worrisome”.[29]

The prospect of Israel and Ankara to restore their relations after the incident on Mavi Marmara ship which was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza (May 2010). Israeli defense officials have said they are considering apologizing to Turkey in order to revive trade and to win lucrative defense contracts and to prevent possible lawsuits by Turkish state against Israeli commandos.[30]

Veteran Israeli scholars and strategists find similarities between the current Syrian situation and the situation in the early 1960s.  Syria was part of the United Arab Republic of Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Egyptian-Syrian union threatened Israel, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. With American help Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia worked clandestinely to remove Syria from Egypt. Thus, on Sept. 28, 1961, Syria again became an independent political state. The attitude of Syria’s regime has created a similar situation with one important difference: Iran has replaced Egypt and instead of Saudi Arabia - which is preoccupied with its own reforms,

Qatar and Turkey cooperate to detach Syria from Iran. [31]



The revolts in Arab world hampered Turkey’s “zero problems policy” with its neighbors. According to Semih Idiz columnist of daily Milliyet “zero problems policy have been overtaken by events”. [32] Turkey finds itself in a difficult position because of its selective policy to the uprisings. Turkey’s reputation suffered by anti-turkish sentiments and demonstrations in Benghazi when Ankara initially rejected the idea to support the rebels.

Turkey wants to become a regional power and a bridge between West and East in order to promote its geopolitical interests in the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean Sea.  Thus Turkey should avoid acting with double standard policy in Middle East and North Africa.   On the one hand, Erdogan called Mubarak to leave and he welcome Tunisia’s move for democracy and on the other hand Erdogan has never criticised the president of Iran M. Ahmadinejad for rigging elections.

Turkish long – terms interests in the Middle East and North Africa should adjust to the current regional changes and take account of countries’ specificities. Turkish affiliations with Muslim countries are an advantage for Ankara foreign policy.  The stability of the region is considered by Turkish policy-makers as a precondition for the achievements of geopolitical aspirations. Syria uprising is a direct threat for the Turkish domestic and international interests. It is great importance for Ankara to solve the crisis and to eradicate the need for a foreign intervention against Syria. Turkey knows that a separation of the country or a civil war consist a danger for its territorial integrity. [33]

Finally, Turkey is trying to exploit its moderate Islamic model and the successful political capital of ruling party Justice and Development (AKP). The prime minister Erdogan promotes the profile of an Islamist leader who could bridge the gap between the West and East. However the Middle East cannot easily copy the Turkish model because there are many differences on historical, political and social level.

[1] Barcin Yinac, “PM Poses as a Mideastern rather than a European Leader”, Hurriyet Daily News, 13 June 2011, (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=pm-poses-as-a-mideastern-rather-than-a-european-leader-2011-06-13)

[2] Joshua W. Walker, “Learning strategic depth: implications of Turkey's new foreign policy doctrine” Journal Insight Turkey / July 2007, (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7057/is_3_9/ai_n28498505/)


[3] Sami Kohen,  “Davutoğlu doctrine in foreign policy”, Hurriyet Daily News, 6 January 2010, (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=davutoglu-doctrine-in-foreign-policy-2010-01-06)

[4] Axmet Davutoglu, “Turkey’s Zero Problems Foreign Policy”, Foreign Policy, May 2010

[5] Raghida Dergham “The Arab Spring Reshuffles Turkey's Cards”, Huffington Post, 15/5/11, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raghida-dergham/turkey-erdogan_b_862131.html )

[6] Henri J. Barkey, “Turkey and Arab Spring”, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 26 April 2011 (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/2011/04/26/turkey-and-arab-spring/2S3)

[7] Soner Cagaptay, “Arab revolts make Turkey a regional power”, Hurriyet Daily News, February 16, 2011, (http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=arab-revolt-makes-turkey-a-regional-power-2011-02-16)

[8] See ibid.

[9] See ibid.

[10] Ruth Hanau Santini – Emiliano Alessandri, “Iran and Turkey after Egypt: Time for Regional Re-alignments?”, Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.

[11] See ibid.

[12] “Turkey recognises Libyan rebels, pledges support”, SETimes 07/06/11,


[13] “Turkey hopes to help bring peaceful future to Libya”, VOA News, 15/07/11,


[14] See ibid.

[15] Joshua W. Walker, “Syria is Turkey's Litmus Test in the New Middle East”, World Politics Review, 10 May 2011 (http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/8781/syria-is-turkeys-litmus-test-in-the-new-middle-east)

[16] “Death toll rises to 12 in new anti-gov't protests in Syria”, Xinhuanet, 15/07/2011 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2011-07/16/c_13988273.htm)

[17] “Syria poses challenge to Turkey's 'good-neighbourly' policy”, International Business Times, 13/06/2011 (http://m.ibtimes.com/syria-turkey-refugees-turnaround-diplomacy-middle-east-politics-erdogan-assad-refugees-161857.html)

[18]Vali Nasr, “Unrest in Syria Tests Turkey’s Role as Regional Power”, Bloomberg, 13July 2011,  (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2011-07-13/unrest-in-syria-tests-turkey-s-role-as-regional-power-vali-nasr.html )

[19] See ibid.

[20] See ibid.

[21] Alper Y.Dede, “The Arab Uprisings: Debating the Turkish Model”, Insight Turkey Vol. 13/No 2/ 2011, p.27

[22] B. Duran – N. Yilmaz, “Whose Model? Which Turkey?” Foreign Policy, February 8, 2011,


[23] Hugh Pope, “The ‘Turkish Model’ and the Middle East”, International Crisis Group, 13 May 2011,


[24] See op. cit B. Duran – N. Yilmaz

[25] See op.cit. Henri J. Barkey

[26] Barın Kayaoğlu, “Can Turkey Serve as a Model for the Middle East and North Africa?” 24/02/2011 (http://www.barinkayaoglu.com/2011/02/24/can-turkey-serve-as-a-model-for-the-middle-east-and-north-africa/ ) 

[27] N.Ali Ozcan, “Turkey – Syria – Iran triangle is being redrawn”, Hurriyet Daily News, 22/06/2011.


[28] “Turkey to take in NATO Ground Forces”, Pakistan Defence, 30/06/2011,

 (http://www.defence.pk/forums/turkey-defence/117707-turkey-take-nato-ground-forces.html )

[29] “Syria-Turkey Border Clash: Clinton Calls Situation Very,Worrisome”. Huffington Post, 23/06/2011



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