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Commentary | 23 October 2015

The Middle East Challenges: a Turkish perspective

Image of Özdem Sanberk

Özdem Sanberk |Former Ambassador to the United Kingdom; Former Under Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Middle East Turkey Global Security Task Force

The future of Turkey is inevitably linked to that of the Middle East. The countries of the region are not just neighbours, but also partners with which we have very strong historical and cultural ties. Turkey is deeply engaged in helping the countries of the region achieve stability. This is not about the false stability that comes with putting a dictator in power, but sustainable stability which rests on the will of the people and which works to bring prosperity, progress and freedom.

These are our aspirations, however the scene with which we are confronted today is tragically very different. In the Middle East we are living through a period of upheaval, while our ability to restore order among our neighbours to the south is diminishing.

The situation as it exists currently amounts to a meltdown. What is not clear is what will replace the old order. Turkey hopes that ISIS will not be a feature of this new order and we are working as part of a wider coalition to achieve this. It remains difficult to foresee what will happen to the states of Syria and Iraq, both of which are rent by sectarian and religious differences. Many of these problems have been blamed on the borders created by the Sykes-Picot division of the Ottoman Empire, but I am not convinced that this is justified. Syria and Iraq both have long histories as political entities, founded as they are on the Ottoman Vilayets or provinces, both of which had well-established identities. However, as long as ISIS is in existence – and some estimates suggest it could be a 20-year struggle to defeat it – we are not going to have stability in either country.

Then there is the question of Iran. The agreement between Iran, the United States, and the rest of the P5+1 is very welcome and must be made to work. Hopefully Iran will now begin to play a more constructive part in addressing the problems of the Middle East, not only combatting ISIS but moving towards the normalization of relations with the Gulf States in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. The undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran exacerbates Sunni/Shia tensions across the region, especially in Iraq and Syria. It makes it harder to reintegrate Iran into the international community, and of course casts a shadow over the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.

On top of that there is the ongoing question about the conduct of the US and Russia in the Middle East. The need to keep the region stable is an essential prerequisite for global stability,, however recent US policy has failed in this regard. The return of Russia to the Middle East is perhaps a response to this vacuum of power, or it may simply be intended to prop up an ally, President Assad, and rescue him from a defeat. Time will tell.

A further issue that links the conflicts in Iraq and Syria closely with Turkey is that of the Kurdish factions in the region. Turkey believes that the PKK shattered the chance for a peaceful domestic settlement, with the leadership encouraging a return to hostilities. It is because of this that I am confident the PKK will ultimately lose its influence in Turkey.

Furthermore, the Turkish government is not prepared to see break-away Kurdish cantons drifting towards de facto independence in Syria. Turkey is however prepared to live and work with the legal entities within existing borders such as the Kurdish regional authorities in Northern Iraq: Erbil has proved itself a close political and economic partner for Turkey.

Under the present circumstances we cannot know what kind of Middle East we will face in the years ahead. But we need to accept some difficult truths:

First, outside interventions and imposed military solutions might assist with some of the problems of Iraq and Syria, but as we have seen, they are highly risky and could exacerbate existing problems. We cannot impose an outside solution or pattern of behavior on the Middle East. Western interference, in particular the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, is now widely perceived both in the West and the Middle East as having started the slide into conflict and disorder we see today. This narrative has been especially stark and visible in Libya, where clumsy Western intervention created a vacuum which the Western World then found itself unable to fill. The US has now reduced its involvement in the Middle East and the EU is in no shape to replace it.

Second, many of the political “bricks” to build a new order for the region have increasingly ceased to exist. A number of states in the Arab world have crumbled or are increasingly beleaguered. A sense of ideological conflict and opposition against the Western or universal standards and values has grown just at a time when globalism prevails everywhere else. Radical Islamism has replaced Marxism, nationalism, liberalism and the Baathism as the dominant political ideology in the region. Violent obscurantism threatens to spill into Turkey (approximately 1,400 of our youngsters have joined ISIS already, representing a severe security threat should they return), and it has a gravitational pull across Europe, Central Asia, and even the United States. This is a challenge which we never expected to face and which we still do not fully understand. ,

Finally, the ongoing conflicts are destroying the basis of not just the states and institutions of the region, but also economic activity. This economic and political collapse has led first to horrendous human suffering and then to widespread movement of refugees that threatens international unity further afield.

The Russian military intervention in Syria further complicates the picture. Turkey is closely following Russian actions but views the recent air strikes with apprehension,. We hope that nothing will be done to escalate the conflict or lead to the division of the country, as this will make dialogue with the rest of the Western world impossible.

We welcome the diplomatic efforts to begin a constructive dialogue on Syria between the United States and Russia, but it is clear that Assad cannot be allowed to remain in power, even as premier of a rump-state. He is a leader who has waged a vicious war against his own people and they cannot be expected to entrust their country and their lives to him again.

Nor could Turkey ever live next to an ISIS entity for a prolonged period of time. Its crimes, cruelties and ideology make it a major national security threat to us. Furthermore, ample evidence confirms that it is complicit with Assad forces on the ground.

Given the complicated situation in the region and in Syria, any moves that boost the military presence in the country will cause alarm in Turkey. The way to rescue Syria, and deal with other challenges of the Middle East, has to be via a political solution.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.