Dr. Wael Shadid
Strategist & Researcher
27th Jan 2017
Published in: academia.edu
Turkey Prospective Geostrategy towards the Middle East
Turkey finds itself involved in the geostrategic events in the Middle East whether it is willing to or not. Historically, the Ottoman Empire was controlling most of what is now called the Middle Eastern countries. Geographically, it occupies a strategic position between Europe and Asia. It is the ceiling of the Arab countries from the north, and its coasts are extended from the black sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Moreover, it has long boarders with instable countries including Syria and Iraq, where both witness chaos and very complex internal situations; this chaos affects Turkey directly. On the other hand, it has boarders with Iran who is an active geostrategic player in the region trying to gain strategic interests by intervention and imposing itself as part of the formulated geostrategy in the Middle East. Turkey has no option but to involve itself in the geostrategic formula for its own strategic interests, to secure its boarders, and to prevent any escalated development towards the Turkish internal. Within the strategic dynamics in the region, Turkey is a promising geostrategic player who is well qualified to play a geostrategic role in the region.
This paper, utilizing descriptive and analytical approach, sheds the light on the geostrategic context in the Middle East, the international and regional players, and suggests features for a Turkish prospective geostrategic initiative towards the Middle East.
The Middle East encompasses the Arab Countries, Turkey, and Iran. This part of the world is witnessing turbulence, complexity, and very high dynamism. The Middle East Arab countries are under substantial revolutionary changes due to the Arab Spring and the anti-revolutions against it. Instability, uncertainty, chaos, and disorder are labels applied on the Arab countries that witnessed the Arab Spring such as Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq before that. In addition, there is the Palestinian issue that is the symbol of the Arab-Israel conflict. Moreover, some extremist Islamic organizations have been formed in this chaos such as ISIS that emerged as not only a local but also an international monster. This monster is the pretext that recalled USA and its alliances and Russia again to the region in order to put an end for ISIS expansion.
Turkey is surrounded from south and east by Syria, Iraq, and Iran; however, both namely Syria and Iraq are instable and are in a huge turmoil. Syria witnesses a complex internal conflict where the regime is supported by Russia, and Iran and its Shiite militants. Whereas, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have their influence on some parts of the opposition. The USA intervenes in the Syrian conflict by considering Israel’s strategic interests and supporting the Kurds. Russia intervened in 2015 under fighting ISIS and terrorism as well. Turkey has interests that are opposes the Iranian one; while the United States has different concerns than the Russians. The Syrian problem reflects the conflict between the external actors more than reflecting the conflict between the internal players.
On the other hand, the situation in Iraq is also another complexity reflecting the conflict between Shiites supported by Iran, Kurds supported by the USA, and Sunnis without any external support. However, the Sunnis are not supported or backed externally as the Kurds and Shiites are. They suffer from internal disputes, and they are not able to fit themselves in a strategic position that reflects their real size. Whilst, the Sunnis are the true owner of the resistance against the occupation where they ultimately sacrificed and paid the price.
The Shiites reached their maximum power through ruling Iraq by the vast support of Iran and the consent of the USA. They have mobilized all their resources and capitalized all their potential. In fact, they have reached their ceiling which remains less than what is wanted to control all Iraq, and their maximum potential is not enough to govern Iraq even with the Iranian full support. Eventually, they failed to rule Iraq in a balanced way due to many reasons including their sectarian perspective, lack of experience, depending on numerous Shiite militants, the obsession of revenge from others, and the absence of the national soul to unify Iraq. On the other hand, Kurds’ perspective is dedicated towards gaining more independence to creating their state. They utilize the Iraqi complexity to gain more benefits for themselves. Such situation may push Kurds to be involved in future conflicts with many actors such as Arabs, Turkmen, Shiites, and Iran.
Regarding the main historical conflict of the Middle East, which is the Palestinian question, Turkey’s stand has developed, in terms of shifting its stand towards the pro-Palestinian side; consequently, towards the Muslim nation’s hope. This contemporary stand has positioned Turkey in the heart of the Muslim Nation’s (Ummah) expectations and hopes regarding the liberation of Al Aqsa mosque, and the occupied Palestine. Accordingly, the popularity of Turkey and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan is rapidly increasing between Arabs and the Muslim nation as well. On the other side, the Palestinian people and their resistance has showed a solid and rugged attitude in facing the occupation brutal wars launched against them by Israel- especially in Gaza. This unprecedented and continuous Palestinian persistence through more than 70 years forms a concrete base for any geostrategic move; in other words, they form a winning bet for any serious geostrategic maneuver by Turkey.
There are many possible geostrategic players in the Middle East region including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Egypt is living in turmoil after the coup and still instable; accordingly, Egypt is no more able to be an effective geostrategic player until this moment. On contrast, Saudi Arabia does not demonstrate any clear strategy in the area; instead, Saudi Arabia took aside against the “Political Islam”. In the past and until this moment Saudi Arabia refrains from supporting the Sunnis in Iraq while Iran does support the Shiites apparently. Also, Saudi Arabia does not show clear support for the Palestinian resistance; instead Saudi sided with the president Mahmoud Abbas who is seeking negotiation without any clear results. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia does not show any serious independent strategy regarding the Syrian problem whereas Iran supports the Syrian regime with all its capabilities. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia role on ground as an influential geostrategic player is limited.
Although Erdogan with his party were able to overcome the troubles that undermined the internal stability, Turkey is under an enormous test regarding its internal stability after the failure of the military coup. Turkey was conservative with its actions in the geostrategic space due to the lack of internal stability, lack of geostrategic vision in this complex environment, and because Turkey is still in a transformational stage. Therefore, Turkey leaders focused on the internal issues and stability more than the external events. However, after the failure of the military coup, the Turkish leaders realized that is impossible not to intervene in the external complex events mainly in Syria and Iraq. Taking an impartial stand will convey the problems inside Turkey, which is not immune from the external impacts. It is obvious that Syrian Kurds supported by the USA is going to establish a Kurdish state or zone southern of Turkey causing a huge panic for its geostrategic position; especially, in such complex external events occurring in the Middle East.
In fact, the most active geostrategic player in the region is Iran, which has a long history in intervening in the area since the days of Shah who played the role of a USA deputy policeman in the Gulf area. Iran considered Bahrain as part of it and invaded the three Islands of UAE (United Arab Emirates). The sense of expansion re-developed in Iran after the Islamic revolution when it tried to export it to other Islamic countries. The fever of expansion is back again under the term of “protecting the Iranian strategic interests”. Iran did not stop at this limit but exceeded to support Shiite parties in Lebanon and Iraq who became its arms in deploying its strategy and interests in the region. Moreover, it succeeded in penetrating Iraq after Sadam Husain and became the main director in the internal events inside Iraq. The situation in Iraq is exactly as Iran wants; a weak Iraq under Shiite government with poor Sunnis roles. It was able to exploit this situation in Iraq largely in order to fulfill its strategic interests in the area; at the same time, was able to achieve a significant penetration in Lebanon through Hezbollah. However, Iran intervenes in Syria directly by sending groups of its revolutionary guards to participate in the fighting against the opposition, and by pushing its arms from Shiite militants such as Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghani Shiite militants to fight directly in Syria. In fact, Iran tries to impose its strategic interests by defending the Syrian regime that is used as an excuse to maintain its interests in the region. In Yemen, Iran supports Hothies, as well, to prove and deepen its interests in that area. It exploits the state of instability and turbulence in attempt to expand its interests, prove its power, and widen its influence in the region. Consequently, Iran is seen as the regional most active player in the region.
The Middle East countries are in the heart of the geostrategic interests of the United States, Europe, Russia, and China.The Middle East lies in a distinguished strategic position and contains the most rich energy resources such as oil, gas, and green power in terms of wind and solar. Eyes are on the region all the time; and external stakeholders will not stop intervening in the area for different motives and goals. The Middle East countries are located in the stability belt of the United States and Europe (stability belt is the zone surrounding Russia and Eastern Europe). These countries control important navy lanes and air corridors; and separate Russia from the warm waters. In addition, there is the Arab-Israeli conflict that is influencing all the internal geopolitics of most the Middle Eastern countries, and influencing the external geostrategic moves in the region, too. Accordingly, the area is always under focus not only by the great powers, but also by the emerging powers as well such as China. Furthermore, there are many serious internal geopolitical problems in the Middle East countries including the absence of democracy, dialogue, tolerance, art of dispute, sectarian divisions national political problems, forced ideology, lack of common grounds in the same country, not accepting others’ opinion, exclusion and marginalization, misperceptions, evoking and calling to minds historical confrontations. These serious geopolitical problems generate difficult geostrategic issues and crisis, which leads to complicated strategic confrontations. Such geostrategic confrontations create easy access for international intervention in the region under the need of protection to achieve strategic equilibrium with other opponents.
The great powers have a variety of accesses to intervene in the geopolitics and the geostrategy of the Middle East countries. The access of protection- against other regional powers such as the case of some Arabian Gulf states who seek the United States protection against expected Iranian intervention in their countries. Another one is the access of possessing weapons to reaching a strategic equilibrium with other opponents in the area; that opens the doors widely for foreign geostrategic and geopolitical involvements. The economical access and the technological access to help in extracting the natural resources and developing the countries pave the way for these interferences as well where sovereignty principles are compromised. Exporting the Islamic revolution by Iran in 1979 to other Islamic countries has dramatically damaged the relations with Arabs. It also, activated the “access of protection” where some countries sought the USA’s protection against this move, and pushed themselves far away towards intensifying their security alliances with Washington. Another example for the protection access is the Russian role in Syria under the excuse of protecting the regime against terrorism; Russia now is in the heart of the complexity in the Middle East. However, Russia put itself in the Middle East map by force to share the United States in shaping the geostrategy of the region. However, the weak economy in Europe under the current economic crisis since 2008 contributes to reduce the capability of Europe to be very powerful in imposing its drive and desire upon the area as it used to be.
In this complex and turbulent external environment, Turkey can’t stand impartially without geostrategic moves. Even if it is willing to detach itself, the complicated events will end-up striking Turkey continuously; however, Turkey definitely has serious concerns in this dilemma.
One of the main concerns is the Iraqi Issue, which was the first to occur. Iraq as one of the most important countries in the region suffers an endless turmoil since 1990 up till now. The situation there is escalading and evolving towards complexity day after day. The American occupation, the demographic fragments, the internal disputes, the international and the regional interventions are complicating the Iraqi scene. Iraq’s complexity and ambiguity create an impact on many Turkey’s subjects such as the external policy, internal elements, the Kurds issue and economic relations. Turkey needs to gain enough information to manage the Iraqi issue consequences, and to avoid using massive force in solving problems resulting from Iraq. There are many fears including fears from dragging Turkey into the Iraqi vortex, worries from being distracted by crisis management approaches rather than real deep solutions, fears from Iranian exploitation of the Iraqi components to be deployed against Turkey, and concerns regarding the Kurds in the Iraqi side from utilizing PKK problem.
The second major concern originated from Syria in the form of the substantial number of Syrian refugees in Turkey accompanied by social, economic, and political negative consequences. The most emerging issue nowadays is the recent development where it supports the free Syrian Army to control nearby areas instead of Syrian Kurds groups who aim to form a Kurdish free area south of Turkey. Also, the hostility that is confirmed between the old Syrian regime and the Turkish government which may lead to hostile actions from the Syrian regime inside Turkey, or utilizing some of the Alawies sect inside Turkey in disturbing the internal peace and security. Conversely, Iran tries to impose certain circumstances to serve its strategic goals inside Syria causing negative outcomes on the Turkish strategy in the future. Moreover, Russia has the long hands in Syria causing serious impact on Turkey’s external strategy and its geostrategic position. In addition, the Syrian problem and its fallouts is being used by the USA to fulfill some of their interests inside Turkey putting more pressure on Turkey.
The third important concern is the Palestinian problem and the Israeli inflexibility. In fact, this concern is apparent because the leaders of the governing party consider it a religious duty to stand for Al-Aqsa issue and backing the deserted and helpless people in Palestine. The Israeli stubbornness led to the killings of many Turkish on the board of humanitarian aid ship, which led to a serious political dispute between Turkey and Israel. Therefore, this continuous conflict in Palestine affects the Turkish strategy as well, and will have its shadow on the external Turkish politics.
The changing process in the region is not separated from the surroundings and no doubt that the neighboring countries are being influenced directly. In the mid of this complexity, Turkey finds itself engaged not because it is willing to be involved but because involving is imposed on it due to its Geographic position, international requirements, humanitarian responsibilities, and Islamic duties. Turkey has no choice but to be involved in this regional geostrategic formulation since the outcomes of this external turbulence will be negatively projected onto the Turkish internal social and political components. Not only this, but it will find itself circled by other countries’ geostrategic interests causing Turkish strategic interests to be eroded accordingly.
Although Turkey hoped for zero external problems at the beginning but reality imposed huge external events, which makes Turkey facing a very complicated geostrategic situation that necessitates a quick adaptation and defining of its geostrategic position. Otherwise Turkey risks drifting down to an oblivion if it remains adopting a status queue strategy. From astrategic point of view, maintaining the status queue in a complex environment will empower the competition force and the strategic regression force to push the entity down towards the point of no return.
On the other hand, the other competitor, Iran, has lunged impulsively in the area to maintain its strategic interests to the extent where it became difficult to develop an understanding with it to calm the region, and it will be difficult to stop the Iranian interests’ expansion from affecting Turkey externally and internally. Specifically, it is clear now that the Iranian interests are opposing the Turkish interests in the region, not only in Iraq but also in Syria. The Iranian lunging is another motivation for Turkey to be part of the geostrategic formula in the region rather than being an observer.
Although Iran is one of the main players, it suffers from the complexity not only in Iraq and Syria but also in the region as a whole. It involved itself in Iraq largely, and then it involved itself in Syria, and in Yemen that indicates that Iran is sinking now in three black holes. Iran, at the same time, is suffering from economic sanctions, and spending a lot on its nuclear and missile projects, which badly consumes its national income. Thus, sinking in black holes accompanied by economic sanctions indicates that it is not easy to carry out four heavy burdens together: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the nuclear program. Accordingly, Iran is prone to a paramount of difficulties in its geostrategy plan under these conditions or it is going to pay a very heavy price to sustain its interests, which will seriously threat its internal economic, social, and political situation.
In addition to the abovementioned concerns, there is the Russian interests in the region, which emerged in September 2015. In fact, Russia did not intervene in Syria to enhance the Russian local political status; neither had it intervened for economic gains. Russia intervenes heavily in Syria for geostrategic purposes. It wants to replace the American disengagement in the region to return its legacy and to utilize it in the Ukraine problem. Accordingly, Russia now is an active factor affecting Turkey’s external strategic position.
From Turkey’s perspective, many serious concerns can be depicted including: the echo of Syrian internal confrontation on it, problems created by the Syrian regime against Turkey, Syrian refugees’ consequences, Iraqi turmoil impact, and Israel exploitation of the turbulence in the region. In addition, the USA negative role, the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds issue, the existence of Russia in Syria and its alliance with Iran, the sectorial trend of Iran in the region, the PKK problem, and the consequences of the military coup. Consequently, the engagement in the geostrategic environment might be imperative to protect Turkey from external interventions, hinder external dangers expansion, and reserve its interests in the region.
Such trend necessitates that Turkey has to own geostrategic powers and tools first before conducting any serious engagement. In the middle of this complexity and in spite of the well-known threats and obstacles, many opportunities emerge which can be utilized by Turkey to form its prospective geostrategy. Regional and international players are not sure about their next step giving the opportunity for Turkey to find out its way in depicting its strategy. All games, maneuvers, alliances, and intentions are known and open; nothing is concealed so the game is easy to understand. The complexity conditions in terms of unpredictability and uncertainty apply to all actors so all are equal under this term. Dramatic changes are expected which will affect all actors but the least affected actor will be the one more prepared. As Iran has arms operating on ground, Turkey can form alliances in the area in order to have arms that can operate on ground as well. Its stand towards the Palestinian issue has created a considerable popular support within the Arabs and Islamic countries. A nucleus of political alliance, which includes Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other local active actors, can be developed.
Turkey can develop a geostrategic initiative towards the Middle East instead of adopting the status queue to avoid negative impacts on it. This initiative will approve Turkey as a main player in the region instead of leaving the playground for others to impose their strategies and interests. In addition, filling the regional strategic vacuum will prevent other regional players from intervening alone in the area or affecting the Turkish interests. Moreover, the geostrategic initiative assists in achieving equilibrium in the political regional relationships, Opening new political cooperation with new expected entities and governments, allowing to performing and practicing an ethical role, and supporting the Sunnis majority to redeem their solid role in the regional stability and peace.
Since there is a serious strategic vacuum in the region, Turkey has to have major portion of it; otherwise, this vacuum will be totally filled in by other players. This vacuum does not only attract the supreme foreign powers, but also the emerging powers in the region such as Iran and China. USA under Obama era was in retroversion stage towards the Middle East depending mostly on its alliances in performing its interests and policies in the region. Accordingly, the Turkish geostrategic role is well recognized by the USA and Europe, especially, there is a limit to the United States power and ability to overcome future geostrategic changes in other regions. However, changing the geostrategic map requires a comprehension of the geostrategic situation, defining the needs of the supreme powers, and recognizing the regional abilities and limitations. At the same time, Turkey has plausible economic potentials, natural resources, and represents one of the Islamic pillar groups (Arabs, Turks, and Persians). Thus, Turkey is well qualified to go a step towards adopting a serious and logical geostrategic initiative.
The Arabs, who are the weakest in the geostrategic context, are required to do the same. But the problem with the Arabs is that they do not have one single representative as others which leaves them without unity, making them vulnerable, and easy to be manipulated by external powers. In contrast, the Arab nation in most Arab countries are facing a severe changing process in their countries in what is called the “Anti-revolutions” against the “Arab spring”, and they have paid and are still paying a very high costly price to achieve the change. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in this tough process. This situation has put more pressure on Turkey to lead the geostrategic changes in the region until the Arab nation (the prospective alliance to Turkey) recovers from the consequences of this severe changing process.
In advancing toward the prospective geostrategic initiative, some determinants regarding Turkey should be noted including (but not limited to) the internal stability in terms of the social cohesion, the decent economic situation, and the political stability. Of course, stability does not mean zero problems but it means that problems are to the minimal and there is a reasonable coherent internal base. Also, the process of geostrategic changes requires support from the Turkish public, and requires developing a positive local geopolitical factors with a clear vision in order to take the next leap towards the regional strategy. The focus on the internal priorities should be continuous to maintain the internal prosperity alive all the time. In addition, Turkey does not want to be distracted by crisis management approaches in any neighboring country and ignoring the root causes and real deep solutions.On ground, Turkey can utilize from many external components to formulate and design its geostrategy such as:
- The Sunnis in Iraq who are the weakest part in Iraq but they represent a corner stone in Iraq, where no permanent solution can stand without their consent.
- The Kurds in North Iraq who are aiming to establish the Kurdish State but at the same time willing to have good relations with Turkey despite the existence of PKK party.
- The moderate Islamic movement, which is a main player in the Arab world and had won many elections as in Tunis, Egypt, and Morocco.
- The reputation of Erdogan who has large popularity not only in the Arab world but in the Islamic nation as well can establish to public alliances.
- Most of Syrian opposition spectrum that proved their ability to stand and challenge the Syrian regime.
- Many of the Muslim scholars who represent the religious entities.
The suggested geostrategic initiative is needed for Turkey to reach the point of geostrategic equilibrium with the regional players. After reaching this point of equilibrium, common regional understanding can be developed in order to avoid geostrategic confrontation and to fairly exploit the strategic opportunities. Then, reaching the stage of geostrategic interests’ integration management where regional actors can manage their geostrategic interests and needs. Finally, the regional actors can reach another point of equilibrium, but this equilibrium will be with the international actors to be able to develop geostrategic regional initiatives.
Although it is a very complex situation in a very complicated area, Turkey accompanied by its prospective alliances, can play an important role in forming this geostrategic move. Taking into consideration while implementing the strategic approach, the outputs might not be proportional to the inputs due to the non-linearity type of the complex situation; therefore, Turkey has to be ready for quick adaptation to any developments to face the complex situations in a flexible style not a rigid one.
The current era in Middle East witnesses serious geopolitical changes due to the Arab spring and its waves in the region, Iran sectarian involvement, Russia serious intervention, and USA disengagement. This dynamic situation reflects serious geostrategic changes on Turkey specifically.The Middle East region is facing a complex and turbulent environment where supreme powers intervene not only in the geopolitics of each country, but also in the geostrategy of the region as a whole. However, the United States power has a limit that they cannot go beyond which opens the doors to propose geostrategic initiatives at the regional level.
Turkey has achieved good economical levels and thriving to be politically stable. It is well qualified with its prospective alliances to be a major geostrategic player and to propose a strategic imitative to maintain its strategic interests, and lead the region towards equilibrium. However, Turkey has to adopt a new well-developed and well-calculated geostrategy in the region to secure its strategic interests, its boarders, and to be part of any new geostrategic formula.