As Turkey’s economy boomed in the early 2000s, it gradually sought to reassert itself as a regional power in the Middle East.
A decade and a half later, though, a roundabout journey full of dramatic twists and turns has left it in basically the same position — isolated from the Middle Eastern partners with whom it pursued stronger ties, said Soner Cagaptay, an expert on Turkish foreign policy and nationalism, during Emory University’s annual Turkish Lecture Series.
In the ongoing Syrian civil war, a multitude of local players — Islamic State, Kurdish militias, Iran-backed militias and Russian forces backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — have one thing in common: their enmity with Turkey.
This is not for lack of effort on Turkey’s part. The country experienced an economic “revolution” under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected prime minister in 2002, leading the country for more than 12 years in that capacity before consolidating power as the country’s first directly elected president in 2014.
Early in his rein, with inflation finally under control and a semblance of political stability, Turkey took off, becoming a darling of emerging-market investors. Incomes rose dramatically, with a majority-poor country quickly becoming one where most people were classified as middle-income, said Dr. Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Turks used to live like the Syrians; now they live like the Spanish,” he said.
That was in part thanks to robust demand for Turkish agricultural products and manufactured goods in nearby markets. Turkish construction companies, too, spread their wings in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asian states within its historical Ottoman sphere of influence.
A diplomatic charm offensive followed as embassies opened around the world, connected back to the country’s commercial heart, Istanbul, and the capital, Ankara, by Turkish Airlines, the country’s most recognizable brand and now the carrier that flies to more nations than any other.
Turkey, a NATO member since the 1950s, had been a reliable Western ally and had renewed its push for EU membership 1987, starting official accession talks in 2005.
Those later stalled as the successor republic to the Ottoman Empire eventually decided under Mr. Erdogan that it could re-establish more regional credibility by looking east and southward.
The plan worked early, as cultural exports like Turkish soap operas made regional inroads, but it soon ran aground on Middle Eastern geopolitics. In a tough neighborhood, such “soft power” initiatives would only go so far, Dr. Cagaptay said.
This became clear after the Assad regime cracked down on the rebels in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts in the region.
Mr. Erdogan, whose family had reportedly even vacationed with the Assads in the preceding years, sent his foreign minister at the time, Ahmet Davutoğlu, to urge restraint in his response. Hours after Mr. Davutoğlu left Damascus, Assad sent the tanks in.
That was no coincidence, said Dr. Cagaptay. Mr. Assad’s message? “We don’t care what you think,” Dr. Cagaptay said.
Turkey had failed to understand what players like Iran did: The currency in the Middle East was hard power, “the ability to blow stuff up.”
Meanwhile, another historical bogeyman had reared its head again. Russia in 2014 invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, just across the Black Sea from Turkey, and had begun to assert itself more heavily in Syria.
“(Russia) is the only neighbor that Turkey truly fears, and there is a reason for that,” Dr. Cagaptay said, delving deep into regional history.
Since the 1480s, the Turks had fought the Russians in 15 campaigns and lost each time. Not wanting history to repeat itself, Turkey shot down a Russian plane in November 2015, and the Russians responded with increased cyber attacks and military moves that amounted to encircling Turkey. Russia also started to arm Kurds of the PYD faction in Syria to fight the Islamic State. The PYD is an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group Turkey considers a terrorist organization. The once-close relationship between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Mr. Erdogan deteriorated.
When coup plotters attempted to oust Mr. Erdogan in July, however, they both saw an opportunity for rapprochement. Mr. Putin was the first world leader to call and offer sympathies for the more than 200 people killed and Russia’s backing for the legitimate leadership of Turkey.
Of course, all this was before reports emerged Dec. 19 that Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was shot and killed by a lone gunman at an art gallery in Ankara.
For its post-coup outreach, the U.S. sent Vice President Joe Biden, who Dr. Cagaptay said was the perfect emissary for the situation. But Turkey has clashed with the U.S.over human rights in the wake of Mr. Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown on tens of thousands of alleged plotters he says are tied to a network associated with Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey says he leads a terrorist network and has asked the U.S. to extradite him to face charges.
“This was as close as you can get to Turkey’s 9/11,” Dr. Cagaptay said, noting that the parliament building in Ankara was bombed as the Turkish military’s own fighter jets flew low over Istanbul, prompting fears of invasion.
All this means that Turkey finds itself in a more stable place with Russia, even as it looks back toward Washington as a safety net, likely to forge a “transactional but solid relationship.” Its efforts to become a Middle Eastern power have stalled.
From a foreign-policy perspective, in essence it’s right back where it started in the late 1990s — just much more wealthy.