Turkey Rediscovers the Middle East

Courtesy Reuters


While the recent wrangling in Turkey between the generals and the Islamists has drawn attention to Turkey's domestic policies, a significant shift in the country's foreign policy has gone largely unnoticed: after decades of passivity, Turkey is now emerging as an important diplomatic actor in the Middle East. Over the past few years, Ankara has established close ties with Iran and Syria, with which it had tense relations during the 1980s and 1990s; adopted a more active approach toward the Palestinians' grievances; and improved relations with the Arab world more broadly.

This new activism is an important departure from recent Turkish foreign policy. One of the basic principles espoused by Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk), the founder of the modern Turkish republic, was that Turkey should limit its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, and except for a brief period in the 1950s, Ankara largely stuck to it.

Turkey's recent focus on the Middle East, however, does not mean that Turkey is about to turn its back on the West. Nor is the shift evidence of the "creeping Islamization" of Turkish foreign policy, as some critics claim. Turkey's new activism is a response to structural changes in its security environment since the end of the Cold War. And, if managed properly, it could be an opportunity for Washington and its Western allies to use Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East.


During the Cold War, the main threats to Turkish security came almost exclusively from the Soviet Union. Today, Turkey faces a much more diverse set of challenges: growing Kurdish separatism, sectarian violence in Iraq that could spill over, the rise of Iran, and the fragmentation of Lebanon, partly at the hands of radical groups with close ties to Syria and Iran. Since most of these come from Turkey's southern periphery and the wider Middle East, Turkey has understandably begun to focus more attention on the region.

At the same time, Turkey's ties

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