ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey has emerged as a regional heavyweight, expanding its web of influence across the Arab world.
But as the old regional order crumbles beneath the tide of revolution, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is beginning to rethink its foreign policy – which in recent years has largely been to play nice with everyone – and take a bolder stance against authoritarian regimes.
“They’ve been trying to steer a realistic path through this maze,” said Hugh Pope, director of the Turkey-Cyprus project at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “But this is a real wake-up call for Turkey.”
Turkey has longstanding ties to governments now beset by unrest, ties that have been meticulously cultivated through its much-heralded "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Under that policy, it has pushed for greater economic and diplomatic integration with countries across the Middle East.
Before the uprising in Libya took hold, for instance, Turkey had sought stronger relations with its leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Turkish exports to Libya had reached $2 billion a year and 25,000 Turkish citizens were engaged in major construction projects there, mainly in cooperation with the Libyan government.
But after two months of violent clashes between Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi, in which as many as 30,000 people are thought to have been killed, Erdogan finally decided to pack it up. He closed the Turkish embassy in Tripoli – one of the last still open there – and called on Gaddafi to step down immediately.
“Muammar Gaddafi, instead of taking our suggestions into account, refraining from shedding blood or seeking for ways to maintain the territorial unity of Libya, chose blood, tears, oppression and attacks on his own people,” Erdogan said during a televised news conference last week.
It was Turkey’s first move against a former partner, but probably not its last, analysts said. Wrapped in Erdogan’s call for Gaddafi to step down appeared to be a message to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, as well.
“I find it necessary to repeat my warning to countries in the region,” he said. “Equality, justice and democracy are not the right of some countries but of every nation.”
Syria, a country with which Turkey had recently abolished visa requirements and held small-scale military exercises, has responded with brutal violence to an ever-growing protest movement, killing – by most estimates – hundreds of people.
“While he wasn’t speaking directly to Syria, he made it clear that Turkey’s support for al-Assad is not unconditional,” said Joshua Walker, a professor at the University of Richmond and expert on Turkey.
If Libya was a problem for Turkey’s foreign policy, Syria is a much bigger one. In many ways, Syria is Turkey’s gateway to the Arab world, and it’s a place the Turks have invested heavily in for years.
Images from Syria published in Turkish newspapers paint a brutal image of security forces shooting unarmed demonstrators. About 200 members of Assad’s Baath Party have resigned in protest and the violence looks unlikely to end anytime soon.
Unwilling to set themselves directly against Assad, the Turks have so far used the same strategy as they had with Gaddafi – a mix of private pressure and veiled public criticism. Last month the Turkish foreign minister visited Assad and the Turkish intelligence chief was dispatched to Damascus.
But with Syria so close to home – the countries share a border – Turkey has more to lose if things spiral out of control as they have in Libya.
A deeply sectarian country in which the Alawite minority controls all the levers of power in a Sunni majority country, things there could quickly turn much more dangerous than they already are. Trade between the two countries would all but end and tens of thousands of refugees could end up at Ankara’s doorstep.
Turkey has for the most part continued to hedge its bets, keeping a pulse on the sea changes going on around it and cautiously, some say too cautiously, measuring its response.
“They’ve put a lot of emphasis on the zero-problem policy, at the expense of its relationship with the West,” Pope said. “But, for some time, the Middle East is going to be less stable, less wealthy and less appealing.”
For years Erdogan championed Palestinians, confronting Israel and winning himself popularity on the Arab streets. But by ignoring the violence against civilians in cities across Libya for so long, and now in Syria as well, experts say the prime minister is at risk of losing the credibility he has so carefully crafted.
Until Erdogan’s decision last week to break diplomatically with Libya, Turkish flags were being burned on the streets of Benghazi, the center of the rebellion, and the country’s consulate was almost overrun.
“Turkey’s vision for the Middle East was predicated on cooperation with the status quo there,” wrote Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Turkish Daily Hurriyet, adding that “Ankara will have to establish new bridges now.”