Can Turkey become a regional leader in the Middle East?
In order to answer this question, one has to answer another question first: Which Middle East?
There isn’t one Middle East. There are different countries with different political, cultural and historical orientations. Cultural context becomes the most defining variable when the Middle East is in case. For an instance, will Iranians ever adjust their foreign policy parallel to that of Turkey? The answer is much close to “never”. Since the very existence of the regime in Iran is based on a cultural core which defines Turkey as the “relevant other”.
So when we ask “Which Middle East”; we can surely answer that not Iran, not Israel and not Saudi Arabia. Here, I will briefly explain why these three countries are not fertile grounds for an active Turkish foreign policy.
In February 1946, George F. Kennan, then at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, sent a wide-ranging report analyzing Soviet policy. In this report, recommended “restraining and confining” of Soviet Union because he observed that the Soviets perceived themselves to be in a state of perpetual war with capitalism and that the Soviets would use controllable Marxists all over the world as their allies against the capitalists. He also noted that Soviet aggression and expansionism was aligned with historic Russian xenophobia and paranoia. This paved the way to the “containment” of Soviets in US foreign policy.
Today, Iran is following exactly the same methods as Soviets were utilizing at that time. Iran uses all the controllable Shiites against any regime and authority in the region. In this sense, it is aggressive and expansionist. Turkey’s rising influence and power will definitely mean “containment” to the expansionism of Iran, because it will be restraining and confining Iranian influence in the region. Relatively Iran is the biggest rival and adversary of Turkey in the Middle East.
Israel would be a partner of Turkey if it was not located in Middle East. The relationship between Turkey and Israel does not mean anything per se. In other words, one just has to study the relationship between Turkey and Israel in the big picture of Middle East. This is where the problem starts. Israel has bad relations with most of the Arab countries. This does not leave any chance for Turkey. Since Turkey will not be able to develop very close relationship with Arab countries, unless she will distance herself from Israel. So Turkey’s wider national interests dictates her to stand a bit far from Israel.
The political regime of Suadi Arabia is based on Wahhabism, an interpretation of Islam which is fundamentally different than the one in Turkey. Generally, Wahhabism is falsely regarded as Sunni Islam, but it is completely different in details. Similar to that of Iran, Suadi Arabia has also based its state ideology and foreign policy on expansion of a creed. It is true that Turkish Republic and Suadi Arabia never experienced an explicit antagonistic relationship, yet they did not enjoy any considerable mutual cooperation either. Taking in mind the basic ideological viewpoint of the Saudi regime, it will be quiet difficult for Saudi Arabian decision makers to see an active Turkey in Middle East.
Finally, if Turkey is to become the regional leader in the Middle East, she has to base her strategy on the countries that have a population with Sunni majority. Egypt is the most significant country in that regard. Mursi government offers tremendous opportunities for Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement. The current stance of the Turkish government towards Middle East seems to be highly appropriate.
If we read Syrian problem in the light of the above mentioned analysis, we find out the Syrian Question is the Leadership Question of Turkey in the Middle East. Syria is actually a battlefield of all the potential rivals of Turkey. As a consequence, Syrian Question has the potential of determining the regional leader in Middle East.