What is Turkey’s role in shaping the new Middle East?

Semih İdiz/ Hurriyet Daily

Newly built Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge, the third bridge over the Bosphorus linking the city's European and Asian sides, is pictured during the opening ceremony in Istanbul

The post-Arab Spring period in the Middle East is gradually unfolding as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) is rolled back, while the Syrian civil war gradually heads towards its endgame.

The U.S. and Russia are very much entrenched in the region, vying for their own zones of influence with all that this connotes. Meanwhile, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is growing dangerously and there are fears that this will trigger the next regional conflict. The related sectarian divide along the dangerous Sunni-Shiite fault line is also growing, promising more regional turmoil.

The unexpected crisis over Qatar and the equally unexpected recent political upheaval in Lebanon, on the other hand, show just how volatile the region is set to remain in the coming period.

All of this represents a series of hornet’s nests for Turkey, bringing more risks than advantages. A host of ill-considered policies, and an inflated sense of its ability to lead the course of regional developments at the start of the Arab Spring, has not strengthened Ankara’s hand either, doing more damage to its standing in the Middle East than good.

The fact that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two regional arch-enemies, namely Syria’s Bashar al Assad and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El Sisi remain very much in power, with support from Russia and the U.S., is enough to show just how misplaced Ankara’s expectations were.

In addition to all this, the Sunni powers that Ankara was hoping to develop strategic ties with in the Middle East have moved in directions that Erdoğan and his Islamist support base never expected or wanted.

The first serious blow to Ankara’s expectations in this regard came when Saudi Arabia supported Sisi in Egypt when he toppled the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Sisi subsequently went on the warpath against the Muslim Brotherhood – which Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) feel a close affinity to – and the brand of political Islam it represents.

Rather than getting better, this situation is only set to get worse, as crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud tries to consolidate his power in Saudi Arabia and tries to move his country towards “moderate Islam,” a designation that Erdoğan and his Islamist support base reject.

Contrary to what Turkey’s Islamists have tended to believe, being devoutly Islamic is clearly not sufficient to bring about the unity among divided Muslims in the Middle East that Ankara believed was close at hand after the Arab Spring first broke out.

Looking at the general picture today, Turkey is not leading anything or setting the stage for anything significant that might contribute to how the new Middle East will be shaped. It is instead hanging defensively onto the coattails of global and regional powers, vacillating from one side to the other, in an attempt to secure what it can for its own interests.

This is clearly visible in its ties with the U.S. and Russia, as it is in its ties with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Put another way, Ankara has no visionary policy for the region left. It is merely trying to save the day in the face of unsavory developments for Turkey.

This is not the situation that a politically, economically and militarily powerful country with key interests in the Middle East should be in, especially at a time when the post Arab Spring period is being shaped by global and regional forces.

Turkey should, instead, be at the center of these efforts. Trying to understand why it is not is a good point to start with if Ankara wants to regain some of significant ground it has lost. This however requires serious revisions and corrective adjustments to its foreign policy.

The current leadership is clearly not in a positon to do this because it is so embroiled with its domestic agenda that it cannot see how Turkey is losing out internationally on all fronts – not just in the Middle East.