Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu is performing a juggling act in the Middle East the likes of which have not been seen since the heyday of Henry Kissinger. Ever the staunch ally of the United States and shifting its foreign policy focus to its own backyard, Turkey has been forced into awkward conversation with its Shiite rival Iran and the Syrian uprising has put this trio to the test.
It wasn’t always so difficult. U.S.-Turkish relations have been on a rather long honeymoon. Since the 9/11 attacks the two countries have skipped along the counter-terrorism trail hand in hand; one turning a blind eye to its partners vicious attacks against the Kurds in exchange for its use of the convenient Incirlik Air Base.
Washington renewed its vows with Turkey when Obama made official visits to both Ankara and Istanbul in the early days of his presidency. Even Obama’s statement regarding the “atrocities” carried out against the Armenian people in 1915 were just water under the bridge as Ankara made its perfunctory response of disappointment. The glaring absence of the word “genocide” from Obama’s statement comforted Ankara, assuring it that Congress won’t be able to pass an Armenian Genocide Recognition bill under Obama’s watch. In other words, this was a seemingly unbreakable duo.
But with its eye on the Middle East, Turkey began mixing in rather different circles. Turkey and Iran have been rather peaceful rivals vying for hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa. This competition has been calm and orderly with Turkey gobbling up Sunni-majority North Africa while Iran has bide its time in creating a crescent of influence from war-torn Iraq, through Assad’s Syria and into Lebanon with Hezbollah. They are two elephants in one room, circling each other, determined never to lock tusks.
Then came Syria. The uprising brought Ankara and Tehran toe-to-toe in a battle that could turn the tide in a new regional Cold War. If Turkey could manage to unseat Assad, it could gain a Sunni-led foothold smack dab in the middle of the region at Iran’s expense (Yes, Syria’s opposition is made up of more than just Sunnis but to believe there is a post-Assad scenario that is not headed by the Sunni majority is simply delusory). Losing Syria would be a significant setback for Iran’s foreign policy initiatives, effectively cutting-off their carefully crafted crescent. Rhetoric during the uprising peaked with stern warnings from Ankara that troops would be placed along the border with Syria; A bus full of Turkish nationals was fired upon at a Syrian checkpoint; Calls were made by the Turkish press for the Assad regime to step down. Turkish-Iranian relations vis-a-vis Syria were in dire straits.
But it was the U.S. that kept things interesting in the past months. Starting with its decision to place a NATO missile shield radar system in Turkey was a rather blunt warning for Iran: Turkey is our ally; keep your distance. New rounds of sanctions, fiery rhetoric and military maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz have rounded out the ongoing catfight between Washington and Tehran.
Where does this leave Turkey? Davutoglu has maneuvered himself into a rather uncomfortable ménage à trois between best friends and worst enemies. As for Syria, its regime and its protestors, it seems Davutoglu’s visit to Tehran in early January and the talks he held there have set the course for Turkish policy for, at least, the coming months. Relations between Turkey and the Syrian regime’s strongest ally seem to be a far cry from the toe-to-toe standoff of late 2011. If Assad’s statement --made days after Davutoglu’s return to Ankara-- regarding the continued “bond of brotherhood” between Turkey and Syria is any indicator, Turkey --along with the U.S.-- has little interest in meddling in Syrian affairs for the time being.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Macaron
Greg Ohannessian is currently the editor for LBCI Online English News. He received his Masters in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies from King's College London in 2010.