Too Islamist-friendly for NATO, too pro-European for Russia, too pro-Sunni for Iran, and too pro-democracy for Saudi Arabia, Turkey can’t seem to manage lasting alliances. It’s an issue that figures to play a role in the Turkish parliamentary elections on June 7.
In August 2013, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser described Turkey’s isolation – to the ire of Turkish pundits – as “precious loneliness.” To this day, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continues to ascribe its foreign policy failure to international resentment for Turkey’s successes.
Turkey’s problems stem, to a large extent, from its quest to become a regional power. This seemed feasible at the onset of the Arab Spring, when Turkey’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood leanings appeared to be winning the day. Turkey cast its lot with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and like-minded Islamists in Libya and Tunisia. But Ankara’s hegemonic aspirations soon imploded along with the Brotherhood. Across the Middle East, civil wars and dictatorial regimes have since eclipsed the promise of “moderate” Islamist rule.
As the region convulses and descends deeper into anarchy, Turkey’s regional alliances are crumbling. Those Turkey has managed to keep appear to be unsustainable.
Take Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. On March 26, three weeks after his visit to the new Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Erdogan announced his support for the Saudi-led military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. A little over two weeks later, reports emerged that Ankara was set to partner with the Saudis for possible military action against the Assad regime in Damascus.
But this hardly makes Turkey and Saudi Arabia allies. Turkey maintains its steadfast opposition to the Saudi-backed Egyptian government led by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, not to mention the internationally-recognized regime in Libya. This position of supporting the Islamist opposition pits Turkey against the region’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood monarchies, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. And these countries just happen to make up the backbone of the anti-Houthi coalition.
And that’s not the only flashpoint of potential conflict between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Unlike most of the Sunni Arab states, Turkey welcomes a potential international nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries see the Iranian nuclear deal as a pathway to a bomb, and therefore a critical threat. By contrast, Ankara hopes to exploit the lifting of sanctions on Iran for its economic gains. Turkey seeks to boost trade relations with its Persian neighbor, doubling the current bilateral trade of $14-15 billion to reach $30 billion by next year.
But Turkey is not fully aligned with Iran, either. Indeed, Turkey and Iran have backed opposing sides in Syria’s war since it erupted. Turkey also opposes Tehran’s influence in Iraq by supporting the local Sunni militias against Iranian-backed Shiite forces. And by officially backing the Saudi-led anti-Houthi campaign, it also seeks to limit Iran’s meddling in Yemen.