Ankara’s role in global stability
The early 21st century has been marked by the rise of new players who are increasingly demonstrating their independent capacity to affect politics around the globe. Turkey has become a formidable growth zone that has attracted the attention of Western powers and experts in security and economic issues, most prominently in the context of the G20 group of nations. If Turkey was a small state located in a more obscure region, these changes may not matter very much. However, it stands at the core of three areas of increasing strategic importance to the United States and Europe: the Balkans, the Caspian region and the Middle East. As such, how Turkey evolves and develops its policies and strategies is important to both the US and to Europe.
Today, Turkey engages more independently with its regional neighbours, mindful of the politics of the EU and US but without previous political and economic constraints. To understand the substantive change in Turkey’s position within the Middle East, academics have proposed a variety of explanatory factors and mechanisms. One prominent argument deals with Turkey’s politico-geographical identity and claims that its so-called “reclaiming Ottoman identity in the region” is the result of the opposition to Turkey’s EU accession bid. As a result, through its foreign policy, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) began framing a new identity for Turkey as a rising global power on the side of the oppressed; in doing so, it was also branding itself as the party of an oppressed conservative majority at home. Since the AK Party came to power, Turkey has embraced relations with Middle Eastern countries by, for example, abolishing visa regulations and increasing dialogue with countries who share its aims.
Turkey enjoys a positive relationship with Qatar. Similarly, relations with the wider Gulf region have improved. The Turkish and Qatari authorities cooperate on a range of political, education, environment, science and security issues, including the recent establishment of a Turkish military base in Qatar, while energy and trade relations continue to expand. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Turkish government has proclaimed these successes as the manifesto of a more general ambition to become the go-to ally of Qatar in the Eurasian region.
Ahmet Demirok, Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar, told Reuters last December that some 3,000 ground troops would be stationed at the base as well as air and naval units, military trainers and special operations forces. Furthermore, a Turkish naval force is based in Qatar, allowing Ankara to project power into the Persian Gulf, following the example of the US, Britain and France.
The base demonstrates Turkey`s move toward greater influence in the region and Qatar`s independence from its powerful neighbours. The return of Turkish troops to Qatar a century after Ottoman forces left the peninsula is, largely, about prestige.
More importantly, Turkey now has its first military base in Somalia and will help train the country’s army to fight the deadly Al-Shabaab terror group. Turkey has long had a considerable business presence in Somalia. Such engagement with Somalia is a lesson on how diplomacy, development and humanitarian assistance can be combined successfully to create a model that provides extensive benefits for a country emerging from devastating conflict. The Turkish government is one of Somalia’s main bilateral partners and has been at the heart of some of the landmark development projects in Mogadishu, the capital. The projects are mostly in the health, education and transport sectors, as well as town planning. Turkey has also made its presence firmly felt in the provision of relief and aid. Ambassador Olgan Bekar calls it “humanitarian diplomacy” and explains it as a model that endeavours to make headway in all areas simultaneously. The approach is embedded firmly in outcomes that fulfil local needs. “There is no point in solving one problem when one problem solved does not create the ultimate effect of stability and growth that any society should have,” the ambassador pointed out. “We understand this fact and that is why our approach to engaging with Somalia is four pronged. We know there is a need for humanitarian assistance, a need for infrastructural development, and a need for a well-trained and functional security apparatus.”
According to Peter Westmacott, former British ambassador to Ankara, Turkey is a crucial player in the region and negotiating to join the EU. “We need it,” he insisted, “to remain a strategic energy corridor, a significant commercial partner, a member of the coalition partner, a member of the coalition against ISIS, a reliable NATO player and part of the solution to the Syrian crisis.”
Britain was the first country to stand with Turkey in defence of democracy on the 15 July last year, whereas most European capitals waited for the plot to fail before denouncing the coup attempt. Prime Minister Theresa May was the first major Western leader to visit Turkey thereafter. The relationship between Turkey and Britain appears to be improving, as the UK government attempts to strike a balance in its need to forge new alliances with countries beyond the EU after Brexit.
May said that Britain would enhance trade relations with Turkey, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country would increase trade to $20 billion (£16bn). It is vital to build trade links with an important ally and NATO member. The former President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, stated recently that Turkey and Britain should work very closely in the Middle East in order to create more stability.
Despite increasing tensions between Turkey and the EU, there is nothing to indicate that Ankara plans to cut ties with either Europe or Washington. Nevertheless, Turkish policies are undoubtedly more independent of Western policies today, than they were before.