The history of the Middle East in the post-colonial era has been one of wars and conflicts with long-standing regional antagonisms and rivalries that show no signs of abating. The answers to the challenge that wars and conflicts pose cannot emerge from unilateral approaches, but through processes of wider consultation and cooperation among regional and international actors.
Turkey is now neighboring two broken and dysfunctional states, Syria and Iraq, which have failed to provide good governance to their people and enabled radicalized forces to become major determinants of regional politics. As Turkey contends with the challenges that its neighbors pose, one cannot fail to notice that tensions are rising externally between Turkey and the international community, and domestically between the Turkish government and its Kurdish population. Furthermore, the domestic situation is complicated by incoming refugees fleeing war zones, which is adding to Turkey’s economic and security woes. Worse still, Turkey has not engaged very effectively in dialogue with influential local, regional and international stakeholders who can shape the region in ways consonant with Turkish national interests.
Proxy antagonism between Turkey and Iran in Syria and political tensions arising from differences between Turkey and the U.S. over how the Syrian civil war should be addressed have clearly weakened the prospect of cooperation or mutual trust between these major players. The other stakeholders have failed just as badly in communicating effectively and sharing a common vision for the future. Instead, they have consistently resorted to unilateral approaches and in many instances to a zero-sum understanding of Middle Eastern affairs.
Over the past decade, Turkey adopted a “zero problems with its neighbors” doctrine, but this is now grossly undermined by the Syrian quagmire. Turkey’s immobility on the Syrian border, coupled with the international spotlight on Kobane, has tended to deprive Turkey of the moral high ground in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The question here is, can Turkey afford to adhere to its current unilateral strategy vis-à-vis ISIL, Kobane and other challenges in the Middle East? What can Turkey do to regain its regional stature and exhibit greater political authority over the neighborhood’s future?
The answers to these questions lie in the experience of the European region, which was able to make the transition from centuries of wars and destruction to peace and collective security. European countries, after World War II, under the leadership of France and Germany formulated new proposals for regional cooperation and institutionalized dialogue in order to move beyond the destructive legacy of war. Drawing on these lessons, what Turkey needs to do urgently is not to engage in ephemeral give and take negotiations with regional and international stakeholders in order to satisfy its parochial national interests. On the contrary, it should spearhead a process of political and economic integration of the Middle East, which can take place only through engaging the stakeholders in a continuous and persistent multilateral dialogue.
Through dialogue and engagement, Turkey can recruit plenty of support for shaping the Middle East via promoting de-radicalization, nation-building and good governance. As recent developments indicate, Turkey must move beyond its present policy, which only serves to isolate it in the region and internationally, while denying it the ability to shape and influence events beneficial to the stability of the Middle Eastern region. Turkey must not lose control over the internal peace process with the Kurds or ignore its inextricable link with Kobane.
Of course, shaping the future of the region via dialogue and engagement is a slow process, but it is never too late to begin a thousand-mile journey with the first step. The Kurds in Iraq have already proven to be strategic and reliable partners in this process. It is in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) strategic interest to partner with Turkey for the protection of their mutual interests. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), outlawed in Turkey, and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will inevitably see it in their interest to explicitly or implicitly support Turkey against common threats, including ISIL and other radical groups inside or outside Turkey. Similarly, Iraqi Shia and Sunni groups who are part of the democratic political process would welcome Turkey’s constructive role and fall in line with the rest.
Dialogue and reconciliation is the best first step in a long pathway that should lead to the reversal of the current trend of ever spiraling violence. Published in Hurriyet Daily News on October/28/2014