Will Turkey Weather the Middle East Storm?

ISTANBUL – A cycle of terrible violence has taken over much of the Middle East. Its center has shifted from Iraq (where sectarian strife has recently escalated again) to Syria, but it encompasses Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia as well. Farther east, Afghanistan is suffering its second decade of violent conflict, while Pakistan seems to be chronically on the brink of war, civil war, or social breakdown.

The most worrisome underlying threat is the increase in fighting between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Likewise, pious conservatives and liberal and leftist secular youth, who joined forces in Cairo and Tunis in 2010-2011 to challenge the dictators, have now turned on each other: witness the Egyptian security forces’ appalling massacres of Islamist demonstrators in Cairo recently, following a military coup carried out with liberals’ support. The region’s people are sliding into enemy camps, deepening their societies’ wounds in the process.

I have often argued that Turkey should not intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbors or adopt a Middle East-centered policy. Both government and opposition should remain steadfastly focused on Europe, despite the obstacles that the European Union has placed in Turkey’s way during membership negotiations.

But Turkey cannot be indifferent to the tragedy engulfing its southern neighbors. The Arab world’s pain is acutely felt, owing to Turkey’s historical, religious, and emotional bonds with these countries. Moreover, economic ties and sheer proximity mean that Turkey’s prosperity depends, to some degree at least, on that of the Middle East.