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Turkey’s Rise and the Decline of Pan-Arabism

TEL AVIV – The deadly fiasco of the Turkish-led “peace flotilla” to Gaza highlighted the deepening strain in the Israeli-Turkish alliance. But it mainly helped expose the deeper, underlying reasons for Turkey’s shift from its Western orientation toward becoming a major player in the Middle East – in alliance with the region’s rogue regimes and radical non-state actors.

Foreign policy cannot be separated from its domestic foundations. The identity of nations, their ethos, has always been a defining motive in their strategic priorities. Israel’s blunders did, of course, play a role in the erosion of its alliance with Turkey. But the collapse of its old “alliance of the periphery,” including Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and Ethiopia, had more to do with revolutionary changes in those countries – the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power, the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, and now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic shift – than with Israeli policies.

The current crisis reveals the depth of Turkey’s identity complex, its oscillation between its Western-oriented Kemalist heritage and its Eastern Ottoman legacy. Snubbed by the European Union, Erdogan is tilting the balance towards the latter.

Kemalism always saw the Ottoman legacy as a burden, an obstacle to modernization. In Erdogan’s vision, modernization does not preclude a return to Turkey’s Islamic roots, nor does it require it to abandon its destiny as a Middle East power, even if this means flouting United States-led policies in the region.