The Return of Diplomacy?
Turkey and The New Regional Security

The global geopolitical landscape has undergone profound changes since the turn of the millennium. The initiation of the “war on terror” by the United States following 9/11 led to an exclusive focus on global counterterrorism efforts, diverting attention from the paramount challenges facing the globe’s geopolitical and security architecture. This shift in perspective directed efforts towards engaging non-state actors involved in proxy wars, side-lining the resolution of significant geopolitical and economic issues. Consequently, the past 25 years witnessed futile invasions of the Middle East from Eurasia, further aggravating vulnerabilities, writes Taha Özhan, Research Director, Ankara Institute, for the 13th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Turkey finds itself in a geographically challenging region, affected not only by global geopolitical tensions but also by heightened levels of regional instability. The ongoing civil war in Syria and its spill-over of instability exemplify these challenges. Iran, subjected to Western sanctions, continues to invest indirectly in regional instability. The risk of a proxy war with Israel dragging Iran into a direct conflict has escalated. Additionally, Iraq, Turkey’s other neighbour to the southeast, grapples with maintaining a fragile security order, while Lebanon, situated in the Eastern Mediterranean, struggles with paralyzed political and economic structures. Furthermore, the looming risk of a new conflict with Israel compounds the existing crises.

Israel, which borders Lebanon, remains a central concern in the region. The instability exported by Israel over the years escalated into a significant security crisis during the “Arab Spring” period. The West attempted to preserve its Israel-centric order at the expense of the entire region, leading to an increased risk of regional conflict due to Israel’s policies in occupied Palestine. Meanwhile, Egypt has been entangled in a severe economic and human rights crisis since the 2013 coup, and Libya continues to experience instability on all fronts. The Russia-Ukraine war to the north of Turkey has heightened security risks and geopolitical vulnerabilities in the Black Sea region.

Gaza. Yemen. Epicentres of Pain. Feelings, Myths, and Memories in the Middle East
Vitaly Naumkin, Vasily Kuznetsov
Many developments that significantly impacted the destinies of the regional players, non-regional actors, and many people around the world have unfolded during the year that followed the publication of our paper titled “The Middle East and the Future of a Polycentric World” (February 2023).

It is evident that Turkey is a neighbour to two wars which are shaping the global agenda (Israel-Palestine and Russia-Ukraine). The geopolitical stress caused by these wars directly influences Turkey’s security policies, alliance maps, and geopolitical perspective. Managing security risks becomes imperative for Turkey as it strives to maintain economic stability under the centrifugal geopolitical energy from the Black Sea to the Middle East. At the forefront of these risks are the political, ethnic, and sectarian fractures arising from the post-Iraq invasion era, which linger and continue to impact the region today.

The energy discharge from these fault lines, broken by America’s Iraq invasion and merging with the Arab uprisings of the early 2010s, created a significant security vacuum that ended up being detrimental to everyone.

In this vacuum, ISIS emerged, and regional vulnerabilities surfaced. Presently, risks originating from Iraq, based on political, ethnic, and sectarian divisions, persist. For Turkey, security risks will not diminish until there is political stability in Iraq, with genuine governance emerging, and the post-Iraq invasion political tension is alleviated.

Similarly, the security risks stemming from the failed power model attempted under the minority administration in Syria persist. While Syria exports terrorism and migration simultaneously to its region and the world, it continues to invite external interventions. The frozen conflict in Syria persists, with a significant portion of the population leaving the country, creating a humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, the de facto autonomous structure established by the Kurdish nationalists in Syria continues to directly threaten Turkey. As long as this structure exists, posing a terrorist threat to Turkey while poisoning the prospects of a comprehensive political solution in Syria, Ankara’s top priorities in Syria include resolving this issue in tandem with a final political solution. Achieving this goal necessitates establishing new ground with the US and Russia, as well as preventing Iran from poisoning the process as it did in Iraq.

Since the security earthquake in the region brought about by the Arab uprisings, Turkey has experienced serious geopolitical tensions with nearly all regional actors. Relations with Israel were severed in 2009, followed by challenging ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Syria. This decade-long period shifted in 2022 when Turkey initiated a diplomatic repair and healing process. By 2023, Turkey had re-established diplomatic ties with all these countries, exchanging visits and revitalising economic relations. Two missing points in this picture are the absence of failed state Syria and Israel. However, Israel’s ability to disrupt Ankara’s regional relations has weakened. Ankara, opening a new page with countries of the region despite Israel, can still enhance its geopolitical and security relations.

For Turkey, another significant vulnerability in the region is the security fragility emerging in Southeast Europe and the Black Sea after the Russia-Ukraine war. Turkey’s exceptional relationship with Russia has allowed it to preserve both its interests and relations with Moscow since the early days of the war. The exaggeratedly irresponsible pro-Israel stance of Ukraine’s leadership during the Gaza massacres, coupled with the West’s double-standard approach, has significantly altered perceptions of the Russia-Ukraine war. Turkey, which contributing to the formation of a dialogue in Istanbul to halt the war early on, is aware of the crucial risk factor in Black Sea security. Considering Turkey’s rejection of Western attempts to impose an embargo on Russia, driven by the four-year tension with Washington over the S-400s, it is evident that Turkish-Russian relations have withstood a stress test. However, in the event of new tensions, several steps need to be taken for relations to settle on healthier ground.

Turkey expects Russia to elevate its cooperation with Ankara in Syria to a new stage, forming an inclusive partnership for a comprehensive solution.

Similarly, it desires the alleviation of security concerns in the Black Sea. The potential exists for a fruitful relationship and progress on these two fronts; only time can reveal the two countries’ capacity to utilize it.

Turkey is set to enter a 50-month period without elections in the coming month. Consequently, a period of reduced political pressure and engagement will unfold domestically. If Ankara desires, this period can witness new steps and initiatives in many regional geopolitical and security issues. More importantly, post-2024, a significant portion of the world will also enter a non-electoral political period. If assessed correctly, we might witness updates and the strengthening of alliances. Similarly, this window of opportunity will provide the means to address the accumulated problems of recent years.

The Return of Diplomacy?
Ensuring Stability and Peace in the Middle East
Çağrı Erhan
Three intertwined fundamental problems can be considered the source of instability in the Middle East. These are the Palestine issue, the ambitions of non-regional actors in the region, and the activities of terrorist groups and non-state actors.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.