Turkey, a game spoiler or challenger to U.S. interests?

Trump's decision on December 6 to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel caused a wave of outrage throughout the Middle East and beyond. Remarkable diplomatic activity of Turkey in recent days was directed at mobilization of international opinion against Israel and United States. Particularly, a Turkish President threw its political weight behind convening the OIC, the largest organization in the Middle East, against the decision and co-sponsoring the UNGA resolution to delegitimize Trump's initiative in a global arena. Turkish engagement wasn't not a sporadic outburst of anger, it must be viewed, rather, as part of the ongoing policy to challenge U.S. interests in the region. The reasons behind this are worth exploring.

For many reasons Turkish efforts to delegitimize Washington's decision on Jerusalem lacked practical utility. President Erdogan's plans to convene the OIC and demonstrate solidarity among the Muslim majority countries in the issue of contested capital didn't go as Turkish leader really may have wanted with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE sending low level officials to the event. Further, while Turkey-sponsored resolution vote on the United Nations General Assembly managed to reveal that U.S. and Israel are in minority over the issue of Jerusalem, the resolution itself will not be of any practical use in resolving the conflict, like most of the UNGA resolutions against Israel.

The ultimate utility behind such engagement must be, thus, in its symbolism. Decision on Jerusalem was received among the Turkish public as an offense against its religious values. Therefore, Turkish government was responding to domestic political demands when it decided to rally the support against Trump's decision. But more importantly, Turkish decision-makers were motivated by a desire to demonstrate its capacity to mobilize international and regional community against the U.S. interests and initiatives. Turkish foreign policy has been framed by negative changes in the bilateral relations with Turkey's major ally in the Middle East, the United State and Turkish reaction to these changes has been consisting of steps that would send clear signal to Washington that Ankara is too important on global and regional arena to ignore her demands or put pressure on its political leadership.

This style of foreign policy has been developed as a result of concurrent process taking place in the region and Turkey itself. The Turkish ruling party, AKP or Justice and Development Party, came to power in 2002 and gained much legitimacy internationally as a moderate "Islamist" political force that the Bush administration was willing to use as a facilitating agent in the region within the framework of agenda of democracy promotion in the Middle East. During the Arab Spring AKP-led government showed on multiple occasions that country's political leadership ceased to be a mere democracy agenda supporter. Instead, Ankara enthusiastically supported forces in the Middle East that were trying to undermine status quo of authoritarian order without demonstrate any credibility in terms of devotion to ideals of democratic, free and tolerant society.

The rising concerns in Washington over Ankara's regional agenda were further reinforced by domestic political dynamics in Turkey itself. The AKP's evolution from a popular movement to a political party led under charismatic leadership of the President Erdogan coincided with decreasing quality of democratic process. Social polarization and Turkish state's failing capacity to respond to security challenges preconditioned centralization of power in the hands of a strong president.

The issue of democracy erosion has been occupying the agenda of Turkey's relations with the European Union and United States for several years ever since. To fend off criticism and to challenge attempts of the western capitals to impose a regime of undeclared isolation on Ankara, Turkish government opted out for a closer relations with Russia. Talks about possible purchase of S-400 air defense systems and participation in Russian-led diplomatic initiatives used by Turkish leadership to protect the dissent political regime from the outside pressure.

Turkish initiatives that challenge U.S. interests in the Middle East or at least serve to "spoil the game" of Washington must be examined through closer examination of views of the Turkish political leadership on the future of American presence in the region and global stance. One way to explain Turkey's recent endeavours is to interpret such steps as a rational strategy in times when region and the world witnesses relative decline of the U.S. power, till today Turkey's major security and political ally in the region. In this vein, Turkey's decision to cooperation with Iran and Russia or seek support among other emerging nations to combat U.S. hegemony is an attempt to advance Turkey's own stance and secure its future.

Alternative explanation seems more plausible and deals with the fact that Turkey was able to gain prominence in the Arab-majority region within a close economic, political and military alliance with the West. Following this argument, Turkish ruling elite may want to demonstrate that Turkey may use its serious destructive potential if ignored or pressured for domestic political decisions. Ultimately, Turkish leadership on multiple occasions demonstrated its willingness to engage in a closer dialogue with the United States and in no way wants to endanger U.S. assets in the region directly limiting its criticism with pure rhetoric and symbolism.

In practice this would have serious regional implications and mean that Turkey may become a much harder interlocutor, especially in issues that are relevant for security of all countries in the Middle East. Particularly, Turkey may be less inclined to contribute to containment of Iran. Washington and its regional partners must take it into account.

Shorter version of this article was first published in the Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Turkey-A-game-spoiler-or-challenger-to-US-interests-522682

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