For some time, we have seen the precursors of a new period of transformation in the Middle East and Turkey needs to make the necessary preparations. Although the winds of chaos are blowing from the West, the level of violence and competition is already high in the region. Before U.S. President Donald Trump even made up his mind about Washington's future role in the world, things started to move in the Middle East.
Dealing with the negative side-effects of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey simply cannot avoid being in the epicenter of regionwide shifts. Without a doubt, the country's priority – the fight against Daesh, the PKK and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) — inevitably affects the way Turkish policymakers look at macro-level developments. But it is important to avoid focusing on short-term goals at the expense of long-term objectives and forecasts. After all, Turkey, as a country that has been able to consolidate domestic power, could be a game-changer in the power struggle to come. Moving forward, what really matters is to follow a rational strategy in order to maximize national interests – without forgetting the cost of assuming an active stance during the Arab Spring revolutions.
As the successor of George W. Bush and his aggressive interventionism, Barack Obama paid lip service to values but adopted a foreign policy with limited goals. While promoting multilateralism in the international arena, the Obama administration took steps to fuel tensions between regional powers and empowered local players in the Middle East. In the end, people across the region were either crushed under the iron fist of authoritarian regimes or found themselves in the middle of civil wars.
As the Arab Spring turned to winter, the Obama administration showed the entire world that Western liberal values were dead and gone. In recent years, multilateralism, human rights and democracy stopped being considered a source of legitimacy for politicians. Meanwhile, President Trump seems willing to go down a road that will promote commercial interests and encourage the powerful to speak up a little louder than before.
It is no secret that the Obama administration's Arab Spring policy hurt Turkey more than most countries in the region – because the White House broke several promises about its Syria policy, turned Russia into a prominent player in the Middle East, paved the road to Iranian expansionism and supported the PKK and the People's Protection Units (YPG).
Another important fact is that Turkey took too long to launch Operation Euphrates Shield and target the YPG militants in northern Syria. In addition to engaging in diplomatic efforts and promoting international cooperation, Ankara should have started resorting to hard power earlier. To be clear, Turkey's cautious and realist approach to the Trump administration today shows that the lessons of history have been learned. Again, plans to target Manbij and Raqqa rest on the premise that the limit of each government's bargaining power is their influence on the ground.
It is plausible that the Trump presidency will aggravate regional chaos and fuel further polarization between Iran and the Gulf. At this time, it is unclear whether a new storm is coming our way or a new balance of power will emerge out of a brief period of turmoil. Of course, it all depends on what President Trump, who already talked about containing Iran and developing a new approach to the Palestinian question, wants to do.
Pending the Trump administration's new Syria road map, Turkey is engaging in talks with both Russia and the United States in order to address problems stemming from Syria. At the same time, Ankara seeks to predict and keep under control new challenges that could emerge as a result of President Trump's future actions. During his recent Gulf tour, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan highlighted the importance of regional cooperation – which reflected a rational and long-term perspective as well as a commitment to common sense. To be clear, Turkey's efforts to create a free trade zone with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and work with GCC members on regional security are informed by the same considerations. Meanwhile, Erdoğan criticized Iran for promoting "Persian nationalism" and warned the Israelis to backtrack on a proposed ban on the Islamic call to prayer.
Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, is trying to develop a new kind of relationship with the Trump administration – which still looks unpredictable. The Iranians, by contrast, desperately want to find a way to hold onto the concessions they were able to get from the Obama administration. To be clear, regional powers will have limited success imposing their own agenda on the great powers – unless they can find a middle ground among themselves.