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Sources of Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East

In this guest web log, Dr. Oktay Tanrisever (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey), the 2010 Alworth Institute International Fellow writes that Turkey is among the few states in the world that have increased their influence in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. The modernization of the Middle East has become a very problematic issue as radical Islamist movements have been intensifying their confrontational attitudes towards the socio-political and economic reform efforts in the region. Consequently, terrorism has become a severe problem in the region especially in the aftermath of the horrendous terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001 by the Al Qaida terrorist organization which has terrorist networks in many parts of the Middle East. In this context, in what ways has Turkey increased its influence in the Middle East? What are the implications for Turkey's changing international role?

Turkey has increased its influence in the Middle East by increasing its contribution to the international cooperation against terrorism both regionally and globally. Turkey did not exert much influence in the Middle East throughout the Cold War years partly because some of the Arab countries were pursuing very hostile policies towards Turkey, and partly because Turkey had been focusing mainly on developing its relations with the NATO allies in the West: The United States and Western European countries. In the post-Cold war era, Turkey has managed to increase its influence in the Middle East by developing its relations with regional states as well as cementing its strategic ties with Western NATO allies as its contributions to the international cooperation against terrorism and the modernization of the Middle East have increased considerably.

There are several sources of Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East. To begin with, the international fight against terrorism has increased the relevance of Turkey's secular model for the modernization of the Middle East. In fact, secularism is the fundamental principle of modern Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Modern Turkey, designed and implemented a successful strategy of modernization for Turkey based on a secular model. Turkey's modernizing reforms included the abolition of the Caliphate, secularization of the educational system, the adoption of the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language and the promotion of women's rights. Turkey strengthened the institutional framework of its modernization strategy by joining the Western international institutions and developing a Western-type democratic political system with a functioning free market economy.

Secondly, Turkey's co-sponsorship of 'The Alliance of Civilizations' initiative in the post-9/11 era is also a factor that contributes to Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East. Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero put forward this initiative of the United Nations in 2005. Immediately, Turkey joined Spain in co-sponsoring this initiative that aimed to fight against extremism and socio-cultural polarization between Middle Eastern and Western societies. If unbridged, these cultural differences could be exploited by radical groups and terrorists for destabilizing the region. Besides, Turkey's policies have also contributed to the weakening of the 'Clash of Civilizations' hypothesis that sees civilizational clashes inevitable as radical groups that seek to deepen the cultural barriers find it difficult to explain Turkey's success in its Europeanization process since 1999.

Thirdly, Turkey's active contribution to international cooperation in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East also accounts for Turkey's increasing influence. In this respect, Turkey played an active role in the formation of the NATO Center of Excellence for Defence against Terrorism in Ankara. Besides, Turkey has also been playing a crucial role in the success of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan by sending one of the largest contingents. With its almost 2,000 troops, Turkey has been responsible for the security in the capital city of Kabul and Wardak province. Similarly, Turkey contributes to the Operation Active Endeavour naval operation of NATO in the Mediterranean Sea. This naval operation seeks to monitor and prevent any terrorist activity in the Mediterranean. Additionally, Turkey also played a crucial role in containing the spread of terrorism to the neighbouring countries of Iraq by initiating the Neighbours Conferences on Iraq as well as training Iraqi diplomats and security forces.

Last but not least, an important source of Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East stems from its contribution to the political and socio-economic modernization of the region. This is central to the attempts at dealing with the root causes of terrorism in the Middle East. Turkey's success in combining a democratic system with a dynamic free market economic structure enables it to contribute to the peace-building initiatives as well as third-party mediation in major conflicts throughout the Middle East in the post 9/11 era. These contributions of Turkey serve to marginalise radical groups and the terrorists in the Middle East considerably. Western countries and some of the Middle Eastern states view Turkey's constructive roles in the modernization of the region very positively. Consequently, this enables Turkey to project more soft power in many parts of the Middle East.

To conclude, Turkey's increasing influence in the Middle East contributes to the efforts at dealing with the immediate security challenges as well as the root causes of terrorism in the region.