After years of being the heir to the “Sick Man of Europe”, Turkey has now emerged as the main address in the Middle East for all critical activity. Whether to assume a role in Europe or the Muslim Middle East has always been part of Turkey’s identity struggle since the days of Kemal Ataturk. How Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Government respond to this new opportunity for leadership and responsibility could well provide answers to the future of the entire region and effect the situation with Iran's nuclear quest, Syria’s civil war, and relations with Israel.
By providing the venue for the forthcoming meeting on April 14 between Iran and the West concerning Iran’s nuclear activity, Turkey, as host, can demonstrate very quickly to both sides where it stands in this standoff. Its leaders understand that Turkey will be positioning itself to receive U.S. and NATO protection should it become necessary. It will also be ready to obtain nuclear weapons (or nuclear protection) from the West should the U.N. fail to protect the region from nuclear proliferation; Turkey together with Saudi Arabia being the most likely next members seeking to join the nuclear club.
Turkey also could continue to develop its leadership role within the Muslim community, assuming it truly trusts its Arab neighbors. Turkey may then become the focus of a Muslim confrontation with the West growing out of the Iranian regime’s decision to proceed with nuclear weapons development. While this may well be fulfilling for some of the Turkish Muslim leadership as well as the more extreme and radical elements throughout the Middle East, it will hardly do very much for Turkey militarily and economically.
Turkey’s role vis-à-vis Syria is the most immediate and most explosive. President Assad apparently has decided to order his troops to shoot across their mutual border, with little regard apparently for the consequences. Assad assumes that Turkey, like the Arab League, and like the West will not enter Syria. As Syria’s actual neighbor, Turkey—like Lebanon—presents a country which now could engage Syria’s forces in response to Syria’s invasion of Turkey’s territorial integrity. If Syria is trying to suck Turkey into its war, then Hezbollah and its patron Iran may well move in to protect Syria. Turkey would then quickly find itself enmeshed in Syria’s civil war. If Turkey does not respond—assuming the border unrest persists and grows—the West once again will be its backup.
Turkey’s role with Israel on certain levels is the easiest. Since the Israeli-Turkey confrontation in May 2010 over Israel’s commandos’ storming of the Turkish Gaza blockade running ship the Mavi Marmara, the previously deteriorating relations between the two countries have been not improved significantly. While efforts have been made by numerous circles to repair the relationship, to date there remains a diplomatic and political stand-off between the two countries.
Should Turkey opt to assert a genuine leadership on Syria and Iran, it might quickly also permit a rapprochement with Israel to coincide with this effort and Turkey could truly move ahead as the leading political power in the region. While this would also require a less confrontational approach by Israel, hopefully the Israeli leadership will see the benefit in seizing the moment. If Turkey decides to think more narrowly and to follow its Muslim “head”, Israel—as well as the West– will undoubtedly be left in out in the cold.