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Hard times for Ankara to decode Mideast

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to tour Russia, Kuwait and Qatar, starting Monday. Erdogan’s trip comes at a time when Ankara is struggling to decode recent developments in the politically fragile Middle East.
The past week has witnessed a shake-up in the region, with Saudi Arabia at the heart of a number of significant developments.
On the same day that the Kingdom announced it had neutralized a ballistic missile fired at Riyadh international airport by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia — ramping up tension in the Cold War between Riyadh and Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s new Supreme Anti-Corruption Committee detained a number of influential figures.
And just a few hours earlier, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri resigned. The resignation sent shockwaves through the Middle East. Israel called it “a wake-up call to the international community to take action against Iranian aggression.” Iran, however, said the point of the resignation was to “create tension in Lebanon and the entire region.”
Aside from last week’s Saudi-driven developments, the political situation is still chaotic in northern Iraq, following Kurdistan’s independence referendum. The Qatari crisis drags on, despite continuous efforts to mediate between conflicting parties. And the situation in Syria remains fraught with uncertainty for Turkey following Russia’s invitation to the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) to attend the Sochi peace talks — although the congress was postponed after Ankara objected to the invitation to a group it considers a terrorist organization.
Erdogan and Putin will be meeting for the second time in two months, and doubtless the PYD’s invitation to Sochi will be high on the agenda. But Erdogan is expected — during all his scheduled meetings on the tour — to push for diplomatic solutions to the escalating crises in the region, which Turkey is following with growing concern.
While Russia is Turkey’s key ally in Syria, Kuwait is playing the role of mediator in the Qatari crisis. Ankara, which has close ties to Qatar, has been calling on all sides to solve the conflict through dialogue. The situation is a tricky one for Turkey, since Saudi is also a valued partner, meaning Ankara is unable to take a strong stance in support of either side — a similar situation to that it faces when trying to adopt a position on the Saudi-Iran feud.

The eruption of new crises and the shifting of alliances in the region are all part of the broader phase of the post-Arab-Spring era.

Sinem Cengiz 

While Turkey is acutely aware of just how dangerous that feud, and its repercussions, could be, Ankara is trying to adopt a diplomatic approach in an attempt to clarify what it will all mean for Turkey.
Ankara wants to keep relations with both sides on track. Some have called for Turkey to return to its traditional foreign policy of “secular diplomacy,” rather than adopt “ideological diplomacy.” I would argue, however, that a “pragmatic” foreign policy would best strengthen Turkey’s position in the region. Secular diplomacy helped distance Turkey from conflicts in the Middle East and that served the security-oriented stance of the country at those times. But it also meant that Turkey remained on the sidelines while crucial developments took place in the region.
America’s recent policies in the region have pushed Turkey toward Russia and Iran, but Ankara would be wise not to rely fully on these countries, which pursue different agendas in the region, and instead follow a more pragmatic, although complicated, policy of keeping all sides in balance.
The eruption of new crises and the shifting of alliances in the region are all part of the broader phase of the post-Arab-Spring era. The first phase of the Arab Spring led to the collapse of long-standing regimes and the rise of political Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.
However, the second phase has witnessed the fall of political Islam and the rise of extremism, with terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra and Daesh filling the vacuum.
Now, as we enter what seems to be the third phase, Russian and Iran have gained influence amid the decline of Daesh.
Erdogan’s upcoming visits, then, are hugely significant in making sense of the phase the Middle East is about to enter.

• Sinem Cengiz is a political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
Twitter: @SinemCngz