OPINION: Why the Arabs reject Turkey’s role in the Middle East?


by Dalia Ziada

Erdogan’s bias to Islamists, especially in the past decade, put Turkey in the same category with Iran, which is labeled as an enemy by most countries in the Middle East.

Cairo witnessed a busy week, as the foreign ministers of Arab countries, including Qatar, met, on March 3rd, at the headquarters of the Arab League to discuss the endless tragedies happening in their region. The dominant topic of the discussions was about foreign interventions in Arab territories, through manipulating domestic politicians, deploying military forces, or sponsoring armed militia. At the conclusion of the meeting, Turkey and Iran were, particularly, condemned by Arab foreign ministers for their heavy military presence in the region.

In response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting all the outcomes of the Arab League ministerial meeting, especially those condemning Ankara’s intervention in Arab affairs. The Turkish statement claimed that the accusations of Turkey threatening the security and stability of the region “are not based on any evidence… and are meant to cover up the destructive activities of some Arab countries, and are not accepted by the friendly and brotherly Arab peoples.”The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s statement, also, asserted that protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Arab countries is a top priority for Ankara, and thus Turkey is exerting its best efforts to establish security and stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which the statement describes as the region Turkey belongs to.

There is not a single occasion, in the past five years, wherein the leaders of Arab or Muslim countries meet, without pronouncing utter condemnation and rejection to Turkey’s intervention in the domestic affairs of the Arab countries. On the flip side, Turkey does not waste an opportunity without officially stating its refusal to the Arabs’ rejection of Turkey and confirming that Turkey is part of the Middle East and is not a foreign power. Putting the brakes on this vicious cycle of accusations and rejections between Turks and Arabs is necessary to enable Turkey and Arab countries to cooperate for the good of the ever-boiling MENA, especially on issues related to eliminating national and regional security threats and realizing economic welfare for the people of the wealthy region.

As a first step, Turkey needs to understand where the Arabs’ concerns towards Turkey’s interventions are coming from. It is true that Turkey is an integral part of the Middle East, and thus its role in regional affairs is legitimate. In fact, Turkey’s intervention in MENA has never been rejected by the Arab League, until recently, due to Turkish president Erdogan’s flawed policies that keeps quavering the stability of the region. Erdogan’s unconditional support to Islamist groups, designated as terrorist organizations, like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, despite their harmful deeds against Arabs and Israel, is on the top list of these flawed policies that broke the brotherly bond between Turkey and the Arabs. From the perspective of Arab leaders, Erdogan’s bias to Islamists, especially in the past decade, put Turkey in the same category with Iran, which is labeled as an enemy by most countries in the Middle East.

Iran sponsors armed militia groups that has been wreaking havoc all over the Levant region, in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, for years. Iran, also, sponsors the Houthis in Yemen, who represent a direct threat to the national security of Saudi Arabia, the biggest country in the Arab Gulf region, and the holy land where Islam emerged. Since, the inauguration of President Biden in the United States, in January, more than twenty drone attacks targeted oil facilities and innocent civilians at the southern territories of Saudi Arabia. Iran-backed Houthis are not only threatening Saudi Arabia, but they also represent a serious threat to the international maritime traffic through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, Turkey is expanding its military presence, all over the MENA region, with unprecedented pace. Currently, Turkey troops are operating in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria. Since December 2019, Turkey has been deploying thousands of military personnel, equipment, and affiliated Syrian mercenaries to Libya; despite the UN Security Council resolutions that impose arms embargo on Libya and delegitimize the presence of foreign troops on Libyan soil. For more than five years, Turkish troops has been operating in northern Syria, under the guise of fighting terrorism, despite the will of the majority of the Syrian and the Kurdish people.

This year, the Turkish military started to focus on expanding into Iraq, however without repeating its previous mistakes in Syria. Prior to launching Operation Claw-Eagle-2 against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in February, Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar visited the Iraqi central government, in Baghdad, and the Kurdistan regional government, in Erbil, for approval of deploying Turkish troops to northern Iraq. Turkey’s main goal from this operation was legitimate; liberating Turks kept hostage by PKK and protecting Turkey’s borders against terrorist activities. However, tensions aroused between Turkey and Iran after Turkish troops remained in the region after the completion of the mission. Iran, which has a huge political and military influence inside Iraq, saw the presence of Turkish military in this region as a threat to Iran’s militia and Iran’s influence in northwestern Iraq.

If Turkey is truly working for the good of the Middle East, Ankara needs to understand that most of the Arab people, and perhaps most of the Arab regimes, are yearning for restoring good relationship with Turkey. However, this is conditional to Ankara’s ability to prove to the Arab states that Turkey is not the other Iran, in the region. We know that Turkey is one of the most important and influential countries of the Middle East region, especially due to its super military capabilities that successfully challenged foreign powers’ interventions, such as the United States and Russia, in several conflict spots, all over the Middle East, in the past years. However, President Erdogan’s continued support to Islamist groups, whether violent or political, who work against the interests of the region, makes Arabs, and even Israelis, feel threatened by Turkey, rather than viewing Turkey as the big sister of the MENA family.

Piece first appeared on Egypt-based Sada El-Balad.

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