Turkey’s Emerging Role in the Middle East

Event Information


The Middle East Policy Council convened its 92nd Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 20th. Following recent U.S. military action against targets of the Assad regime in Syria, the panelists for “Turkey’s Emerging Role in the Middle East” explained Turkey’s involvement in the conflict, the concept of “Ottoman Islamism” and what this means for U.S. national interests and the balance of power in the Middle East.

Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included W. Robert Pearson (Former U.S. Ambassador, Turkey); Gonul Tol (Founding Director, Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies); Aaron Stein (Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council); and Lisel Hintz (Assistant Professor, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS).

Amb. Pearson reviewed how Turkey’s position in the international and regional order is evolving. He cited Erdogan’s reservations about the “sacred” Treaty of Lausanne and his bemoaning the territory lost since the Ottoman Empire as examples of a Turkish desire for a more dominant role. Turkey’s more robust defensive posture and military bases in Qatar and Somalia reinforce this observation. While alarmed by instability on its border with Syria, Turkish leadership may not mind continued chaos and weakness in Syria as it presents one opportunity for more Turkish regional influence, Amb. Pearson said. He concluded by urging the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria, believing that the closer the U.S. and Turkey are there, the higher the likelihood for peace in the long-term.

Dr. Tol noted that Kurdish separatism and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are the two defining aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy. These two factors explain why Turkish foreign policy is often so contradictory, and at odds with allies like the United States. While the U.S. military has cooperated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization, leading to tensions with the U.S. in northern Syria. This is further complicated by Turkey’s dependency on Russian and Iranian support there. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has had significant repercussions for its regional ties. Their support for Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, siding with Qatar in the GCC dispute, and their perception that Saudi Arabia is supporting the YPG have degraded Turkish ties to Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dr. Tol concluded by underlining the confused nature of the U.S. relationship with Turkey, as the two countries work through these overlapping but contradictory interests.

Dr. Stein argued that the Turkish viewpoint has two components: it is security-focused nearby and transformative further afield. The attempted coup in July 2016 was a horrible experience in Ankara, he recalled. This insecurity is exacerbated by the political instability and simmering populism in the region, factors that Turkey views as continual threats to the state. As a response to this, Turkey is attempting to forge a political identity that is democratic, but rigid enough to protect against internal dissent. In terms of the broader region, Turkey sees a collapsing regional order and increased opportunities for PKK safe havens and support. With the continuity of the Assad regime far from certain, Turkey’s presence in northern Syria is critical to maintaining a buffer against a PKK insurgency. This is amplified by the fact that the PKK is the strongest it has been since being founded in 1978.

Dr. Hintz analyzed Turkey’s foreign policy through the lens of Ottoman Islamism. Different from the republican nationalism that proceeded, Ottoman Islamism imagines a broader role for Turkey in the region through alignment with political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. This new self-image emerged from a feeling that Turkey has “wasted time” after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and sought too close a relationship with the West. Ms. Hintz explained how you see this new self-image in Turkish popular culture, through Erdogan’s consolidation of power over the military and judiciary, and through Turkey’s outspoken support for Palestine (and highly publicized criticisms of Israel). Despite the emergence of Ottoman Islamism as a guiding force in Turkey’s foreign policy, this has not translated to successes in diplomacy, most notably in President Erdogan’s failure to exert meaningful influence over the Assad regime at the beginning of the Syrian civil war.


Event Speakers

Amb. (ret.) W. Robert Pearson

Former Ambassador to Turkey

Non-resident scholar, Middle East Institute


Dr. Gonul Tol

Founding Director, Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies

Adjunct Professor, George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies


Dr. Aaron Stein

Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council


Dr. Lisel Hintz

Assistant Professor, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)




Amb. Richard J. Schmierer

Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council

Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman



Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council

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