There may be no less suitable time to write this article about Turkish regional policy than now. For the first time in a decade, Turkey faces political uncertainty and is waiting for the second lot of parliamentary elections in four months to see who will run the country. The country is also being hit by a wave of terrorism that has left dozens of citizens and security forces dead, while the wider region is in turmoil, with the flames coming across the border and into Turkey itself.
With all the challenges, it would be a big mistake if Turkey folded in on itself and focused only on domestic challenges or depended on others to settle the Middle East dilemma. Turkey has the historical, political and moral capabilities that make it capable of changing the geostrategic map of the region, not just in its favor but also in the favor of the vast majority of the region's people looking for the stability that comes with freedoms and rights.
The country most affected by the consequences of the Syrian civil war – apart from Syria itself – is Turkey, yet other regional and global powers were more decisive in shaping and directing the fight on the ground. A country like Iran, Turkey's inferior economically and technologically, managed to create and utilize all its proxies in the region to shore up the Assad regime and impose realities on the ground that are poisonous to Turkish interests in the country's own backyard. Turkey should not wait for the U.S. to train and equip a handful of rebels to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), leaving Assad — the root of all the evils — untouched, or wait for other regional powers to supply the opposition with the logistics and weapons needed to tilt the balance in their favor. It is understandable why the Turkish government doesn't want to be dragged into the Syrian quagmire, but a more assertive policy is needed to end the Syrian conflict, which is not only overloading Turkey with a humanitarian burden but is also being exploited by others to create new realities on its national borders and exacerbate the chronic Kurdish problem. And with the Syrian dilemma lately attracting more global players like the Russians, such an assertive policy needs to be planned and executed carefully without delay.
Turkey's assertive policy should not stop with the Syrian case. In a region where complexity and contradiction is the norm, a separation of regional cases would not be a wise strategy. It can even be argued that the Syrian conflict would not have deteriorated to such a degree if there was a strong pro-revolution regime in another Arabic capital, specifically, Cairo. Actually the Arab Spring didn't hit like it did in Egypt. The ouster of President Muhammed Morsi and the installment of el-Sissi's regime created a bitter pill swallowed not only by the Egyptian people, but sadly by the whole region. No country took a moral stance against the Egyptian coup apart from Turkey and its president. Not only denouncing and condemning what happened on the international stage (as others stayed silent or even supported the coup), Turkey opened its doors for thousands fleeing the bloody crackdown instituted by the junta regime in Egypt.
However, such a stance should not leave Turkey waiting for moral support, but should be developed into a more pro-active policy. The country has the clout to influence the major opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. With divisions growing between the pro-revolution current and the old guard inside the group affecting the vitality of the anti-coup resistance in Egypt, not only can Turkey mediate and close the gap, it can also revitalize the opposition by various means if it reached out to the willing figures and offered the required support. Dropping or even just weakening such a bloody regime in the most populous country in the Arab world would not just cut support to the Assad regime and cripple Egypt's harmful influence on the situation in Libya and Palestine, but would also directly deal a blow to some capitals in the region that have always considered the Turkish model of modernity and democracy a threat to their authoritarian regimes.
The Syrian and Egyptian cases are just examples in favor of assertive and decisive Turkish policies. Not only does Turkey have the historical, ideological and logistic capabilities to execute such a policy, but it also has the moral grounds and the role model it has offered over the past decade to do so. Such an assertive policy would not only be welcomed by the people of the region but may help to alleviate the problems that are spilling over into Turkey itself, not only curbing the Turkish model but threatening the achievements made in the New Turkey. Turkey needs to be more assertive, and it can be.
*Researcher and expert in Turkish-Arab strategic relations and minority affairs. Director of the Centre of Al-Mashreq Al-Arabi, Birmingham, U.K.