The Arab Spring and subsequent events have dramatically re-arranged the power dynamics of the Middle East. Formerly stable nations like Syria and Libya have descended into near-anarchy, while others, like Iraq and Jordan, have been significantly weakened by the rise of the Islamic State and the flood of refugees fleeing conflicts in the region.
Not all have been affected equally, however. While most of their regional neighbors are still reeling from the aftermath of war and revolution, the Turks have emerged almost entirely unscathed. This has left them in a position that is both enviable and vulnerable as they navigate the geopolitics of the new Middle East.
The upheavals of the last few years have diminished the ability of many of the leading nations in the region to project power outside their own borders. While Bashar al-Assad remains president of Syria, much of the country is either contested or under the control of various rebel and Islamist militias and the economy is utterly ruined after four years of war. Jordan, which has long been a bulwark of stability, is finding its resources stretched to the breaking point as it tries to absorb an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees, or 20% of Jordan’s population. Iraq’s fragile political framework has degraded considerably since the conquest of much of the north by ISIS, and Iran is still the subject of strict sanctions and international isolation. Meanwhile, Egypt is in the process of rebuilding its economy, confronting domestic Islamist insurgents, and promoting stability and investor confidence, leaving little capacity for regional engagement.
In this environment, Turkey enjoys a number of advantages. With one of the most powerful militaries in the world, membership in NATO, a strategic position between Europe and Asia, and a fast growing population of over 70 million, Turkey possesses a level of security that has escaped most of its neighbors.
Despite the conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the violence has been almost entirely relegated to the other side of the border, and its contentious domestic politics aside, Turkey has been able to maintain a relatively high measure of internal stability. Much like Jordan, Turkey has absorbed an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing Syria, and although this has strained the nation’s resources, its much larger economy has so far been able to handle the refugees without large negative spillover effects.
Another key contributor to Turkey’s improved strategic position is the conflict between Russia and the E.U., which has left the Turks in the enviable role of being an essential partner to both sides. The South Stream pipeline, which Russia envisioned as a way to deliver gas to the European market while bypassing Ukraine, was cancelled after the E.U. pressured Bulgaria to block passage through its territory. It has been replaced by the proposed Turkish Stream, which would run a pipeline underneath the Black Sea and through Turkish territory. Although negotiations are still ongoing, Russia has already taken steps to signal its commitment to the new plan, and the continuing hostility between Russia and the E.U. makes it highly likely that any alternative gas route to Europe will run through Turkey.
This leaves Turkey in an ideal negotiating position. It will likely be able to secure a significant discount for its own considerable energy needs from Russia (and in fact is already aggressively negotiating for one), which is seeking access to the large and growing Turkish gas market as well as an economically and politically viable alternative to the aborted South Stream route.