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Turkey’s Middle East reset policy and how it affects regional security dialogue

  • Galip Dalay

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

Mirroring trends seen elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey is pursuing a policy of de-escalation towards and reset with erstwhile regional antagonists, namely the Gulf Arab states and Israel. With Iran and Greece, by contrast, further escalation and friction are on the horizon. Notwithstanding those tensions, Ankara appears open to engaging in regional security dialogues and multilateralism, and is unlikely to object to any regional and external state actors’ participation in such dialogues. Turkey’s policy of reset is also informing its approach to two post-Arab Spring regional alignments – the Abraham Accord and the Eastern Mediterranean partnership.

Turkey’s regional policy: past and present 

Contention and confrontation were the defining features of Turkey’s regional policy for the decade following the Arab Spring uprisings. Prior to that point, Ankara had pursued a more conciliatory policy towards the region, aimed at a gradual transformation and integration of the Middle East, and based on Ankara’s ability to speak to all regional actors and competing blocs. A key aspect of that more conciliatory stance had been to develop further economic and social linkages across the region, including signing free trade agreements. However, following the Arab Spring from 2011 onwards, Ankara’s policy shifted as it perceived a new regional order emerging. It moved fast to champion it. Ankara’s policies put it at odds with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt (after its coup of 2013) and Israel. At first, the points of contention between Turkey and the anti-Arab Spring camp were political in nature, centred on Ankara’s support for the Arab Spring and political Islamic actors. In later stages, those points of contention became more geopolitical as many countries where Arab Spring uprisings occurred turned into conflict zones. The Syrian civil war became the main geopolitical battleground between Iran and Turkey. Syria, Iraq and the Eastern Mediterranean1(including Libya) have also been the focus of Turkey’s geopolitical activism. While Turkey’s relations with Iran remained competitive, if not adversarial, both countries, along with Russia, launched the Astana Process. This was a limited regional multilateral framework through which Ankara, Tehran and Moscow tried to negotiate their interests in Syria, launched in late 2016.2

Regional reset and what it offers

Since late 2020, Turkey has sought a reset in its relations with the Gulf Arab states and Israel. A number of factors influenced this change in policy: the election of US President Joe Biden and the perceived continuing downsizing of US security commitments in the region; the idea of the region entering a post-Arab Spring phase; Turkey’s desire to mend ties with its erstwhile rivals and corresponding interest from the Gulf Arab states in calming tensions; a stalemate in regional conflicts; and economic imperatives (particularly for Ankara).3 With the Gulf Arab states and Israel, Turkey is set to explore more avenues of cooperation and coordination over the economy, energy, the defence industry and on regional policy. On this latter point, Iraq could emerge as a potential area of cooperation between Turkey and the Gulf states to reduce Iranian influence.

The new phase in Ankara’s regional policy contains elements of both de-escalation and escalation. This informs Turkey’s approach towards regional alliances and multilateral frameworks. First, Ankara’s sense of insecurity is less acute now than during the 2015–20 period. At that time, geopolitical trends in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya were working against Turkish interests. In all those contexts, Ankara has worked to prevent what it saw as worst-case scenarios, such as further solidification of the anti-Turkey bloc in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a result of reduced threat perceptions, Ankara is now more open to different regional security dialogues or multilateralism.

Second, the decline in the significance of the Arab Spring and of political Islamic actors in regional politics have removed4 two major sources of contention between Turkey and the Gulf Arab states. These states viewed these two phenomena as posing direct threats to the security of their regimes, and considered Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring and political Islamic actors as hostile. Stalemates in the Libyan conflict and less vocal support from Gulf Arab states for Greece/Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean have both helped to ease tensions. This has opened up more grounds for cooperation in relations between Ankara and the Gulf Arab states.

On the economic side, there are signs that this reset in relations is more than a temporary pause in rivalries, even if cooperation has yet to lead to concrete outcomes. Conversations are under way regarding Turkey and the UAE signing a free-trade agreement, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia are discussing a potential currency SWAP deal between their central banks. Likewise, Riyadh and Ankara are negotiating over Saudi Arabia placing5 a $5 billion deposit at Turkey’s central bank. Turkey and Israel are engaging in more dialogue on energy cooperation, bringing Israeli gas via Turkey to Europe. On the geopolitical front, there is the prospect of finding a modus vivendi between the UAE and Turkey in Libya. Both actors have refrained from escalating tensions there, without changing the essence of their policies.

Escalation on the horizon 

Sources of tension in Turkish-Iranian relations are increasing and deepening. Iraq is the most active front in their rivalry, with Iran and its aligned militia groups vocally opposed to Turkey’s military operations there – which Ankara is set to continue. Tehran and Ankara are decidedly on opposing sides in Iraq, over both Kurdish and broader Iraqi politics. Meanwhile, if Russia downsizes its footprint in Syria, this could increase the Turkish-Iranian adversarial dynamics in that country as both would attempt to fill the void. Finally, the new regional order that has emerged from the latest Azerbaijan–Armenia conflict in the South Caucasus is another source of tension in relations between Ankara and Tehran. While Russia and Turkey have increased their influence in the emerging regional order, Iran’s regional standing has suffered a setback.

Through its reset policy, Ankara is seeking to decouple the Gulf Arab states and Israel from Greece and Cyprus. It prefers to frame the Eastern Mediterranean crisis as a bilateral issue between Turkey and Greece/Cyprus, rather than as a multilateral crisis between Turkey and a set of countries. That was the experience of 2018–20, when Turkey faced a bloc of countries – the Gulf Arab states, Israel, Greece and Cyprus – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, no end is in sight to the confrontations between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with its military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey is inching6 towards another military operation against the PYD-YPG.

Turkey’s view of regional alignments

There are two realignments that can be seen as reflective of the post-Arab Spring regional picture: the Abraham Accord and the Eastern Mediterranean partnership. While the Abraham Accord has an anti-Iran disposition, the realignment in the Eastern Mediterranean has an anti-Turkey disposition. Ankara is likely to hold negative views of both these realignments (particularly the Eastern Mediterranean one), seeing them as building blocks of a regional order from which it is being excluded. While the Abraham Accord was being forged, Turkey was vocal in its opposition. It also adopted a policy of coercive diplomacy to oppose the likelihood of a regional security or energy order emerging from the regional realignments in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet Turkey’s eagerness to mend ties with the Gulf Arab states and Israel means that Ankara is likely to refrain from being as explicitly opposed to the Abraham Accord as before.

Regional security dialogue: policy proposals 

In the context of a potential for wider regional security dialogue, Turkey is unlikely to oppose the participation of any regional state actors. An increasing number of regional platforms – be it the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership,7 the Antalya Diplomacy Forum (ADF)8 or the Doha Forum9 – can serve as regional venues for official or semi-official dialogues and discussions to explore options for regional cooperation on issues of shared interest and concern. Ankara sees value in such gatherings for two reasons. First, initiatives like the Baghdad Conference opens up the possibility of Iraq playing an important role in regional politics and diplomacy; in doing so, it would gradually emerge as an actor rather than just a context onto which other players project power. Second, these gatherings are likely to further facilitate Iraq’s return to the Arab fold. Both of these developments could reduce Iran’s influence in Iraq, which makes them appealing prospects to Turkey.

Given the tensions in its relations with Tehran, Turkey will likely support any regional pushback against certain Iranian policies, whether in Iraq, Syria or Yemen. However, Turkey’s opposition to Iran is unlikely to drive Ankara to fully join the anti-Iran camp spearheaded by Israel and the Gulf Arab states or any other institutionalized alliance aimed at containing Iran. But Ankara is likely to support Gulf Arab countries’ policies towards Tehran as Turkey competes with Iran in their shared neighbourhood from the Mashrek region to the South Caucasus. However, joining a policy of containment, spearheaded by Gulf Arab states and Israel, would represent a major escalation between Turkey and Iran.

Partly to de-escalate tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is important to bring Turkey into the Eastern Mediterranean Energy Forum (as well as Lebanon). As long as Turkey remains outside this grouping, Ankara is likely to view the forum as an institutional embodiment of a search for a new regional energy and security order from which it is excluded. That would motivate Ankara to undermine it as much as possible. If Turkey cannot be included in the forum, the European Union (EU) could pursue10 the establishment of a trilateral framework between the Eastern Mediterranean Energy Forum, the EU and Turkey to discuss energy security and transition in the region. The EU has high stakes in ensuring that the Eastern Mediterranean crisis does not become a conflict, as this would pose a direct threat to European security, including over energy.

Finally, the management and security of water resources could serve as another basis for dialogue and cooperation between several regional countries. This topic has geopolitical significance and political relevance so could be a source of contention as well as collaboration. It is a topic of discussion between Turkey and Iraq, but also has relevance and implications for Syria and Iran.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.


[1] The Eastern Mediterranean crisis stems from Greco-Turkish maritime disputes about competing narratives of national sovereignty. However, the recent iteration of the crisis was triggered by energy exploration activities of littoral states and the Libyan conflict, which pitted Turkey against a group of countries including Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, the UAE and Israel. Turkey saw the cooperation between these states as laying the ground for an energy and security order in the region that excluded it. Ankara’s policy was to undermine and prevent such an anti-Turkey energy and security order. See Dalay, G. (2021), Turkey, Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean: Charting a way out of the current deadlock, Report, Doha: Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/turkey-europe-and-the-eastern-mediterranean-charting-a-way-out-of-the-current-deadlock/ 

[2] Vakil, S. and Dalay, G. (2022), ‘Tehran talks strong on symbolism, short on substance’, Deutsche Welle, 20 July 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-russia-iran-turkey-talks-strong-on-symbolism-short-on-substance/a-62536299 

[3] Dalay, G. (2022), Turkey’s Middle East Reset: A Precursor for Re-Escalation?, Policy Paper, Doha: Middle East Council on Global Affairs, https://mecouncil.org/publication/turkeys-middle-east-reset-a-precursor-for-re-escalation/ 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Reuters (2022), ‘Saudi Arabia says it is close to making $5 billion deposit with Turkey’, 22 November 2022, https://www.reuters.com/markets/saudi-discussing-5-billion-deposit-turkey-saudi-finance-ministry-spox-2022-11-22/ 

[6] Jones, D. (2022), ‘Turkey Threatens to Hit US-Backed Syrian Kurds’, Voice of America, 22 November 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/turkey-threatens-to-hit-us-backed-syrian-kurds-/6845288.html

[7] Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2021), ‘Final Communiqué of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership’, 28 August 2021, https://mofa.gov.iq/2021/08/?p=25539 

[8] Antalya Diplomacy Forum (2022), ‘About’, https://antalyadf.org/en/adf-english/ 

[9] Doha Forum (2022), ‘Home’, https://dohaforum.org/home

[10] Dalay, G. (2021), Turkey, Europe, and the Eastern Mediterranean: Charting a way out of the current deadlock, Report, Doha: Brookings Institution,