Once the Arab League approved a no-fly zone, the Turkish position became truly strange. Erdogan expressed "heartfelt support" for prohibiting Qaddafi's use of airpower while simultaneously rejecting the "foreign intervention in friend and brother Libya." Even as NATO airstrikes took out loyalist air defenses, Ankara remained ambivalent toward Qaddafi's use of force against his own people, curiously committed to the Libyan leader. And though the Turks positioned themselves as the leading provider of humanitarian aid to Libya, they consistently rejected the use of force to protect rebel fighters, arguing instead for a Turkish-brokered cease-fire after which Qaddafi could begin the process of political reform. To the Benghazi rebel leadership, the Turks were, in fact, the culprits behind the noticeable downshift in the NATO air campaign in the previous few weeks. In time, as Turkish diplomatic efforts -- primarily through direct communication between the two leaders -- to persuade Qaddafi to stand down bore little in the way of positive results, Ankara ultimately came to the conclusion that almost everyone but Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and a group of motley African countries arrived at months ago: Qaddafi must go. On May 3, Erdogan declared to a gathering of journalists in Istanbul, "We wish to see Libya's leader step down immediately and leave Libya immediately for his own sake and for the sake of his country's future."
Turkey seems to be engaged in a similar diplomatic dance with regard to Syria. At one time, Ankara and Damascus were hostile neighbors in conflict over the downstream flow of the Euphrates river and Syrian support for the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which targeted the Turkish state in a quixotic campaign of Kurdish independence. During AKP's tenure, however, relations between the two countries warmed considerably. Syrians and Turks no longer require visas for travel between each country and Turkey has become Syria's largest trading partner. Although there has been precious little talk of foreign intervention in Syria, just to be sure, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that "internationalization" of the unrest there could lead to "undesired outcomes." Chief among them, from the Turkish perspective, would be the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Turks have much to be worried about when it comes to a destabilized Syria -- in particular a restive Kurdish region just to Turkey's south. It would also be a setback for Ankara's Middle East strategy, of which warm relations with Damascus have been central. Given those interests, it is unlikely that the Turks will break with Assad in the way they have now abandoned Qaddafi.
Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to "implement [reforms] without further delay" and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad's efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, "What democratic reforms?" The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad -- a distinct possibility -- then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.
Among the many myths that the Arab spring has shattered is the legend of Turkish foreign policy in the era of the AKP. If officials in Ankara are to be believed, Turkey's diplomacy has, over the course of the last decade -- and very often over the objections of Washington -- had a decisively positive effect on conflicts and problems from the Balkans and the Caucuses to Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. But Turkey's prideful rhetoric only masked the contradictions and weaknesses at the heart of its foreign policy. Erdogan, Davutoglu, and their advisors have to come to grips with how hard it is to master the Middle East.
There was always a lot less to Ankara's influence in the Arab world than met the eye. Turkish leaders love the anecdotes about Arabs watching Turkish soap operas, the posters of Erdogan in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the comparison between the Turkish prime minister and Gamal Abdel Nasser -- but the new Ottomans have found it as difficult to manage the politics of the region as the Sultans before them. At base, the Turks managed a measure of influence during a period of Arab decay.
It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara's interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished -- not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.