More, Turkey’s role as the de facto head of western Sunnism looked promising. The state of the Sunni Arab world is deeply depressing. The fall of Saddam Hussein, the ever-tightening relationship of Syria and Iran, the growing Shi’a power in Lebanon and more recently Iran’s success (with Syrian help) at building its influence in Gaza, paint a disturbing picture of Sunni fecklessness and decline. Dominated by corrupt dinosaurs like former Egyptian president Mubarak or ruled by immensely wealthy and not particularly courageous or attractive royal families, the western Sunni world hungered for leadership that Turkey might be ready to provide.
The great idea of a return to the east was looking good.
But Atatürk’s instinct that Turkey needed to turn west was based on more than a sense that the west was where the power and the money could be found. It was also based on a sense that the east was a trap: full of danger and complications that could endanger Turkey’s stability if Turks were sucked into its quarrels.
Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iraq (to say nothing of Israel and the Palestinian territories) are still on the ethnic and sectarian boil. None of these countries have borders that match up with their ethnic composition; religious divisions still have the power to kill; tribal loyalties are oblivious to artificial boundary lines. There is probably a lot of killing still to be done and a lot of ethnic and religious refugees to be made before these countries settle down into something like a final form.
Involvement with the east might start with expanding Turkish trade and enhancing Turkey’s diplomatic and Islamic profiles; it will be very difficult to ensure that it does not entangle Turkey into intractable conflicts across the region. Indeed, Turkish foreign policy has already been destabilized by the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Israel-Palestinian rivalries, and the Kurdish question in Iraq, Syria and Iran brings Turkey new and vexing headaches every day.
Asserting itself as an Islamic and Middle Eastern power plunges Turkey more deeply into this morass; it also triggers religious and ethnic tensions within Turkey itself. The AK is predominantly a Sunni party but up to a fifth of Turks belong to the Alevi faith, a form of Islam that is rooted in Twelver Shi’ism but has a more tolerant and universalist view than, say, the bigoted orthodoxies of Tehran. Many Alevi oppose the AK Party and what some see as its Sunni sectarianism; a secular government sounds very attractive when you belong to a religious minority.
And of course there are the Kurds... Any eastern expansion of Turkish influence immediately deepens Turkey’s engagement with the Kurdish question.
Professor Mead also points out that a reviving of Ottoman ambitions is not just a turn to engage the traditional Mid East, "The regional dynamics are even more complex. In a rivalry between Turkey and Iran, Russia would not look on indifferently". Russia was the Ottoman Empire's traditional enemy, and any move of Turkey away from the West and isolated from the East can only rekindle that fire.