Not so long ago, a confident Turkey behaved as a natural leader of the Middle East, with friendly Islamist regimes mushrooming amid the rubble of the Arab Spring and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mobbed by adulating crowds whenever he stepped on Arab soil.
Now, just when the U.S. needs Turkey’s help most against the surge of Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and beyond, Ankara’s regional influence has sunk to a low point.
Ambitious policies that overestimated the pull of political Islam—and misjudged the resilience of the Middle East’s old political order—have alienated Turkey from much of the region. With the exception of Iraqi Kurds, hardly any government in the Middle East is on good terms with Ankara nowadays.
“We came from a policy of having zero problems with our neighbors, and now we’re having problems with almost everyone,” said Umit Pamir, a retired diplomat who served as Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Greece.
Turkey’s relations with regional powerhouses Egypt and Israel are so bad that Ankara doesn’t have ambassadors in either country. Its insistence on regime change in Syria means chilly ties with Iran. The Shiite-led government in Baghdad is wary of Turkey’s reach into Iraqi Kurdistan, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are upset with Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s designs on the region. Even maverick Qatar, which used to enable Turkey’s foreign-policy ambitions, has moved closer to the rest of the Gulf.
Instead of becoming a leader showing the Middle East the way to democracy and prosperity, Turkey is struggling to cope with the spillover of the region’s problems—from Islamist militancy to sectarian strife to deadly street violence.
Turkish officials stress that they have taken in some two million Syrian refugees at a cost of billions of dollars. They argue the massacres perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad —coupled with Western unwillingness to act against him—have fueled the rise of Islamic State and have forced Turkey to press for regime change in Damascus.
But Mr. Erdogan’s risky bet on a quick downfall of the Syrian regime has left Ankara with limited options now that Mr. Assad has proved resilient. Turkey is increasingly at odds with the U.S. as it builds a coalition to tackle Islamic State instead—a project that includes helping Kurdish factions long seen as foes by Turkey.