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Turkey: a major player in the Middle East

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Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, was once a comparatively marginal player in the Middle East, placing a premium on cultivating relations with nations outside the region. But in the past decade, in a dramatic shift, Turkey has become a significant power in the Mideast, having upgraded ties with the Arab world and Iran, adopted a more activist approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and extended its influence into Turkic countries in Central Asia.

“Turkey wants to be a major actor in the old Ottoman lands,” explained Sami Kohen, an influential Turkish foreign affairs newspaper columnist.

For decades after the emergence of the pro-western secular Turkish republic in 1923, Turkey, under the leadership of its founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, largely limited its involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. But since the Justice and Development party’s accession to power in 2002, Turkey – a Sunni Muslim state and the sole Islamic member of the NATO alliance – has upgraded relations with countries it once ruled.

And since the Arab Spring, the rebellions in the Mideast that have toppled a succession of authoritarian Arab regimes, Turkey has been regarded as a model for aspiring Arab democracies thanks to its democratic traditions, thriving economy and growing diplomatic clout.

The revolution in Turkey’s foreign policy is driven by a desire to consolidate and expand its $1-trillion economy, promote regional stability and increase its profile in the Middle East. The chief architects of Turkey’s new activism in the region are Abdullah Gul, the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister. 

All three men are members of the Justice and Development party, which is rooted in Turkey’s Islamist movement, hews to a conservative social agenda and is dedicated to promoting liberal market policies. Founded 11 years ago, the Justice and Development party has won three consecutive elections since 2002, most recently in 2011.

Until about a century ago, the Ottomans dominated the Middle East, exerting control in such colonial outposts as Palestine, Syria and Iraq. With its catastrophic defeat in World War I, the Ottoman Empire, aligned to Germany, was partitioned by the Allies. Turkey emerged from the smouldering ruins as an independent nation. The new regime jettisoned the caliphate, secularized the nation, appropriated the Latin alphabet and moved closer to Europe.

Turkish governments from the 1920s onward generally looked beyond the Middle East, but in recent years, Turkey has strengthened links with Arab countries, Iran and Central Asian nations ranging from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan. Of the 30-plus new embassies and consulates Turkey has opened since 2000, more than a dozen have been in Muslim lands. During this period, Turkey’s volume of trade with Islamic nations has nearly doubled.

Since his appointment as foreign minister in 2009, Davutoglu, a political scientist by training and Erdogan’s former adviser, Turkey has deepened its connections to its old Ottoman clients. Although Davutoglu is associated with the concept of neo-Ottomanism, he denies that Turkey is attempting to rebuild a neo-Ottoman order in the Mideast so as to gain regional hegemony.

“We want good relations with all countries in the Middle East,” said a top-level Turkish diplomat in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. “But we have no desire to dominate anyone.”

In pursuit of its interests, Turkey has sought to create a “zero problems” policy with its neighbours. But since the Middle East is riddled with problems, this policy has not been entirely successful.

Turkey, having supported successful Arab uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, has reaped tangible benefits in those countries.

But in Syria, where a bloody revolt threatens to spark a civil war, Turkey’s influence has crumbled.

Turkey, having almost gone to war with Syria in the late 1990s over its support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), renewed ties with Damascus after President Bashar Assad cracked down on the Kurds. Trade relations boomed, Turkey and Syria conducted joint military manoeuvres and Erdogan established close personal bonds with Assad.

But when Assad reneged on a promise to liberalize his totalitarian regime, Turkey openly sided with the Syrian rebels, sheltered thousands of Syrian refugees in tent camps near the border and even threatened armed intervention.

Erdogan has called for “moral intervention” in Syria to end the bloodshed and has predicted that Assad’s government will not last. More recently, the Turkish interior minister accused Syria of permitting Kurds to reestablish bases on Syrian territory. On May 30, Turkey expelled Syria’s ambassador in Ankara.

Discord between Turkey and Iraq has grown since Ankara allowed Iraq’s vice-president, Tariq al-Hashimi, to settle in Istanbul.  Hashimi, charged with terrorism, is considered a fugitive by Baghdad.

Turkey has cultivated its relationship with Iran, its largest supplier of natural gas after Russia and one of its most important trading partners. Nearly two years ago, after Turkey became the sole NATO member to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a visit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed concern that Turkey was gravitating toward Iran.

 Turkey, though, has been critical of Iran’s support of Assad, while Iran has castigated Turkey for agreeing to participate in a proposed NATO missile shield program designed to track missiles launched from Iranian territory. Turkey has also upset Tehran by reducing crude oil imports from Iran.

Turkey backs Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, but opposes a militarized nuclear program. A few years ago, Turkey and Brazil co-sponsored a plan to outsource Iranian uranium enrichment to a third country, a plan the United States rejected. Turkey has voiced opposition to an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Turkey’s quest for “zero problems” with neighbours has also hit a wall with respect to Israel. Bilateral relations have frayed since the Gaza war in 2008-09 and the storming of the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel that tried to break Israel’s naval siege of the Gaza Strip.

Before the latest troubles, Turkey earned Israel’s gratitude by mediating four rounds of indirect talks with Syria that took place in 2008. But the Turkish leadership angered Israel by inviting Hamas leaders to Turkey, hoping to moderate its policy, and by supporting the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral gambit for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood.

Although Turkey was the first Muslim state to extend recognition to Israel, Turkey voted against the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan and has since been a keen supporter of the Palestinian cause. 

Yet Turkey firmly opposes Palestinian terrorism. As a Turkish official said, “Our message is clear. We reject violence, and dialogue must be the way to settle problems.”

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