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Articles > Turkey and the World > Turkey's widening arc of influence

By Paul Woodward 

"Prospects for Turkey's accession to the exclusive European club may look dimmer than ever but the republic, which is Nato's only Muslim member, is increasingly turning eastward for its ambitions," Hamida Ghafour wrote in The National.

"From the Balkans to the Caucasus to the Middle East, Turkey is focusing its energies on establishing an arc of influence in many countries which were once part of the Ottoman empire."

Turkey's ascent in regional influence has corresponded precisely with the dwindling power of the United States whose own regional ambitions tumbled in Iraq.

As Newsweek noted: "it's the Turks - not the Iranians, as many observers claim - who are now emerging as the war's real winners. In economic terms Turkey is running neck and neck with Iran as Iraq's biggest trading partner, even as most US businesses sit helplessly on the sidelines. And in terms of regional influence, Turkey has no rival. The country's stern-faced prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is working to consolidate that strength as he asserts Turkey's independence in a part of the world long dominated by America. Next week he's in Washington to meet with President Obama, but only a few weeks ago he stood shoulder to shoulder with his 'good friend' Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran and defended Iran's nuclear programme.

"That's only one example of the behaviour that's disturbing many of Turkey's longtime Nato partners. Among the biggest worries has been the souring of ties with Israel, once Turkey's close ally, over the military offensive in Gaza earlier this year that human-rights groups say killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Erdogan walked out of the World Economic Forum in protest over the deaths, and recently scrapped a decade-old deal allowing the Israeli Air Force to train over Turkish territory. At the same time, the Turkish prime minister has repeatedly supported Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, claiming he couldn't possibly be guilty of genocide in Darfur because he's a 'good Muslim'. Right now there are 'more points of disagreement than of agreement' between Washington and Ankara, says Philip Gordon, Obama's point man on Turkey at the State Department."

Even so, Newsweek observed: "Turkey's new standing in the region has a chance of transforming the country into something far more valuable to Washington than a subservient tool or proxy. The Turks say they're seeking to become what Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu calls a 'partner to solve the region's problems'. Whatever ambitions they may have harboured in earlier years, it's only in this decade - especially since 2002, when Erdogan and the AKP came to power - that Turkey has had the economic and political strength, as well as the military presence, to fill such a position."

In The New York Times, Alastair Crooke wrote: "In recent months, a spate of new agreements have been signed by Turkey with Iraq, Iran and Syria that suggest a nascent commonality of political vision. A new treaty with Armenia further signals how seriously Ankara means its 'zero problem' good neighbour policy.

"More importantly, however, the agreements with Iraq, Iran and Syria reflect a joint economic interest. The 'northern tier' of Middle Eastern states are poised to become the principal supplier of natural gas to central Europe once the Nabucco pipeline is completed - thus not only displacing Russia in that role but gradually eclipsing the primacy of Saudi Arabia as a geostrategic kingpin due to its oil reserves.

"Taken together with the economic stagnation and succession crisis that has incapacitated Egypt, it is clear that the so-called moderate 'southern tier' Middle Eastern states that have been so central to American policies are becoming a weak and unreliable link indeed."

Today's Zaman reported: "Ahead of an upcoming visit by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Washington, the United States has appeared to dismiss concerns that Turkey's foreign policy orientation is shifting away from the West, saying Ankara stands out as a democratic model for its region.

" 'We have a very robust and broad relationship with Turkey. Turkey is a valued member of Nato. We see [Turkey] as an important model for the region in terms of its very vital democratic institutions,' State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told a daily press briefing on Wednesday.

"He was responding to a question on whether there has been a change in the way the US perceives its relations with Turkey amid growing accusations by 'pro-Israeli forces in Washington' that Ankara is moving away from the West and building alliances with Iran and Syria."

On Monday, an editorial in The Washington Post had claimed: "it is becoming evident that Mr Erdogan's commitment to democratic principles and Western values is far from complete. As Turkey's prospects of joining the European Union have dimmed, the government's foreign policy has taken a nasty turn: Shrill denunciations of Israel have been accompanied by increasing coziness with the criminal rulers of Iran, Syria and Sudan."

Semih Idiz, in a commentary for Hurriyet responded to the Post's editorial, saying: "those who see Turkey moving away from the West now - and we personally don't believe this to be the case - are basically in a state of panic because Turkey, free from the pressures of the Cold War, has started acting too independently for Western comfort.

"The desired formula on the other hand is a traditional one.

"A Turkey that remains in the western fold, but is not allowed in its inner sanctum because it is the 'eternal other'. A docile Turkey, that is - which thus meets the West's varying needs.

"This paradigm may have been operational in the past but it is no longer.

"Like it or not, those who deal with Turkey have begun to see that they are dealing with an entity that is increasingly coming up with its own ideas, even if these do not tally with the needs of the West."

Patrick Seale noted that Mr Erdogan's most daunting political challenge nevertheless is domestic rather than foreign: his Kurdish initiative.

"Erdogan knows... that reconciliation with the Kurds is a must, which cannot be avoided however difficult it may be. It is an essential element of the ambitious diplomatic campaign - spearheaded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu - to make Turkey a key player in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, by mediating conflicts, promoting economic and trading ties with neighbours such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, and generally spreading peace and stability across the region.

"Atatürk's slogan of 'peace at home, and peace abroad' has been adopted by the AKP as its own. Without peace at home, there can be no long-term peace abroad. Having recently made dramatic progress abroad, the Erdogan government is now determined to address the first part of the equation, even if it means a potentially bruising battle with its domestic critics.

"Erdogan's long and emotional speech in parliament on 13 November, in which he launched his Kurdish reform program, was hailed by his supporters as an historic event. Many Kurds welcomed the new conciliatory approach, but the more militant among them felt that the concessions being made to them were still too timid. This is Erdogan's dilemma: His opening to the Kurds risks antagonising many voters, but he may not have gone far enough to persuade the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to lay down their arms and end a conflict which has caused some 40,000 deaths over the past quarter of a century."

Source: "The National", Abu Dhabi, 30 November 2009

http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091130/GLOBALBRIEFING/911309989


 


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