Ankara Flexes Mideast Muscles

As Turkey's star continues to rise in the Middle East, how will the country use its growing clout - and what impact will this have on Israel?

20 turk2 (photo credit: AP)
20 turk2
(photo credit: AP)
Cover story of Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Turkey's days as a marginal player in the Middle East may be over. If, for the last few decades, Ankara has stayed on the sidelines of regional conflicts, keeping its Arab and Muslim neighbors at arm's length as it sets its gaze westward, recent events suggest that the country is now vying for a more pivotal role. Two major meetings in November are emblematic of Turkey's growing clout. On November 13, Ankara played host to a historic event: an address in parliament by both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas. Peres's speech marked the first time an Israeli leader addressed the legislature of a predominantly Muslim country and was the culmination of a several days' trip that both Ankara and Jerusalem viewed as loaded with importance. The visit - which took place just before the late-November Annapolis summit in the United States - was especially significant for Turkey, giving it a chance to play up its credentials as a regional mediator. Despite the visit's modest achievements (the two leaders signed an agreement paving the way for the creation of an Israeli-Palestinian industrial park in the West Bank which would be built with Turkish help), the Turkish press covered it with what sometimes seemed like an inflated sense of self-importance, heralding Ankara's arrival (perhaps prematurely) as a peace broker. The euphoria of the Peres-Abbas peace summit had yet to wear off when the Turks were confronted with their country's role as host of another Middle East-related meeting - one with a very different tone. Just a few days after the joint parliamentary address in Ankara, Istanbul was the site of the Al-Quds International Forum, a large conference that drew together Islamist and anti-Zionist groups from across the Muslim world to talk about how to "liberate" Jerusalem from Israel's hands. Although it didn't have official Turkish support, the conference was co-hosted by the Turkish Foundation for Volunteering Organizations, Turkey's largest Islamic non-governmental organization, which has very close ties to the government. The forum took place in an Ottoman-era fez factory that has been converted into a municipal-run convention center, and, in contrast to the Peres-Abbas meeting, focused on conflict rather than peace. "If someone takes something from you by force, the only way to take it back is by force!" former Egyptian prime minister Aziz Setki told the raucous crowd of several thousand during the opening session. "Let's get it together and take it from them by force!" he added, joined by several other speakers who delivered the same message. The mainstream Turkish papers related to the conference with alarm. "A call for jihad from Istanbul," screamed a front-page headline in the secular-minded Milliyet, one of the largest dailies. "Which of these is the real Turkey?" asked the arch-secular Cumhuriyet, contrasting the Al-Quds conference with the Peres-Abbas meeting. It's a question that Turks may be asking themselves more and more frequently. Over the last five years, the government, led by the liberal-Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), has forcefully realigned the country's Middle East foreign policy, seeking a greater engagement with the region in terms of diplomacy, trade and even culture and religion. This reengagement represents a break with the past, but it also offers some important new opportunities for Turkey and the region. At the same time, it has also raised concerns, both at home and abroad, about what Turkey's deepening of its involvement in the Middle East will mean for its relations with the West, as well as with Israel. "Domestically, there is both excitement and concern about this new foreign policy in the Middle East. The excitement comes from rediscovering a geographical area you were once familiar with. On the other hand, there is concern about getting engaged too much," says Murat Yetkin, an Ankara-based columnist for Radikal, a leading daily newspaper. Despite Turkey's deep roots in the Middle East, Ankara had mostly kept the country disconnected from the region since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923. With Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, setting the country on a Western-oriented, secularizing and modernizing course, the Arab and Islamic countries of the region were often viewed with some disdain. The experience of the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which saw many of its Arab subjects turn against it, also left Turks with a sense of betrayal. In turn, many Arabs, viewed modern Turkey with some suspicion, worrying that it harbored some of the Ottomans' imperial ambitions and also preferred to keep their distance. The emergence of the AKP, which first came to power five years ago and was then overwhelmingly re-elected this past summer, brought a change. Rooted in a reformist wing of Turkey's political Islam movement, the party's top leaders were both more comfortable and familiar with the countries of the Middle East. The end of the Cold War also meant that Turkey now had more options in the region, something the AKP was intent on pursuing. "The fact is that Turkey is no longer the satellite country of the Cold War years, but one that has its own regional and security priorities and doesn't need to check with anyone anymore before doing something. Of course you coordinate and inform, but you don't ask for anyone's permission," says Suat Kiniklioglu, an AKP member of parliament and spokesman for the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "Turkey's geography necessitates that it have multiple foreign policy options. There isn't a choice in that anymore," he adds. The changes have been quite swift. Relations with neighboring Syria - which only eight years ago was on the verge of war with Turkey because it was harboring Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan - have been quickly warming up. Bashar Asad recently visited Turkey, making him the first Syrian president to ever do so. And since 2002, meanwhile, Turkey's relations with another neighbor, Iran, have also been expanding, with bilateral trade growing from $1.2 billion in 2002 to $6.7 billion last year. This past July, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding that sees a $3.5 billion Turkish investment in developing an important Iranian oil field. The two countries are also reportedly working out details for an early 2008 visit to Turkey by firebrand Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "This has always been part of their game plan. The AKP has always felt that Turkey has punched below its weight internationally, that it had been too timid and sat in the corner," says Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and an expert on Turkey. The mastermind of this turnaround has been Ahmet Davutoglu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's chief foreign policy adviser. A soft-spoken academic, Davutoglu is best known for his book, "Strategic Depth," which argues that Turkey had failed to take full advantage of its geographic location and historical ties in the area surrounding it, not just the Middle East, but also Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus. "Turkey has historical depth in the region," he told The Report in an interview, in early 2003, at his office in the prime ministry in Ankara. "Until today," he observed, "the Turkish approach has been to keep away from the Middle East's problems, to say it's their problem. We want to change that." Indeed, a large part of Turkey's reengagement with the Middle East seems to be animated by an almost nostalgic yearning to recapture something of the Ottoman glory, if not in terms of territory then certainly in terms of influence, and to reclaim parts of the Ottoman past. In Jerusalem, for example, Turkey is seeking to erect a memorial near the Old City walls to honor the Ottoman soldiers who died in the waning days of the empire fighting the British in World War I. Up until recent years, the late Ottoman period and its political decay was often viewed by Turks as something to forget, not remember. "How can you disassociate yourself from an empire... which existed for almost 700 years? We are the descendants of the Ottoman Empire and we have to recognize that past and we have to embrace our legacy," says Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to Israel. "We have been in this region around 500 years. We have established very strong cultural and historical affiliations to all the people living in this region. In other words, we are local. This is very important. This means that we think we understand the issues better than other parties, such as the Europeans and others. I don't say they are less interested, but we can understand the feelings of the people living in this region better," he adds. With its strategic relationship with Israel, along with its budding connections to countries like Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, Ankara is hoping to establish itself as a kind of regional power broker. Turkey has already suggested that it was the one that convinced the Syrians to attend Annapolis, while Erdogan has claimed that he played a role in convincing Asad to pull his troops out of Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005. Yet the question still remains: Has Turkey's influence started to match up with its ambition? Mustafa Kibaroglu, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Bilkent University, warns that Turkey should be careful not to overreach in the Middle East. To ultimately have an impact in the region, Ankara must first develop a kind of regional expertise that right now does not exist after decades of ignoring the region, he says. "If Turkey wants to play an active role in the Middle East, one of the first things it must do is have a cadre of experts who don't only want to know the region but are respected in the region as people who know the region," Kibaroglu says. "Right now, Turkey's initiatives might be limited to public diplomacy, bringing people here for a few days, but it might not go beyond that." Adds Kibaroglu: "It's not an area where you can just do things for the sake of making your reputation. It's an area where one must take his steps with utmost care." But Hugh Pope, a senior analyst based in Istanbul with the International Crisis Group (ICG), a policy and research organization, says Turkey's Middle East moves are starting to pay off. "Turkey has become one of the pollinators, one of the actors on the circuit. It's hard to think of anyone else who can visit the wide variety of countries, from Israel to Iran, that Turkey can," he says. "Turkey is not a prime mover, it is in the second division, but is being increasingly listened to across the region," he points out. A respected Arab analyst, who asked not to be named because of laws in his country forbidding contact with the Israeli media, says the AKP, through its successful governance and re-election in Turkey and its steering of a course that is more independent of the U.S., has slowly been earning more acceptance for Turkey in the Arab world. "I think generally there is a sense that Turkey is one of ours... that they can be trusted in the role that they want to play as a mediator," he says. "Some people may have lingering suspicions regarding Turkey's relationship with Israel. But, in general, if you look at Turkey's relations with the countries in the region, they are pretty good and there is a sense that we have a lot of lessons to learn from them, in terms of economic adjustment and democratization. There are a lot of good things that people have seen the Turks do." As Turkey's star continues to rise in the Middle East and it further deepens its involvement in the region, another question remains: How this will impact on the country's relations with Israel? The relationship first took off in the late 1990s, but the last five years have certainly seen the two allies pass through some severe crises. In his first few years in office, Erdogan frequently referred to Israeli actions against the Palestinians as "state terror," although he has since toned don his rhetoric. The February 2006 Ankara visit of radical Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, who is based in Damascus, was another blow to Turkish-Israeli ties. Part of a Turkish maneuver to present itself as a more prominent player on the Palestinian issue, the visit was seen by many as clumsily executed and was strongly denounced by both Israel and members of the U.S. congress. The issue of how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions also divides Turkey and Israel, despite the general sense of goodwill during the Peres visit. "Turkey instills trust. Iran instills fear," the Israeli president told parliament during his address. On the other hand, in a joint press conference the day before, Turkish President Abdullah Gul publicly defended Iran's right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful means, something Israel does not support. (The Turkish parliament has recently passed legislation allowing the country to build nuclear energy plants.) Although the two countries managed to get relations back on track in the last year, many observers say the dynamic that originally brought Ankara and Jerusalem together has been fundamentally changed by the arrival of the AKP, whose more pious leadership stands in stark contrast to the secularist politicians who helped bring about the closer ties with Israel a decade ago. "The Turkey-Israel relationship is a lot less comfortable for Israel than it was six or seven years ago and part of that is because of the rise of people like Erdogan and Gul, who are much more balanced in their relations with the Arab world than their predecessors," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat in Turkey who later served as the chairman of the Turkey-Israel Chamber of Commerce. "The new Turkey, in the age of Erdogan and Gul, is not good news for the Olmert government. It's not something that the Israeli government is terribly happy about," he adds. Still, trade between the two countries remains strong, standing at $2.5 billion this year, double what it was four years ago. Defense relations also continue to be an important element of the relations, with Israel continuing to upgrade Turkish tanks and, according to press reports in Turkey, provide the unmanned surveillance aircraft used by Ankara in its recent attacks against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq. But Gabby Levi, Israel's ambassador to Turkey, says Turkey's more muscular foreign policy and its desire to play a mediating role in the Israeli-Arab conflict have not had a negative impact on relations. "Turkey sees itself as a more serious regional player that can impact the region and they understand that to play this role they need to have good relations with everyone in the region. I think they are doing this wisely," he says, adding "Turkey does have an important role in the game between us and our neighbors. You can't ignore that." What may actually have more of animpact on the two countries' ties is not what goes on between Ankara and Jerusalem, but rather what goes on between Ankara and Washington. Turkey, Israel and the U.S. have, in many ways, a triangular relationship, one where trouble in one pair of relations could easily have an impact on another pair. In that sense, Israel could well be facing more trouble when it comes to Turkey. The last few years have witnessed a string of crises that have dogged Ankara and Washington and that have worked to erode mutual trust, starting with the Turkish parliament's failure in March, 2003, to approve a motion which would have allowed the U.S. to invade Iraq through the Turkish border. The two countries also don't see eye-to-eye on how to deal with Iran and Syria. And, until only recently, Ankara had been fuming that the U.S. had done little to deal with the presence in northern Iraq of the outlawed Kurdish PKK movement, whose guerrillas have stepped up their attacks against Turkish troops over the last few years. The Kurdish issue, in particular, has been one of the factors pushing Turkey closer to Syria and Iran, who, with sizable Kurdish populations of their own, also face the threat of ethnic separatism. "Do the U.S. and Turkey have similar policies? On Iraq, no. On Iran, no. On Syria, no. Overall, we are talking about a U.S. and Turkey that are not on the same wavelength," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Adds Aliriza: "If things get bad with Washington, that inevitably has an effect on relations with Israel." This was the case with the recent crisis over the passing by a congressional committee of a bill recognizing the massacres carried out during World War I by Ottoman forces against Armenians as a genocide. As Turkish-American relations took a nosedive over the possibility of the resolution being put to a full vote in the house (it was ultimately shelved), Israel - which has long supported Turkey on the genocide debate because of its strategic importance - was inevitably pulled into the affair, with Ankara calling on it to get American Jewish organizations behind the lobbying effort to defeat the bill. But despite the recent strains with the U.S. and the increased involvement with its Muslim neighbors to the east, both Turkish politicians and experts say Ankara is, for now, not turning its back on its ties to the West. And Turkey is continuing to pursue its European Union membership bid, despite significant resistance in some European capitals. "This isn't replacing our EU drive. It's actually strengthening it," says Kiniklioglu, the AKP parliamentarian, about Turkey's new Middle East foreign policy. "A Turkey that has healthy and constructive relations in its neighborhood makes it a more valuable member for the European Union." Adds the ICG's Pope: "Turkey's higher profile on the world stage is directly linked to its EU candidacy. If it repudiated the EU connection, it would frankly lose much of its prestige with other countries. And [the AKP government] understands this very well." For now, at least, it appears that Turkey is working on several tracks simultaneously: pursuing the EU while at the same time warming up its formerly frigid relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors; cozying up to Iran and Syria while also maintaining its close ties to the U.S. and Israel; and setting itself up as regional mediator as well as a political and economic heavyweight. "These AKP guys don't have any qualms about seeing Turkey as part of the Middle East. But they don't see the future as restricted to the Middle East," says Lehigh University's Barkey. "They see Turkey as a conduit between the East and the West, in the most expansive sense of the word." Cover story of Issue 20, January 21, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.