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Turkey’s Ability to Face both West and East Increases Its Clout

Written by Fevzi Bilgin, Assistant Professor of Political Science

 Turkish residents protest the deaths of nine Turkish activists by Israeli commandos last May after a flotilla of six boats set sail from Turkey to the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid.
© Aija Lehtonen | Dreamstime.com

Perhaps the most important development of the last couple of years, which has affected the entire Middle East region in one way or another, is the resurgence of Turkey as a major player.

Despite being geographically located in the Middle East, Turkey – in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – had turned its back on the region and transformed into a pro-Western secular republic. During the reorganization of the international system in the aftermath of World War II, Turkey opted to go with the West against the Soviet threat. Turkey then joined NATO in 1952 and became a dependable ally of the West in the region. Turkish foreign policy regarding the Middle East was mostly formed by the priorities of this alliance. Politically and ideologically, Turkey considered itself part of the larger Europe. However, this alignment has come into question in the last two years, thanks to various assertive moves by the Turkish government.

The highlight of the new Turkish foreign policy is its proactive stance towards Iran. Turkey and Iran have not experienced an interstate conflict since they settled their boundaries about four centuries ago. In the last two decades, Iran became an important supplier of natural gas to Turkey, along with Russia. And Turkey has been cautiously following the unfolding dispute between Iran, Israel, and the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. In the last couple of years, however, Turkish officials cast doubt on the assertion that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. To substantiate this position, in May 2010, Turkey joined with Brazil to broker a nuclear fuel-swap deal under which Iran would ship much of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for research-reactor fuel.

The deal was found inadequate—and impetuous—by Western nations and led to a dispute between the United States and Europe on the one side and Turkey and Brazil on the other. Subsequently, Turkey and Brazil voted ‘no’ to sanctions on Iran in the United Nations Security Council (both are non-permanent members).

Another episode which underscored Turkey’s turn happened outside the control of the Turkish government but jolted the whole region for a while, dealt a blow to the somewhat friendly relationship between Turkey and Israel, and boosted Turkey’s credit in the Arab world: the flotilla incident. In May 2010, a   flotilla of six boats set sail from Turkey to the Gaza Strip in order to deliver humanitarian aid. The Gaza Strip has had supplies blockaded by Israel since Hamas took over control of its government in 2006. The relationship between Israel and Turkey was already sour due to this blockade and especially so after a Gaza offensive by Israeli armed forces in January 2009. The flotilla was carrying citizens from 32 countries, including European legislators and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. One of the boats, the Mavi Marmara, owned by a Turkish charity, was carrying nearly 600 passengers, most of whom were Turkish citizens. As the Mavi Marmara docked in international waters across the Gaza Strip, Israeli commandos stormed the boat at night. The operation left nine Turkish activists dead and over 30 activists wounded. Turkish offi cials strongly condemned the Israeli aggression, calling it “state terrorism” and “an act which must be duly punished.” They also demanded an official apology and compensation packages for the families of the victims by Israel as a condition to normalize relations with Israel. The Israeli government refused to comply.

These two incidents left a bitter impression that an old friend of the West was turning away. It sure looks like Turkey considers Iran a friend and Israel an enemy. But Turkish officials vehemently deny these allegations. They argue that Turkey’s Iran policy is pretty much shaped by its reluctance to see another war in its backyard and a hope to defuse global tension over Tehran’s nuclear program. This policy is in line with the overarching principle of contemporary Turkish foreign policy, namely “zero problem with neighbors.” The principle is the brainchild of Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Since his appointment to the post in the summer of 2009, Davutoglu has brought not only a sense of consistency and comprehensiveness to Turkish foreign policy, but also a new dynamism that derives from what he calls “the strategic depth of Turkey,” which translates into assertive Turkish foreign policy through diplomacy, trade, and cultural interaction. Davutoglu believes that Turkey’s multiple ethnic and religious links make it an ideal mediator in such regions as the Balkans, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Most recently, Foreign Policy magazine ranked him seventh among the 100 top global thinkers “for being the brains behind Turkey’s global reawakening.”

Under the “zero problem with neighbors” policy, Turkey has embarked on several initiatives that have astonished international policy circles. Apart from the Iranian deal, Turkey has also changed its tune towards the regional government in semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed to normalize relations with Armenia, mediated peace negotiations between Israel and Syria until the eve of Israel’s Gaza offensive, established the Caucasus Stability and Security Platform, and made several overtures to Greece.

Currently, Turkey is busy with establishing a trade zone with Syria, a past enemy, along with Lebanon and Jordan. Turkish companies are constructing airports, shopping malls, and skyscrapers throughout the region, from Cairo to Dubai. The shift in the policy is most visible in Iraq. According to a recent New York Times report, about 15,000 Turkish citizens in 700 Turkish companies are operating in Northern Iraq in every possible sector.

Turkey’s hyperactivity in the region owes more than anything to the domestic stability it has achieved in the last decade. Turkey lost the critical decade of the 1990s due to petty politics of coalition governments, and ended the decade in a deep economic and political crisis. Since 2002, it is run by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish). AKP’s success, especially in the area of economic growth (Turkey’s GDP has since tripled) and good governance, have been rewarded by the voters repeatedly with great margins of victory in two parliamentary elections, two local elections, and two constitutional referendums.

Notwithstanding, Turkey’s power mostly derives from the fact that the country is still considered as part of the Western alliance by its Middle Eastern neighbors. Turkey’s trade with the Middle East is growing, but it is still nowhere near to its trade with Europe. Turkey has lost no interest in European Union membership despite numerous setbacks.

To conclude, as Turkey puts its house in order, its religious and cultural affinity with the Middle Eastern nations, along with its Western and democratic credentials, provides enormous opportunities that boost its soft power in the region.