Turkey rediscovers the Middle East, but at what cost?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Driven by growing self-confidence and a yen to impress the West, Turkey is increasingly engaging itself with the Arab world but analysts warn that too much Middle East activism could backfire.

Under the stewardship of its mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its mold-breaking foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has over the past several years sought a more prominent role in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes and – somewhat paradoxically – taking a more assertive posture toward one-time ally Israel.

The true motives behind Turkey’s shift are not always easy to pin down. EU coldness over the prospect of full membership has certainly pushed the predominantly Muslim nation eastward, but analysts are not sure whether the reorientation signifies contempt about the snub or rather a desire to render itself more significant in Western eyes.

“The activism is both partly a reaction to the EU cold shower and partly an attempt to make itself more important,” said Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent think tank that recently published a report on Turkey and the Middle East.

“Turkey has always been opportunistic in search of greater exports at times of high buying power in the Middle East, and Turkey has always been less outgoing to Israel when the Arab-Israel peace process has been stalled,” he said.

‘Zero problems’

Inspired by Davutoglu, Erdogan’s longtime foreign policy guru often dubbed the “Turkish Kissinger,” Ankara has pursued a soft-power policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe. According to the ICG report, while Turkey’s total exports rose fourfold between 1996-2009, exports to the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) increased by seven times, reaching 28 percent of total exports in 2009.

In a major diplomatic turnaround, Turkey has made stunning improvement in ties with Syria and Iraq, long strained over water management of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the alleged backing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.

The realignment has come at a price. Relations with Israel have deteriorated. Following decades of close military and intelligence cooperation, Turkey’s public language is now more in tune with pro-Palestinian man-on-the-street sentiment. Israel’s raid on Gaza last year drew the ire of Turkish officials – most infamously Erdogan’s broadside against Israel President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During a recent visit to Paris, Erdogan branded Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

There’s more that Western powers have found hard to swallow. In a gesture prompted more by dogged pragmatism than Islamic solidarity, Turkish officials have resisted US-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Turkey, a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council buys a third of is gas exports from Iran and seeks to further reduce imports from Russia, currently at 65 percent. Recently Erdogan dismissed allegations that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons as “mere rumors.”

In one of his most controversial gestures up until now, the Turkish premier defended Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, on the grounds that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”

Loyalty

Is Turkey drifting away from the West? Analysts are reassuring of Ankara’s loyalty.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Turkey is turning its back on the West,” said RAND global policy think tank analyst Stephen Larrabee. He said the switch is all about change in the post cold-war security environment as the Middle East has replaced the Soviet Union as the Number One hot spot.

“What you’re seeing is a process of diversification and broadening of Turkey’s foreign policy, which, during the cold war period, was oriented almost solely toward the West. It still wants strong ties with the West but it’s not solely reliant on those ties,” Larrabee said.

Pope agrees that Ankara’s realignment does not signify any chill toward the West. “The twin pillars of Turkey’s foreign policy remain the same: its EU convergence process and the political/military alliance with the USA,” he said. “There has been a tendency by some in Turkey to overstate the ability of its Middle East policy to take the place of these fundamental pillars. This is unrealistic. Good relations with the world’s superpower are obviously vital,” Pope said, adding that it is precisely Turkey’s ties to the West that make the county attractive to the Arab world.

The same goes for Europe. The Middle East has never taken more than a quarter of Turkey’s exports and supplies only 10 percent of its tourists, while Turkey does half its trade with Europe and gets 90 percent of its foreign investment from EU states, said the ICG expert.

Too big for its boots?

However, experts warn that an overstretched Turkey risks losing sight of its priorities, spending precious diplomatic energy and capital in the Mideast when it should be working to solve problems closer to home.

“It is certainly a risk. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is badly overstretched in terms of its capabilities, plus the record is clear: limited progress on thorny issues such as Cyprus and Armenia,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert based in London.

A settlement on the Cyprus issue, made less likely following the victory of hardliner Dervis Eroglu in leadership elections in the Turkish-occupied north on Sunday, is a prerequisite if Turkey wishes to keep EU convergence on track. Meanwhile, smoothing relations with Washington means that Ankara must find a way to implement the recently signed protocols with Yerevan, long at loggerheads with Turkey over the killing of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Ankara has scrambled to prevent the full US House of Representatives from passing a resolution approved by a US congressional committee that has called the 1915 massacres of Armenians genocide.

EU unimpressed

Experts disagree over the extent to which Turkey’s Middle East activism could bolster its chances of joining the EU. For Piccoli, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, there is “a basic misunderstanding from the Turkish side: the belief that the EU can appreciate Turkey’s growing importance in the region and thus decide that it is an indispensable partner,” he said.

The problem is the EU has no coherent foreign policy and is not a credible actor in the international arena, especially in the Middle East. “The risk for Ankara is that those EU countries that are opposing Turkey’s bid for membership will exploit the issue to strengthen their anti-Turkey positions,” Piccoli said. EU heavyweights Germany and France have both grown allergic to the idea of full Turkish membership, offering vague talk of a “special partnership” instead.

Pope too sees a threat from skeptical European politicians playing to popular fears. “Some are exaggerating Turkey’s improved relations with the Middle East as a sign that Turkey is somehow not European. The reality is quite the other way round,” he said drawing parallels between Turkey’s policies in the Middle East – like visa-free travel and free trade – and postwar European peace-building measures.

“Turkey is trying to introduce EU-style ideas into the region like those that brought peace to Europe after the Second World War,” he said.

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