Turkey veers into the East, clumsily

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara is increasingly asserting itself in the Middle East but a series of clumsy moves threaten to damage its relationship with the West, the cornerstone of Turkey’s security policy over the past 90 years, analysts warn.

The dramatic deterioration in ties with Israel, a long-time economic and military ally, is seen as emblematic of this trend. Last month Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks died in the operation. Ankara has threatened to sever diplomatic ties altogether unless Israel offers a public apology and agrees to a UN-led investigation into the incident.

Although Israel has taken most of the flack for the carnage, many analysts agree that Turkey did not do enough to prevent the disaster. “There are indications that the Turkish government rather than stopping the flotilla, had actually – and privately – encouraged it,” Burak Bekdil, an Istanbul-based commentator, told Athens Plus.

“The Turkish government saw in the flotilla a convenient tool to embarrass the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and bring international attention to the embargo on Gaza,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish Milliyet daily, adding that neither side predicted the magnitude and violence of events.

Can Turkey-Israel ties recover from the latest shock? “Not in the foreseeable future,” said Bekdil, who expects even more tension and confrontation in the near future. “As long as either or both governments stay in power, things can only further deteriorate,” he said.

Muscle flexing

Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 was a major blow to ties with Turkey but, at the same time, it presented Ankara with an opportunity to flex its muscle in the Mideast region. Propelled by its visionary Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has sought to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker in the lands of the one-time Ottoman empire. It has mended ties with Iraq and Syria ending years of tension over water management in the Tigris-Euphrates river system and over alleged protection of Kurdish militia. Diplomatic fervor has come with impressive economic overtures. Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe.

Critics however have slammed Ankara’s alleged cynicism, knowing that slapping Israel is the safest way to make friends in the Arab world. It is in this light that Bekdil sees the flotilla incident as a sign of Ankara’s determination “to go forward with neo-Ottoman ambitions,” a common reference to Davutoglu’s strategic vision.

On top of distancing itself from Israel, Turkey has been cozying up with the Jewish state’s nemesis in the region, Iran. Earlier this month Ankara, which depends on Iran for a big chunk of its energy, voted against UN sanctions on Tehran, raising eyebrows among its western allies who are wary of Iran’s nuclear program.

“There is nothing wrong with Turkey being more active in the Arab world, delving into frozen conflicts there or boosting trade and other ties with our Arab neighbors,” Aydintasbas said. “But there is everything wrong with re-entering the Middle East hand in hand with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hamas. On that we need to do some fine tuning and, yes, we are deviating from the West,” she added.

Some say Turkey, a NATO member, is already paying a price for it. Military analysts have warned that Turkey’s shift undermines its fight on PKK rebels. Turkey has depended on US intelligence and Israeli drones to track down Kurdish guerrillas. As nine Turkish soldiers died in an attack on a military outpost last weekend, speculation grew whether the US withheld intelligence.

Lost cause?

Meanwhile, Turkey will find it hard to convince European leaders about its loyalty to the EU cause. Breaking ranks with the western powers in the Security Council and escalating tension with Israel “does not make Turkey more European,” Aydintasbas explained. “It makes us look like we are trying to be the leader of another camp – not the EU.”

But is Turkey’s Mideast activism really compatible with its European ambitions? Aydintasbas believes there is no necessary connection between the two. “It should not technically jeopardize our EU status. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place in the EU either,” she said, rejecting the view that Turkey should try to impress the West, as it were, by becoming a big player in the Middle East.

EU membership, she says, is about fulfilling EU criteria, raising democratic standards and internalizing core European values. “We cannot enter the EU just by being able to mediate between troubled Arab states. That is a fantasy,” she said.

Turkey’s nascent engagement in the Middle East is not troubling the West alone. Turkish flags can be seen waving in the Arab cities (a recent survey found that 43 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank see Turkey as the strongest champion of their cause) and Erdogan, a devout Sunni, is even drawing comparisons to the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. But despite Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab streets, it is also true that certain Arab elites are watching the emergence of an unofficial Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Turkey axis with great concern, said Aydintasbas.

But it is not all grim. A positive side-effect of Turkey’s growing influence is that leaders in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some Gulf states is that it challenges their authoritarian style of government. “Arab leaders are not quite happy with the emergence of public movements be they in favor of Erdogan or any other political cause,” Bekdil said. “Any public movement is usually viewed by leaders as a potential uprising and risk to their autocratic rule.”

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