One way and another, a resurgent Turkey is rewriting the rules of the power game in the Middle East, in a positive and non-confrontational manner. This is one of the few bright spots in a turbulent and highly-inflammable Middle East, says Patrick Seale.
It is generally accepted that America’s destruction of Iraq overturned the balance of power in the Gulf, opening the way for the Islamic Republic of Iran to emerge as a major regional power, able to challenge the dominance of Sunni Arab states and pose as a rival to both Israel and the United States.
Its influence has spread to Iraq itself -- now under Shi ‘a leadership -- and beyond to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and even perhaps to Zaidi rebels in northern Yemen fighting the central government in Sana‘a, a development which has aroused understandable anxiety in Saudi Arabia.
However, the Iraq War has had another important consequence which is also attracting serious notice. America’s failure in Iraq -- and its equal failure to tame Israel’s excesses -- has encouraged Turkey to emerge from its pro-American strait-jacket, and assert itself as a powerful independent actor at the heart of a vast region which extends from the Middle East to the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The Turks like to say that whereas Iran and Israel are revisionist powers, arousing anxiety and even fear by their expansionism and their challenge to existing power structures, Turkey is a stabilizing power, intent on spreading peace and security far and wide.
Turkey is extending its influence by peaceful diplomacy rather than by military force. It is also forging economic ties with its neighbours, and has offered to mediate in several persistent regional conflicts. It has, however, not hesitated to use force to quell the guerrilla fighters of the PKK, a radical movement fighting for Kurdish independence.
But even here, Turkey is now using a softer approach. PKK rebels have been offered an amnesty and Turkey’s influential Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has this past week paid a historic visit -- the first of its kind -- to the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. There is even talk of Turkey opening a consulate in Erbil.
In recent years, Turkey’s diplomacy has scored many successes, winning great popularity in the Arab world and strengthening Turkey’s hand in its bid to join the European Union. Some people would go so far as to argue that there is no future for Turkey without the EU, and no future for the EU without Turkey.
Turkey’s dynamic multi-directional foreign policy started to take shape when the AKP came to power in 2002, under its leaders Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Abdullah Gül, now President of the Turkish Republic. These men are rightly considered to be conservative and moderately Islamic -- their wives wear headscarves -- but they are careful to stress that they have no ambition to create an Islamic state. Turkey’s population may be largely Muslim, but the state itself is secular, democratic, capitalist and close to both the West and the Arab and Muslim world. Indeed, Turkey sees itself as a bridge between them, vital to both.
Ahmet Davutoglu is the man credited with providing the theoretical framework for Turkey’s new foreign policy. He was Erdogan’s principal adviser before being promoted Foreign Minister.
Two visits this past October may serve to illustrate Turkey’s activist foreign policy. Prime Minister Erdogan, accompanied by nine ministers and an Airbus full of businessmen, visited Baghdad, where he held a joint session with the Iraq government and signed no fewer than 48 memoranda in the fields of commerce, energy, water, security, forestry, the environment and so forth.
At much the same time, Foreign Minister Davutoglu was in Aleppo where he signed another 40 agreements with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, of which perhaps the most important was the removal of visas, allowing for a free flow of people across their common border.
Turkey also broke new ground in October by signing two protocols with Armenia, providing for the restoration of diplomatic relations and the opening of the long-closed border between them. Not surprisingly, Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan has strongly objected to this development, since it is locked in conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated pocket of Azerbaijan occupied by Armenian forces.
Indeed, Turkey’s protocols with Armenia are unlikely to be fully implemented until Armenia withdraws from at least some of the districts surrounding Karabakh – but, at the very least, a historic start has been made towards Turkish-Armenian reconciliation.
From the Arab point of view, the most dramatic development has undoubtedly been the cooling of Turkey’s relations with Israel, which had been very close since 1996, especially in the field of defence industries and high-tech weapons. The relationship has been damaged by the outrage felt by many Turks at Israel’s cruel oppression of the Palestinians, which reached its peak with the Gaza War.
Even before the assault on Gaza, Prime Minister Erdogan -- a strong supporter of the Palestine cause -- did not hesitate to describe some of Israel’s brutal actions as “state terrorism.” A total breach between the two countries is unlikely, but relations are unlikely to recover their earlier warmth so long as Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman remain in power.
Underpinning Turkey’s diplomacy is its central role as a unique energy hub linking oil and gas producers in Russia and Central Asia with energy-hungry markets in Europe.
One way and another, a resurgent Turkey is rewriting the rules of the power game in the Middle East, in a positive and non-confrontational manner. This is one of the few bright spots in a turbulent and highly-inflammable Middle East.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.
Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global