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Saturday, March 5, 2011

View From Turkey: A Deliberate Middle East Overture

AKP wants to become a political stabilizer and the leading economic power in the Muslim world, and is shifting Turkey’s focus toward the Middle East. At the same time, the US is losing direct influence in the same region. Yesim Erez analyzes how foreign policy will evolve to accommodate this new dynamic and its risks.

BOSTON- AKP (Justice and Development Party), the party in power in Turkey has an ambition to become a political stabilizer and the leading economic power in the Muslim world, and is shifting Turkey’s focus toward the Middle East. At the same time, the US is losing direct influence in the same region.

AKP’ leader Erdogan’s show of leadership is not a last minute attempt to fill in a void in the Middle East, rather; it is a deliberate foreign policy which has been percolating for years. Under AKP, Turkey drastically increased its trade relations through the Middle East in the last few years. In 2009, Turkey advertised a “Zero-Problems” policy, stating that it first aimed to normalize its relations with all its neighbors. As a part of this initiative, meetings were held with Iraq and Syria to sort out economic and security issues and visa requirements with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya were abolished.

In 2009, Erdogan made a planned anti-Israel outburst at Shimon Peres at Davos during a panel discussion on Gaza. In 2010, IHH, a Turkish Islamic NGO, set off a ship purchased from the Istanbul municipality towards Gaza, with the premise of delivering humanitarian aid. It tried to enter the Gaza blockade and refused Israel’s procedure to have the cargo inspected at port of Ashdod and to have the goods delivered. When the ship did not stop, Israeli teams abseiled the IHH boat from aircrafts and speedboats and were attacked with weapons. As a result of the clash, 9 activists onboard were killed. The Turkish authorities who blessed the aid trip had been well aware of the likely consequences and deliberately took advantage of the anti-Israel, pro- Palestine sentiment domestically and more importantly, in the Middle East.

Today, AKP plans to establish a free trade zone with Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Iraq, UAE. Libya and Egypt are 4 of the top 5 trading partners with highest net contribution to the Turkish trade balance.

Recently when the governments of Egypt, Tunis, Libya started unraveling, Turkish diplomats scurried to fortify their regional relationships: Turkey just signed a nuclear deal with Jordan and hosted the Crown Prince of Bahrain in February 2011. As regimes collapsed, Erdogan meandered his rhetoric to fit the circumstances, distancing himself diplomatically from ousted leaders, and toward encouragement of dissent. Al Jazzera which was then involved in negotiations to buy a TV channel in Turkey, played up Erdogan’s statements on freedom on Egyptian TV during the protests. Erdogan is keeping relatively mum about supporting the citizens on Libya but it is assumed this is due to his acceptance of the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights last November which allegedly came with a $250,000 reward.

Few factors have eased the way for Turkey’s leadership ambition: Domestically, Turkey’s new found prestige plays well to the pro-Islamic sentiment. EU’s discrimination of Turkey had led to a drastic decline in popularity of the accession and prospect of alignment with the west by the Turks. Turkish support for EU accession declined from 73% in 2004 to 40% in 2007. A feeling of rejection by the West rendered increased involvement with the Middle East more palatable to a nation comparing themselves to the West. Internationally, a growing Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East created a need for a leader in the region – this is a position Turkey and Iran are both vying for.

In contrast, USA continues to have interests in the increasingly unstable area but with much less leverage than ever before. Tunisians, Egyptians alike realize that the US was supporting the leaders they just ousted. They have finally attained liberty despite the US and not because of it.  The US has been caught by surprise by the ability of the populations to drive change.  Spokespeople made conflicting statements as situations changed, often withholding endorsement of support for the protesters which caused further diminished credibility in the region for the US.  In contrast, Erdogan jumped at the opportunity to culminate his leadership strategy by making popular statements on Middle Eastern TV stations. This except from his exaggerated Cairo speech shows a desire to position Turkey in a pivotal role in the region, while directly conflicting with the human rights violations of protesters and minorities in Turkey: “Not only in Turkey but everywhere in the world, the Justice and Development Party has shown no fear or hesitation in siding with the oppressed and the victim. It has always taken its position against the status quo and against pressure and oppression… Turkey is playing roles that can upturn all the stones in the region and that can change the course of history” 

How will the US deal with protecting its interests in the Middle East while the landscape is shifting drastically? Firstly, it will need to deal with any contingencies taking a role in the emerging governments such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Secondly, since the US has very small leverage in the region, it may closely align with a regional power who agrees to push US interests. The only viable candidate is Turkey since a close relationship with Iran is unlikely.

Meanwhile, US governments public reaction to Turkey’s new aggressive foreign policy includes expected statements of concern from the pro Israel contingencies in Washington. What we do not hear from US official channels is that Turkey’s leadership and authority in the Middle East can satisfy some of the US needs in the region: During an era of diminished influence in the Middle East, US may be best served by supporting the AKP regime and its Middle Eastern aspirations. 

However, there are challenges to a US-Turkey alignment of interest. Firstly, Turkey’s Middle Eastern overture may not succeed: Iran has coveted the same regional leadership role but it is showing temporary tolerance for Turkey’s Middle Eastern assumptions because of the high direct trade volume and Turkey’s support for its nuclear program. Secondly, having rid themselves of their autocratic leaders, no Middle Eastern nation is anxious to return to a nostalgic Ottoman era type construct when the Middle Eastern peninsula was under the Ottoman regime for four centuries. 

Third and most important challenge to the US aligning with the AKP is that Erdogan and his team resemble the very autocratic leaders the US made the error of supporting for years. As the June 2011 general elections approach, there is increasing reaction to AKP and its human rights abuses. The blatant manipulation of trade to benefit AKP partisans is also not sitting well with the Turks. Just like in Egypt and Libya, a smaller insurgence is first organized through social media, and protests gain mass as a larger population is encouraged to participate and to speak up. The more nervous AKP gets about its domestic footing, the more aggressively it is expected to embrace Middle Eastern leadership politics to distract from domestic issues.

The US should be very careful in its support for the current regime in Turkey and must apply the lessons it learned in the Middle East so far: AKP’s human rights record and its domestic popularity must be taken into careful consideration. The best US foreign policy toward Turkey right now is the same as all through the Middle East- to watch the will of the people and to stand for democracy not only in rhetoric but with authenticity.
4 March 2011

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