TURKEY UNDISPUTED LEADER OF THE MIDDLE EAST

Prof. Dr. Ata ATUN

 
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 26 Kasım 2007 Saat : 6:39


 

Although the Armenians and the Greeks played the Christian card quite well in the 20th century and tried to push Turkey into the position of the most underrepresented and discredited nation on earth, it didn’t work well in the last century and won’t work in the 21st cen-tury, either. The latest card player was Armenian camp-follower Nancy Pelosi, who in fact put her personal interests above American interests by pushing for passage of the so-called genocide resolution, just like Armenian-Americans who think of Armenians’ interests above those of Americans, unfortunately.

Since 2002, from the day the new driver, the Justice and Devel-opment Party (AKP), took over Turkey’s steering wheel, a departure from the country’s traditional foreign policy began and gradually quickened. The new driver led the country to a brand new track, one more temperate, social, constructive, modernistic and rather enterprising; as opposed to the defensive and passive track of old.

This new track gradually led Turkey’s political prowess upward, and Turkey is now becoming an important player in the Middle East, emerging as an important diplomatic actor. Turkey’s greater activism in the Middle East has also been reflected in its effort to strengthen ties to Iran and Syria, and now Turkey’s political and economic relations with neighboring countries are at the best levels ever achieved.

Ankara’s relations with Tehran and Damascus were strained in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because Iran and Syria supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in their effort to destabilize Turkey. But relations have significantly improved in recent years, thanks to the three governments’ shared interest in containing Kurdish nationalism and preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on their borders.

Turkey’s cooperation with Iran has intensified considerably, par-ticularly in the security sphere. During Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran in July 2004, Turkey and Iran signed a secu-rity cooperation agreement that branded the PKK a terrorist organiza-tion. Since then, the two countries have stepped up cooperation to protect their borders. Energy has been another major engine behind the warming of Iranian-Turkish relations; Iran is the second-largest supplier of natural gas to Turkey (after Russia).

Ankara’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians has also un-dergone a shift. Turkey had maintained a close relationship with Israel since 1996, especially in the defense and intelligence areas. Coopera-tion had benefits for both sides: It gave Israel a way of breaking out of its regional isolation and a means of putting pressure on Syria, and it gave Turkey new avenues for obtaining weapons and advanced tech-nology at a time when it faced increasing restrictions on weapons pro-curement from the United States and Europe.

But more recently, under the AKP’s leadership, Turkey’s outlook toward Israel has begun to change and Ankara has begun to adopt a more active pro-Palestinian policy.
This change started when Erdoğan decided to send 1,000 troops to participate in the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon — one of the largest contributions of any European state.

Although not without risks, Erdoğan’s decision to contribute troops to the UN mission had a number of important benefits. It both underscored Turkey’s European credentials and showed that Ankara is an important regional player. And along with Erdoğan’s criticism of Israel’s military action, it allowed Turkey to demonstrate its solidarity with key Arab governments in the region that supported the peace-keeping mission.

The latest summit in Ankara held by President Abdullah Gül, be-tween Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mah-moud Abbas, exemplifies the position and importance of Turkey in the Middle East.

Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia in particular have been strengthened recently, as was highlighted by King Abdullah’s trip to Turkey in August 2006 — the first visit of its kind in 40 years– and then again in the second week of November 2007.

Turkey’s greater engagement in the Middle East is part of the gradual diversification of Turkish foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. In effect, Turkey is rediscovering the region of which it has historically been an integral part. Especially under the Ottomans, Tur-key was the dominant power in the Middle East.

Turkey’s recent focus on the Middle East does not, however, mean that Turkey is about to turn its back on the West. Nor is the shift evidence of the “creeping Islamization” of Turkish foreign policy, as some critics claim.
Turkey’s new activism is a response to structural changes in its security environment since the end of the Cold War. And if managed properly, it could be an opportunity for the Western world to use Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East.

Both Ankara and the Western world — the EU and US — need to accept that the war in Iraq has created new realities and unleashed new forces that must be accommodated and that no satisfactory results can be achieved in the region without Turkey’s assent.

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