Turkey's Role Between East and West

Turkey walks diplomatic line with diverse alliances.

February 6, 2009, 6:56 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Feb 6, 2008— -- A week after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's angry exit from an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Turkey is sealing its reputation as a growing power in the Middle East.

Erdogan's stand earned him not a hero's welcome when he returned to Turkey and strong popular support across the Muslim world, uncommon for a Turkish leader.

Erdogan stormed off during a Davos panel discussion Jan. 30, scolding Israel for the Gaza offensive, accusing Peres of "knowing very well how to kill."

"Turkey was the hero on the Arab street. …. Here you have people across the Arab world saying, 'I wish my leader had the backbone of this Turkish leader.' I found that quite remarkable," said Hady Amr, head of the Brookings Institution's outpost in Qatar.

The walkout was widely noticed in the Arab world. It was the climax to Turkey's weeks of vocal opposition to the war in Gaza, and marked Turkey's rising profile in the region. Turkey's increasing engagement with Arab countries and conflicts -- from its warming ties with Syria to its embrace of the Palestinian cause -- has begun to mend historic Arab-Turkish tensions.

This week Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrapped up a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, traditionally one of Turkey's regional rivals.

Turkish leaders insisted that this new diplomacy and the incident at Davos have not jeopardized their country's long alliance with Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize the Jewish state and has spent six decades strengthening military, commercial and political ties with it.

As part of that relationship, Turkey has been a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, most recently serving as the middleman for indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria.

But analysts said that Erdogan's stance at Davos and, more broadly, his government's perceived sympathy with Hamas, may have undermined Turkey's role as a mediator. Turkey has held talks with Hamas in Damascus and recently offered to represent its interests before the Security Council.

The Davos walkout "aggravated the recently testy relationship between Tel Aviv and Ankara. If, as the Israelis have been saying recently, Israel is no longer willing to accept Turkey as an honest broker, then one could say that Erdogan's outburst has put Turkey firmly on the side of the Palestinians," said Bulent Aliriza of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"In my opinion, Turkey has lost much of the role it could play in the Middle East during this period," former Turkish foreign minister Hikmet Cetion told Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper.

"It is a big mistake to be seen to be siding with Hamas when you want to mediate."

If Turkey risked undermining its status in Israel, the reward was greater stature in the Arab and Muslim world, part of the broader foreign policy vision of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. An Islamist party in a historically secular Muslim state, the AKP (the letters by which the party is known) has tied Turkey to a broader slate of regional affairs.

Under the AKP's reign, Turkey has a stated policy goal of engaging its neighbors, in part through stronger trade and diplomatic ties with states like Syria, Iran and Russia, and nonstate players like Hamas and Hezbollah.

Those relationships have bolstered Turkey's regional clout and, by extension, its role as a mediator. It's unclear whether the benefit of its new alliances eclipsed any diplomatic cost, specifically its bruised relationship with Israel.

"This government came to power arguing that Turkey has always punched well below its weight, that Turkey can play a much bigger role in the region, and that's true," said Henri Barkey, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As of now, Turkey has plenty of weight to throw around. A longtime NATO member and the world's 15th largest economy, Turkey recently won a seat on the U.N. Security Council and a place in the G-20, the expanded group of world powers. Since 2005, it has also headed the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a group representing 56 Muslim countries. Its clout in the Muslim world, analysts say, has made the country a more valuable interlocutor to the West.

"The new Turkish foreign policy is to use its influence in one area to improve its influence in another area," said Barkey.

"It's a dynamic process in their mind. ... As you improve your links with the Middle East, that makes you more valuable to Europeans and to America. They're using the Middle East as a stepping stone."

Turkey Turning From the West?

A founding pillar of modern Turkey is its engagement with the West, an orientation set by the country's founder, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. An ally of Washington, Turkey was the first Muslim country to seek membership in the European Union in what's become a famously fraught accession process.

Turkey's new Middle East diplomacy, with positions that at times seem closer to those of Iran and Syria than to its Western allies, has raised questions about Turkey's diplomatic reorientation.

In a controversial Washington Post op-ed this week titled "Turkey's Turn From the West," Soner Cagaptay at the American Enterprise Institute argued that Turkey's Islamist government has led to a break with Western positions on the region and encouraged anti-Semitism at home.

"The ruling party in Turkey feels sympathy for Hamas and Iran, while they take issues with Western interests, including with Israel. … That solidarity with Muslim causes and concerns is one driving force of Turkish foreign policy," Cagaptay told ABC News.

Turkish officials have denied any turn away from the West, and Erdogan has insisted his party does not tolerate anti-Semitism. Analysts in Turkey see a break from Turkey's old foreign policy, but through a multi-directionalism, engaging both East and West, with the independence to chart its own path and positions.

"It's wrong to say Turkey is facing the Muslim world. Turkey is facing the EU," said Taha Ozhan of SETA, a think tank in Ankara, the Turkist capital.

"No one is like Turkey. Turkey has relationships at the same time with Iran, Syria, Hamas, Israel, Russia, Georgia. These are all crisis areas and regions, and Turkey is handling a balanced role," Ozhan told ABC News.

If Turkey can now balance its Western identity and Middle East engagement, it's the success or failure of its EU bid that could force a realignment. The consensus is that accession talks are not going well (the status of Cyprus, the heavy role of the military in state affairs and Turkey's acknowledgement of the genocide of its Armenian minority in 1915 remain outstanding issues).

"You can imagine a situation in which Turkey becomes the first country to begin negotiations but not enter into the European Union. Then the question will arise over where exactly Turkey fits into the Western world," said Aliriza of the CSIS.

In that sense, Turkey's rising influence in the Middle East is a hedge on its membership in the West. More immediately, the policy of regional engagement has given a political boost to its architects, as the AKP looks to protect its lead before a critical election in March.

"What the [pro-Palestinian] outburst did was it changed the conversation in Turkey. Increasingly, there were all these reports of alleged corruption in the AKP, all kinds of malfeasance, and all that's been forgotten. Now all people have talked about is Erdogan's behavior [at Davos], and since he's come home he's continued to harp on this," said Barkey.

By focusing on Gaza, he said, Erdogan earned populist support and steered away from the issues that could hurt him politically.

Dov Waxman, a political scientist at Baruch College, offered a related theory of the Davos confrontation: that it was a low-cost way for the AKP to take a stand for the Palestinian cause.

"Israel's actions in Gaza put Turkey in a difficult position as a strong ally of Israel, and this was a way for Erdogan to publicly criticize Israel. Do it in very strong terms, and at the same time maintain the bedrock relationship with Israel," he said.

Davos was one consequential episode in an unfolding narrative. For Turkey, the added weight of the Gaza conflict set a new balancing act -- between East-West ties, and power plays domestic and regional -- whose outcome will determine Turkey's political future.