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Turkey gunning for more regional influence 13 février 2009

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Straits Times (Singapore), 13/02/2009

William Choong, Senior Writer

Israel’s recent attacks on the Gaza Strip have already provoked much criticism from around the world. But it hit hardest when Turkey – a longtime friend and ally – levelled criticism at the country’s president during a World Economic Forum panel discussion in Davos and walked out.

‘When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill. I know well how you hit and kill children on beaches,’ Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan thundered, wagging a finger at President Shimon Peres. He also accused Israel of violating the sixth of the Ten Commandments – Thou shalt not kill.

The outburst was not off the cuff. Mr Erdogan appeared to have issued his declamations from prepared notes. No matter: Mr Erdogan was hailed a hero back home and across the Middle East.

According to Mr Herb Keinon, a well-placed journalist with The Jerusalem Post, Mr Erdogan had told his Israeli counterpart, Mr Ehud Olmert, that he needed a ‘high-profile diplomatic success’ to consolidate the legitimacy of his government against the secular opposition at home. Citing Israeli government sources, Mr Keinon said the meeting took place on Dec 23, only days before the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

This is not the first time that Mr Erdogan has attacked Israeli leaders. He once called former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon a ‘terrorist’ and screamed at Mr Peres during a meeting in Ankara. According to Turkish Daily News, Mr Erdogan’s outburst was aimed at the Turkish electorate before local polls next month.

But that may not be all that there is to this episode. Ninety years after its founding as a modern, secular state, Ankara is gunning for more regional influence. Mr Erdogan’s outburst should be seen in that light. But it is not a straightforward matter of gaining regional influence by attacking Israel.

It should not be surprising that Ankara is eyeing greater influence in the region. Historically, it is predisposed to do so. At its height, the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey, extended into Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Turkey today remains a geographical hub, sitting astride as it does strategic land routes connecting Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. It controls the key strait connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

But Ankara appreciates the fact that its close relations with Israel, the United States and the West enable it to enhance its influence in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, as Strategic Forecasting, a Texas-based commercial intelligence firm, notes: ‘Ankara is trying to position itself as a go-between for the Arab/Muslim world and the West – but to do that, it needs to enhance its influence among Arabs and Muslims. Hence the harsh criticism against Israel.’

This analysis is supported by statements made by Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser, Mr Ahmet Davutoglu. According to him, Ankara’s ‘multi-dimensional’ foreign policy does not see relationships with various entities as a zero-sum game. Ankara’s relationship with Nato and the US, for example, is not an alternative to the European Union, while the EU is not an alternative to Russia.

But such omni-directional diplomacy – a policy that China also pursues – can yield dividends only to a certain extent before trade-offs kick in. The implication that Turkey’s Nato membership and alliance with the US does not conflict with its relations with Moscow is simply ludicrous.

One thing, however, is certain. Relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have been solid for 50 years – and they are growing. In 1958, Israel and Turkey forged a top-secret alliance, nine years after Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognise Israel.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey publicly condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Ankara, however, never cut off relations with Israel.

In 1996, a new strategic agreement was signed. Bilateral cooperation included mutual sharing of ports, joint naval and air operations and permission for the Israeli Air Force to train over Turkish airspace. Ironically, the Israeli pilots who attacked Gaza recently spent time training in Turkey under this very agreement.

Following Mr Erdogan’s outburst, both sides have sought to repair relations. Indeed, his outburst – and Turkey’s enhanced prestige in Arab street and the wider Islamic world – means that Ankara will continue to play a significant role in the region, as Professor Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at the Ankara-based Middle East Technical University, told The Straits Times.

‘No political solution in the region can now exclude Turkey. Turkey has now become a major player in the Middle East,’ said Prof Bagci, who was in Singapore to deliver a lecture at the Middle East Institute this week.

Without a doubt, Mr Erdogan’s outburst has affected his position in the eyes of Israeli leaders and thrown into doubt his role as an honest broker in ongoing peace talks between Israel and Syria. But it would be folly to suggest that bilateral relations have been damaged irrevocably. Given the long history of cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv, things remain pretty much business as usual.

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