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Does Arab Spring mean Turkish Fall? 15 mai 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) 15 May 2011, Sunday                            Türkçe

Şahin Alpay

If you look at what is written about Turkish foreign policy by Western, and especially American, observers nowadays, you will find that in many of the commentaries the thesis that the Arab Spring — referring to the global wave of democratization after the end of the Cold War finally reaching the Arab world — is leading to the failure of Turkey’s foreign policy, which is based on the principle of “zero problems with neighbors,” pursued by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002.

The common argument can be summarized as follows: The AKP government in Turkey established close diplomatic ties with Arab countries, as it did with all the countries in neighboring regions. Taking advantage of its rising international prestige, it tried to help find solutions to the problems in the Middle East by facilitating talks between the parties involved. With its principled stance against the Israeli attack on Gaza, it won the sympathies of the Arab masses. The first, that is, the Tunisian and Egyptian, phase of the Arab Spring seemed to be conducive to Turkey increasing its influence in the region, and many started to talk about the “Turkish model” for the Arabs. Developments, however, first in Libya and later Syria, have indicated that Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy was very much linked to the status quo prior to the Arab Spring in the region, and when the status quo changed, Turkey’s policy failed. When Ankara in the beginning opposed NATO intervention in Libya, forces demanding the fall of the autocratic regime burnt Turkish flags in protest. Ankara not only was late in calling on Muammar Gaddafi to step aside in Libya but delayed in taking a position against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It was the new government in Cairo and not Ankara that facilitated the reconciliation between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. All of this meant that Turkey’s claim to regional leadership has seriously suffered.

Steven A. Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations makes the argument in strong words: “It was easy to be influential when the Arab world was politically dead and devoid of authentic leadership. Like it or not, Ankara’s interests are wrapped up in the old regional order. As a result, at a moment of unprecedented regional change, when people power and democracy is sweeping the Middle East, the Turks look timorous, maladroit, and diminished — not at all the regional leader to which Ankara has aspired.” (Foreign Policy, May 5, 2011.)

I believe that those who share the above argument need to be reminded of the following: First, if we are today talking about an Arab Spring, the fact that Turkey’s policy of establishing close diplomatic, economic and cultural ties with Arab countries, as with all the countries in neighboring regions, has played a role in bringing it about cannot be underestimated. Turkey, by initiating visa free travel, by increasing trade relations and through television series that have flooded the small screen, has shown the Arab peoples that a Muslim-majority nation can be increasingly modern, democratic and affluent, that even if it is an ally of the West, it can say “no” to Israel’s wrongs. Anyone who has contact with, has set foot in the Arab world, can see that Turkey is, if not a “model,” an important source of inspiration for the Arab Spring. If the Arab Spring is for the global good, and it surely is, the world owes this partly to Turkey’s “Arab opening.”

Secondly, Ankara seems to have learned the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq much better than most of its Western allies. That is why it has expended much effort to try to help regime changes triggered by the Arab Spring to come about with as little bloodshed as possible and without the need for outside intervention that may very well unite the people around the old regime. Turkey’s efforts towards protecting the lives and property of its citizens working in the countries concerned and preventing those countries from succumbing into chaos likely to also hurt Turkey surely makes sense.

Thirdly, what is Turkey’s loss if Fatah and Hamas have agreed to reconcile thanks to Cairo’s mediation? After all, Turkey, along with the entire region and the world, stands to gain from reunification of Palestinians and from Egypt opening its border with Gaza.

Finally, it would not be prophetic to say that Turkey is most likely to contribute to the not so easy to achieve but eventual democratic stability in the Arab world, just as it contributed to the Arab Spring. This is mainly because Turkey’s lasting ties with the Arab world are not founded on relations with its authoritarian regimes but with the people of the region who aspire to freedom and democracy.

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