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Turkey facing most difficult test for its strategy 15 août 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Dar Al Hayat (UK) 15 Agust 2011

George Semaan

It would be too early to speculate about Turkey’s upcoming steps in case its efforts with Damascus were to fail, as it would be too early to know the direction it will adopt to primarily preserve its interests before responding to the calls of the Syrian opposition after Washington rejected the deadline given to the Syrian regime. While the Arab action has constituted and continues to constitute a test to Ankara’s foreign policy, what is happening in Syria is the decisive factor which will determine the correctness or wrongfulness of this policy. And the question at this level if the following: Can Recep Tayyip Erdoğan handle a major setback which might affect his positions whose outcome is awaited by the United States and many Arab and European countries, i.e. the outcome of the talks conducted by his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu with President Bashar al-Assad?

Those blaming Turkey for coordinating with Washington are forgetting it cannot risk allowing the superpowers to monopolize the building of the new regional order. Did Turkey not – along with Brazil – try to distance the sanctions’ sword away from Iran about a year ago? It did so to maintain the relations it built with its southern neighbor, but also because it is aware of the meaning of the eruption of a new confrontation in the region and the damage that this could cause at the level of its political influence and economic and commercial interests. One look at the oil relations with Iran would be enough to show the extent of Ankara’s engagement in a policy to turn the country into a main Asian gas and oil passageway toward Europe, with all that this carries in terms of political weight, economic benefits and additional revenues.

Turkey is seeking the increase of its national income which is nowadays nearing a trillion dollars to reach two trillion dollars by the beginning of the third decade of the current millennium. It is playing a key role as the area of transit for Iranian gas exports to Europe. Years ago, Erdoğan even said that his country relied on its imports from Iran and Russia, and that it would be « impossible to discontinue these imports from either one of those states. » Still, despite the Islamic Republic’s importance at the level of Turkey’s economic system, the latter did not conceal its opposition of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons which it deemed to be a serious threat to security in the Middle East and which qualified Iran to occupy an advanced and influential position in the regional order. In the same context, Turkey sought the establishment of an open trade zone with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, which had a positive effect on its economy – while the Syrian economy and some of its agricultural and industrial sectors were harmed.

For his part, Erdoğan has tried and is still trying to turn his country into a democratic archetype for the Islamic world, while meeting the conditions of the European Union. Consequently, he could not disregard the violent acts witnessed in Syria and could not neglect the political facet in exchange for upholding his country’s commercial and economic interests with Syria among others. Therefore, it was somewhat unfair to attribute his positions at the beginning of the Syrian action to local electoral considerations. He might have rushed and moved ahead of many others – whether Arabs or Westerners – but this may have been due to the reluctance which characterized his first position toward the action in Libya.

Damascus in the meantime expressed deep disgruntlement toward his stand and conveyed repressed suspicions and doubts which prevailed over some Arab elite groups toward the « revival of Ottomanism » and the return to the management of the affairs of the region. These feelings are valid, although the circumstances and designations have changed. Certainly, Ankara cannot revive the role of Ottoman Istanbul in Syria or elsewhere, but the Turkish collective memory is still vivid as the Ottomans used to perceive their southern neighbor as being the most important strategic position in their empire. Indeed, as they were retreating before France and Britain during WWII, the military leaders showed great concern not to lose Syria, « the jewel of the Ottoman crown, » as it was mentioned in Jamal Basha’s memoirs. At the time, Jamal Basha left the Cabinet to lead the Fourth Army from the Levant to Suez to prevent the British from crossing into Jerusalem firstly, and maintain the « crown’s jewel. » Back then, the conflict was also over Syria.

The Justice and Development Party wants to shed light on Turkey’s unique position and strategic value for the West, and especially the European Union, through a diplomacy trying to render Turkey a hub of stability in a region struggling with all sorts of troubles, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iraq and the rest of the Arab region. It is also trying to present an archetype of harmony between modernization and conservative Islamic values, as well as between the West and the Islamic East. There is no need to recall at this level the race and the competition in which Turkey was engaged in Central Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East to confirm its new role and influential position, after it lost – following the collapse of the Soviet Union – its deterring role of this superpower, which is a key southern component of NATO.

Erdoğan cannot ignore the voices of the protesters near his border, as they are demanding freedom and democracy. He undoubtedly knows that had it not been for this democracy and freedom, he would never have come to power in 2002 and would never have maintained his position until now. He was caught off guard by the action in Libya and firstly allowed the prevalence of economic interests and investments amounting to around $15 billion. He also wanted to maintain the presence of around 50,000 Turks in the construction sector. However, he soon joined the international and Arab wave and allowed the prevalence of values over the interests, values based on which he is still in power and continuing his battle with the military institution that may have retreated to its barracks once and for all. This marks a historical event for an institution which constituted – since the establishment of the republic in 1923 -the loyal guardian of the regime, and the regulator of political life, democracy, secularism and all the modernization laws adopted by Kemal Atatürk.

True, Syria is now the bridge which Iran must cross to reach the region, the Mediterranean, Lebanon and Palestine, and is the front and pivotal defense line for the protection of the Iranian presence in Iraq. But what is also true is that Turkey perceives its southern neighbor as being a bridge toward Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, the Gulf and even Egypt. And while it still cannot disregard what happened to some Iraqi forces – at the head of which is the Iraqi List headed by Iyad al-Allawi – it can in no way recognize the loss of this bridge. Indeed, this would mean the loss of the core of its foreign policy, especially its policy toward the Arab world which expressed on more than one occasion how much it needed it to maintain the minimum level of balance with Iran and face its expansion in the region.

So far, Turkey dealt with Iran with a lot of patience and tolerance, and is now adopting the same method with Syria. Still, it was not pleased with Damascus’ recanting of its position in Iraq in favor of Nouri al-Maliki and against Iyad al-Allawi who was supported by Ankara and most of the Arab capitals, and was not pleased with the rejection of the Turkish-Qatari mediation to settle the governmental situation in Lebanon, knowing that Ankara played a role in the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria a few years back, and played a role to ensure rapprochement between Saad al-Hariri and Damascus.

Following this experience, doubts are definitely surrounding this method’s success in getting Damascus to relinquish its security choices in the face of the action. And what is enhancing the possibility of seeing the failure of the Turkish efforts, is the Syrian regime’s inability to induce the required and acceptable change on the domestic arena before the external one. But in light of such a possibility, what are the options available to Erdoğan to save the policy on which he based his entire credit – and that of his party – since 2002? What are the tools he enjoys, far away from Turkey’s military capability which is the second in NATO following the United States, to change the course of the events and developments in Syria? This time, he will not be late as he was in regard to Libya, considering that the Turkish strategy is at stake.

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