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In riddle of Mideast upheaval, Turkey offers itself as an answer 27 septembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune (USA) Tuesday, September 27, 2011, p. 4

Anthony Shadid, Istanbul (Turkey)

Not so long ago, the foreign policy of Turkey revolved around a single issue: the divided island of Cyprus. These days, its prime minister may be the most popular figure in the Middle East, its foreign minister envisions a new order there and its officials have managed to do what the Obama administration has so far failed to: position themselves firmly on the side of change in the Arab Spring.

No one is ready to declare a Pax Turkana in the Middle East, and indeed, its foreign policy is strewn this year with missteps, crises and gains that feel largely rhetorical. It even lacks enough diplomats. But in an Arab world where the United States seems in retreat, Europe ineffectual and powers like Israel and Iran unsettled and unsure, officials of an assertive, occasionally brash Turkey have offered a vision for what may emerge from turmoil across two continents that has upended decades of assumptions.

Not unexpectedly, the vision’s axis is Turkey.

« Turkey is the only country that has a sense of where things are going, and it has the wind blowing on its sails, » said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.

The country’s foreign policy has seized the attention of many in the Middle East and beyond after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tour last week of the three Arab countries that have witnessed revolutions: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Even Mr. Erdogan’s critics were impressed with the symbolism of the trip. Though many criticize his streak of authoritarianism at home, the public abroad seemed taken by a leader who portrayed himself as the proudly Muslim leader of a democratic and prosperous country that has come out forcefully on the side of revolution and in defense of Palestinian rights.

One Turkish newspaper, supportive of Mr. Erdogan, called the visits the beginning « of a new era in our region. » An Egyptian columnist praised what he called Mr. Erdogan’s « leadership qualities. » And days later, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke boldly of an axis between Egypt and Turkey, two of the region’s most populous and militarily powerful countries, that would underpin a new order in the region, one in which Israel would stay on the margins until it made peace with its neighbors.

What’s happening in the Middle East is a big opportunity, a golden opportunity, » a senior Turkish official said in Ankara. He called Turkey « the new kid on the block. »

The trip was a pivot for what many had viewed as a series of setbacks for a country that, like most of the world, utterly failed to predict the revolts in the region.

After long treating the Arab world with a measure of disdain – Israel and Turkey were strategic allies in the 1990s – Turkey had spent years cultivating ties with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. More than 25,000 Turks worked in Libya, and Syria was seen as the gateway to Turkey’s ambitions to economically integrate part of the Middle East. Even after the uprisings erupted, Turkey opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya. Until last month, it held out hope that Mr. Assad, despite evidence to the contrary, could oversee a transition in Syria.

Though Mr. Erdogan came out early in demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down in Egypt – at the very time that U.S. officials were trying to devise ways for him to serve out his term – that stance came with little cost. Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Erdogan were not fond of each other, and Egyptian officials resented Turkey’s growing profile.

« The old policy collapsed, and a new policy is required now toward the Middle East, » said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political science at Sabanci University.

In an interview, Mr. Davutoglu, viewed by many as the architect of Turkey’s engagement with the region, laid out that new policy. In addition to a proposed alliance with Egypt, he said Turkey would position itself on the side of the revolts, especially in Syria, which represents Turkey’s biggest challenge. He insisted that Turkey could help integrate the region by virtue of its economy, with its near tripling of exports since Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party took power in 2002.

The outline suggested an early version of the European Union for the Middle East – economic integration and political coordination – and Mr. Davutoglu said such an arrangement would eventually require at least a degree of military cooperation.

« There should be regional ownership, » he said. « Not Turkish, not Arab, not Iranian, but a regional ownership. That regional ownership for us is important. »

The vision is admittedly ambitious, and Mr. Davutoglu’s earlier prescription of « zero problems » with neighbors has run up against the hard realities of the region. Turkey faces a growing crisis over rights to gas in the sea off Cyprus, still divided between Greek and Turkish regions and still a foreign policy mess for Turkey. Relations with Israel collapsed after Israeli troops killed nine people on board a Turkish flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza last year. Iran, Turkey’s neighbor to the east and competitor in the region, is bitter over a Turkish decision to accede to U.S. pressure and host a radar as part of a NATO missile defense system. Syrian and Turkish leaders no longer talk.

But the sense of rising Turkish power and influence is so pronounced in the country these days that it sometimes borders on jingoism. It has touched on a deep current of nationalism, and perhaps a hint of romanticism, harbored by the more religious, over Turkey’s return to an Arab world it ruled for more than four centuries.

« We’re not out there to recreate the Ottoman Empire, but we are out there to make the most of the influence we have in a region that is embracing our leadership, » said Suat Kiniklioglu, deputy chairman of Mr. Erdogan’s party for external affairs.

Even those who bristle at what they see as Mr. Erdogan’s arrogance acknowledge that he represents a phenomenon at home and abroad. He brought his populism to the Arab world, where he displayed an intuitive sense of the resonance that the Palestinian issue still commands, in contrast to U.S. officials, who have misunderstood it, failed to appreciate it or tried to wish it away. In speeches, he catered to the West and his domestic critics by embracing a secular state, even as he prayed in suit and tie in Martyrs Square, at the foot of the Old City in Tripoli.

For a region long roiled with anger at leaders submissive to U.S. and Israeli demands, Mr. Erdogan came across as independent and forceful.

There remains a debate in Turkey over the long-term aims of the engagement. No one doubts that officials with his party – deeply pious, with roots in political Islam – sympathize with Islamist movements seeking to enter mainstream Arab politics, namely the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and, more so, the Nahda Party in Tunisia.

But relations remain good with the United States, even if U.S. officials accuse Mr. Erdogan of overconfidence. Some Turkish officials worry that the crisis with Israel will end up hurting the relationship with Washington; others believe Turkey is bent on supplanting Israel as the junior partner of the United States in the Middle East.

The bigger challenges seem to be within Turkey itself. Although Turkey has opened new embassies across Africa and Latin America, its diplomatic staff remains small, and the Foreign Ministry is trying to hire 100 new employees a year. Mr. Kiniklioglu estimated that no more than 20 people were devising foreign policy.

The exuberance of Turkish officials runs the risk of backlash, too. The Arab world’s long-held suspicion toward Turkey has faded, helped by the soft power of Turkish television serials and Mr. Erdogan’s appeal. Yet senior officials acknowledge the potential for an Arab backlash in a region long allergic to any hint of foreign intervention. Somewhat reflexively, Egyptian Islamists, piqued last week by Mr. Erdogan’s comments about a secular state, warned him against interfering in their affairs.

And across the spectrum in Turkey, still wrestling with its own Kurdish insurgency in the southeast, critics and admirers acknowledge that the vision of a Turkish-led region, prosperous and stable, remains mostly a fleeting promise amid all the turmoil.

« The image is good, » said Mr. Kalaycioglu, the professor. « Whether it’s bearing any fruit is anyone’s guess. Nothing so far seems to be happening beyond that image. »

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