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Turkish diplomacy: an attentive neighbour 26 février 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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Financial Times (UK) Sunday, February 26, 2012

By Daniel Dombey

Ankara is playing an increasingly active role in Middle East but doubts remain about real extent of its influence.

Hillary Clinton could hardly have been clearer. With Syria in flames, increasing tension in Iraq and the countries of the Arab spring groping for a way forward, the US secretary of state – along with much of the world – was looking for Turkey to help provide the answers. In Washington this month, she hailed Turkey as a « leader » on the Syrian question, « a nation of conscience that understands the suffering of the Syrian people » and one that has much at stake in the ejection of President Bashar al-Assad.

Standing side by side with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, Mrs Clinton declared « Turkey’s successful democracy » to be a source of « very strong support » for the post-revolutionary countries of the region and a « real example » for them.

It is a remarkable transformation. Turkey, once valued by the west as a check against Russian expansionism, is now deeply involved in the states to its south and east, its future intertwined with theirs. Not since the fall of the Ottoman empire nine decades ago has it played a more active role in the Middle East and beyond.

« We are not aspiring to become an imperial power again but history and geography are chasing us, » says a senior Turkish official, reflecting on the changes that have led his country once again to take an assertive role in a region in which it long ago held sway. « We understand them better than others and they get along with us better than others. »

Turkey is helping to lead the international drive to oust Mr Assad and is providing aid for the opposition Syrian National Congress. « We are doing everything we can to help them, » the Turkish official says of the SNC.

Looking beyond the immediate case of Syria, for those who wish for a democratic, moderate and better-off Arab world – rather than an authoritarian and radical one – the Turkish model seems inspiring. But there are questions as to how substantial Turkey’s influence is, about the scope of its ambition and whether its expanded role is as much a reflection of risk as it is of opportunity.

Ankara’s plan, as explained by Mr Davutoglu, is to become a « global actor » and to help build a « belt of stability, prosperity and security » around itself. « On every occasion, for every event, there will be a Turkish vision, » he told the Financial Times last year. « We will never be passive and neutral; we will always have a position. »

It is an activism that goes far beyond mere words. This year, a Nato radar station intended to counter Iran’s missile programme started operations on Turkish territory. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, continues to lock horns with his Iraqi counterpart over sectarianism in that troubled country. And Turkey hosts not just the political and military opposition to Mr Assad but also more than 10,000 refugees who have fled over the border from his rule since last year.

A recent survey of 16 Middle Eastern countries by Tesev, an Istanbul-based think-tank, established Turkey as the country with the most favourable image, with respondents classifying it as a model for the region, its future economic leader and the country that contributes most to peace.

Ali Babacan, deputy prime minister and holder of the economy portfolio, has sketched out a vision of a common economic region extending from Albania to Kuwait and from Bahrain to Morocco, in which Turkey would take the lead.

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> In a sense, Turkey is filling a vacuum. The US is reducing its presence in the Middle East, drawing back in Iraq and looking to allies such as Ankara to help achieve common goals. Barack Obama recently cited Mr Erdogan as one of five world leaders with whom he works most closely. Turkish officials say that even with the uncertainties thrown up by this year’s US presidential election, they are confident Washington will continue to appreciate Ankara’s value – despite Turkey’s rift with its one-time friend Israel over the death in 2010 of nine Turkish activists seeking to break the blockade of Gaza. Turkey’s agreement to locate the Nato missile defence base certainly helped.

Moreover, as Iran and Saudi Arabia promote rival models of politics and governance to those countries in the throes of change, Mr Erdogan has demonstrated that he and Turkey have an appeal of their own. When he toured north Africa last year, he was greeted by thousands of cheering Egyptians at Cairo airport. At that point, bolstered by the success of the Turkish example, his own criticism of Israel and the pressure he put on former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to leave office, he seemed the undisputed victor of the Arab spring.

« I seriously can’t think of any precedent for Erdogan’s trip to north Africa; nor is there any previous prime minister of Turkey who has had anything like that reception in the Arab world, » says Professor William Hale, a historian of Turkish foreign policy. « On the other hand, whether you can actually turn that popularity into any kind of political leverage is a different question. »

Indeed, Mr Erdogan was rebuffed by local Islamists in Egypt when he expounded the virtues of secularism. Now, six months on, the trial of dozens of pro-democracy activists is getting under way in Cairo. In the interim, Tunisia and Morocco have elected Islamic parties often compared to Turkey’s ruling AKP. But Libya, which also cites Turkey as a model, has much less developed institutions, offering less fertile ground for Turkish influence to take root – so much so that Mr Erdogan did not repeat his call for secularism during his time in the country.

Meanwhile, Ankara is becoming increasingly preoccupied with problems closer to home. « At the political level, Turkey has really good relations with the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, » says Ozdem Sanberk, a former senior diplomat. But, he adds, these are of little meaning if relations with neighbouring Syria and Iraq are troubled.

Syria may in fact be a test case of the limits of Turkey’s influence. After a protracted and ultimately failed attempt to improve relations with Damascus and persuade Mr Assad to embrace reform, a frustrated Ankara is now invested in the departure of the Syrian president. It has gone so far as to arrange press interviews with the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, the military defectors fighting him. It is also a leading member of the so-called Friends of Syria, an informal group that met in Tunis on Friday.

But fearful of an escalating conflict on its borders, Ankara is reluctant to arm the rebel force, signalling instead that both sides in the conflict are already receiving weapons, one from Saudi Arabia and the other from Iran. With a 900km border to the country, Turkey has more at stake than most. But it is set against acting alone and, despite sporadic talk of establishing a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border or a « humanitarian corridor » guarded by peacekeepers, says it will contemplate such measures only multilaterally and as a last resort.

Its position is diametrically opposed to that of Tehran, which relies on Mr Assad as its main ally in the region.
Ties between Tehran and Ankara have been further strained by the new Nato missile defence base. The two countries are also at odds over Iraq. Turkey, a majority Sunni country, has been greatly unsettled by what officials in Ankara see as a slide towards anti-Sunni sectarianism by Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi prime minister, who is far closer to Tehran than to Ankara.

« Nothing is going well, » says the Turkish official of Iraq, adding of Iran: « We don’t see them as a rival . . . but one thing is clear: we will not accept anybody dominating our region. »

The risks that all three neighbours represent to Turkey are clear. A fragmented Iraq or a hostile Syria could foster instability in Turkey itself, particularly in the largely Kurdish south-east. Greater tensions with Tehran – or an Israeli strike on Iran – could hurt Turkey, which depends on Iranian gas imports.

But solutions do not come easy. Mr Maliki has brushed off Turkey’s warnings against sectarianism as foreign interference and Iraq has set a date for the trial in absentia of Tareq al-Hashemi, the country’s Sunni vice-president.

After failures at the Arab League and the UN, Turkey and like-minded countries are scrambling for ways at least to get humanitarian relief to the Syrian cities besieged by Mr Assad’s forces – so far, with extremely limited success. And a Turkish campaign to convince the US and other allies to compromise more over Iran’s nuclear programme has yet to gain traction. Indeed, French and UK diplomats sometimes depict Turkey as little more than a diplomatic ingénue.

Mr Sanberk and other commentators urge Turkey to spend more time and effort on nitty-gritty issues and unresolved problems, such as relations with Cyprus and Armenia, as well as Ankara’s stricken bid to join the European Union. Meanwhile, the Turkish model itself is coming under greater scrutiny. About 100 journalists are now in Turkish jails, although the government insists they are detained on terrorist charges rather than for their professional work.

Such developments lead some activists to argue that the US, in particular, is placing too much emphasis on its strategic relationship with Ankara and not enough on rights within the country.

Turkey is working on a new constitution to deepen the break with its authoritarian past, but progress is uncertain. European diplomats concede that the EU’s ability to persuade Ankara to embrace greater reform has all but vanished as the prospect of Turkish membership has faded.

« The day of epic geostrategic loss is the day Turks start formulating aspirations without western goals, the day they stop looking at western institutions as standard bearers, » says Hakan Altinay at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. « For 200 years, this country has looked to the west as a better way of organising its affairs; if it stops that, then everything is fair game. »

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