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Turkey, Its Allies Struggling, Tempers Ambitions to Lead Region 22 novembre 2013

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) Friday, November 22, 2013, p. A 10

By Tim Arango, Ankara (Turkey)

As Egypt’s Islamist demonstrators faced an imminent confrontation with security forces in Cairo last summer, the advice they received from Turkish officials was adamant: Stand your ground.

For Turkey, the counsel was as much about supporting its Islamist allies as it was about trying to prop up its waning regional influence. With the Islamists ousted from power by the military in Cairo, the demonstrators represented a last stand for Turkey’s effort at building a new Sunni Muslim axis of power — with Turkey as an anchor.

But the protesters were routed, and hundreds were killed in a campaign that not only neutered Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood but also Turkey’s ambitions. Now Turkey is rethinking its effort to reshape the region, and is instead reaching out to the Middle East’s two Shiite Muslim powers, Iraq and Iran.

« There is no doubt that romanticism over the Middle East is gone, » said Suat Kiniklioglu, a former official in the governing Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials A.K.P., who now runs a research center in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

The idealism of leading a new Sunni alliance has given way to a more pragmatic approach centered on securing access to oil and gas for its economy, improving conditions for Turkish businesses and finding a way out of the intractable conflict in Syria. Many analysts describe the shift as a return to the mantra of « zero problems » with neighbors, a slogan that had previously guided Turkey’s foreign policy under the governing party.

One of the most striking indications of the shift came when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently visited Baghdad and said « there is no limit to cooperation » between the countries. Mr. Davutoglu dressed in black, a symbol of mourning that is central to the Shiite faith, prayed at a famous Shiite shrine, met the spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the militant Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr, and talked about embracing his Shiite « brothers » in the holy city of Karbala. He had already hosted his Iranian counterpart in Turkey, and officials say Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will visit Baghdad and Tehran.

Turkey, in supporting the rebel fighters in Syria, is on the opposite side of that war from Iraq and Iran, who have been strong supporters of the government of Bashar al-Assad. But as the international community pursues a political solution to the conflict, Turkey has fallen in line with the diplomatic path, in part because it is frightened by the rise of Islamist radicals leading the rebels along its border. It would have preferred Western-led military action in Syria.

When it comes to Iran, Mr. Assad’s strongest ally, Turkey is trying to position itself to be able to persuade Tehran to at least give up support for Mr. Assad, in particular, as part of any peace plan. That, at least, would allow Istanbul to save face after having been adamant that Mr. Assad leave office.

« They are not saying yes, they are not saying no, » said a Turkish official who has been involved in the talks with the Iranians. « They know they cannot support Assad forever. »

For the last couple of years Turkey and Iraq have had a strained relationship, centered on a bitter personal feud between Mr. Erdogan and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Turkey had supported the Sunni opposition within Iraq, and when Mr. Maliki targeted the former Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges in late 2011, Turkey gave Mr. Hashemi refuge. In Iraq, Turkish businesses suffered boycotts and Turkish workers found themselves detained for work permit violations, while Mr. Maliki shut down an important route through Iraq for Turkish trucks.

Turkey and Iran have managed to maintain a relationship, if often a strained one, mainly because of energy interests. As a rising economic power but with few of its own sources of energy, Turkey relies on Iran and Russia for natural gas and oil imports. Even so, some Turkish officials see Iran as their greatest rival, and in backing the rebels in Syria, Turkey hoped to remove Syria from Iran’s sphere of influence.

Before the revolts and revolutions of the Arab Spring, Turkey used its economic clout and cultural influence, including from the soap operas that are wildly popular around the region, to expand its reach around the Middle East, even imagining a regional alliance along the lines of the European Union. The civil war in Syria, though, has laid bare the limits of Turkey’s so-called soft power, as it has been the Iranians’ hard power — their commando units and spy services — that have had the greatest impact on the conflict. Turkey’s intelligence agency, historically focused on counterintelligence within the country, has found itself with few capabilities within Syria or Iran, and has come under sharp criticism by the West for allowing weapons to reach extremist jihadi groups fighting in Syria.

For Mr. Erdogan, the missteps and failures of Turkey’s Middle East policy have cost him stature in the region, just as the harsh police crackdown on antigovernment protesters in Turkey last summer tarnished his image, and that of his party, in Europe and the United States.

After a popular uprising ousted the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Erdogan was hailed as a hero in Cairo and his party gave technical and financial support to the Brotherhood, seen as ideological brethren to the Justice and Development Party. Now Mr. Erdogan would probably be forbidden by Egypt’s new military rulers from setting foot in the country. A planned trip to the Gaza Strip by Mr. Erdogan, a visit once seen as a triumphant symbol of his support for Palestinian rights — what had been the source of his popularity on the Arab street — is off indefinitely.

« Erdogan is no longer a hero in the Middle East, » said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party. « He believed he could do everything by himself, and design everything himself. »

As an opposition figure, Mr. Kilicdaroglu is expected to criticize the prime minister, but similar sentiments are voiced privately by government officials close to the governing party.

Analysts say that with hindsight, it is clear that Turkey’s vision as a leader of a new Middle East is at best hopeful, given the burdens of history and the legacy of Turkish rule over the Arab world during the times of the Ottoman Empire. For that reason, they added, the shift back to its policy of no enemies is not completely unexpected.

« Arabs don’t want to be bossed around by the Turks, » said a Western official in Ankara.


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