Thursday, January 1, 2009

Is the West losing Turkey?

Turkey is an enigmatic country to be sure. However, its foreign policy in the past five years is becoming clearer by the day. The Turks seem to have 'refound the Middle East'. In the midst of 80 years of modernization, Turkification, secularization and democratization, the Turks have realized that closing their eyes and 'wishing' for the Middle East to go away will not bear fruit.

Some of their most important geopolitical interests are tied to the Middle East, and Ankara has awakened to the fact that following the carnage, confusion and dislocations that have haunted the region, it may now be forced to play a leading role in piecing it back together.

It is no surprise that the Turks are agitated about the crudeness and shortsightedness of the U.S. and Israel's contemporary policies in the region. In 2003, Turkey expressed its disapproval of Washington's grandiose plans to 'redraw the Middle Eastern map' by denying the U.S. permission to use Turkish airspace for launching air strikes into Iraq. Turkey made it clear that it opposed the war due to the aftereffects that would ripple across the region. It worried about the blowback of the Iraq war in two ways. One, in the form of Kurdish separatism; the other, in the form of militant Islam. The same logic underpins Turkey's unequivocal and sharp criticism of Israel's raids on the Gaza strip. The Turks seem to have figured out, like the rest of sensible observers, that Islamic extremism cannot adequately be tackled without a fair and peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Turkey is also looking to reassert its role in a region that it has purposely kept at arms-reach for too long. A surging domestic political Islam, in addition to Washington's failed policies in the region, and to Europe's heal-dragging on the Turkish accession issue, have forced Turkish authorities, including the army, to recalibrate assumptions and perceptions of their country's foreign policy strategy.

What we are witnessing today, with Prime Minister Erdogan's tour of the region, and with the resignation of nearly half of the Turkish representatives of the Turkish-Israeli Caucus, symbolize a neo-Middle Eastern foreign policy, and a rejection of Israel's tactics towards the Palestinian issue. The Turks feel "disrespected" by Israel. One gets the impression that the Turks feel used by Israel as well. The ease with which Israel jettisoned the Turkish mediated peace talks with Syria to strike Hamas begs the question; was Israel even serious about peace, or was the tactic only meant to test the Syrian-Iranian alliance and deceive Hamas with regards to its true intentions, all by using Turkey as a smokescreen?

As Hanifi Alır of the ruling AK party said, "The Israeli offensive slapped the hand we had put forward in friendship." The Turks are fuming, and one can easily understand why, but from this anger we may see a more engaged and assertive Turkish effort towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey is a member of NATO, and knows that it can play a much larger and constructive role as a gateway between the West and the Middle East.

No comments: