The Economist
October 31, 2009
U.S. Edition


Looking east and south: Turkey and the Middle East


Frustrated by European equivocation, Turkey is reversing years of
antagonism with its Arab neighbours

IT IS a thousand years since the Turks arrived in the Middle East,
migrating from Central Asia to Anatolia. For half of that millennium
they ruled much of the region. But when the Ottoman Empire fizzled out
and the Turkish Republic was born in 1923, they all but sealed
themselves off from their former dominions, turning instead to Europe
and tightly embracing America in its cold war with the Soviet Union.

The Turks are now back in the Middle East, in the benign guise of
traders and diplomats. The move is natural, considering proximity, the
strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in
Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the
sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed, Turkey's
Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum
of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.

In the past seven years the value of Turkey's exports to the Middle
East and north Africa has swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in
2008. From cars to tableware, dried figs to television serials,
Turkish products, unknown a decade ago, are now ubiquitous in markets
from Algiers to Tehran. Already a vital conduit for sending energy
from east to west, Turkey is set to grow in importance as more
pipelines come on stream. The most notable is Nabucco, a proposed ?7.9
billion ($11.7 billion) scheme to carry gas across Turkey from
Azerbaijan and possibly Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. A single
Turkish construction firm, TAV, has just finished an airport terminal
for Egypt's capital, Cairo, and is building others in Libya, Qatar,
Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Turks have scooped up hundreds
of infrastructure contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan, and invested in
shopping malls, hotels and even schools.

These achievements are partly due to an energetic pursuit of trading
privileges, such as Turkey's free-trade pacts with Egypt, Israel,
Morocco and Tunisia. It is seeking a similar deal with the six-member
Gulf Co-operation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia. Earlier this
month, teams of Turkish ministers travelled to Baghdad and Damascus to
sign a package of 48 co-operation deals with Iraq and 40 with Syria.
Covering everything from tourism to counter-terrorism and joint
military exercises, the deals could end decades of tension between
Turkey and its former Ottoman provinces.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has just been warmly
received in the Iranian capital, Tehran, a reflection of the
realpolitik that has kept links open despite the Islamic Republic's
international isolation. Turkey requires no visas for Iranians, and Mr
Erdogan, who has stressed Iran's right to nuclear power for civil
purposes, pointedly congratulated Iran's president, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, after his disputed election win in June. Turkey only
recently made an historic breakthrough in relations with another
eastern neighbour, Armenia. If the parliaments of both countries
endorse the move, diplomatic ties may be restored after a 16-year
freeze.

This dogged diplomatic pragmatism has been ardently pursued by the
foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, an ebullient professor of
international relations who had long advised Mr Erdogan before his
appointment in May. Mr Davutoglu, who in a book described the Middle
East as "Turkey's strategic depth", has called for a policy of "zero
problems with neighbours". Reflecting the mild, modernist Islamism of
the Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish initials AK,
which has ruled Turkey since 2002, the new policy seeks to use the
soft power of trade, along with historical links, to project stability
beyond Turkey's frontiers. This marks a distinct shift in worldview.
In the past Turkey tended to see itself as an eastern bulwark of the
NATO alliance, whereas its Middle Eastern neighbours were viewed as
threats to be contained.

Whatever Mr Davutoglu's persuasive powers, this reorientation could
not have happened without dramatic changes in Turkey. Reforms
undertaken partly to meet demands for EU membership have shifted power
from threat-obsessed generals to civilian institutions, and to a new,
more self-consciously Muslim elite rooted in Anatolia rather than
Istanbul, Turkey's Western-looking commercial and intellectual
capital. The AK party has also reversed decades of official policy by
trying to meet the demands of Turkey's large Kurdish minority (some
14m in a total population of 72m). The granting of more cultural and
political rights, and the admission of past discrimination, have
soothed tempers not only among Turkish Kurds, but among their ethnic
kin in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Yet a reason for the success of Turkey's kinder, gentler approach is
that it takes place in the context of a regional power vacuum. Such
relative Arab heavyweights as Egypt and Iraq no longer wield much
clout. American influence has also dipped in the wake of its troubles
in Iraq. Indeed, Turkey's biggest breakthrough in Arab public opinion
came in 2003, when its parliament rejected an American request to open
Turkish territory as a second front for the invasion of Iraq. Turkey
did allow the use of an airbase to supply the war, but escaped the
opprobrium heaped on America's Arab allies who grudgingly lent support
to the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Turkey has also been welcomed back because many Arabs see it as both a
moderate counterweight to Iran and as a window to the West. Iraqi
Shias, for instance, are still wary of Iranian meddling in Iraq, even
though Iraq's main Shia parties have close relations with Iran. Iraq's
Kurds, despite age-old tensions with Turkey, have also warmed their
relations as trade has boomed and the looming departure of the Kurds'
American protectors raises the spectre of isolation. The secular
government of Syria, an ostensible ally of Iran, in fact shares little
cultural affinity with its stridently Islamist rulers, compared with
the AK party's businesslike, tie-wearing officials. Improved relations
with Turkey, which now include visa-free travel, bring much-needed
relief to Syria, isolated diplomatically and economically backward. In
fact, so eager has Syria been to woo Turkey that in 2005 it scrapped a
longstanding territorial claim to Hatay, a province granted to Turkey
in 1939 by France, Syria's colonial master at the time.

Turkish officials, however, have been careful to explain that their
renewed interest in the Muslim east does not mean a chill towards the
West. Instead, they present Turkey as a useful bridge, a regional
force for peace, and the model of a democracy that is compatible with
Islam. Its Western allies have generally shared that view and have not
opposed Turkey's eastward shift. Yet such benign indifference could
change, if Turkey's prospects for joining the EU die, or if Turkey is
seen as undermining attempts to pressure Iran.

Already, Turkey's gentle realignment has carried some costs, most
obviously to its relations with Israel. These flourished into a
full-blown strategic partnership in the 1990s, before the AK party's
rise, when peace between Palestinians and Israelis seemed possible.
Joint military exercises and Israeli arms sales brought the two
countries' military establishments close, while trade and tourism
expanded fast. Israel even offered to shield Turkey from lobbies in
the American Congress that sought to punish Turkey for disputing the
genocide of Armenians in Ottoman territory during the first world war.

But ties have frayed as Turkish public opinion, which now counts for
more, has turned increasingly hostile to Israel. Mr Erdogan, a tough,
streetwise politician, felt slighted last year when Israel attacked
Gaza only days after he had met Israel's then prime minister, Ehud
Olmert, who assured him that Turkish-brokered peace talks between
Israel and Syria would resume. The bloodshed in Gaza outraged many
Turks, who heartily praised Mr Erdogan when he stormed out of a debate
with Israel's president, Shimon Peres, at Davos in Switzerland earlier
this year.

The Turks were again angered in September when Israel denied Mr
Davutoglu permission to cross into Gaza during a visit to Israel.
Earlier this month Turkey, citing Israel's failure to deliver an order
of military drone aircraft, abruptly cancelled joint air exercises.
Israel, for its part, lodged a formal protest at the airing, on
Turkish state television, of a serial depicting Israeli soldiers as
brutal killers. Some Israeli officials say they detect signs of
anti-Semitism that disqualify Turkey from mediating any longer between
Syria and Israel.

Turkish officials respond that they have no intention of breaking off
relations with Israel, and think they can still be a useful
interlocutor with the Jewish state. But they remain indignant. "We
might have lost leverage with Israel," says an AK party man. "But I'd
rather be on the side of history, of what is right, of justice." One
of Mr Erdogan's advisers puts Turkey's case more boldly, in a sign of
its growing confidence as a regional leader. "We are conditioning
relations with Israel on the progress of the conflict," he says. "This
is what the West should do."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress