TURKEY'S NEW ROLE EXAMINED

Arab News
Sept 16 2009
Saudi Arabia

Turkey is basking in the glory of its resurrection as a major regional
power while Ankara seeks to fulfill the needs and goals of its growing
geo-strategic importance. It's a major turn-around in the foreign
policy agenda of the 86-year-old western oriented, secular republic
which had risen from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Last week one of the primary architects of this new approach, both
at home and in the region, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, met in
Amman with a small group of Jordanian politicians, intellectuals and
journalists during a short visit to the Hashemite Kingdom. Around a
sahoor meal, the lean, soft-spoken, head of Turkish diplomacy exchanged
views and answered questions on his country's role and objectives in
regional politics.

A renowned academic, political scientist, former ambassador and
a history buff, Davutoglu took time to explain Turkey's political
mission philosophy adopted by the ruling government of the Justice
and Development Party (AKP) since it took office seven years ago. It
is a philosophy that is embodied in six main principles.

First is the recognition that no foreign policy can be active
unless peace and harmony have been achieved at home. To do this the
Islamist-led government is trying to strike a delicate balance between
security and freedom while building a strong economy. For Davutoglu
Turkey cannot give the impression that it is a strong nation while
its citizens go hungry, and by the same token it cannot claim domestic
security if personal freedoms are denied.

Recently the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan took steps to meet
some of the major concerns of Turkey's Kurdish minority as part of an
effort to launch national reconciliation and end decades of friction
and civil strife.

The second principle that Ankara is eagerly implementing is to have
zero problems with its neighbors. Bordered by eight countries and
evolving regions; Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia and the
Mediterranean, Turkey has managed to normalize relations with most
of its neighbors; the most recent attempt to be launched is with
Armenia. In most cases these relations have progressed from bad to
very good as is the case with Syria and Iraq in particular. It can
be said that Ankara had closed the chapter on its role in Cold War
politics, which had polarized the world for decades.

Maintaining good relations with neighbors serves the goal of speeding
up regional economic integration and interdependence in the view of
Davutoglu, thus fulfilling the grand objective of achieving peace
and prosperity for all.

The third principle has to do with Turkey's unique geopolitical
assets, being a Eurasian country with access to the Black Sea,
the Mediterranean and vital sea routes, and with its rich Ottoman
history and linkage to former subjects in the Balkans, Europe, the
Middle East and North Africa. Turkey, a country of over 70 million,
is multiethnic and multicultural, and it has taken it upon itself to
use pluralistic background to reach out to its neighbors and play a key
role in conflict resolution and prevention and in regional security.

As a result the fourth principle necessitates that Turkey maintains a
proactive role in all the alliances, associations and groups that it
belongs to. It does not sacrifice one at the expense of the other, nor
does it value one over the other. As such Turkey's strategic objective
to become a full member of the European Union does not mean that it
forgoes its relations with Asia and the Middle East. Its alliance
with the United States, through NATO, has not damaged its relations
with Iran, and by the same token Turkey's sympathy and support of
Palestinian rights has not turned Israel into an enemy.

The fifth principle that Davutoglu outlined is Turkey's pursuance of
an active role in all regional and international forums with the aim
of reflecting the country's growing political and economic roles.

And the sixth principle is to change negative perceptions of Turkey
around the world and to remove stereotypical associations. It is a
mission that Davutoglu enjoys defending as he explains Turkey's rise
as an economic power and its recognition as a developed country. Most
importantly he makes the point that modern Turks have now reconciled
themselves with the Ottoman legacy; that the Turkish republic that
was set up by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk is an extension of the rich and
great Ottoman past.

He tells his Jordanian hosts that Turkey's relations with the Arab
world are vital and that the acrimonies of the past belong in the past
and should never spoil the work needed to build a common future. He
allays fears that Turkey's growing regional role will be at the
expense of Arabs and their national aspirations. He rejects accusations
that Turkey's dominance in regional politics is a manifestation of a
neo-Ottoman desire to rule former subjects. Turkey looks at its Arab
neighbors as equals and as neighbors and in Ankara's view stability
and peace in the Arab world can only serve his country's own national
security.

It is this belief which he uses to justify Turkey's genuine interest
to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, or to intervene in the
recent tension between Syria and Iraq, or to attend the meetings
of the foreign minister at the Arab League in Cairo, or to invite
the foreign ministers of the GCC countries to hold a meeting in
Ankara. For Arabs Turkey's active role counterbalances that of Iran,
which is viewed with suspicion by many.

Ankara is following a diplomacy that seeks positive and proactive
results, especially in a region that has been exhausted by futile
politics and conspiracies. Turkey's role in the region has set itself
apart and even the skeptics cannot find a reason to discredit it so
far. It can be said that Turkey, which for decades estranged itself
from its eastern and southern neighbors, has rediscovered its identity
and reconciled itself with its past. The Arabs can learn a great deal
from such an experiment.

-- Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and a political commentator
based in Amman.