About eight months ago in Ankara, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State, Philip Gordon, said, “We are neither surprised nor disturbed by an activist Turkish agenda in the Middle East.” At the time, his comment was seen as a convenient diplomatic reaction to what was clearly developing as a sea shift in Turkey’s foreign policy.
The question today, however, is whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is in the process of sacrificing its long-standing working relationship with Israel for an enhanced political role in the region. Important in this shift of orientation is the perception that there has been a steady movement by Ankara away from the secular West toward a greater alignment with the religiously aligned Islamic nations and movements.
The Turkish charity IHH had a lead role in the Hamas-backed flotilla seeking to break the Israeli embargo of Gaza. This participation was not a surprise to Israeli intelligence, which had for years cooperated with its Turkish counterparts. Nonetheless, the IHH action was a seriously negative development in the Israel/Turkey relationship. Prime Minister Erdogan’s support of Hamas certainly is not new. Considered, though, in the context of the Turkish leader’s meeting in Damascus with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad , this revised alignment cannot be ignored.
There had been more than enough warning over a shift in Turkish political relations with the United States. The refusal of the Turkish parliament to allow the American 4th Infantry Division to pass through its territory to launch a northern attack on Iraq back in 2003 was a major blow to U.S. war plans by a trusted NATO partner.
The subsequent recognition of a de facto state in Iraqi Kurdistan was taken by Ankara as a direct challenge by the United States that encourages secession by Kurds in southeast Turkey. On top of these events has been Ankara’s outrage at Washington as a result of Congressional action declaring as genocide the early WWI massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
A nearly 100-year-old historical event is still contemporary news in Turkey where the Financial Times reports the large mass of the population is increasingly antagonistic toward the United States. This attitude is suggested as an aid to the growth of Islamic nationalism in the country. Such analysis may be an exaggeration, but the result in any case is the same. One thing appears sure: the Army no longer appears to be the effective protector of secular dominance in Turkey.
Chad Nagle, a leading commentator on Turkey, has written on the current situation: “The government has subjected the army to a public rhetorical flogging, accusations of conspiracy, and even allegations of complicity in the 2003 Istanbul bombings, hitherto branded — and internationally accepted — as the work of al-Qaeda.”
There are some analysts who point to Erdogan’s effort at strategic reorientation as part of his plan to reinstate Turkey’s role in the Muslim world and leverage that into a stronger place in international diplomacy. Albeit a double-edged sword, this new eastward leaning is seen as a warning to the European Union that has scrupulously avoided affirmative consideration of Turkey’s application for membership.
Prime Minister Erdogan explained his and his country’s position quite succinctly when he said, “We have one face to the west and one to the east.” This statement was made when he signed trade accords in Tehran. Typically, Erdogan was his usual blunt self in this direct challenge to those who want to freeze Ankara into a strictly pro-Western mold. His principal priority now in foreign policy is to keep Turkey an active player in the Middle East.
The American military withdrawal from security responsibility in Iraq creates an obvious vacuum. As far as any future Iraq is concerned, Turkey is the only serious counterweight — militarily and geographically — to Iran. Ankara’s regional and religious credentials are now being bolstered, and its role in the Middle East once again has gained strength.
The problem now facing Erdogan and his party, the AKP, as well as Turkey overall, is to balance the desire to be a regional power with an effort to maintain its Islamic outreach without antagonizing its European interests. Playing clever Middle Eastern games while sitting on the fence of Iranian nuclear weapon development may seem to be an option in Turkish eyes, but it soon will be far less so as the reality of Iran’s ambition is confronted by either Israel or the United States — or both.
The time is soon coming when Ankara will have to — as the old American expression goes — fish or cut bait! That decision will affect Turkey for many years to come.