“You are killing people!”
A stunned crowd at the 2009 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, watched in disbelief as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off stage after having chastised Israeli President Shimon Peres for earlier statements the Israeli official made justifying its barely halted invasion of Gaza, which had resulted in more than 1,400 deaths, mostly Palestinians.
The moment, albeit brief, was striking. The scattered but loud applause that accompanied Erdogan was echoed around the world by millions who had been shocked by Israel’s three-week bombardment of the Palestinian territory that ended Jan. 17, 2009. Within a matter of minutes, it seemed, Turkey had transformed into a sort of emancipating force to be reckoned with on the front of the ever politically auspicious salvation of the Palestinians.
The spectacle at Davos was followed by further strains on a historically close and almost sacrosanct relationship, ranging from Turkish prohibition of Israeli participation in the annual Anatolian Eagle to the diplomatically distasteful seating arrangement during an Israeli-initiated meeting between Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Oguz Celikkol in January 2010.
Turkish-Israeli relations, however, faced their greatest strain this past summer when Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship part of a flotilla attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian aid and essential goods otherwise barred by the siege. The raid ended in the deaths of nine Turkish participants, one of them also an American citizen. Although it was not an officially Turkish mandated ship – it was organized by a group of international activists under the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) – the government came out heavily in support of the flotilla and heavily against the actions of Israel, demanding an apology as well as an international investigation into the raid, which the U.N. Human Rights Commission recently deemed as having broken international law.
The flotilla incident took the vulnerability of Turkish-Israeli relations to an unprecedented level. Despite the incident at Davos and the barring of Israeli participation in joint military training, diplomatic relations remain between the two countries, however unstable. In late October 2010, it was revealed that a Turkish National Security Council policy paper characterized Israel as being a “central threat” to the Turkish state. Still, in early December 2010, the two nations sought to remedy their on-again, off-again relationship. A late November forest fire in Israel necessitated international help, to which Turkey responded by sending two firefighting airplanes. Making use of the vulnerability of the situation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called upon Erdogan to discuss possible avenues for improving ties and coming to a sort of compromise regarding the flotilla incident. Erdogan’s conditions for the normalization of relations have revolved around not the situation in the Occupied Territories, particularly Gaza, but rather over compensation – monetary and an apology – to the families of the flotilla victims as well as Turkey.
In the same national security paper, however, countries such as Iran and Syria were removed as possible threats, an action that lends itself to the ever-growing discussion of the apparent “Neo-Ottomanization” of Turkish foreign policy under the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). It’s a discussion filled with much speculation, many misnomers and several uncertainties. This dissonance is unsurprising given the lack of consistency in Turkey’s actions, particularly in relation to its Muslim neighbors and, perhaps most poignantly for many in the region and in the West, to Israel.
The apparent “sudden” changing nature of Turkish foreign policy toward an Islamic bent has been accented by increasingly close relations with Iran as well as increased political and economic rapprochement with states such as Syria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Domestically, the AKP has begun to slowly but emphatically challenge old Kemalist adages as well as the role of the military in Turkey’s quasi-democracy. The changes in foreign policy and several measures taken domestically – such as the back-and-forth between the ruling party and the Supreme Court over the prohibition of the headscarf in Turkish universities – has not come without much backlash. In a survey conducted after the Sept. 12 constitutional referendum – which was meant to take Turkey toward greater democracy – 66 percent of respondents said they believed that Turkish secularism was under great threat. An Angus Reid poll conducted in May showed that Turkish voters’ support was virtually tied between the AKP and the People’s Republican Party (CHP), with support of the latter rising more than 5 percentage points over four months and the AKP’s support rising only 1.6 percentage points. Prime Minister Erdogan blamed “intermediaries of an ill-intentioned propaganda” for spreading the fear that the AKP was Islamizing Turkish foreign policy, breaking away from the West and focusing its efforts on the Muslim world.
While Turkey’s ruling party has no plans to break its relationship with the West, it has made an emphatic effort to build relations with key players in the Middle East. This shift in policy has been referred to as Neo-Ottomanism, which asserts the directing of foreign policy – under the AKP and particularly guided by the efforts of academic and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu – away from its Kemalist roots toward a recapturing of political and cultural prominence in the greater Muslim world. At the same time, Neo-Ottomanism has been challenged by those who stress that the AKP’s “Eastern” rapprochement has been focused on the Middle Eastern part of the Muslim world, noting that any diplomatic throwback to the Ottoman Empire would necessitate greater efforts and relations with all the areas that geographically fell under the once vast empire. Thus, Ankara’s focus on the Middle East seems questionable under the guise of Neo-Ottomanism. Yet while such observations hold great merit, they seemingly gloss over the integral nature of building relationships with Middle Eastern nations, particularly Iran, to gaining the sort of prominence the AKP itself seems to seek upon the international stage, as a Muslim power beyond any erroneously designated civilization fault lines.
Iran’s political assertion within the global South and its support of Hamas and Hezbollah has made several Middle East leaders uneasy, specifically in the Gulf. Rising in political influence and on the road to gaining nuclear power, a powerful Shi’a Iran stokes fears over a future so-called Shi’a Crescent. Yet while Ankara maintains a close relationship with Tehran – a neighbor and potential source for legitimacy in the global South – it has simultaneously maintained strong ties with other countries, specifically increasing diplomatic relations with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Ankara’s sudden championing of Palestinian human rights, questions of sincerity aside, creates a space for it to become not only a potential regional mediator – given its good relations with Washington D.C. and Tel Aviv – but also fill in the dire void of leadership within the vast Muslim world while maintaining its relationships with Western states. Rather than resonant of Nasserism, to which the shift has been compared, Turkey’s turn to the East since the early 1990s combines modern liberal democratic institutions and values with pan-Islamism. Erdogan’s recent visit to Kosovo, where he offered Ankara’s mediation between Belgrade and Pristina, highlights Turkey’s attempt to assert its presence beyond the European Union into not only the Arab and Muslim world, but also the oft-forgotten Caucasus and the Balkans. Ankara has also notably taken steps toward normalizing relations with Armenia and bettering its Kurdish population’s domestic situation. Going against the call by mainstream Kurdish politicians and the PKK to boycott the Sept. 12 referendum, the Kurdish population came out in numbers to support the vote.
Yet the argument remains that the bulk of Ankara’s “East-based” diplomatic efforts have been isolated to the Middle East, thus putting into question intentions of pan-Islamic goals. In response to such assertions, it is important to note the volatile atmosphere in the Middle East as well as the sort of stable institutions that exist, in comparison to Muslim states in South and Central Asia as well as Africa, the Balkans and Caucasus, which create an opening for Ankara to step in and take charge. Circumstances – a “belligerent” Iran, an occupied Iraq, the pervasiveness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the centrality of the Middle East to the ever-questionable war on terror – additionally dictate the regional involvement of Turkey.
The coming year holds many challenges for Turkey. Its role in the Middle East, albeit inspiring for millions in the region at times, fluctuates at an almost uncomfortable rate for many others. On the one hand, Erdogan speaks rashly about Israel and Israeli actions – be it regarding the Occupied Territories or the recent attack on the Mavi Marmara ship – and Turkey is pursuing strong economic and political relations with countries otherwise considered historical foes. On the other hand, Turkey continues to pursue diplomatic relations, however hesitantly, with Israel in its actions and willingness to restore formal though conditional diplomatic relations. Erdogan’s conditions for such a return are based on Turkish interests first, not regional or ideological. Thus while it seems as though Turkey is pursuing this newly Easternized foreign policy, it continues to hold onto a hand that infuriates the very region it seeks to influence and stabilize.
So what, exactly, is Turkey doing?
The answer is far less sinister and far more discernable than the current discourse seems to indicate. Turkey’s actions are not indicative of a schizophrenic identity-laden game of policy tennis, but rather a strongly formulated and strictly understood rational strategy geared toward increasing Turkey’s presence and influence at the regional and international levels. Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s 2001 book, Strategic Depth, becomes a relevant and important read for understanding today’s Turkey, specifically its attempts to reformulate its role and political direction in a post-Cold War world. One of the most important polices outlined in the book is of having “zero problems” with neighbors, explaining rapprochement with Iran and Syria, among other key regional players:
It is impossible for a country experiencing constant crises with neighbouring states to produce a regional and global foreign policy. … Relations with these countries have to be detached from the long and difficult process involving polities and bureaucrats. A broader basis, focused largely on intra society relations, including economic and cultural elements, must be found.
(Strategic Depth, 2001)
In a 2008 article, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007,” Davutoglu further reiterates the need for Turkey to “appropriate a new position in its region by providing security and stability not only for itself but also for its neighbors and the region.” Ankara’s tumultuous relationship with Tel Aviv is underscored by the very same principle governing its relationships with Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran.
The road to political prominence and multiregional influence is not going to be an easy one for Turkey, for whom a cautious population, a watchful West and the possibility of a certain Arab state unable to forgo memories of past greatness create the greatest hurdles. Despite these obstacles, however, Ankara has the potential to continue to build its international diplomatic and mediative repute while delicately balancing its increasingly Islamic character and strongly secular foundation and identity.
At the same time, however, Ankara does not require the consent of particular or all Muslim nations in its assumption of leadership on behalf of the Muslim world on the international stage. It has already taken the steps necessary, under the leadership of Erdogan’s AKP, to be considered as such. This initiative underlines how Ankara is not resorting to political historical memories as a platform for its new role, rather it is playing the very same self-interest game everyone else on the international stage, vying for power and influence, seems to enjoy.