Middle East 'a foreign policy priority' for Turkey

Thu 23 Feb 2012 02:24 GMT | 06:24 Local Time

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News.Az interviews Sarah Akram, research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.

How would you assess Turkey's role as a new leader of the Muslim world?

Turkey’s geostrategic location as a land bridge to the Middle East from Europe and Russia, along with its Islamic and secular identity, enable it to play a pivotal role in the region. However, since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s foreign policy remained deeply rooted in the legacy of its founder, Kemal Ataturk, who redirected it towards the West, thus making Ankara an important ally of the United States and Europe. However, Turkey has made efforts to optimize policy options with neighbours on one hand and with great power players on the other; its recent involvement with the Middle East is noteworthy and reveals a reorientation of its foreign policy.

Turkey’s primary stakes in the Middle East can be categorized as economic, diplomatic and geopolitical. That the Middle East is becoming a foreign policy priority for Turkey is evident from its willingness to mediate in the Arab-Israeli conflict, active interest in the Arab League, contribution to UN forces in Lebanon and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the assumption of a leadership position in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the establishment of closer ties with Syria, Iran and Iraq. However, the most important aspect of Turkey’s involvement in Mideast peace diplomacy is its role as a mediator. Turkey can play a constructive role in the region as it has gained the confidence of regional players on issues of great significance and, more specifically, because of its role as a mediator on contentious issues between rival countries.

Turkey can thus go a long way in influencing the politics of the Middle East, and its credibility as a peace broker can reap many benefits for the country in the years to come. Turkey is definitely a role model for the developing world as well as its Muslim neighbours; however, it is difficult to consider it in the role of a new leader of the Muslim world, as it is a secular republic with an important role in the region. Turkish responses to the Arab Spring have been contradictory and muted in some cases as well.

What do you think about the Turkish-Israeli crisis? How serious is it?

Turkey’s relations with Israel are of prime importance and had greatly deepened in the 1990s when a unique alliance was forged between the two countries. Their close ties with the United States created a new triangular strategic alliance in the post-Cold War era, and high-level political visits, intelligence sharing and joint military exercises became a permanent feature of this relationship. It is noteworthy that Turkey was the first Middle Eastern state to recognize Israel diplomatically, in 1949, soon after its creation.

Recently, a number of factors have been instrumental in increasing the distance between Turkey and Israel. Some critics point to the Islamist roots of the AKP government as a reason for the cooling relations between Turkey and Israel. Ankara’s improving relations with the Arab world come in tandem with its cooling relations with Israel. The present Turkish government has been extremely critical of Israeli actions vis-à-vis Palestinians and has been a harsh critic of Israeli actions in Gaza in the winter of 2008 and a strong critic of illegal Israeli settlements.

The Turkish-Israel crisis is serious, but it may be noted that despite the strained relationship, there has been a manifold increase in Turkish trade, which shows the pragmatism in Turkish foreign policy. However, Turkey’s refusal to carry out joint military exercises with Israel shows that there still exist enormous difficulties and it will require a lot of time and effort to put the relations back on track.

May Turkey achieve its goals in the region as long as the problems in relations with Israel remain unresolved?

Turkish foreign policy is best described by the phrase, “zero problems with neighbours”. However, Ankara, despite its differences with neighbours, still struggles to achieve all its economic and political goals in the region. Problems with Israel remain an unpleasant hurdle and may limit Turkey’s role in some ways, but nonetheless Turkey is well on its way to achieving all its goals in the region.

What would be the Turkish position on the "Iranian problem" if the West decided to invade the country?

Turkey’s position on the “Iranian problem” has been very clear and Ankara has been a strong proponent of negotiations between the West and Iran on the nuclear issue. Turkey refused to allow the United States to use its soil for the Iraq invasion of 2003 and had an independent Iraq policy; therefore in Iran’s case it is most likely that Turkey will again take an independent course.

Are there any initiatives that Azerbaijan and Turkey may pass through the UN Security Council during Azerbaijan’s membership of the council in 2012-13?

Turkey and Azerbaijan have enjoyed strong relations and Ankara is a staunch supporter of Azerbaijan in its efforts to consolidate its independence. Turkey will definitely put its weight behind Azerbaijan in this regard as well.

How do you assess Turkey's peacemaking capacities in the Karabakh settlement?

Turkey could play an important role in bringing both sides to a peaceful settlement as Turkey borders both countries and conflicts in its neighbourhood can have negative spillover effects. Turkey has time and again played the role of a mediator in the region and its efforts have sometimes met with success. Ankara’s efforts in this regard are positive and may reap benefits in the future, if it succeeds in its peacemaking efforts.




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