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Tuncay Babali: Turkey ’s Middle East Policy

By
Editor-in-chief, Tolerance.ca, Member of Tolerance.ca®
Dr. Tuncay Babali is a fellow at the Harvard Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He has served as a Turkish diplomat in many countries. Previously, he was deputy chief of cabinet to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, counseling him on foreign policy issues, contributing to speech writing and preparing presidential level state visits to various foreign countries. Views expressed here reflect solely Dr. Tuncay Babali’s views and do not necessarily reflect any other institution including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey . We interviewed Dr. Babali on the Turkey’s Middle East Policy. Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for Tolerance.ca ®. 



Aziz Enhaili: The Turkish Republic was turned toward the West. It is now back in the Middle East . Why does Turkey under the AKP rule look East and South? Does that mean there exists a chill toward the West in general and Europe in particular?

Tuncay Babali: Turkey ’s recent activism in the Middle East is widely misread as a departure from the West. It is certainly encouraged by the frustrations with the E.U. From that vantage point, it is healthier to interpret the dramatically deepened and broadened economic and energy relations between Turkey, Iran and Russia in recent weeks and months as Turkey’s another way of saying “I am here, important and relevant for your policies more than you think!” Indeed, Turkey 's new standing in the region has a chance of transforming the country into something far more valuable to Brussels and Washington than a subservient tool or proxy. And Turkey ’s widely acclaimed international role as bridge role cannot be played if one leg of the bridge is weak. Strong relations with the East are widely seen as a strength in the West.

More broadly, Turkey 's Cold War diplomatic position is over. Toeing the European or U.S. line (no matter what) is history. They do matter, of course, but national interests come first. The foreign policy shift is, however not driven exclusively by pure calculation of national interest.

Turkey’s new activism in the Middle East and other regions is not just a reaction to Turkey ’s disappointment with its Western friends. Rather, it is a fully rational and pragmatic attempt to seize new spaces of opportunity presented by new facts of globalization and regional reordering. Especially when Europeans are virtually inefficient and indignant to key geopolitical issues and the new U.S. administration is yet to implement its new policies of action in Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, Turkey is emerging as a self-confident and balancing key actor.

There's also an emotional factor at work. AKP government officials as practicing Muslims, calling themselves “Conservative democrats," reject both "Islamic Party" or "Muslim democrats” characterizations. They are apparently trusted and respected by many leaders and the public in the Middle East .

Ultimately though, Turkish foreign policy’s new outlook and aspirations to play a more pro-active role in its immediate geopolitical neighborhood should be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory, to its more traditional Western strategic alignments. And this approach remains to a greater extent compatible with the West’s strategic objectives, including Iran . Without dialogue you cannot convince. Energy cooperation is another way of creating interdependency.

Aziz Enhaili: In recent years, the successful achievements of Turkey in terms of Foreign Policy in the Middle East have a lot to do with the vacuum created by Arab powers and the failures of the U.S. influence under the Bush administration. Given that fact, what are the main Turkish challenges and strategic goals in the Middle East ? And does this country have the necessary tools to fill that vacuum and to establish its influence in the long term?

Babali: Improving relations with neighboring states and playing an increasingly leading role in the region seems to be based on real political influence and economic and energy interests, rather than prestige and nostalgia for the old Ottoman Empire , as some suggest. First and foremost it is a correction of an anomalous situation of non-interaction in the Middle Eastern issues. Turkey is recovering deep trends and very deep interests that were frozen or otherwise obscured during the Second World War and the Cold War. Turkey is returning to its traditional strategic environment. In the last four years, Turkey became an observer in the Arab League and in the African Union. It established a strategic partnership with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and expanded the ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization).

There are challenges ahead. Turkey as the sixth largest economy in Europe and the 17th largest in the world is better equipped today then let say 10 years ago to embark upon a sustainable active policy in the Middle East . However, Turkey needs to clarify her ultimate goal through effective public diplomacy. In terms of resources and personnel equipped with enough language capabilities, Turkey faces serious challenges and needs a systemic review of its foreign policy and its implementation, and its priorities need to be substantiated.

Turkey’s ability to sustain this renewed geostrategic initiatives, and the implicit but unmistakable concerns that EU’s rejection of Turkish membership might not only stop the accession to E.U., but actually, as argued by some, drive Turkey in another direction entirely, viz., toward an axis with Moscow-Beijing-Tehran. However, these renewed geostrategic initiatives are not real alternatives to Western vocation which will remain to be main focus. E.U.’s own confusion about its future like being global actor vs. regional economic integration and being a dwarf in Common Security and Foreign Policy issues makes the question “who needs whom more” (Turkey or E.U.) even more complex.

Aziz Enhaili: Do You think that the recent realignment of Turkey could jeopardize its traditional relations with Israel ? Or can the Turks afford such an outcome? This new situation did it make the daylife of Turkey ’s Jewish community more difficult?

Babali: I do not think so! Despite the recent ups and downs in relations with Israel none of the existing mechanisms or agreements was abolished. Even during the Gaza strikes the conservative opposition called for diplomatic ties to be broken with Israel, however Prime Minister Erdogan did not even call the Ambassador to Israel for consultations, which he did with the U.S. in October 2007 when the Armenian Bill was introduced to Congress. Turkish leaders recognize that relations with Israel should be strong so that their contribution to the peace process can go on. This doesn’t mean that they will ignore what they call unfairness and wrongdoing.

There are certainly a series of events that had a negative effect on bilateral relations: Mr. Erdogan felt slighted last year when Israel attacked Gaza only days after he had met Israel ’s then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who had given him hope that Turkish-brokered peace talks –this time direct talks though- 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.

Turkey was again angered in September when Israel denied FM Davutoglu permission to cross into Gaza during a visit to Israel and PM Erdogan in an earlier trip to the region in 2006 had to wait for an hour at the crossing point without reason.

The opposition and so-called Kemalist hardliners have also become increasingly dissatisfied with their Israeli counterparts. A primary cause for the distrust is the 2007 Israeli air attacks on suspected Syrian nuclear plants -- strikes flown from Turkish territory. Israel , though, never bothered to inform the Turks.

Defense is the backbone of Turkish-Israeli relations. Failing to diversify this relationship is now haunting the two countries. "Unreliable contract commitments" when it comes to military equipment is another reason for the deterioration. Only two of the 10 Heron surveillance drones ordered have been delivered to Turkey and they both crashed during test flights.

A 170 M-60 tank modernization project, almost worth of $687 million, was awarded to Israel in 2002 and full amount of money was paid in installments, Turkey has got only ten modernized tanks so far and the whole process is now in perils and long delayed. This crisis also affected Turkey ’s own national tank project negatively.

Overall, Turkish officials respond that they have no intention of breaking off relations with Israel . But they remain indignant. They might have lost leverage with Israel but they seem to prefer rather to be on the side of history, of what they deem is right, of justice. As Ibrahim Kalin, foreign policy advisor to PM Erdogan, said “you cannot have security of Israel at the expense of the security of Palestinians” which summarizes Turkey ’s new position in the region.

As far as the Jewish minority of Turkey is concerned, they are indigenous part of Turkish society. With a long history of tolerance towards the Jewish citizens of Turkey , I believe the Government is determined to provide their safety. After Gaza there were some incidents resembling hatred, however the Government was quick enough to prosecute the perpetrators. If any anxiety remains in this part of our society they should be addressed effectively.

Interview conducted by Aziz Enhaili for Tolerance.ca ®.

December 9, 2009


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