News / Middle East

    Turkey Asserts Self as Bold Regional Power

    Rising tensions with Israel, Turkey’s turn to the East raise questions about Ankara’s ambitions, future course

    Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the headquarters of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara (file photo)
    Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the headquarters of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara (file photo)
    Cecily Hilleary

    Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in North Africa this week in what he is calling an expression of partnership with the emerging democracies of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. His trip coincides with a critical decline in relations with Israel and an attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo - as well as next week’s Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. Erdogan’s “Arab Spring” tour and recent public statements have raised concerns in some quarters that Turkey is looking to create an alliance with Egypt that could be hostile to Israel - and, in a much more general sense, is indicative of what some have termed “neo-Ottomanism.”

    Until recently, Turkey and Israel had been friendly. The thaw in relations, before they turned sour, dates back to 1949. That was the year Turkey formally recognized the Jewish state. Their friendship began to cool after the 2008-2009 Gaza war, and it was further strained by Israel’s 2010 raid on a Turkish aid ship to Gaza, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish activists onboard.

    Hamas navy officers are seen during a ceremony honoring the nine Turkish activists killed atop a flotilla aid ship, Gaza City port, June 6, 2010.
    Hamas navy officers are seen during a ceremony honoring the nine Turkish activists killed atop a flotilla aid ship, Gaza City port, June 6, 2010.

    After a year-long investigation, the U.N. on September 2 concluded that Israel had acted with “excessive and unreasonable force,” in spite of “organized and violent resistance” by passengers.  The world body encouraged Israel to make an appropriate statement of regret.

    Erdogan has expressed anger and dismay with Israel’s refusal to apologize for the attack. Consequently, Turkey suspended military trade with Israel, expelled top Israeli diplomats, expressed support of the Palestinian bid for statehood and vowed to provide naval support for any future aid flotillas to Gaza. Erdogan has also warned that he is prepared to order his navy to escort future aid flotillas to Gaza.

    Islamist Trend?

    Ankara’s row with Israel, viewed in the context of Turkey’s refusal to participate in sanctions against Iran and its friendships with Syria and Sudan, has generated broader concerns that Turkey may realigning its political interests along Islamist lines and that the crisis with Israel is a part of a predetermined strategy of Islamization.

    Michael Rubin
    Michael Rubin

    Michael Rubin is a Middle East scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI).  He accuses Turkey of delibaretely “whipping up” sentiments against Israel. “It wants to leverage that both domestically, in terms of its own politics, and also Turkey is making a claim for leadership of the Islamic world."

    It should be noted that Turkey has been a staunchly secular state since 1928, just after the modern nation’s founding when a constitutional amendment was passed removing Islam as the state religion. Secularism and the removal of Ottoman era Islamic legal codes was a major priority of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Constitution currently states that Turkey is a secular democratic republic.

    Kemal Ataturk, the "Founder of Modern Turkey" (file photo)
    Kemal Ataturk, the "Founder of Modern Turkey" (file photo)

    Rubin believes it is no coincidence that Prime Minister Erdogan will this week address Arab foreign ministers. “Turkish foreign policy is consciously being driven toward more Islamic leanings,” he said, “and this is seen not only in the current situation, but this goes back to the diplomatic capital which Turkey is willing to expend in order to get the leadership of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).”

    The 56-member OIC, the second largest intergovernmental organization in the world, is currently headed by Turkish academic and diplomat Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who recently condemned the U.N. report on the Israeli raid of the Gaza flotilla for what he called a “whitewash” of Israel’s actions.

    However, Erdogan declares himself to be an avowed advocate of secularism.  In an interview aired by the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV Monday, Erdogan expressed hopes that Egypt would choose a secular over an Islamic government, similar to the Turkish model.  He also stressed his conviction that secularism is not incompatible with Islam.

    Ian Lesser
    Ian Lesser

    Dr. Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States Transatlantic Center (GMF) in Brussels, does not share Rubin’s perspective. “There’s no question that a more traditional, somewhat more religious outlook is part of the Turkish world view today…the world view of the leadership, the world view of the public.”  That is one of the reasons, he says, that the AKP government has been re-elected - several times.

    “On certain issues, like the Palestinian question,” Lesser said, “there is clearly a strong sense of Muslim solidarity in play with Turkey’s public and leadership, and that does become a factor in the relationship with Israel - there’s no question about it.”

    Policy Driven by the Pocketbook

    Lesser says he does not see Islamism as the “single animating factor” in Turkish policy. He believes other factors animate Turkey’s shift away from the West - for one, Turkey’s stated goal of maximizing its regional influence through a “zero problems with the neighbors” policy. The analyst sees it as a balancing act that has resulted in billions of dollars in Arab investment into Turkey and that also positions Turkey as an important conduit of oil and gas between Europe and Asia.

    Supporters celebrate Erdogan's Justice and Development Party winning a third term in elections this year, Ankara, June 12, 2011.
    Supporters celebrate Erdogan's Justice and Development Party winning a third term in elections this year, Ankara, June 12, 2011.

    Secondly, Lesser thinks that after the military no longer determines national strategy, public opinion counts more than ever.  And most Turks, says he, these days vote by the pocket book.

    The German Marshall Fund’s 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey, released this week, shows one in five Turks believe that on international issues, Turkey should cooperate with the Middle East rather than the West. Forty-three percent think that NATO is no longer essential; 53 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the European Union, and 43 percent consider Middle Eastern countries to be more important to Turkey’s economic interests than European countries.

    Thus, says Lesser, business is the key dynamic in Turkish policy: “Commercial interests, especially in the Middle East, but also in Russia and Europe.” Even Turkey’s refusal to sign onto sanctions against Iran and its relationship with Syria, said Lesser, were “driven more by Turkey’s commercial and security interests, than by any concept of Islamic solidarity.”

    Using naval power to protect potential natural resources that Turkey may lay claim to in the future is also a factor. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) last year estimated that more than 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and around 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil lie under the so-called “Levant Basin Province.” These resources, says USGS Energy Resources Program Coordinator Brenda Pierce, are “bigger than anything the USGS has assessed in the United States.” Turkey has contested the gas search, saying that it does not take into consideration the rights of Turkish Cypriots on the divided island.

    Many experts blame Europe for Turkey’s growing nonalignment with the West. The European Union has been sluggish about admitting Turkey as a member. With the EU struggling in the global economic downturn, Turks have begun to find membership less attractive, and Turkish exporters have turned to markets in the Middle East and North Africa, the Gulf, Russia and even Central Asia. This has resulted in a booming Turkish economy - and a boost to the country’s confidence as a global power.

    What’s at Stake?

    Earlier this month Turkey suspended all defense trade with Israel, worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  The Turkish Statistical Institute, or Turkstat, says that in 2010, Turkey had exports to Israel worth $2.08 billion and imports amounting to $1.35 billion. First-quarter figures for 2011 show trade was up 40 percent from the same time last year.

    In short, the two countries have a lot riding economically on their relationship.  The fact Turkey clarified that it was breaking defense ties alone is a good indicator that it recognizes this fact.

    “Certainly,” AEI’s Michael Rubin said, “Turkey as an ally is helpful to Israel.” He worries that the crisis between Turkey and Israel could not only damage their historic partnership, but threaten the stability of the entire Middle East. “While right now, we are limiting this to a war of words, if Prime Minister Erdogan carries through on his threats to deploy the Turkish navy in the Eastern Mediterranean, then we could go down a slippery slope to at least an accident that could lead to more instability in the region,” he said.

    Lesser of the GMF says the U.S. has a strong strategic interests in maintaining a “triangular” relationship between itself, Israel and Turkey, especially considering the possibility of missile proliferation in Iran. The biggest challenge for the White House, says he, is that the US has less leverage than it would like over either Turkey or Israel.

    That said, Lesser doesn’t believe that Israel and Turkey will ever return to a full normalization of the good relations they enjoyed a decade ago. The question now, says he, is how to avoid a relationship driven entirely by crisis management, rather than strategy.

    Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
    and discuss them on our Facebook page.
    ما هو تحفيز سياسة تركيا الخارجية في الشرق الأوسط؟ رئيس وزراء تركيا يزور مصر وليبيا وتونس هذا الأسبوع من أجل مخطط سياسة بلاده الخارجية الجريئة. انها لا تمثل تحولا في اتجاه التأثير الإسلامي في السياسة أو بالأحرى نهجا حكيما لكل جار على حدة. وكيف ستؤثر في العلاقات مع إسرائيل؟

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.