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Turkey: need for caution

November 12, 2011

ASPECTS of what appears to be Turkey’s high-profile foreign policy have come under sharp criticism from the opposition, and highlight the dangers inherent in the active and extended regional role which has characterised Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s third term in office.

His statement that he will send destroyers to accompany relief convoys to Gaza has not been well received by some sections of the politicians in a country where the polarisation of society and politics on secular and non-secular lines is as sharp as ever.

Using rather strong language, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), told reporters that the Turkish Red Crescent was already carrying relief goods to Gaza, and that Mr Erdogan’s statement was designed to “deceive the people”.

That the CHP chief made a political statement rather than a foreign policy pronouncement became obvious when he said Mr Erdogan was the “real advocate” of Israel, because he had received an award from an American Jewish group for inter-faith harmony. Asking Mr Erdogan to return the award if he were sincere in his anti-Israel stance, Mr Kilicdaroglu claimed that his government’s decision to deploy an early warning system on Turkish soil was for Israel’s benefit. Political mudslinging aside, one must view the issue on its own.

Mr Erdogan’s principled stand on the Gaza massacre, his walkout from the Davos forum after an argument with Israeli President Shimon Peres and the firm stand on the Mavi Marmara apology were commendable steps. They conformed to the role and status which Turkey sees for itself as a Nato member, as an associate member of the European Union and as a key state in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Wedded to Kemalist principles, which include secularism and a strong, inward-looking nationalism, Turkey remained neutral in the Second World War but joined Nato following some nightmarish developments, including the occupation by the Soviet Union of entire eastern Europe, minus Yugoslavia and Albania, the communist rebellion in Greece and Moscow’s ‘irredentist’ claims on Turkey.

Since then, all governments in Ankara have pursued Turkey’s pro-European orientation with an unapologetic zeal, and it goes without saying that the country has gained immensely from its European connections. All along these decades since the founding of the republic in 1923, Turkey has avoided getting caught in wars.

Barring its symbolic participation in the Korean War and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Turkish foreign policy has been characterised by restraint and commitment to the Atlantic alliance. Despite serious differences with Greece it has managed to maintain peace with its neighbour, and during the Bosnian conflict and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey avoided military involvement despite emotional stress.

With Russia no more Turkey’s neighbour, Ankara has drawn correct results from the end of the Cold War and the discernible shift in the focus of global economic and geopolitical power from the West to the East. It has decided to develop a policy of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbours and forge closer economic and cultural ties with the Arab world, and on the Iranian nuclear question it clinched a deal with the help of Brazil. In Africa, Turkish businessmen have secured lucrative deals, and Ankara intends to exploit its traditionally friendly relations with Libya to get contracts worth billions of dollars when things settle down in post-Qadhafi Libya.

While these are positive developments and should serve Turkey well, the AKP government has to tread carefully when it comes to relations with Israel. As an OIC member Turkey has to take a principled stand on the Palestinian people’s right to a state with Jerusalem as its capital, but Mr Erdogan must not overestimate the elements of national power Turkey has. More important, he has to realise the implications inherent in a high-profile confrontation with Israel.

Most European governments are vulnerable to Israeli pressures, and in America it is more than pressure. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby merely presented in depth what was already known about the Jewish lobby’s hold over US policies.

In May, America’s Israel lobby made President Barack Obama stand on his head within 24 hours of his ‘1967 border’ statement, and when an angry but triumphant Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on May 24 he received a standing ovation 30 times. Mr Erdogan should note this, for even if Turkey is right in demanding an Israeli apology, a further deterioration of its relations with the Jewish state will sooner or later affect Ankara’s ties with Washington and Brussels and retard the economy’s fast growth, which has been one of his government’s major achievements. There are other dangers also.Israel has a special interest in the Kurdish question, and despite accommodating the Kurdish people’s legitimate cultural rights, Mr Erdogan has not yet been able to end PKK insurgency and its bases in Iraq. Any worsening of the Kurdish situation could destabilise not only Turkey but two other major Middle Eastern powers — Iraq and Iran. This in turn could have a chain effect on the region and reach Pakistan’s borders.

While Turkey has moved away, rightly, from its previous policy of unalloyed political and military relationship with Israel, Mr Erdogan should grasp the hazards inherent in a protracted confrontation with Israel. The talk about destroyers escorting relief ships is dangerous and may escalate the crisis to levels that could seriously hurt Turkey’s economic and geopolitical interests and further reduce whatever possibility there is of its EU membership.

What suits Turkey and the Arab-Islamic world is its continued existence as an economically vibrant and democratically stable state that could serve as a stabilising force in the region and have a moderating influence on a Europe now in the grip of anti-Muslim hysteria. It should not throw away the advantage it has at present, especially the all-round respect it enjoys.

The writer is a member of staff.