In the last few years, Turkey has quietly transformed itself into a major player on the international scene. Ankara has been reaching out diplomatically and economically to its neighbors while simultaneously standing up to both Washington and Tel Aviv. And doing so has made the Turkish government immensely popular domestically as well as within the Middle East. The growing importance of Turkey and the benefits of a strong and friendly Ankara seems to be lost on Israel and the United States, however. Turkey is going to continue its assent in international importance; the US and Israel need to get on board.
[tweetmeme] Turkey’s increasingly central role in the Middle East is a product of its economic and foreign policies – which are increasingly linked (Bloomberg speaks about the link here). Ankara has improved political ties with Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Lebanon and has substantial economic interests in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and throughout Europe. Janine Zacharia published and article in the Washington Post today underlining exactly this point:
Turkey’s efforts, however, seem as much about economic expansion as they do about foreign policy, with an aggressive strategy of seeking new markets for Turkish businessmen, many of them backers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.
“We want to have an economic interdependency between Turkey and neighbors and between different countries in these regions. If you have an economic interdependency, this is the best way to prevent any crisis,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Despite Turkey’s emergence on the international stage, both Israel and the US seem to be moving in the opposite direction while blaming Turkey for the widening gap. The row with Israel started in 2008 when PM Erdogan lectured Israeli President Peres about the Israeli invasion of Gaza and continued when Israeli Minister without portfolio Danny Ayalon embarrassed the Turkish Ambassador. As if relations were not soured enough between Israel and its most important Muslim ally, recently Erdogan and Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman have seemed to sever the proverbial cord connecting the two countries.
In France, Erdogan recently called Israel the “principle threat to peace in the Middle East” while recalling Israeli actions in Gaza. Israeli PM Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel is interested in peace (though a today’s Haaretz headling reads “Netanyahu: Israel Will Not Be Pushed to Peace“) and that he regretted that “Erdogan chooses time after time to attack Israel.”
Lieberman added: “It’s his choice. The problem is not Turkey, the problem is Erdogan” and that Erdogan is “slowly turning into (Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi or (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez.” (Woodward encourages Lieberman to look in the mirror before talking about problems.) Such verbal attacks on Israel and Erdogan certainly show the severity in decline of relations between the two countries.
Relations between the US and Turkey are better, but not by much. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington after the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to use the term genocide in reference to the Turkish-Armenian conflict in the early 20th century. Though the ambassador is coming back to Washington (it is doubtful that Obama will use the term despite his campaign promises), tensions still run high between Ankara and Washington. Like Brazil – a fellow non-permanent member of the Security Council and rising international star – and China – a permanent member – Turkey is hesitant to sign on to the sanctions on Iran that Obama is looking to push through – particularly considering the close personal ties between Erdogan and Ahmadinejad and the $10 billion Turkey has invested in Iran.
With Erdogan expected in Washington for Obama’s nuclear summit, it will be interesting to follow Turkish affairs in the next few weeks. Obama will continue to try to convince Turkey of the sagacity of sanctions, though Ankara will most certainly continue to see them as premature.
Israel seems to have given up on Turkey as an ally in the Middle East, though the US still seems to understand its importance (particularly considering its seat at the security council). Looking into the future, it is not difficult to predict the continued rise of Turkey (that is, barring a military coup). If the US is serious about peace in the Middle East, it is going to need to be more understanding of the major role that Turkey is increasing playing economically and politically.