(Editor’s update: Turkey voted against the Iran sanctions resolution in the Security Council on Wednesday)
(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s ever more activist foreign policy, which has opened a gulf with its former ally Israel, also is putting Turkey increasingly at odds with the traditional positions held by its partner in NATO, the United States.
Fresh from his joint mediation with Brazil of a fuel-swap agreement in a bid to stave off new sanctions against Iran, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fast achieving hero status across the Arab world for confronting Israel over its policies, especially since the deadly Israeli raid on activists’ ships trying to break the security blockade of Gaza.
Turkey’s response to the deaths of nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists during clashes with Israeli commandos on one of the six ships Israeli troops boarded has taken tensions with Israel to a new low, with Erdogan declaring that things will never be the same.
A Muslim-majority but officially secular country straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey has long been viewed in Western capitals as an important bridge between the West and Islam.
Turkey’s shift away from Western positions began long before the flotilla incident – ties between the U.S. and Turkey, two longstanding NATO allies, were severely strained over the Iraq war – and that shift goes beyond its relationship with Israel.
On the sidelines of a regional security summit hosted by Turkey this week, Erdogan held talks with the presidents of Iran and Syria – even as Iran continues to defy the international community over its nuclear activities, and while Syria ignores U.S. appeals to distance itself from Tehran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
When the U.N. Security Council votes on Wednesday for a new Iran sanctions resolution Turkey is expected to withhold its support, as are fellow non-permanent members Brazil and Lebanon. The resolution is certain to pass, but without the international consensus Western diplomats have so keenly sought.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who discussed the matter with Erdogan in Istanbul on Tuesday, has threatened to walk away from any future discussions with the U.S. and other leading countries if the resolution is passed. If the crisis deepens, Turkey’s stance could become increasingly important.
The U.S. administration, meanwhile, has not publicly questioned Turkey’s shifting positions.
“I know there are those who like to debate Turkey’s future … they wonder whether you will be pulled in one direction or another,” President Obama said in a speech when he visited the country on his first trip abroad as president.
“Here is what they don’t understand: Turkey’s greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things,” he said. “This is not where East and West divide – it is where they come together.”
When Obama later welcomed Erdogan to the Oval Office he described him as a personal friend.
Erdogan’s Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since 2002. After winning re-election in 2007 with a double-digit increase in votes he stepped up efforts to assert Turkey’s regional leadership – with considerable success, topped by its election to a two-year Security Council term for the first time in 47 years.
A key first-term achievement was rapprochement with Syria after decades of mistrust, fueled in part by Turkish allegations of Syrian support for Kurdish separatists, and Syria’s criticism of Turkey’s military ties with Israel.
After President Bashir Assad in 2004 became the first Syrian leader to visit Turkey in more than half a century, diplomatic and trade relations quickly improved.
Ankara also mediated secret negotiations between Syria and Israel, but after Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-9 the effort ended, as Erdogan sided with the Arabs and spearheaded regional condemnation of Israel.
As relations with Israel worsened, Turkey last spring held its first joint military exercise with Syria and subsequently signed a bilateral “strategic cooperation” agreement with Damascus, pledging to deepen defense ties.
By contrast, it demanded that Israel withdraw from a scheduled NATO air force exercise that it was preparing to host. After the U.S. and Italy objected Turkey called off the event altogether.
Any future Turkish role as an “honest broker” in Israel-Syria peace negotiations seems implausible, under an AKP government at least. In Istanbul this week, Assad and Erdogan exchanged declarations of mutual support, with the Syrian leader predicting that “a mixture of Arab and Turkish blood” would break the blockade of Gaza, and place Israel under siege instead, Syria’s official Sana news agency reported.
Erdogan furthermore challenged the U.S. position regarding Hamas, the Islamist group which seized power in Gaza in 2007 and has used the territory to launch rocket and other attacks against Israel.
In conjunction with its partners in the so-called Mideast “Quartet” – Russia, the European Union and the U.N. – Washington has refused to deal with Hamas unless it recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and adheres to previous agreements signed between Israel and Palestinian leaders.
But Erdogan disputes that Hamas is a terrorist organization, and has held talks with its leaders.
Turkey also became more openly sympathetic towards Iran’s position on the nuclear issue. Erdogan started expressing the view, traditionally promoted by Egypt and other Arab states, that it was Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal, rather than Iran’s nuclear program, that posed a threat to the region’s security.
When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors last November voted on a resolution condemning Iran for building a second uranium enrichment plant and referring the matter to the Security Council, the U.S. had been hoping for Turkey’s support, but it abstained.
After Turkey and Brazil last month finalized the agreement for Iran to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad for processing, their leaders said that with the deal in place, there was no need for more U.N. sanctions.
Turkey was therefore unhappy when the Security Council push for a sanctions resolution moved ahead shortly afterwards, suggesting that its diplomatic achievement was being spurned by the U.S. and others.
Some experts saw it differently.
Saban Kardas of the Political Science Department at the University of Utah, noted that Turkey had gone ahead with the diplomatic effort “despite the news about a new draft U.N. Security Council being prepared” – a sign that Turkey was not averse to risking confrontation with the U.S.
While the U.S. suspected that Iran, once again, was using the initiative to avoid tougher international action, Turkey took a different view.
“Overall, the Turkish leaders seem to assume good will on Iran’s part and do not seriously consider the possibility that Iran might be manipulating their willingness to mediate in this crisis to undermine the quasi-coalition the United States has delicately managed to form,” Kardas wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
On Wednesday, Turkey is not expected to vote for the sanctions resolution despite its reported watering-down at the insistence of permanent members China and Russia.
The Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs this week raised concerns about Turkey’s reliability as a NATO ally.
“Turkey, as a member of NATO, is privy to intelligence information having to do with terrorism and with Iran,” it said in a brief. “If Turkey finds its best friends to be Iran, Hamas, Syria and Brazil (look for Venezuela in the future) the security of that information (and Western technology in weapons in Turkey’s arsenal) is suspect.
“The United States should seriously consider suspending military cooperation with Turkey as a prelude to removing it from the organization,” JINSA said.
Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, expressed the hope that elections scheduled for mid-2011 will remove Erdogan and the AKP from power, in favor of secularist parties.
“The strategic consequences of Turkey becoming a part of an anti-American axis are far reaching,” he said. “For the sake of the free world, but mostly for their own sake, let us hope that the Turks will choose democracy and progress and not the poverty, ignorance and authoritarianism offered by Islamist regimes.”