Turkey takes another turn eastward

Updated on
The World

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Concerned observers likely did not need more indication that Turkey is disengaging from a nearly century-long attachment to the Western orbit.

Two events this week underscored this reality: first, Turkey voted, not unexpectedly, against U.N. sanctions targeting Iran. The 15-nation Security Council passed the sanctions, its fourth round on a defiant Iran over its nuclear program, with 12 nations in favor.

Second, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan played host Tuesday to Russian’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas in a luxury hotel on the shores of the Bosphorus. The occasion: Turkey's takeover of the chairmanship of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building (CICA), a grouping of influential Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

The meeting was also the forum for an announcement with wide-ranging geopolitical ramifications: Putin declared that the Blue Stream II gas pipeline between Russia and Turkey would not be extended to Israel as planned. 

The CICA, founded in 1993 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, remained practically dormant until it was revived two years ago. A Western diplomat in Turkey said the Kazakhs organized the conference in Istanbul to give it a more international profile.

Turkey’s government has been rewarded with demonstrations of popular support for the sharp tone it struck in addressing Israel. Anti-Israel graffiti still litters the walls of Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, remnants of a day-long protest last week when tens of thousands of demonstrators tried to take over Israel’s consulate amid condemnations of its recent deadly raid on a Gaza aid flotilla.

“Turkey felt rebuffed that its offer wasn’t taken up,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian Israeli analyst, “and seized this as a useful opportunity to improve its position in the region vis-a-vis Iran."

For decades Turkey has belonged to Western clubs such as NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.N. According to analysts, high-profile recent foreign policy maneuvers and its decision to revive a near-dormant regional cooperation organization are troubling Western decision makers.

“Turkey’s recent foreign policy moves as encapsulated by the recent flotilla incident make NATO members particularly uneasy,” said Fotini Christia, an assistant professor of political science at MIT. “The Turks who have flaunted their secularism are now owning their Muslim identity in the foreign policy realm like never before.”

Turkey and Israel engaged in their biggest and most lethal diplomatic contretemps last week when the Israeli Navy boarded a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists who resisted arrest. The week before that, Turkey was served up a diplomatic snub by Washington when it refused to endorse a proposal on nuclear fuel swaps by Iran, Turkey and Brazil. Turkey and Brazil's vote in the Security Council against Iran sanctions was interpreted as their retort.

“The sun no longer rises and falls on Western preferences,” said Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst and author of The New Turkish Republic and a forthcoming book titled "A World Without Islam."

“The foreign policy vision of [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu is sweeping and likely to persist in one form or another after the [ruling] AK Party falls from power.

“It involves a 360-degree sense of its range of interests and historical involvement, a return to a more 'global vision' than the narrow Western wannabe country that it was for so many years.”

Israel, a CICA member, did not send a high-ranking delegation and blocked condemnation of its flotilla raid from the final declaration.

As the westernmost country in Asia, Turkey’s engagement with the West began with its foundation upon the ashes of an Ottoman Empire whose territories had once stretched deep into Europe. Mustafa Kemal, a Westernizing leader from the Greek port city of Salonika, discarded the Arabic alphabet for the Latin one, and banned Sufi brotherhoods, turbans and all other examples of what he considered superstitious folk religion.

During the Cold War, Turkey entered NATO and became a Western bulwark. It is now the ninth biggest contributor of troops supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It still holds hopes of entering the Western club, regardless of the economic crisis in the European Union.

But Turkish politics continue to be characterized by Ataturk’s distrust of the West, despite his qualified embrace of it.

He could not forget how the Allies prompted the Greek invasion of 1919, hoping for the dismemberment of the tottering Ottoman state. He was similarly aware that, at the end of World War I, the British and French navies moved to within striking distance of the metropolis in the Bosphorus Strait. With this in mind, he created the new capital, Ankara, in the epicenter of the Anatolian land mass, safe from seaborne intervention.

“Turkey is coming full circle after 150 years or so, and looking beyond even the confines of the Ottoman state,” said Fuller. 

As a former mayor of Istanbul who hails from a hardscrabble Istanbul neighborhood, Erdogan has recently deployed his combative personal style on the international stage. Last year, he walked out of a debate at the Davos Conference after a public disagreement with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, over his country’s conduct in the 2008 Gaza conflict. Military collaboration between the Turkish and Israeli armies has been scaled back and fewer Israeli tourists now visit Turkey.

Erdogan’s sharp criticism of Israel has arguably made him more popular than Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, across the Middle East. Turkish serials are the most watched in the Middle East and Arab investment in Turkey has skyrocketed.

“The Turkish president or the 'Ottoman Sultan' … is like the famous Turkish sweet, Turkish Delight,” Saudi journalist Hamad al-Majid wrote in a recent paean to Erdogan titled "Ottoman Sultan Erdogan the First" in the Saudi-owned newspaper As-Sharq al-Awsat. “For the first time, the nations of the Islamic world tasted the special and unique taste of the Turkish confectionery and wished these kinds of sweets would spread all over the Islamic and Arab world.”

“The region’s leaders are a bit deluded about Erdogan and view him as an Islamist like themselves,” said Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group’s Turkey expert and author of "The Rise of the Turkic World."

"And he might play to that to ensure the open doors but he’s a pragmatist above all.”

“Till now he’s maintained a good balance,” Javedanfar said. “He’s a long player so for now I don’t see him abandoning the West but if he does it’ll be a huge tactical mistake and he’ll regret it.”

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