Its star rising, Turkey is forced to choose an ally

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ISTANBUL, Turkey — At the upcoming NATO conference in Lisbon, Turkey is going to have to finally take sides.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party, Turkey, a rising power and a traditional ally of the West, has increasingly turned its focus to its neighbors in the Middle East, including Iran, leading some to question the country’s loyalties.

Now, a U.S. plan to build a missile defense shield on Turkish soil — designed specifically to counter Iranian short- and medium-range missiles — might finally force Turkey to decide for which team it wants to play.

NATO’s 28-member alliance meets in Lisbon on Friday to determine a strategic concept for the 21st century (its last rethink was in 1999).

On its agenda will be both an assessment of its commitment to the Afghanistan War and a decision on whether or not to support the missile defense shield — a decision that must be made by consensus, giving each alliance member, including Turkey, veto power.

At the heart of the controversy is a proposal to locate a radar base for the defense shield on Turkish territory. At the G20 meeting in Seoul last week, Erdogan told U.S. President Barack Obama that Turkey remained unsure about the idea.

Where Turkey falls on the issue will be seen as an important test as to whether it intends to maintain its Western orientation or turn its gaze more firmly eastward toward Syria, Russia and, of course, Iran.

Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the issue is a “test of Turkey’s leadership.”

“The U.S., Turkey and their allies are putting each other in dilemmas where they will be forced to define themselves. We are going to find out a lot about what this ‘new Turkey’ is all about and its relationship to the NATO alliance.”

The proposed plan is a toned-down alternative to the Bush-era scheme to deploy a longer-range missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic — a project that Russian President Vladimir Putin said would turn Europe into “a powder keg.”

A White House fact sheet outlining the U.S.-designed plan names Iran as the explicit threat — a step too far for Turkey, who has good relations with Iran and hopes to keep it that way.

“Mentioning one country, Iran … is wrong and will not happen. A particular country will not be targeted … . We will definitely not accept that,” said Turkish President Abdullah Gul in an interview with the BBC’s Turkish service, aired on Turkish television.

Led by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Ankara has worked hard over the past year and a half to build a policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors — a strategy at odds with NATO’s desire to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

Turkey has real reasons to care what Iran thinks. Aside from being a profitable market for Turkish goods, Tehran also provides Turkey with 20 percent of its natural gas.

The whole debate has given rise to grim flashbacks of the Cold War, when Turkey was a front-line state for NATO.

“We do not want a Cold War zone or psychology around us," said Davutoglu during a trip to Shanghai last week, according to Anadolu Ajansi, the semi-official Turkish news agency.

U.S. and European powers are increasingly concerned with Turkey’s lighter tone in the region, especially with Iran. While the West levied increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran this past spring, Turkey, along with Brazil, took a softer approach — adamant that a diplomatic solution was both possible and preferable.

But as the West decries Turkey’s betrayal, many here see Turkey’s diplomatic maneuvering as evidence of a stronger nation that has the ability to wield a foreign policy that is independent from the influence of its more traditionally more powerful allies.

“What this is really all about is Turkey acting as an equal member of NATO,” said Soli Ozel, a prominent newspaper columnist on international affairs and professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “They are trying not to compromise their national interests for alliance interests and policies.”

Despite the challenges, most are still betting that a middle ground will be found between Turkey and NATO and that the missile defense plan will move forward. The stakes are simply to high, experts say, for Turkey not to back NATO.

“If Turkey just simply blocks this it would cause some serious reassessments in Western capitals about ultimately how good an ally Turkey is to the U.S. and NATO,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.