Turkey Awakes as a Regional Power

Turkey has worked hard in recent years to establish itself as something of a Middle Eastern power broker. With Brazil, it managed to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran last month while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a strategic partnership with Russia in February. On Thursday, the architect of Turkey’s newfound regional engagement, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, could announce the creation of Middle East free-trade zone.

Besides Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria have agreed to allow a free exchange of goods and people to take place between their borders. Neighboring states are explicitly invited to participate in the near future.

At the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in Istanbul on Thursday, Davutoğlu stressed that the initiative should not be considered an alternative to the European Union which also maintains a common market. “We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates,” he professed.

Although Turkey still favors EU membership, its ambitions have been disheartened in recent years because of Europe’s apparent unwillingness to admit it into the union. In many Western European member states, mounting concerns over immigration and supposed Islamification coupled with widespread Euroskepticism is preventing national leaders from arguing in favor of expansion. Turkey, which has hoped to be accepted as part of the EU for many decades, is now taking a different path. Increasingly, it is turning eastward, having decided, apparently, that its future, at least for the time being, lies in Asia, not Europe.

Last December, The Economist described the move as “natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed,” notes the British newspaper, “Turkey’s Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.”

Turkey has already signed free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It hopes to achieve similar arrangements with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries are only too happy to connect with Turkey’s burgeoning economy which has grown impressively in recent years, in spite of the global downturn. Turkish exports to the Middle East and North Africa have swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. The country is investing considerably in many neighboring states, including Iraq, and its significance as a conduit for energy to Europe is set to increase as the future Nabucco pipeline will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan to the West.

Even Turkey’s indignation in the wake of Israel’s violent interception of an aid flotilla bound for Gaza earlier this month should be understood as a conscious attempt to promote its regional influence. Turkey, like most of the Middle East, is very much concerned about Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons and relies very much on the import of Iranian gas. That is why, in April, Davutoğlu offered to mediate. Turkey fears that Western pressure will only isolate Iran further and invigorate its desire for the Bomb, which would suddenly make Iran, not Turkey, the great power in the region.

If Turkey intends to normalize its relations with Iran — which it does — it can hardly be seen as making steps to prepare for a nuclear Iran — which it dreads. So, Erdoğan reacted with outrage when Israel prevented ships carrying aid and activists from reaching the Gaza Strip and killed nine on board in the process. Israel is already a nuclear power and it appears that Turkey is willing to jeopardize its relations with the Jewish state in order to justify, once Tehran announces the weaponization of its nuclear program, its own rapid reach for the same.

This puts the West in tough spot. Turkey, after all, is part of NATO and supposedly still a candidate for EU membership. Europe has simply missed the boat and must accept Turkey as a regional power on its fringe — something that could actually help its foreign policy both in the Middle East and with Russia, if handled carefully.

The Americans have greater difficulty coping with Turkey’s rise. They will not like to play favorites between Turkey and Israel, especially with Iran hanging in the balance. No wonder American defense secretary Robert Gates was annoyed on Wednesday when Turkey voted against a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. “If there’s anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is in no small part because it was pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” he told reporters in London. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones though. America is less popular in Turkey than Europe is. A BBC poll conducted in April revealed that 70 percent of Turks hold a negative view of the United States for which the Iraq War is largely to blame.

At the same time, the West hasn’t lost Turkey yet. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ruling party may be more Islamist than befits the country’s fifty years of secular politics but at the same time, it is pushing back the remaining power of the military. Reform along Western lines is still moving foward, if slowly. In Iraq, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has played a key role in forging alliances between the country’s competing Shia and Sunni factions. Moreover, he has courted the Kurds in southeastern Turkey and north Iraq which is a step toward pacifying the border region.

Turkey isn’t suddenly obstructionist. It remains committed to NATO and ultimately seeks membership of the European Union. But for the time being, it will conduct a more independent foreign policy — something the West should try to exploit instead of complain about.