Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Turkey has become the most important country in the Middle East on which the EU and the US can count, not just because it is a NATO member and a candidate for full membership in the EU, but because the balance of power in the Middle East has undergone dramatic changes as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the evolving uprisings of 2011. Despite these changes, neither the US not Western Europe see Turkey much differently today than they did during the Cold War, although Ankara has shifted its policy to reflect that its interests today are not the same as they were during the East-West conflict.

The US-UK-French-led air war against Gaddafi's Libya confirmed that the EU-US expected Turkey to support NATO against a fellow-Muslim nation. Regardless of the fact that Turkey has enjoyed long-standing cordial relations with Libya and has considerable interests in the country, including many Turkish nationalists working there, US, UK and France strong-armed Ankara into submission. 
Just days before agreeing to NATO involvement in Libya, Turkey had accused France of going to war against Libya for oil and natural resources. Nevertheless, as in the old days of the Cold War, the US and EU forced Turkey to do an about face on Libya - again exposing the gap of pro-Islamic rhetoric and pro-West actions.

Although Obama pledged a new foreign policy direction while campaigning, namely a direction of political instead of military solutions, the old Cold War mentality that prevailed under Bush and applied to Islamic nations is now unfolding with Obama. Did the Cold War foreign policy paradigm applied to Islamic countries work so well under Bush that the US is again resorting to it because "won" the Cold War, although it has accomplished nothing in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Just before the 2008 US presidential election, the Obama-Clinton team hinted of a new policy toward the Middle East, focusing on improving relations with the Islamic masses, seeking a permanent solution to the 50-year Israeli-Palestinian question, and counter-balancing Iran and Syria by strengthening ties with Turkey. The theory was that Turkey, a traditional ally of Israel, would moderate the conduct of Islamists and help de-radicalize militant Arabs, at least this is what the Obama-Clinton team believed. In short, against the background of the chaos in Iraq that inadvertently helped to strengthen Iran and Syria, Turkey was to become a US conduit in the Middle East, useful in helping US co-opt the more radical Arab elements.

This was a Cold War paradigm of course, with no relevance to the world of today, largely because Turkey has a problem with Kurdish nationalists, it has a strong regional economic interest, it is in its geopolitical interest to play the unifying role that Egypt once played under Nasser. Some have labeled Erdogan's policies as gravitating between neo-Kamialism and neo-Ottomanism, others see ambitious and pragmatic policies intended to pursue realignment that is based on rapid economic growth on which commensurate political and military strength rest.

While Turkey has been interested in filling the power gap in the Middle East and not allowing Iran the hegemonic role, Erdogan has turned out to be more pro-Islamist than the US, EU or Israel believed. Much of Erdogan's Islamist rhetoric is intended to mobilize nationalist sentiment, strengthen his own political base and further his image among Muslims.  After all, he has been on the side of the Palestinians more than any other Turkish leader in the postwar era, he has taken risks striking numerous economic and even nuclear program development deals with Iran and Syria, he has been supportive of Libya, while at the same time supporting rhetorically the mass uprisings across North Africa and Middle East.

After March 2010, when US Congress voted to declare the Armenian tragedy a "holocaust," Turkey responded in June by voting at the UN against the US on sanctions against Iran. As expected. Russia and China with strong interests in Iran did not go along with the US. Meanwhile, at the end of May 2010 , Israel launched a bloody attack on Turkey's vessels headed for Gaza with relief supplies--an attack that targeted ships from any country, though Turkey suffered casualties and a series of deteriorating diplomatic, military, economic and political chain of events. 
Then on the same day that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was visiting Athens in mid-August, the Financial Times published a story that Obama could not convince Congress to approve weapons sales to Turkey unless it moderated its policy toward Iran--ipso-facto an ultimatum, that unless Turkey adopted a more pro-Israel policy the US would halt weapons sales.

Using Greece to counter-balance Turkey may seem logical from a geopolitical perspective, but Greece can hardly carry out the role that Turkey could in filling the power gap left by Iraq. Nor is Greece a substitute for Turkey as a conduit for the Middle East. Israel and US agreed on direct talks with the Palestinians to determine the issue of an independent state existing side-by-side with Israel. The US weapons-sales to Turkey are a matter of national security because Ankara argues that they need them to fight terrorism (Kurdish rebels).

Operating under IMF-EU austerity measures, Greece had no choice but to play the Israel-US card of counter-balancing Turkey because of the promise of foreign investment in everything from energy to high tech and tourism. At the same time, it was an opportunity to weaken Turkey's regional role and marginalize it exactly as Tel Aviv and Washington wish, presumably, until Erdogan goes back begging to serve US foreign policy interests because of internal military and business pressures.

Syria and Iran are on Erdogan's side as long as he is on theirs at least on some issues, although the popular uprisings in Syria will test Erdogan as much as it will the rest of the Islamic world. Like Turkey, neither Syria nor Iran believe anything will come from the US initiative to have Israel negotiate directly with the Palestinians for a sovereign state, a position that some share in the Israeli media and public. The Palestinians will not and cannot come to an agreement with Israel in the absence of broader Islamic support that includes Turkey which has a reputation of playing all sides - both the traditional Cold War role as NATO member a country that projects solidarity with Muslims.

No matter how long the conflict lasts in Libya and no matter how the nascent uprising unfolds in Syria, it will be impossible for the US to determine the balance of power in the Middle East unless it has Turkey's cooperation, unless it reaches some compromise with Tehran and/or unless it convinces Moscow and Beijing to pressure Iran into negotiations. 
Turkey is willing to accommodate the West on a quid-pro-quo basis, and Iran is no different. As strange as it sounds, the US and EU may be faced with a very radical anti-West Middle East after all of the dust settles with the uprisings, and that may force NATO members to look to Turkey as the most important country in the region to forge stability and influence events. Turkey wants EU membership but France and Germany have categorically rejected its prospects, but for how long now that Turkey has become indispensable for the West and it has the ability to counterbalance NATO by forging stronger ties with Russia and China as well as Iran?

In short, pressuring Turkey without meeting its vital demands is shortsighted because it is based on anachronistic Cold War paradigms. Turkey will continue to play the conduit role that the US and EU demand, a role that compromises Ankara's vital geopolitical interests but for a price. The US, France and Germany have chosen to compromise Ankara's role in the Middle East by forcing it to go against Libya and by having Israel play its traditional hegemonic role in the region as it did during the Cold War, a role unsustainable because Iran will become the regional power with the assistance of Russia and China, and because the US global reach will be in retrenchment mode in the future. 
The question for the US and EU is what will they do if the embryonic demonstrations in Syria evolve into a popular uprising that spread into Turkey, even if it is among the Kurdish minority? Who will be left in the Middle East to represent the interests of the West is Turkey becomes politically unstable and distances itself from the West?

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