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Turkey moves to engage more deeply in Mideast – and with neighbors

Turkey's government has inked new accords with Armenia and Syria, evidence of its bid to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker.

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / October 29, 2009

Peace Times: A woman, who is a member of Turkey's Armenian community, prayed at a Sunday mass as Turkey and Armenia took steps in early October to end a century of hostility.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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Istanbul, Turkey

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Iran Tuesday – defending its nuclear program and his "friend" President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – capped two weeks of vigorous diplomacy that analysts say is aimed at bolstering its growing reengagement with the Middle East and its attempt to implement a policy of "zero problems" with its neighbors.

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Stymied by European resistance to its bid for EU membership, Turkey's government has forcefully realigned the country's foreign policy over the past few years. Led by the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has sought to engage more with the surrounding region and to establish itself as a neighborhood soft-power broker.

But observers say that Ankara's foreign policy ambitions are tied up in first resolving what were, until recently, taboo issues – particularly the Armenian, Kurdish, and Cypriot problems – that have cast a heavy shadow over Turkey's domestic politics for the past few decades.

"Turkey wants to play internationally, and to play internationally it has to put [its] house in order," says Henri Barkey, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"With their strong military and economy, they have the hard power, but what they are trying to do now is build up their soft power. Turkey is lecturing other countries, like Israel and the Chinese, about human rights issues, and here you have a country where the Kurdish language is illegal. That is absurd," he says.

Ankara has been making moves on these issues. On Oct. 10, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed a deal in Switzerland that paves the way for restoring diplomatic ties with Armenia and for the two countries to review their mutually contested history. Four days later, Turkey hosted Armenian President Serge Sarkizian for another round of "football diplomacy" – a World Cup qualifying match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams.

The same day, Mr. Davutoglu was in Syria, signing yet another important deal, this one abolishing visa requirements between two powers that only a decade ago were on the verge of war after Ankara accused Damascus of supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

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