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 , Correspondent

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    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.
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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.

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.

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"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).

Turkish leaders have also made clear their intent to soon introduce a broad democratization initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue. And Turkey has given its support to reunification talks between the Greek and Turkish governments of divided Cyprus.

Turkey's taboos hurt it abroad

The Turkish government's moves are being enabled, on the one hand, by a gradual change in society and political life that has made it easier to talk about these issues.

"Until very recently, the public had been conditioned to accept things from the perspective of statism, nationalism, and chauvinism," says Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University. "But the dominance of the state over issues and making them taboo and undebatable is fading."

Ankara also appears to be driven by a realization that these taboos were hurting Turkey's ability to make an impact abroad. "That position was limiting.... Until recently, Turkish foreign policy was mostly reactive, it didn't take any initiatives, and it didn't do things beyond its own borders," says Mr. Barkey.

Analysts say moving ahead on restoring ties with Armenia makes strategic and political sense for Turkey, a European Union candidate country. "[The agreement with Armenia] will do a lot to counter prejudices in Europe about what kind of country Turkey is, that it's not just a strategic asset but also a country that can deal with its history and its own past. That will have a lot of impact in Europe," says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels.

Turks being asked to think differently

Still, making such an abrupt shift on what had been untouchable issues may be difficult. After decades of being told that there is no such thing as Kurdish identity or that discussion of the Armenian genocide issue was forbidden, Turks are being asked to think differently. "[Y]ou are talking about a public that has been indoctrinated for decades on these issues. Now we are talking about preparing the public psychologically for dealing with these problems in a different way," said Lale Kemal, a columnist for the English-language Today's Zaman.

"More important than any legal change is to prepare the public ... that we should normalize relations with Armenia and deal with the Kurdish problem because these are in Turkey's interest," he adds.

But Mr. Ergil points out that for Turkey, a secular nation founded in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, sharp change is nothing new. "This country shifted to a republic from a dynastic empire in a matter of a few years. The alphabet was shifted in a matter of a year from using an Arabic script to using Latin script. People had to accept it," he says.

"That was more radical than this."

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