Gaza flotilla raid: Will it change Turkey's regional role?

Anger with Israel over the Gaza flotilla raid, which ended in the deaths of nine Turkish activists, has illustrated the difficulty of Turkey's effort to bridge East and West.

By , Correspondent

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    Turkey's image in the world has come into sharp relief with Israel's Gaza flotilla raid. Turkish leader Abdullah Gul (l.) and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (r.) welcomed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other leaders for a security summit June 7.
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This spring, Turkey emerged as a more independent player – one embarking on an ambitious "neo-Ottoman" course, as some have put it. The shift, in the making for nearly a decade, has ruffled feathers in Europe, the US, and Israel, which had all come to depend on Turkey as an ally, trade partner, and NATO member.

Indeed, Turkey apparently wants to wed 21st-century prosperity with the global power its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, once wielded at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Key to that goal is improving security in the Middle East.

Turkey's image in the world has come into sharp relief with Israel's May 31 raid on the Gaza-bound "Freedom Flotilla," an encounter that ended with the deaths of nine Turkish activists and sharp international criticism of Israel. Turkey's stance since the raid has prompted many to question whether it is abandoning efforts to establish itself as a mediator between Israel and its Muslim neighbors, as well as turning away – to some degree – from Europe. But Turkey, which seeks an apology from Israel as well as compensation for victims of the raid, indicated Wednesday that it would move cautiously toward any downgrade of its relations with Israel, despite grave damage to the relationship.

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IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

When did Turkey start down this path?

The end of the cold war opened up new opportunities for Turkey, which had played the role of an isolated junior partner to the United States, developing a cautious foreign policy that was more reactive than proactive.

The Iraq war, which resulted in a significant decrease in US influence in Turkey's neighborhood, further enabled Turkish leaders to think big in terms of their nation's foreign policy.

"Turkey has more room to flex its muscles," says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The United States just doesn't have the levers it used to have on Turkey."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to power just days before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, turned to Ahmet Davutoglu to help shape Turkey's new role in the region – and in the world.

Mr. Davutoglu, an academic with a penchant for writing books such as "Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory," has managed to convey Turkey's foreign policy with a simple message: "zero problems with neighbors." That means reaching out to Middle Eastern nations that Turkey has ignored for decades and carving out a niche as mediator of ancient and modern rivalries.

What are the highlights so far?

Turkey has launched important initiatives from the Balkans to the Hindu Kush. Mr. Erdogan and Davutoglu, who became foreign minister in May 2009, have organized four summits since then to bring together former foes Serbia and Bosnia. Erdogan also recently hosted his Pakistani and Afghan counterparts to improve their cross-border relations. Davutoglu has claimed that Turkish mediation, in which he played a lead role, brought Israel and Syria to within one word of a deal by December 2008. But when Israel launched its three-week offensive on Gaza, Turkey called off the talks. It has since offered to mediate between rivals in Lebanon, as well as to promote reconciliation between the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah.

Turkey has also worked to repair its own fences, initiating a historic (though now stalled) reconciliation process with Armenia, which has long wanted Turkey to say that the mass killings of Armenians in World War I amounted to genocide. Most recently, Turkey – along with Brazil – helped broker an 11th-hour nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran after Western powers had all but given up. A peeved US, which felt the deal was too little, too late, responded the next day by announcing unanimous support for fresh Iran sanctions from the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members.

Why is Turkey carving out this role?

Turkey is motivated by a mix of political, economic, and ideological factors. The government feels that Turkey has punched below its weight for too long and has missed important opportunities.

Turkey has the world's 16th-largest economy – its growth between 2002 and 2007 averaged an impressive 6 percent – and believes that continued economic growth depends on actively developing its political and trade relations on a global scale.

But Turkey's leaders also believe that, as heirs of the Ottoman Empire, their country should have a greater say in regional – even global – affairs and play a leading role in the Muslim world. Turkey is less interested in tying itself down to the "West" or the "East"; it wants to be a center of power.

"I believe the thinking now in government circles is that Turkey itself can now be an axis," says Sami Kohen, a foreign-affairs analyst.

How hard is it to straddle two worlds?

Turkey has long promoted itself as a bridge between East and West. But it has sometimes looked to Europeans less like a bridge and more like a beachhead for problematic or even threatening positions held in the Muslim world. Erdogan called Iran "our friend" on a recent visit to Tehran, defended Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir – accused of war crimes in Darfur – and opposed a Dane's nomination to head NATO because one of his countrymen drew cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that ignited protests across the Muslim world.

Ankara's tacit support for the Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza won points at home, where Palestinians' plight strongly resonates. But questions about the government's connections to the Islamist Turkish nongovernmental organization behind the flotilla, as well as Erdogan's inflammatory rhetoric, have raised doubts about Turkey's ability to be a regional mediator.

What does this mean for ties with the US and Israel?

Turkey and Israel had built a strong alliance over the past 15 years – including trade ties worth $3 billion – on a common foundation: Both were outsiders. Arabs famously led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. They also resisted – then bitterly resented – the creation of Israel. But that foundation is eroding as Turkey reaches out to its neighbors and Israel becomes increasingly isolated.

The US also may be facing a shift in its strong alliance with Turkey, which hosts the key supply and transit base for US troops in Afghanistan. The two countries have struggled to some extent to redefine their relationship in a post-cold-war world.

"All the talk about strategic cooperation, model partnership, and strategic importance cannot mask the fundamental shift at hand," Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Foreign Policy. "The stark reality is that while Turkey and the United States are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast becoming competitors."

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IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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