Can Turkey bridge the gap between Islam and the West?

By improving ties with Iran and Syria, Turkey aims to help mediate tensions.

After decades of keeping the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East at arm's length, Turkey is trying to strengthen relations with its neighbors while at the same time recasting itself as a mediator in the region.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech at the opening of the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan, where Turkey for the first time was given the status of "permanent guest" by the organization.

The prime minister's appearance at the summit - the first time a Turkish leader has done so - is the latest in a string of eyebrow-raising foreign policy moves: In February, a top Hamas official visited the capital, Ankara; soon after, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari made a bridge-building trip; and the Turkish government recently announced that it was planning to host firebrand Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for an official visit - since put on hold.

While the moves have ruffled feathers from Israel and Iraq to the US and European Union (EU) - which Turkey hopes to join - analysts say these aren't so much blunders as a reflection of a significant change in Turkey's Middle East foreign policy.

"Turkey wants to be a message-bringer from the Islamic world to the West," says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University (METU). "The government really believes that it can be a bridge between East and West, and this is the foreign policy."

The Turkish government offered to act as a kind of mediator between the EU and the Islamic world regarding the controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Turkey has also suggested its ties to the West and its improving relations with Iran could help it act as a go-between in the diplomatic crisis over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

"We have historical links to the region, to the Middle East at large," says a senior Turkish foreign ministry official. "Turkey also has another important quality in this regard, which is that it has relations with everybody [in the region]. We can effectively pass on messages. We have trust on both sides of various conflicts."

But critics warn that this new policy is flawed and carries with it the risk of alienating Turkey's Western allies. The Ankara visit of exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was strongly denounced by both Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with which Turkey has a military alliance, and by members of US Congress. Meanwhile, some of Turkey's efforts to upgrade its relations with Syria have been viewed by Western diplomats as counterproductive to efforts to contain the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"You can see a split between the people who run the foreign ministry and the people who run foreign policy for the [governing Justice and Development Party], and that's really a struggle for the future course of Turkish foreign policy," says a Western diplomat based in Ankara, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is a rather new phenomenon that has crept up over the last few months."

"Where [Turkey's new policy] doesn't work is that if you are going to become an intermediary, what you do has to have some support outside of one of the parties," says Henri Barkey, chairman of the international relations department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "This doesn't bring results if you don't have that support, it makes you irrelevant."

It can also impact Turkey's interests, Professor Barkey says. "There are a lot of congressmen who have been very supportive of Turkey but will now [after the Mashal visit] not lift a finger when something comes up that Turkey cares about," he says.

Adds Barkey: "I don't think anyone in Washington expects [Turkey] to downgrade trade relations with Iran or Syria. I don't think anyone faults the Turks for having better relations than we have with Iran or Syria. But when there is an international consensus on something, that is a line that shouldn't be crossed."

Other critics suggest that while based on good intentions, Turkey's policy presumes other countries are acting in good faith, which may not be the case. "It seems like a well-meaning policy but it fails when checked against the real politick of the Middle East," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The policy works so long as the other side needs Turkey."

But Bagci says events in the Middle East have left Turkey with few options other than to pursue a revised regional policy. "The 21st century is going to be a new era where East and West try to understand each other in a different way and Turkey is a window of opportunity for the West to enter the Islamic world in a different way."

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