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Turkey's foreign policy moves raise concern in West and at home

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a rally in Ankara, Turkey's capital, against Israel's deadly raid on an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Turkish and Palestinian flags during a rally in Ankara, Turkey's capital, against Israel's deadly raid on an aid ship bound for the Gaza Strip. (Adem Altan/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Monday, June 7, 2010

ISTANBUL -- The women wore veils. The men donned green Hamas headbands with swirling Arabic script. They gathered by the thousands in a sunny, working-class plaza in Istanbul, bellowing: "Damn Israel!"

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The Saturday demonstration seemed incongruous with the image Turkey has long had in the West as a secular friend of Israel and the United States.

But in recent days, public anger has flared over Israel's bloody seizure of a Turkish-flagged aid ship headed to the Gaza Strip, which is under an Israeli blockade. The incident occurred as Turkey has been strengthening ties with Muslim governments in the region -- becoming more vocally pro-Palestinian and trying to head off new U.N. sanctions on Iran.

That has prompted worried speculation at home and abroad: Is Turkey turning away from the West?

Turkey's Islamic-oriented government says no. And some analysts say the question is too simplistic. With a growing economy and self-assured leaders, this NATO member is emerging as a regional power with a more independent foreign policy, they say.

"They want to be the big kid on the block," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They have essentially a very inflated sense of their own importance."

'Zero problems' policy

Turkey's leaders have dubbed their foreign policy "zero problems with neighbors." The country has dramatically improved relations with such one-time rivals as Syria, which used to harbor Turkish Kurdish guerrillas, and Iran, once feared for its potential to export Islamist radicalism.

The new policy is based, in part, on expanding business ties. Turkey's former state-dominated economy has grown rapidly, with the emergence of dynamic export centers -- termed the Anatolian Tigers. Turkey's trade with its neighbors grew more than 20 times from 1991 to 2008.

The nation's ambitious leaders have sought to use their growing regional heft to play a bigger role globally. Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria, before Israel's brief war in Gaza during the 2008-09 winter ended talks. More recently, Turkish and Brazilian diplomats sought to send some of Iran's low-enriched uranium abroad for processing, in a deal aimed at averting new U.N. sanctions pursued by Washington.

Barcin Yinanc, associate editor of Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review, said it was inevitable that Turkey would play a greater international role, given its geopolitical position and new stature as one of the 20 leading industrialized countries.

But previous secular governments, which launched the economic liberalization, moved more cautiously on foreign policy, Yinanc said.

"The difference with this government is they have an ideological color," she said.

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