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

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Monday, June 7, 2010; A01

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!"

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.

That seems evident on the Palestinian issue. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an increasingly outspoken critic of Israel. He lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres during a conference in Switzerland on Jan. 29, 2009, winning applause at home and in the Middle East.

Erdogan's picture was hoisted in the streets of Gaza after he accused Israel of carrying out a "bloody massacre" in seizing the Turkish ship. Nine activists on board, mostly Turkish, were killed when Israeli commandos opened fire. The Israeli government said its commandos fired after being attacked by the passengers.

Erdogan and his allies "have this affinity to Palestine," Yinanc said. "And basically their concrete constituency is a religious constituency, which is usually anti-Israeli."

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has religious roots, but it also draws conservative entrepreneurs and liberals with its free-market policies and drive to pass democratic reforms in order to win entry into the European Union.

Turkey's relations with Israel have deteriorated dramatically, with Turkish leaders threatening to cut ties to a minimum.

A recent report on Turkey's zero-problems policy noted that it contained inherent contradictions, given the pervasive conflicts in the region.

"Ankara will not be able to improve relations with some players without hampering its ties to others," said the report, by a group of Turkish and foreign academics working with the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy. But it said that if the net effect in the region was positive, the policy would be "an asset to the EU and United States."

Historically, Israel and Turkey were close, sharing military aid and a suspicion of Arab countries. But with Turkey improving ties with its neighbors, it no longer needs Israel's support, analysts said.

Religious-secular divide

There is more going on, however, than just the Turkish government's realignment in its neighborhood. Its citizens are more connected to the world, including Muslim causes abroad. The government has become more sensitive to public opinion. And voters feel more empowered, particularly religious ones.

Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey on the remains of the Ottoman Empire, the country has had an official policy of "laiklik" (secularism). The powerful, pro-Western military launched coups against leaders seen as straying from Ataturk's legacy. The army's power, however, has declined.

The country "was secular but in a forced way," said Barkey, the Carnegie scholar. "The majority of the population was far more conservative, far more pious than the authorities."

Sumeyye Cakir, a 25-year-old housewife wearing a pink, flowered head scarf, said that years ago she would have been afraid to attend a demonstration like the one in the Caglayan neighborhood on Saturday, organized by a small religious party.

"But now our government is more democratic," she said, standing at the edge of the crowd waving Palestinian flags. Loudspeakers blared a song with the refrain "Intifada, intifada."

Hifa Gulru Caglar, a 21-year-old Turk studying in Romania, drove 12 hours to take part in the protest. A visitor asked what contributed to the pro-Palestinian fervor, which wasn't as evident in the past.

"Twenty years ago, there was no Internet," Caglar said. "We had no access" to information from Gaza.

For all its newfound independence in foreign policy, Turkey is still strongly tied to the West. The European Union is still its biggest market. And Turkish troops have played an important role in NATO operations in Afghanistan.

"We are a country that wants to maintain its ties both with the West and East," Erdogan said in October. "There is no such thing as breaking from one side and shifting to another one."

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