Turkey's PM, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received a warm welcome in Cairo after he froze military and trade ties with Israel. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Turkey Plays High-Stakes Game Positioning Itself At Heart Of Arab World
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been lauded in Cairo for his bold stance against Israel – but just how far will he go?
By Ian Black
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's speeches in Cairo were excellent platforms for Turkey's campaign to become a bigger player in the Middle East – against a backdrop of the momentous changes of the Arab spring and a rare sense of movement in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Rousing cheers in Egypt reflect Ankara's strong stand against Israel, rupturing decades of close alliance in favour of an openly critical position since last year's bitter row over the Gaza aid flotilla killings.
Turkey's quest for a robust regional role has emerged in recent years, along with a sense of disappointment – if not surprise – that its long-standing ambitions to join the EU have in effect been blocked by France and Germany, despite remaining formally on the table.
Much has been made of a "neo-Ottoman policy", under which modern Turkey seeks to regain the influence it wielded in the glory days of the vast but rickety empire it ran for four centuries, until it collapsed after the first world war. But that's ancient history. Few young Arabs remember the Turks hanging nationalist leaders in Damascus or fighting British-backed tribesmen along the Hejaz railway.
Unlike Iran, accused of playing the sectarian card in its alliances with armed Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon, Turkey looks like a sympathetic Sunni Muslim power with an instinctive feel for the region. Bluntly, Turkey is admired largely because it has been far bolder and more confrontational towards Israel than most Arab states, starting with its outspoken response to the 2008 Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Beyond that, its political system looks like a useful model for Arab countries emerging from decades of authoritarian rule. Erdogan's call for Egypt to emulate Turkey's secular constitution was sensibly bracketed with a reminder that secularism is not automatically against Islam.
From Egypt, Erdogan goes on to Tunisia and Libya – thus far the three most successful but unfinished examples of this year's uprisings – hoping to bolster their transition processes and to promote trade and investment. The official entourage includes six minsters and 200 business leaders, a reminder of Turkey's dynamic economy: trade with the Middle East and North Africa was worth $30bn last year and comprises 27% of exports.
For all the excitement about a new departure, there may be limits to how far Turkey will go. It has been very active over the Syrian crisis but has conspicuously not joined western countries in calling for Bashar al-Assad to go.
Erdogan's decision not to visit the Gaza Strip, despite earlier hints that he would, suggests restraint in the face of likely anger from the US, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whose relations with the Islamists of Hamas remain strained. Officials in Ankara have also been playing down a headline-grabbing warning that Turkish warships would be prepared to escort the next Gaza-bound aid flotillas, raising the alarming prospect of an armed clash with Israel on the high seas.
For some analysts the risk for Erdogan is that it will all prove too much for the US and Turkey's other Nato partners. "Erdogan is a brilliant tactician and has proven himself to be quite adept both at responding to events in the region and seeking to influence their outcome," wrote Daniel Wagner in Foreign Policy Journal. "He is playing a high-stakes game at a time when the stakes could not be higher. One has to wonder whether his quest to become a hero to the average man in the Arab street may ultimately backfire, and at what cost? If the US has to choose between Turkey and Israel, it will naturally choose Israel."
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 13/09/2011- Ian Black is the Guardian's Middle East editor. In more than 25 years on the paper he has also been its European editor, diplomatic editor, foreign leader writer and Middle East correspondent