Commentary: Is Turkey’s Westward Diplomacy Derailed?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

It looks like the recent Turkish-Israeli conflict has opened a Pandora’s box in the Middle East political forum, heralding new alignments and questioning historically-sound alliances.

After the flotilla flare-up off the coast of Gaza, Turkey has made some diplomatic moves, which do not augur well for it in the West. The major dramatic shift in Turkish diplomacy came at the UN Security Council, where Turkey, joining Brazil, voted against the US-sponsored sanctions resolution against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Brazil, in its turn, like several other South American countries, is tilting away from US policies. During the election campaign, President Barack Obama had blamed the Bush administration for focusing on wars in distant regions, and leaving the US backyard unattended. He has yet to address his administration’s new approach to South America.

Brazil, like Turkey, is flexing its muscles inspired by its newly-found economic powerhouse, but unlike Turkey, it has not precipitated any open conflict with the US or the US’s allies in the region.

Turkey has challenged the US at the United Nations and antagonized its most trusted ally, Israel, in the Middle East. Turkish leaders feel so secure in their position that after challenging the US and Israel they seem to have full control of the domestic agenda. In the past, every time the civilian government flexed its muscles, the military intervened. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ liberal government ended in disaster. A few years ago the Islamist coalition government of Necmettin Erbakan evaporated at blink of the eye of the military, which always has had strong ties to the US military establishment.

This time around, the Erdogan government seems to have the military under leash through the Ergenekon investigations, which seem to have given the civilians a free hand in making policy decisions.

Observers and politicians around the world — and even inside Turkey — have been wondering whether the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is shifting its political focus.

Ironically, even some leftist groups in Turkey, which were very critical of their nation’s complete political surrender to the West, have expressed concern over these new policies.

However, Turkey’s leaders are in denial mode at this time. From the president to the prime minister and foreign minister they have been scrambling to assure the public that no alarming changes are in store for in their country’s foreign policy.

At the opening of the Turkish-Arab cooperation forum, Erdogan explained the reasons behind the UN vote.

He defended strongly his administration’s foreign policy, indicating that his government at this time merely has a fresh outlook on old problems. He said that Turkey has been exercising a more independent policy, without taking orders from others (meaning the US or the European Union). From now on, Turkey will be following its own political agenda, he suggested.

On the other hand, President Abdullah Gül used another symbolism to define his country’s new policy when journalists questioned him on Turkey’s orientation shift. He was at a mosque on the Bosphorus; pointing across the Marmara Sea, he said: “Look there, you see Europe across the sea. Here is Asia, and in between there is the bridge: we have not changed our political axis.”

Analyzing the public rhetoric, one can surmise that Turkey had more than one reason to signal a shift in its foreign policy. By organizing the Gaza raid, Turkey was more interested in boosting its credibility in the Arab and Islamic worlds rather than assisting the suffering Palestinians in Gaza. Judging from the outcome of the conflict, we can see that little has changed in the plight of Palestinians but the Turkish flag was hoisted throughout the Arab and Islamic world. Therefore, the Turkish gambit paid off.

The other cause of Turkish frustration has been Europe’s refusal to admit it as a full member.

Erdogan recently announced that his nation is still heading towards European integration. “We had submitted our application to join the European Union in 1959. Our application was officially approved in 1963 and ever since we have been waiting to be admitted. I have been asking a simple question to the European leaders that if you don’t consider yourself a Christian club, then we have to be admitted into your ranks.”

Turkey wishes to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, Ankara is vying to be the leader of the Islamic world and on the other hand, it wants to be accepted into the “Christian Club.” Ankara also expects to join the EU while breaking EU laws in the case of Cyprus. It adamantly keeps its occupation forces on the territory of another EU member, Cyprus, and refusing to recognize the legitimate government of Cyprus.

The US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has justified Turkish frustrations and provided credence to Turkey’s equivocal claims.

During a recent NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Mr. Gates announced that although he was disappointed by the negative Turkish vote at the UN Security Council, the vote will not affect the US-Turkish strategic alliance and that “Turkey continues to play a pivotal role in the NATO structure.”

Mr. Gates has also blamed European leaders in their treatment of Turkey.

By all indications, the crisis triggered by Ankara was more theatrics than substance. No matter what, the US does not wish to see Turkey drifting in another direction. Washington’s main concern is the rift between Ankara and Tel Aviv, and the other is Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

It seems that Washington is willing to bite the bullet and tolerate Turkey’s foreign policy freelancing, as long as it does not truly stray.

Ankara has snubbed Washington and Tel Aviv with impunity, therefore it is encouraged to continue its intransigence towards Armenia, keeping the regime of blockade for some time to come.

All along, Armenians were concerned that the Turkish-American alliance impacted negatively on Armenian interests.

Now it turns out that Turkey’s independent policy has become more detrimental to Armenia’s interest. The Arab world, where large Armenian communities live, Russia, Armenia’s strategic ally, the US, where the Armenian lobby has some clout, and even Israel, so influential over US foreign policy will, all woo Turkey, which in turn will choose and pick friends and interests, trampling on Armenian issues on its way to exercise its newly-found independent policy.