Turkey turns East

By Rizwan Asghar

In the wake of the Israeli attack on the international Freedom Flotilla heading for Gaza on May 31, Turkey cancelled the upcoming joint military exercise with Israel. The Turkish leadership has also made it clear that there is no prospect of further military deals between the two countries. Reacting to the attack, in which nine civilians were killed on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to the extent of denouncing Israel as the “vilest of criminals.”

On June 8 and 9, Erdogan presided over the third summit of the 20-member Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA) in Istanbul, at which Israel drew sharp condemnation for the attack on the Flotilla.

Turkey’s emphasis on its ties with Asia marks a clear change in the policy of Turkey, which was hitherto actively vying for membership in the European Union. For the last few months there is a growing perception that Turkey is now less keen on becoming an EU member.

This reorientation in Ankara’s foreign policy dovetails with a process which began over the last decade with the November 2002 victory of the Justice and Development Party and the consequent shift in Turkey’s perception of itself because of a host of factors.

The EU’s failure to accept Turkey’s application, which is under consideration since 1999, has been a key factor in Turkey’s decision to move closer to the Arab world. After a decade of asking Turkey to meet the membership conditions of reforming its laws and the economy, giving more rights to its ethnic minorities and lowering the political profile of its military, reforms which successive Turkish governments carried out, EU countries, most prominently Germany and France, remain opposed to Turkey’s entry into the 27-nation bloc.

US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates recently stated that “if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is in no small part because it was pushed, and pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”

The Cyprus problem, the growing European criticism of the Armenian genocide and Western sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations are factors that persuaded Turks to question their long-standing pro-Western policies.

As Turkey looks eastward, it takes a more active leadership role in the Middle East. Turkish leaders have started appreciating the fact that a hard-line stance against Israel’s crippling three-year blockade of Gaza could vastly increase the country’s influence among ordinary Arabs. Erdogan’s increasing vitriol for Israel in his public speeches, describing Israelis as killers, has also built up his support inside Turkey, where the secular opposition parties are in disarray. A 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey revealed that only 14 percent of Turkish people had a favourable view of the US, the lowest figure among the 25 nations surveyed.

The Western boycott of the popularly elected Hamas government in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and the three-week-long Israeli attack on Gaza less than two years later, strained Israeli-Turkish relations to a breaking point.

“When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” Mr Erdogan shouted at Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009.

Trade between Turkey and the 22 members of the Arab League has more than doubled over the past five years to nearly $30 billion a year. Meanwhile, Turkey recently signed a deal with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to establish a cooperation council to create a zone of free movement of goods and people.

This shift in Turkey’s foreign policy paradigm is a signal that it intends to adopt a more independent and nationalistic strategic posture on the international front.

The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: rizwanasghar7@yahoo.com

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