July 13, 2009

Erdogan's Dilemma

(Prime Minister Erdogan pointing a fingure at the Israeli President.)
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has gained much popularity both in Turkey and in the Muslim world when he publicly scolded the Israeli president Shimon Peres, blasting Israeli military operation in Gaza as "a crime against humanity." Erdogan vehemently demanded more time from the moderator to respond to Peres' statements and, when given time, accused the president of "knowing very well how to kill". Click here for the video.
The undiplomatic burst of rage had serious implications for Turkish-Israeli relations. Major General Avi Mizrahi of the Israeli Defense Forces said the Turkish Prime Minister should have "looked in the mirror," before criticizing Israel (in reference to the Turkish presence in Cyprus). The IDF tried to contain the controversy claiming the general's comments did not represent "the official position of the IDF."

The Erdogan-Peres incident which had created a lot of buzz during the legislative and municipal elections in both Turkey and Israel proved less damaging to mutual relations than once feared. In fact, what started as a Turkish-Israeli spat turned into a self-review of Turkey's regional policies, particularly towards Cyprus.
The recent trip of Mahmoud Abbas to the Republic of Cyprus (Greek-Cypriot southern part of the island that enjoys EU membership since 2004) was not well received by Turkish media and public. It should be noted that a sizable Turkish population lives in northern Cyprus, and has enjoyed Ankara's complete support over the decades. The Greek Cypriots rejected uniting the island with their Turkish neighbors. Now, neither Turkey nor Turkish Cyprus have EU membership. What is worse, both Greece and the Greek Cypriots must approve Ankara's EU membership.
Erdogan may have expected gratitude from the Palestinian president, but that he did not receive. Reports from the Greek Cypriot media that the president Demetris Christofias thanked Abbas for bringing up Greek Cypriots issues at the Organization of the Islamic Conference and for Palestine's support for Greek Cypriot's "struggle." The visit was perceived by Turkey as an ungrateful behavior on the Palestinians' side.

Cyprus is a hot spot of Turkey. Turkey claims it had a right to intervene as a guarantor force in order to respond to Greek supported junta in the island. Greek Cypriots, conversely, cite the existence of Turkish troops in the islands, and human rights violations during the 1974 invasion. While the analogy between Turkey- Cyprus and Israel-Palestine is far from being exact, these two areas have suffered from ethnic conflict following the withdrawal of British mandate.
So why does Turkey feel betrayed by Abbas' statements? First of all, Turks would like to think of themselves as a "benevolent power," whose benign intentions and actions are misconstrued by others. Second, Turkey's new foreign policy under the guidance of Ahmet Davutoglu, an advisor to the government and as of May 2009, the new Foreign Minister has aimed at shifting Ankara's strategic posture from relative isolationism into being a more influential actor. For a couple of years now, Turkey has connected with countries from all over the world with official visits and opening of embassies in parts of the globe with which Turkey had not had significant relations. Turkey's desire and accomplishment to be a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and its self-appointed role as an honest broker of peace between Syria and Israel are part of newfound sense and aspiration of being influential in world politics, and can be best described as "neo-Ottomanism".

The question is whether the Erdogan government has been managing the transition smoothly. The Erdogan Davos rant reveals otherwise. However, the orientation of Turkish government seems to indicate that Davutoglu's policy of "zero problems" (i.e.: maintaing food relations with all of neighbors) is still the prevailing foreign policy tool as was manifest in Ankara's rush to congratulate Ahmedinejad after the Iranian elections. Time will show if Turkey's strategic plans to gain a greater role in the region and in the world will have more pros then cons but until then ups and downs with fellow countries will dominate the daily politics.

So far, signs indicate that relations with Israel are back to normal on the diplomatic level, the angry exchange has caused Turkey lose half of the average number of Israeli tourists. Nabil Marouf, Palestinian ambassador to Turkey denies reports that Abbas backs Greek Cypriots and Turkey has now moved onto another cause to defend: the Uighurs.

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