Turkey Counters US’s Middle East Strategy

By Mohammad Pervez Bilgrami – atimes – 18.10.2013 – The turnaround of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s bloody coup, Iran’s nuclear program and the continued civil war in Syria are among a number of factors leading the approaches of the United States and Turkey to the Middle East to diverge for the first time in decades.

Once presented by the European Union and the US a democratic model for Muslim Middle East, Turkey is now facing a mix of US ire and intrigue on all its fronts in the Middle East. Events such as an abduction of Turkish pilots in Lebanon, a terrorist attack on the Turkish embassy in Somalian capital Mogadishu and Israeli bonhomie with Greek Cypriots concerning vast natural gas reserves in the latter’s Mediterranean coast are further complicating Ankara’s outlook.

Perhaps it is over Egypt’s coup that views have diverged the most. While the US has backed the coup along with European and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners, Turkey has vehemently opposed the overthrow, questioning as a result the credibility of the US’s commitment to democracy. On Syria, the US has played a wait-and-see approach in line with Israeli interests. The US didn’t heed Turkey’s insistence on solving the crisis before it got out of hand. Now, more than 100,000 have been killed, and Turkey is sheltering hundreds of thousands Syrian refugees. The US-Russian agreement on Syrian chemical weapons has further isolated Turkey. While US Secretary of State John Kerry last week praised Bashar al-Assad for realizing his commitment on destroying his chemical arsenals, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Assad was still a terrorist who was killing his own people.

In Iraq, Turkey has lost the strategic impetus to Iran. In order to compensate for this loss of influence over the Shi’ite-led central government in Baghdad, Turkey has strengthened the autonomous regional government in North Kurdistan.

In the midst of several regional setbacks, Turkey has been in negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to solve its Kurdish issue. Turkey has already built a strategic relationship with the Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to keep Syrian Kurds on its side too. Although the United States has welcomed the peace initiative, it seems wary of Turkey solving the issue. In the event that it becomes a reality, the Turkish-Kurdish alliance will be a force to reckon with that will directly harm the US influence in the region. Turkey and the US also have increasingly divergent views on the Israel-Palestine issue. The US is sponsoring renewed talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, while Turkey is emphasizing the internal unity of Palestine factions and stressing the inclusion of Hamas as a condition before the resumption of peace talks.

Although the US has pressured Israel into an apology on the Mavi Marmara killings in 2010, diplomatic relations between the two countries have not yet fully resumed. Turkish President Abdullah Gul at an Istanbul Forum meeting told Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily newspaper on October 7 that Israel had apologized to Turkey “too late”. On the domestic front, 10 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule has transformed Turkey’s governing structure from the one that ruled by a Kemalist military-judicial tutelage since the formation of the republic in 1923.

A democratic package released by Erdogan on September 30, though not welcomed fully by political parties, was by and large embraced by the Turkish masses. This deal puts Turkey in a unique position in the Middle East, where the rights of citizens are being violated daily by despots and monarchs backed by the US and its Western partners. The decade of Erdogan’s rule has forced Turkey’s military to realize that politics are beyond its control. This has strengthened civilian control on the military. The AKP sees recent protests as being fueled by the US-EU lobby in an attempt to dislodge Erdogan from power. The US knows that the new Turkey is no more the old ally that used to follow Washington’s dictates on regional issues. It is safe to say that the United States does not like this new independent Turkish approach in this most vital region.