05/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Turkey's Evolving Role In Middle East Diplomacy

As President Obama arrives in Ankara, he will find a Turkish government eager to play an influential role in the Middle East. While Turkey has made important contributions to the region in recent years, its activism has been controversial in Washington. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a contentious panel on the Gaza crisis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, he injected additional controversy into Turkey's diplomatic foray in the Middle East.

The incident produced a torrent of criticism from some U.S. policymakers, analysts, and journalists who regarded the uproar in Davos as proof positive that Turkey, under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which is rooted in Turkey's Islamist movement, had made the turn away from the West in favor of the radicals of the Middle East. Erdogan's behavior at Davos, his seeming embrace of Hamas during Israel's Gaza offensive, and his strong criticism of Israel, which at times veered into classic anti-Semitism, left observers wondering whether Turkey could continue to play a constructive role in the Middle East.

The Prodigal Pasha

Since the Justice and Development Party (known as AKP) came to power in late 2002, Ankara has pursued a conscious strategy of reestablishing Turkey's links with the former Ottoman domains to the south and the east. To be sure, there have long been Turkish diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East, but given Ankara's foreign policy orientation, which placed a premium on relations with the West and the official secularism of the republic, Turkey was a marginal player at best in the Middle East. The AKP governments, first under Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and since early 2003 under Erdogan, embarked on an ambitious foreign policy--concomitant with their equally bold domestic political and reform program--that sought to secure Turkey's bid to become a member of the European Union while simultaneously cultivating relationships with Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, and Tehran. Turkey's effort to draw closer to both Europe and the Middle East reflected a belief within the AKP that its foreign policy needed to be normalized. Although Turkey's almost exclusive orientation toward Europe and the United States might have been appropriate during the Cold War, when its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a paramount foreign policy fact, Turkey's interests now demanded a multidimensional foreign policy.

The Justice and Development Party's approach was met almost immediately with skepticism in Washington. The often testy negotiations between Washington and Ankara in late 2002 and early 2003 over the use of Turkish territory for the planned invasion of Iraq and the parliament's subsequent inability to pass legislation giving U.S. forces permission to launch the attack from Turkey angered the United States. Yet Iraq was just the first in a series of episodes where Ankara and Washington found themselves on opposite sides in the Middle East. In 2005, for example, as the United States sought to isolate Syria over Damascus's alleged responsibility for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its central role in funneling jihadis into Iraq, the Turkish government continued a policy of deepening its diplomatic and economic ties with the Syrians. After Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006, then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and other Turkish foreign ministry officials hosted Hamas's external leader, Khaled Meshal, at AKP headquarters in Ankara. These developments came against the backdrop of improved relations between Ankara and Tehran and Prime Minister Erdogan's periodic tough rhetoric that Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were tantamount to "state terrorism."

Continue reading...