The Turkish government is running into trouble at every turn in its attempt to be a regional powerbroker
By Simon Tisdall
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is seeking influence and markets for Turkey's expanding economy across the Middle East.
A surge in violence pitting Turkish forces against Kurdish separatists along Turkey's south-eastern border with Iraq has underscored how far the Ankara government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan still has to go in resolving the "Kurdish question".
But the renewed fighting also poses a larger question: to what extent the policy espoused by Erdogan and his high-profile foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, of "zero problems with neighbours" is producing tangible, lasting results. On a range of fronts, high ambitions are colliding with intractable realities on the ground.
Erdogan's fierce condemnation of the killing on Saturday of 11 soldiers by Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) fighters possibly reflected frustration that Ankara's pursuit of non-military solutions has produced little that is concrete in the eight years since his Justice and Development party (AKP) first came to power.
"Today we will not make the traitors happy," Erdogan said during a visit to Van. "We will defend this ground heroically ... "I say here very clearly, they will not win. They will gain nothing. They will melt away in their own darkness ... they will drown in their own blood."
Such rhetoric, echoing Erdogan's full-blooded attacks on Israel over Gaza, could not disguise widely felt dismay that a conflict that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives since 1984 may be reviving, partly due to political failures.
Citing continuing Turkish military attacks, the PKK announced this month it was ending a unilateral ceasefire. The decision followed the banning by Turkey's constitutional court of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society party (DTP), a ruling strongly criticised by Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the EU.
Concern is now growing that further clashes could lead to a repeat of the 2008 Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq, where some PKK fighters are based. Such an outcome could strain Ankara's relations with Baghdad, where its efforts to encourage a role in government for Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority are already viewed as unwelcome meddling by some Shia politicians.
Turkey's "zero problems" has also run into trouble around Azerbaijan's disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where four ethnic Armenian and one Azeri soldier were killed in a skirmish on Saturday. Turkey and Armenia struck a supposedly historic peace accord last year but the deal backfired when close Turkish ally Azerbaijan angrily insisted the Nagorno-Karabakh stand-off be settled first. Instead of easing tensions, Erdogan's initiative inflamed them.
Despite its aspirations to act as a regional powerbroker, Turkish talk has not been matched by persuasive actions in another troublespot – Cyprus. Elections earlier this year saw Turkish Cypriots vote in a new president who appears to favour the permanent partition of the island, notwithstanding the ongoing UN-sponsored reunification talks backed by Greece and the EU.
Erdogan has certainly improved relations with one important neighbour: Iran. His decision to vote against the latest UN sanctions on Tehran dismayed the US and European countries while delighting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In contrast, relations with Israel are at low ebb after the Gaza flotilla debacle, with Turkish media reporting that diplomatic and military relations will be frozen indefinitely.
Erdogan's regional foreign policy initiatives, his flirtation with Iran, his split with Israel, and his courting of supposedly suspect countries such as Syria have led western commentators to speculate about a "strategic realignment" in Turkish policy, away from the west and Nato and towards the Arab and Muslim worlds, in parallel with the AKP's pursuit of a neo-Islamist agenda at home.
"Turkey's Islamist government [seems] focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League – no, scratch that, on joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel," complained American columnist Tom Friedman.
Writing in The Australian, Greg Sheridan drew a comparison with the situation in south-east Turkey: "The Turkish government is expressing maximum outrage over the Gaza incident, although it has been vastly more brutal in suppressing Kurdish separatists and suspected terrorists than anything Israel has ever dreamed of."
Strong criticism of the perceived shift has also been voiced in the US Congress, while the Obama administration has voiced concern at some recent Turkish actions.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said one explanation was EU foot-dragging over Turkey's membership bid.
For his part, Davutoglu says western countries should not worry. Rather, they should welcome the fact that Turkey was "playing an increasingly central role in promoting international security and prosperity". Close relations with the EU and Nato were "main fixtures" of Turkish policy while bilateral ties with the US remained of "vital importance", he said in Foreign Policy magazine.
Such assurances may miss the point. From a western perspective at least, the problem is not that Erdogan and Davutoglu want a bigger role for Turkey and are increasingly ready to go it alone. The problem, more often than not, is that when they do, they mess up.
Source: The Guardian, 21 June 2010