Recent weeks have seen Ankara leave one-time friend Israel out in the cold, while relations with former foe Syria have continued to thaw. Ayşe Karabat explores a possible sea change in Turkey's Middle East foreign policy
"Our common slogan is a joint destiny, a joint history and a joint future." The words of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem.
Held at the long border between the two countries, the press conference took place on 13 October. Together the foreign ministers took down a symbolic barrier, marking the mutual decision of the two countries to end visa requirements.
Davutoğlu was accompanied by nine other ministers, while the Syrian delegation comprised 15 ministers. The high-profile nature of the occasion was not merely a gesture, but a requirement of an accord signed last month. The "High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council Agreement" envisages regular joint cabinet meetings and "maximum integration," as Davutoğlu put it.
"The Turkey-Syria relationship is against no other country and is not an alternative to any other relationship," he stressed, but while he refrained from naming an "other country," much of his audience was immediately reminded of Israel.
During the 1990s, while Syria was harbouring Abdullah Öcalan – the now-imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and the EU – Turkish officials frequently stated that "strategic ties between Israel and Turkey do not target any other country," but had difficulties convincing Arab countries of their sincerity.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and it is now Israel watching Turkey's "maximum integration with neighbouring countries" policy with concern.
At the beginning of the same week that saw Syria-Turkey relations in the spotlight, Turkey-Israeli ties were also in the news when a multinational air force exercise scheduled to take place in Turkey was postponed indefinitely after the Turkish government asked Israel not to participate.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the al-Arabiya television station that his government acted as a "spokesman for the conscience of the people" and that the Turkish people did not want Israel to participate in the exercise.
A return to turbulence
Turkish-Israeli military and intelligence relations were always very good, even when there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries. Despite this, until the 1990s political relations always had their ups and downs.
This turbulent era appeared to be over, and many had began to believe that the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when during his previous premiership in 1999 he said the "sky is the limit" for relations between the two countries.
However, this turbulent period in Turkish-Israeli ties has returned, particularly in the wake of Israel's attack on Gaza between Dec. 27, 2008, and Jan. 18, 2009.
Erdoğan, speaking at a panel discussion during the World Economic Forum in Davos in January even told Israeli President Shimon Peres, "You know how to kill people."
At the time Israel kept a low profile, just as it is doing now after its exclusion from the military drill. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement and urged Israeli officials to refrain from verbal assaults on Turkey. "Israel's relations with Turkey are strategic, and have existed for dozens of years. Despite all the ups and downs Turkey continues to be a key player in our region," he underlined.
Has Turkey changed its direction?
However there are some experts, both in Syria and Israel, like Syrian journalist Husnu Mahli and Israeli Ephraim Inbar of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who think Turkey has changed its direction and that nothing will be the same again.
Both believe it is just coincidence that cancellation of the military drill and the joint meeting of the Syrian and Turkish ministers occurred in the same week. They also both agree that the change in direction on Turkey's part is very much related to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However they disagree on the significance of the change.
According to Mahli the realignment is just a slight change and very normal; meanwhile Inbar believes that Turkey is "gradually shifting from being an ally of the West to being a friend of the dictatorships in the Middle East."
Policy or ideology?
Inbar, in an "open letter," appealed to his Turkish friends and colleagues "to stop Turkey's slide toward the Middle East and to maintain its alignment with secure Western powers."
He claimed that Turkey under the AKP is increasingly succumbing to Islamic impulses, relegating its political and cultural links to the West to second place. Inbar underlined that Turkey invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Turkey as well as Hamas officials, representing signs of a "possible loss of Turkey to Islamism."
However according to Mahli, this is far from being the case, although he agreed that the AKP is Islamist in its ideology and sensitive to the sufferings of Muslims.
"Since the AKP came to power, it has been critical to Israel; it is very natural if you take into consideration the party's ideology and its supporters," he said, but added that if Israel was taking steps towards peace, with Syria at least, then the situation would be different.
Mahli recalled the mediation efforts of Turkey between Syria and Israel, which ceased after Israel's Gaza offensive. "Turkey changed its policy, it is true, but it is targeting peace and cooperation in the Middle East, and the one who was creating obstacles for it was not Syria," Mahli argued.
An opportunity for all parties concerned
Speaking at the joint press conference, Davutoğlu also underlined Turkey's EU membership ambition and suggested that Syria will eventually become an EU neighbour, while the EU would become a neighbour to the Middle East with Turkey's accession to the EU. He described the situation as an opportunity for all parties concerned.
Bülent Aras of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), said that cooperation between Ankara and Damascus would bring Syria closer to the West via Turkey. "Under these circumstances, powers such as Israel and the US should be happy about this development," he said.
Aras underlined that Turkey is trying to change the status quo in the Middle East, which is currently in a stalemate.
"Turkey's message is: 'We don't have the chance to put our problems on the shelf any longer. We have to solve them.' The Middle East is being reshaped. Turkey is participating in this reshaping process through democratization, mediation and pushing away the possibility of a conflict. The problems of the Middle East cannot be solved by one country; there is a need for coordination and Turkey is trying to do this," Aras said.
Another analyst, Professor Hasan Köni of Galatasaray University, pointed out that the recent moves by Turkey are not putting distance between Ankara and the West but are in fact in accordance with the wishes of the new US administration.
Köni claimed that the US does not want any problems in the Middle East, and hopes to concentrate on Asia. It is cooperating with Turkey, but there remains one obstacle to its new policy: Israel's uncompromising attitude.
"The Obama administration wanted to persuade Israel for a new push in [the resolution of] the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it was not successful. I think it now wants to benefit from Turkey's position, and there is actually an overlap here between the new aims of the US and Turkey's approach to the Middle East" he said, but added:
"Of course the ideology of the AKP has something to do with this; if there was another party in government, one representing the former position of Turkey, it would not dare to exclude Israel from a military drill."
© Qantara.de 2009