Turkey is attracting increasing attention in the region and the world for the energy and intensity of its new initiatives in the Middle East: normalizing with Syria and Iraq, facilitating efforts to reduce conflicts, expanding visa-free travel, ramping up trade, integrating infrastructure, forging strategic relationships and engaging in multilateral regional platforms.
For some critics, this new activism is evidence that Turkey may be turning its back on Europe and the United States or even joining an Islamist bloc. Turkish leaders' rhetoric about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan being the 'representative of 1.5 billion Muslims', Erdogan's angry statements condemning Israel and his embrace of hard-line regional actors like Sudan, Hamas and Iran have indeed provoked distrust among some of Turkey's traditional allies-in the West and in Arab capitals.
In truth-as International Crisis Group argues in its new report Turkey and the Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints-Turkey's rising profile in the Middle East is a complement to and even dependent on its ties to the West. The attempts to grow the regional economy, create interdependence and foster peace have the potential to stabilize an area that has been threatening to it in the past. And Turkey's main motivation for doing this is not the resurrection of an Ottoman-style caliphate, but the fact that its interests are directly damaged by instability in the Middle East, and secondly its desire to secure and encourage new markets for its rapidly expanding industries.
Another point to remember is that the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) did not originate most of the ideas and goals of Turkey's self-declared new "zero-problem foreign policy". These policies were mostly developed in the two decades since the end of the Cold War by parties of all secularist and religious/conservative colors. It is the energy and intensity of AKP's interaction with the Middle East that is new, as is its explicit adoption of the EU's gradualist integration tactics for post-Second World War peace in Europe as a model for strengthening long-term stability and healing the divisions in the region.
At the same time, NATO membership and convergence with the European Union remain pillars of Turkish policy, even if the relative importance of these have naturally changed over time. The Cold War no longer cuts Turkey off from its natural Russian and Black Sea neighbourhood, nor does it force Turkey to side with the West against Soviet proxies in the Middle East. And while Turkey is bitter over attacks by France, Germany, Cyprus and others on its EU negotiation process since 2005, the EU relationship remains core to Turkey's prosperity and identity.
For instance, half of Turkey's trade is still with the EU, while less than one quarter of its exports go to Middle East states, a proportion typical for the past 20 years. Some four million Turkish citizens and guest workers live in Europe, vastly outnumbering the 200,000 or so in the Middle East. Of the 27 million tourists who visited Turkey in 2009, most were from Europe and Russia, while only 10 percent came from the Middle East. In 2008, 90 percent of Turkey's foreign investment, perhaps the most important indication of future relationships, came from EU states. And a look at Turkish Airlines' route map from the vibrant hub of Istanbul shows an overwhelming weight of links to European cities-and the most frequently flown destination in the Middle East is Tel Aviv, four times a day compared to one or two daily flights for most Arab capitals.
The recent strains in Turkey's ties with Israel also need to be kept in context. While some have presented this as a deviation from a long-standing strategic alliance, there have in fact been many ups and downs in this relationship. The key factor determining the quality of Turkey-Israel ties has always been whether Turkey and its public perceived Israel as being ready to compromise with Palestinians. The golden period of the relationship, therefore, came during the optimistic years of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s.
For different reasons, the fluctuations in Turkey's relationship with the Middle East have often had its opportunistic and tactical sides. Turkish businesses have usually flocked to the region when its oil wealth has peaked, as is the case at present, and Turkey's political interest in emphasizing friendship in the Arab world has spiked, in the past as now, when it feels shut out by the West.
At the same time, praise in Arab newspapers for Prime Minister Erdogan when he stands up to Israel should not be mistaken for endorsement of a possible Turkish attempt to establish any kind of regional hegemony. Also, many members in Middle Eastern elites worry about any signs of Ankara turning its back on its EU accession process. That's because much of their recent fascination with Turkey's achievements-from the country's increasing prosperity to the great regional popularity of Turkish television sitcoms-derives from new aspects of Turkey that have in large part resulted from negotiating for membership of the EU: successful reforms, better quality of life, greater prosperity, freer expression, broader democracy, legitimacy of civilian rulers and, not least, advances towards a real secular pluralism in society. In short, Turkey is not turning its back on the West. It is rather that a more Westernized Turkey now feels strong and secure enough to take up new challenges and opportunities in the Middle East.
Hugh Pope is the Director of the International Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus Project, and the author most recently of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East
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