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January 10, 2009

Turkey's Foreign Policy Plans in 2009

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In 2009, expect to see a more active Turkey.

It's planning to boost its foreign policy involvement in the Caucasus, Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean, senior Turkish diplomats tell TREND. This shows that Turkey is recognizing mega-trends, such as the diminishing U.S. role in Iraq, growing Russian aspirations in South Caucasus, and the forthcoming showdown over the Iranian nuclear program. Ankara will be playing an important role in all these developments, trying to secure its interests north, south, east and west.

It's also looking to modernize, which helps explain, for example, its aspirations for European Union membership -- always an uphill struggle. Even if the process goes slowly, many among Turkey's elites believe that the country benefits from closer ties with the EU, and from modernizing its legislative base.

The ruling AK Party officials believe that liberalization, which is connected to EU integration, is weakening the role and power of the military - a traditional bulwark on the way of Islamists to power. Liberals, meanwhile, support Europe-style laws, which would make Turkey more compatible with the outside world.

Opponents of Ankara's full membership in the European Union point at the Mediterranean Union, the brainchild of the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, as an alternative path for Turkey's interaction with Europe. Yet, senior Turkish diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity, do not see the Mediterranean Union as a substitute. The Union, they say, as well as in NATO and other Western international organizations, should be one of the forums in which Turkey participates.

"Turkey wants a globally effective NATO, a stronger Turkish-American cooperation, as well as Turkey in the EU. It is vital for the peace, stability, and cooperation," says a senior Turkish diplomat who visited Washington last month.

How Turkey will pursue "tronger ties" with Washington remains to be seen. Anti-American sentiment there is growing, tacitly encouraged by some in the ruling party through propaganda films, such as the notorious Valley of the Wolves, and provoked by the pro-Islamist media.

Today, Turkey is among the most anti-American Muslim societies. Anti-Semitism, very minor when the Ataturkist forces ruled the secular republic, is now rising, including two attacks on synagogues in Istanbul by Salafi terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Until the recent conflagration in Gaza, the government of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated and supported the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace talks, although it was clear from the beginning that such talks had little chance of success, especially as the Bush administration was less than tepid about them. Washington correctly viewed Syria's weak Alawi sect-based regime of Bashar el Assad as a junior partner of Iran in the region, and politically and psychologically unable and unwilling to a true peace with Israel.

Turkey is trying to facilitate the Arab-Israeli rapprochement by sponsoring Israeli-Palestinian industrial border zones, which provide jobs for Arabs and facilitate business interactions. Clearly, more needs to be done to reverse decades of bad blood between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land, including stopping the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement in the Palestinian educational system and the media. Here, Turkey could play a more prominent role. Instead, Prime Minister Erdogan smashed Israel's operation in Gaza as "inhumane", coming across as a Hamas supporter. In the past, Turkey broke ranks with Europe and U.S. and hosted terrorist Hamas leadership in Ankara.

Among the signs of geopolitical improvement are high-level contacts between Turkey and Armenia. Yet the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact that the Turkish Prime Minister floated amid Russian-Georgian hostilities last August has design flaws. It included Russia and Turkey, together with the three South Caucasus countries ( Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), but omitted the U.S. and EU, as well as Iran.

Ankara attempted to address Washington's concerns when a senior Turkish diplomat suggested that in the future the U.S. and EU will be accommodated or integrated into the Caucasus initiative. "The Caucasus region needs a greater American and European role," says the senior Turkish diplomat, "and Turkey supports territorial integrity of Georgia, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of Georgia."

Yet, with the dividing lines in the Caucasus running deep, questions remain. Russian leaders passionately hate Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, and Russia and Georgia came to blows last August. Azerbaijan's military budget is greater than the whole state budget of Armenia, and even President Dmitry Medvedev's mediation produced a breakthrough on Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara holds out the carrot of opening the borders with Armenia, yet Erevan refuses to acknowledge that it occupies Azerbaijani land.

Turkey is an important energy transit country. Ankara played an important role by participating in the summit of three presidents: Abdullah Gul, Ilham Aliev and Gurbanguli Berdymuhammedov, in port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian coast.

While not producing a breakthrough on the trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which would connect to the proposed Nabucco project and bring the Caspian gas to the European markets, the summit indicated that such a pipeline is possible. It also showed that Turkey could play a major role in its implementation.

Turkey played a positive role in Afghanistan, and brought together the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan for talks which seemed to produce a better dynamic between Kabul and Islamabad. Pakistani stability, Turkish diplomats say, is linked to the fight against the Taliban, while a more cohesive Afghani identity is necessary to improve security and find the way out of the current conflict.

Finally, Turkey will watch closely how the incoming Obama administration deals with the Armenian genocide resolution, which the Armenian lobby and its supporters in Congress propose yearly to the U.S. government.

While the lobby is bi-partisan, many of its allies are in the Democratic Party, which holds a majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress. The Turkish diplomat warned that a future approval of the "g-word" resolution by Congress would cause U.S.-Turkish relations to deteriorate abruptly -- an undesirable development on many counts. On its part, Turkey is willing to participate in tighter sanctions against Iran, if and when sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council -- an unlikely development in view of Moscow's and Beijing's support of Teheran's regime.

In the future, the relations between the U.S. and Turkey will remain complex, and at times, tense. Yet there are many common regional interests, from the Caucasus to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, which dictate further dialogue -- and, as much as possible, cooperation between Ankara and Washington.

Ariel Cohen visited Istanbul in November and received briefings from Turkish diplomats in December.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared on Trend News

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