IN THEIR awakening this year, many Arabs have looked to Turkey for inspiration. Turkey is not just a fellow Muslim country and their former imperial power. It also offers, for all its faults, a shining (and rare) example in the Islamic world of a strong democracy and a successful free-market economy. And the Turks have responded well, if sometimes belatedly. They were early to call for change in Egypt. They endorsed NATO’s intervention in Libya. They are now unequivocally backing the opposition to the Assad regime in neighbouring Syria.
Yet Turkey’s active foreign policy has attracted censure in parts of the West, especially America. Critics in Washington recall the Turks’ 2003 refusal to allow American troops to cross their territory to invade Iraq. Nowadays they accuse the Turkish government of turning its back on the European Union and NATO. They point to continuing harsh treatment of Turkey’s Kurds and soft treatment of Iran. Above all, they blame Turkey for switching from being a firm friend of Israel, the only other established democracy in the region, into an implacable foe.
Are such sweeping accusations justified? On the whole, no. The mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, is right to pursue a policy, first enunciated by Ahmet Davutoglu, now foreign minister, of “zero problems with the neighbours”. This is a big improvement on previous governments that largely ignored their own backyard. Turkey remains a bastion of NATO, with the biggest army after the United States and a vital American air-force base at Incirlik. It is EU members like Cyprus, France and Germany—and not Turkey—that have done most to stall Turkish negotiations to join their club.
Even if broad-brush criticisms of Turkey’s foreign policy are overdone, some narrower ones are closer to the mark. It is no use professing to want zero problems with the neighbours without making a much broader effort to resolve such ancient quarrels as those with Armenia or over Cyprus. Turkey’s newly strong support for the Syrian opposition may be both brave and admirable, but the Turks should have urged reform and some dialogue between the opposition and the regime at an earlier stage (see article).
The mercurial and often autocratic instincts of Mr Erdogan are not conducive to careful diplomacy, as his belligerent recent outbursts over Greek-Cypriot and Israeli gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean have shown. As complex relations with Syria, Iran and Iraq are also confirming again, Turkey must reach a political settlement with its own Kurds if it is to play a positive role in the region. Yet Mr Erdogan seems to be moving back to a purely military solution to the conflict with rebels in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Mend fences with Jerusalem, too
And then there are relations with Israel, which have never recovered after the Israeli army’s killing of eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard a Gaza-bound ship, the Mavi Marmara, last year. The intransigent Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is not popular with many EU governments or with the current American administration. He has been foolishly stubborn to refuse even the smallest apology over the Mavi Marmara. But if Mr Erdogan calculates that he can pander to anti-Israeli prejudice at home without paying a price abroad, he is making a mistake. Turkey stands to gain from stable Arab-Israeli relations, which it ought ideally to be well-placed to promote. And, like it or not, many in the West take Turkey’s attitude to Israel as a yardstick of its broader intentions. If Turkey wants to preserve good relations with the West, it must find some way of mending fences with Israel as well.
source: The Economist