Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Turkey is again America's buddy, but why?

Turkey has won many accolades from the West for a renewed alliance with the U.S. and for playing a key partnership role with its friends in NATO in handling complex situation surrounding the Middle East as unrest rocked the region more than a year ago. 

Some pegged this turnabout to Turkey’s what they claim “failed foreign policy of zero problems.” Soner Çağaptay, in his op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, attempted to explain why Turkey has decided to rebuild its what he said more beneficial alliance with the West.

He noted that far from confronting Washington on a range of issues, Ankara is embracing its membership in NATO while working closely with Washington on Middle East issues, including Iran and coordinating Syria policy.

He asserted that Ankara's slowly drifting away from the West since early 2000s almost upset Turkey's “unique identity” that resulted in a period of increasingly cold relations with the U.S. and embraced the Middle East in a bid to become a regional power.

“This strategy, however, did not exactly make Ankara a formidable power in the Middle East,” Çağaptay claimed in his article.

According to Çağaptay, Turkey came to realize that its strategic value to the Middle East is not rooted in the fact it's a Muslim power but that it is a Muslim power with strong ties to the US and the ability to sit at the table with the Europeans.

Çağaptay is wrong. Turkey’s increasingly good relations with the U.S. is not about Turkey’s “realization” that it is has more strategic value if it has strong ties with the U.S. and NATO. Turkey’s renewed alliance with the U.S. could be explained by its “threat perception.” U.S. partnership benefit Turkey in countering Iran's ambitions in Iraq and Lebanon, in getting rid of Assad and containing French expansion in the Middle East. This was not the case in 2010 and might not be in 2013.  

Moreover, Turkey’s return to the Western world only means good relations with the U.S. Turkey’s European Union membership bid is stalled, its ties with NATO ally France are on hold and it is dissatisfied over European role in the Arab Spring.

Turkey had secured lucrative businesses in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran and Gulf countries by having good and sometimes personal relations with Arab and Iranian rulers. Escalating tensions with Israel made it popular among Arab public. U.S. policies were then detrimental to Turkey’s interests in the region. It bluntly supported Israel, asked Turkey to cut its business with Iran and sever ties with Hezbollah and Hamas. This was in contrary to Turkey’s business interests and its argument that it has ability to talk to every actor in the region.

U.S. also asked Turkey to install a component of NATO missile defense system and publicly declare that it is aimed at Iran. Obama was planning to deflect Russia's attention from the radar system by mentioning Iran in the hope to maintain his "reset" policy but this would cost Turkey's good relations with Iran.   

As Turkey’s business interests were in danger in Libya, Egypt and Syria due to the political instability that swept across the region last year, Turkey found the U.S. as a trustworthy partner that could help reduce Turkey’s damage. Inability of the U.S. to communicate with countries experiencing instability, cooperation with Turkey in these areas was beneficial. 

These were the circumstances that brought NATO allies together and these ties might be severed if Turkey again feels threatened by U.S. policies in the region.

Çağaptay talks about Turkey’s “act alone” strategy and asserts that the Arab Spring has exposed its limits. Turkey has never had such a strategy. In contrast, it wanted to maximize cooperation with neighboring countries by burying hostilities. If “acting alone” means shunning cooperation with Western powers and the U.S., it was necessary. Western engagement in the Middle East two years ago directly contradicted Turkey’s national and business interests; acting with them would be a misguided policy.

He also talks about new rivalry of Turkey with Iran because of the developments in neighboring Syria. Turkey’s adversary with Iran is not new. Turkey had good relations with Iran in the past few years because Israel and the U.S. squeezed the Islamic republic and this imperiled Turkey’s foreign policy interests.

Today, Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon makes it necessary for Turkey to side with Washington to counter Iran’s ambitions. This is what balance of power in the region necessitates.

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