Turkey, the key to balanced Europe and Middle East

Press review 30/1/2009

During the clashes in Gaza, Turkey, a key- country thanks to its Muslim population, its position as an ally of Israel and the USA at the doorstep of the EU, has been one of the first to denounce the Israeli offensive on Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, talking of the Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Ehud Olmert had immediately declared « He betrayed and violated the honour of Turkey » (see our press review of January 2, 2009). The Turkish leader had shown such bitterness because Israel compromised the late Syrian-Israeli talks which were led by Turkey. Even if nowadays the talks are no longer relevant since the clashes in Gaza, many analysts still see Turkey as the cornerstone of any easing of the situation in the Middle East.

View from Turkey: between strategy and passion

If the action of Ankara towards Gaza has been welcomed by many States, it led to debates in Turkey: In Bianet, journalist Çalýþkan believes that recent calls from much of the Turkish political scene to cut the ties with Israel are a bad strategy. He proposes to provide military, political and financial support to the Palestinian Authority without breaking with Israel instead of only occasional expressions of solidarity as Muslims. « We need to adopt more ethical and human policies, which can mean going against the US Minister of Foreign Affairs, » he concluded.

Another criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s response to the Israeli operation in Gaza: in the dailyHurriyet, the journalist Sedat Ergin welcomes the opposition of Mr Erdogan to the « inexcusable » attitude of Israel in Gaza and its concern about the gap between the reactions to the conflict in Georgia and to the one in Gaza. However, analyzing the rhetoric used by Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Ergin is concerned about the lack of warning message against Hamas. The Turkish Prime minister even questioned the responsibility of Hamas in launching missiles at Israel, in a speech on 18 January 2009. In addition, the journalist criticizes the absence of Turkish balanced politics between Hamas and Fatah, since Mr. Erdogan primarily addresses to Hamas and implied that Fatah may have cooperated with Israel to fight against the Islamic party in Gaza.  In this respect, Mr Erdogan’s attitude is very different from Mr. Abdullah Gül’s, who supports a Palestinian reconciliation under Mr. Abbas’ leadership. Finally, Mr. Ergin regrets the lack of distinction made in Mr. Erdogan’s speeches between the Government of Israel, its people and Jews in general. For the journalist, the Prime Minister draws a parallel between the situation of Hamas and the situation of AKP, identifying with Hamas. Mr. Ergin concludes asking the return of a balanced and rational Turkish foreign policy towards Gaza.

Seen from the West: Turkey as a bridge to the Middle East

If outside Turkey, its behaviour on the international scene is often judged positively, some journalists are even tempted to consider Turkey as a crucial element of the region in the coming years. In Le Figaro, Alexandre Adler explains why he sees in Turkey the opportunity to calm down the situation in Palestine and Iraq and to meet the challenges of European energy security and diversification of sources. First, concerning an immediate appeasement in the Gaza Strip, he quotes President Bashar Al-Assad who thinks that « the control of Gaza border with Egypt could not be provided only by the Egyptian army. (…) The presence of Muslims like the Turks would be acceptable by both the Palestinians in Gaza and the Israelis, since Turkey is also a military ally. Such a presence could solve the problem without the commitment of additional peacekeepers like the Blue Helmets.

Concerning the reconstruction of Palestine over the long term, A. Adler stresses that the Turks had the project to build a water delivery structure from their country to Israel, which could also serve the future Palestinian territory. Abandoned for the moment, this project, which could also pass through the Syrian territory, would also launch an economic process leading to peace. More broadly, a relative balance in the region can not be possible without Turkey: for Adler, regarding the strategic environment of Iran, « Turkey is the only one able to stop an Iranian project of “Shiite axis” linking Tehran, Baghdad after the departure of the Americans, Damascus and Beirut dominated by Hezbollah and its new allies. (…) In addition, the definite stabilization of Iraq, once evacuated by the Americans, will be based on a coalition government, which must be supported for Iraqi Shiites by Iran, and for Iraqi Sunnis of Hanafite confession in Northern Iraq, by secular Turkey.  »

As for gas supply to the EU, Turkey is once again the solution through the project « Nabucco » of delivery of gas from Turkey to Western Europe. For the editorialist, one thing is certain: « We must measure the opportunity that Turkey represents and stop turning our backs on a country which has an exemplary moral courage, is one of the pillars of the NATO, one of the best allies of Israel in the world, and wishes (…) to be part, without discrimination, of the European construction. »

Another proof of this growing involvement of Turkey in the Middle East, says the Turkish daily Hurriyet: the country will send observers during the Iraqi elections this Saturday.

However, the New York Times, which highlights the growing role of Turkey as a mediator between Israel and Arab countries, expresses doubts about the future of Turkish involvement in the region after the incident that just occurred Davos between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Peres, showing a deterioration in Israeli-Turkish relations.

Turkey, still at the gates of the EU membership

Turkey is incontrovertible in the Middle East, but as a candidate for EU membership, its position does not seem to evolve much. For his first visit to Brussels since 2004, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to revive negotiations for its accession to the EU membership, now stalled, as recalled Le Figaro. Recently, the Turkish government has appointed a new negotiator in chief and gave signs of good governance to Europe by launching a television channel broadcasting in Kurdish. However, on thirty-five chapters that constitute the negotiating process, only ten have been opened, of minor importance. « We are not asking for a privilege, but for an equality of treatment, » pleaded the Turkish leader. José Manuel Barroso warned Mr Erdogan against the temptation to block the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, Turkey being suspected of wanting to use this project as a bargaining means in the negotiations.
Europeans also expect Turkey to accept by the end of the year to implement the EU-Turkey Customs Union to the Republic of Cyprus, and closed at the same time the prohibition of access to Turkish ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes.

Indeed, Brussels fears that Cyprus may try to put an end to the talks if no progress is achieved by the end of 2009, especially since, as we highlighted in our editorial of December 12th 2008, there are growing tensions between Turkey and Cyprus concerning Cypriot oil ships intercepted by Ankara.

Turkey’s access to the EU membership witnesses many obstacles: Turkey has now to deal with the decision of the Greek Cypriots to lodge a complaint before the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe against Turkey to discover the fate of 1500 missing Greek Cypriots at the time of the Turkish operation in 1974, stressed Today’s Zamam. After the Turkish actor Atilla Olgac said he killed a Greek Cypriot as an order from his superiors at the time, the question of the “missing” Greek Cypriots is being re-examined. Turkey will investigate on the possible violation by Mr. Olgac of the Article 13 of the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of war prisoners.

As a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, as an ally of the West recognized by the East, Turkey is without a doubt a key state in the region in the diplomatic, military, political and energy fields. However, the fragility of Turkey still struggling to control and stabilize the whole country, whose institutions are being challenged and which does not yet meet the criteria for EU membership must be highlighted.