Turkey needs more than charisma to establish itself

With passions winding down three weeks after Israel's bloody interception of the Mavi Marmara, officials and analysts are taking stock of the implications of Turkey's regional resurgence.

Powered by automated translation

With passions winding down three weeks after Israel's bloody interception of the Mavi Marmara, officials and analysts are taking stock of the implications of Turkey's regional resurgence. Not surprisingly, everyone is reading what he or she wants into the episode. In the West, officials are bemoaning Ankara's seeming defection to the East, with the Americans blaming the EU for, as the US defence secretary Bob Gates said a few weeks ago, "refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought".

Meanwhile, the Arab world has displayed confusion and jealousy at the speed and manner with which a long-absent Turkey has become the only country to straddle the complex regional fault lines at apparently little political cost. Radical factions such as Hizbollah and Hamas have even welcomed Turkey into their ranks, as if Israeli-Turkish tensions could compel Ankara to marshal its power in the service of their aims. Israel, witnessing the end of a much-valued strategic partnership, sees in Ankara a new enemy, an overreaction that, if left to fester, could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet, despite the show of apparent strength and bombast in Ankara as it basks in its newfound regional standing, Turks themselves are engaging in some serious head scratching. Indeed, Turkey is grappling with its emergence as a regional power whose objectives are commendable in theory but hard to achieve in reality; it is also a policy that may incur heavy costs. Indeed, as Ankara takes on a more active regional role, the weaknesses, inconsistencies and downsides of its foreign policy are becoming more apparent.

So far, the populist rhetoric and international activism of the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has carried the country's foreign policy, forging undeniable inroads into the region. But the more active he becomes, the more scrutiny he will attract. This will sharpen the existing tensions within Turkish foreign policy. For instance, while Mr Erdogan's current priority is to obtain an investigation and an Israeli apology for the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkey will eventually have to revert to a policy of mediation between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria if it really wants to play a role in the Palestinian peace process and a Syrian-Israeli detente. As unpleasant as it may seem, permanently alienating Israel through rhetorical escalation will harm its prospects of doing so.

Also, while concerns for human rights may account for Turkey's embrace of the Palestinian cause, Ankara's past actions belie this sentiment. In a low point for Turkish diplomacy, Mr Erdogan dismissed accusations of genocide against the Sudanese president Omar al Bashir a few years ago on the grounds that "it is not possible for a Muslim to commit" a genocide. Indeed, many in Ankara realise that Muslim solidarity or selective attention to the region's problems cannot alone be the foundation of Turkey's foreign policy.

Ankara's continued struggle with its Kurdish population also seems to contradict its stance on human rights, as recent strikes in northern Iraq against the PKK have soured relations with Turkish Kurds. If Turkey wishes to contribute to the region's stability, it will have to deal with this minority in a broader context. Indeed, Ankara's greatest contribution to Middle Eastern stability would be to work with Iran, Iraq and Syria to improve treatment of their Kurds. The four countries could also reach a security and political understanding that empowers this oppressed community without endangering their own territorial sovereignty.

Turkey's latest free-trade venture with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan also shows how Turkish eagerness can clash with the region's realities. Ankara was able to broker a free trade proposal (on paper, at least) largely because Arab nations cannot say no to a very popular Turkey these days. In fact, a free trade zone is an ill-conceived enterprise: all three countries would be flooded with cheap Turkish goods at the expense of their own underdeveloped industries, with little to export in return.

Turkey can assuredly lift the Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese economies, but first it must address hot political issues, such as helping to delineate borders and designing a regional security arrangement. To do so, Turkey would have to get its hands dirty, perhaps losing some of its now-cherished lustre in the process. It is perhaps when it comes to Iran that Turkish policy will be the most watched. Turkey has tried to mediate with Iran, but does not share the same sense of concern and urgency as the West and the Arab world. And despite rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran, they might be on collision course since there is a mix of resentment and damaged pride regarding Ankara's achievements. Turkey has already chipped away at Tehran's self-declared status as champion of the Palestinian cause and is also strengthening ties with Syria, Iran's lone Arab ally.

Losing soft power to a country with greater appeal will not sit well with Iranian officials, whose response may well be a greater investment in the nuclear programme and more ideological rigidity. Turkey has an unprecedented opportunity to improve the Middle East landscape. Much will depend on decisions made in Ankara but also on the style of its leadership. Though Turkey's power rests on traditional attributes such as a competent and powerful military, strong institutions, a fast-growing modern economy and international partnerships, its momentum currently comes from the charismatic Mr Erdogan. His populism is playing well at the moment, but for Turkey's influence to survive beyond his persona, a bit of long-term common sense is a much better strategy.