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  Fragile Turkey’s claim to become the leader of a fragile region

Arûnas Spraunius
2012 02 13

In Turkey, where the military was one of the main factors of national stability since the times of Kemal Ataturk, the arrest of a former commander of Armed Forces Ilker Bashbut has been extended. In the Ergenekon case where more than one hundred suspects have been taken into custody, he was accused on allegations of plotting a coup against the R.T.Erdogan government.

At the beginning of the year Ankara promised to pay compensations to families of 35 peaceful citizens who were killed when Turkish troops attacked Kurdish separatists on the Turkish-Iraqi border. The killed turned out to be Kurdish people involved in smuggling. They supported “trade relationship” with their fellow-countrymen in the insecure North Iraq. According to the political analyst Mensur Akgun, if Iraq falls apart, Ankara will have nothing but recognize a Kurdish state in Iraq’s north, whereas in their turn the Kurdish will try not to interfere into a military conflict between the Shiites and Sunnites in Iraq. According to the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu the tension between the Sunnites and Shiites poses a threat to the entire region. Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-majority Persian Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia cannot find the solution to Bahrain’s problem (Shiites make up the majority of the population in Bahrain, although governmental power lies in the hands of a Sunni minority). Tehran must be tempted to have own version of a Muslim “spring”. The Persians and Arabs also have territorial disagreements concerning the three islands in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz.

Turkey, a Sunni-majority country, often tries to play the role of a mediator between the neighbors disagreeing on religious issues. At the same time Ankara is America’s ally and Washington often applies to the Turkish as to well-informed and influential experts of the region.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the favorite in TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year poll. He is referred to as the voice of Muslim Democracy; during his years in power, Turkey experienced most rapid economic growth in the world. In TIME’s poll he received 22 939 votes, but more than 180,000 votes were cast in the negative for the lauded politician.

This could be treated as a symbol of the contradictory history of Turkey and its present-time. When French National Assembly adopted a bill making it a crime to deny that Armenians suffered genocide during World War I, Ankara recalled its ambassador in France, has frozen all military cooperation and suspended economic and political cooperation with France. In fact Turkey doesn’t deny the fact of massacre. The dispute is mainly related to its scope and the use of the word “genocide”.

Similar situation was in March of 2010, when the U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee endorsed the resolution urging to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey during the period of 1915–1917. Then Ankara recalled its ambassador in Washington, and Erdogan expressed his concern about the future Turkish-American relations. That was probably the main reason why American President Barack Obama didn’t mention the word “genocide” while reading his annual report.

In parallel with the increasing political Turkey’s weight more talks are heard about the vectors of geopolitical interests of the country. Ankara continues to turn away from the West and move towards the East. In 2011 Erdogan was solemnly met in Cairo and Tripoli, in the Muslim inhabited regions of Serbia and Bosnia. During the meeting with I. Hannya, the leader of the HAMAS movement, Turkey’s Prime Minister said that regulation of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is impossible without HAMA’s participation.

Turkey’s press also writes about the Turkish and Iranian affinity and about Ankara’s movement toward the territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire, i.e. toward the Arab countries and the Balkans. Iran has even agreed to enrich own Uranium in Turkey, but when Turkey allowed to deploy elements of the U.S. anti-missile defense system in own territory, Tehran treated as a betrayal. By the way, according to the book, which has been recently published in Istanbul, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an ethnic Turk.

Ankara tries to retain the unity of Iraq and urges its Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik to keep the electoral promises and foster multicultural interaction. However, one day after the withdrawal of American troops, he ordered to arrest his Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and accused him of plotting assassinations against the political opponents. Shiite-led block was formed in Iraq’s Parliament and Sunnites didn’t feel safe anymore.

Turks speak about the necessity to move towards the Turkish Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan. Relations with Baku are good, and Turkey seeks to consolidate its role as a country of transit of energy resources: from January to November 2011 a total of 30,5 million tons of Azerbaijan’s and nearly 200 thousand tons of Turkey’s oil were delivered by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

Israel and Nagorny Karabakh don’t seem to have any political relations, but when Tel Aviv refused to offer an apology for Israel’s operation against the navy which tried to reach Gaza Strip and during which Turkey’s citizens were killed, Ankara has frozen relations with Israel.  On the other hand and according to the analysis of the Arab TV Al Jazeera, the meeting of presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan for regulation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict might be initiated by the U.S. State Secretary Hilary Clinton and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu. This assumption is related to the words of Lamberto Zannier, Secretary General of OSCE: “Something is missing. It is the involvement of Turkey into this project”.

Such a scenario needs good coordination, and Washington has nothing but Turkey and Israel to lean upon in the region. Besides, Washington is interested in increasing Ankara’s influence, moreover that after withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan it is necessary to delegate part of responsibility for security in the region. Turkey’s growth is a geopolitically rational trend, and occasionally emerging rhetoric of its leaders demonstrates that other regulation in the conflict-torn region is impossible.

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