Books on Turkey
Update No: 166 -
Middle East in turmoil
Everything in Turkey is dominated by two
salient facts. It is facing elections in
mid-summer in a few months time. Its
mildly Islamicist government in power is
gravely challenged by the turbulence in
the Middle East, over which it once ruled.
Turkey is a genuine democracy; there is no
doubt of that. In 2003, when the US and
the UK were bent on their ill-fated
invasion of Iraq, the Turkish parliament
very narrowly turned down permission for
coalition forces to use Turkey as a base
for their operations. This was despite the
government going along with the Western
Subsequent events in Iraq have certainly
seemed to the populus and electorate to
have vindicated the stance of parliament
at the time.
What is going to be their reaction to
their government's handling of the grave
crisis unfolding now in the Middle East?
The ideal mediator?
Turkey is a key country in world politics,
at the juncture of the Middle East and
Europe, indeed Eurasia. It once had a vast
empire in the Arab world. Its government
has offered to broker a ceasefire in
Libya, as rebels advance, retaking vital
oil towns after the NATO air strikes,
which are then besieged and taken again by
Turkey, as a Muslim nation and a
democracy, would indeed be an excellent
interlocutor for the Libyans in theory;
but in practice the memory of its
centuries of former imperialism in the
Arab world lingers on. With fighting
continuing to escalate in Libya, Turkey is
intensifying its efforts to find a
political solution to the conflict. It is
one of the few countries that still has
both its embassy open in the Libyan
capital Tripoli and a consul functioning
in Benghazi - the centre of the rebel
Senior Turkish diplomat Selim Yenel said a
political solution is crucial for Libya.
"Turkey is now talking to both sides, and
is, we believe one of the few countries
that can to talk to both sides. In the end
it's the only way out, otherwise more and
more military actions will push people
into a corner and you have to show a way
out. And we believe a diplomatic solution
is a way out. "
A Turkish change of heart
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan has had good relations with the
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, and until
recently had strongly opposed military
intervention and, in particular, NATO's
involvement. But, Erdogan has since
changed his stance, now supporting NATO
and calling for Gadhafi to stand down.
Though such inconsistencies may cast
suspicions on Turkey's objectivity,
diplomatic correspondent Semih Idiz said
Turkey is in a unique position to mediate.
"It is a fact Turkey does have unique
characteristics stemming from the fact
that it is an Islamic country, that it is
a NATO member, so yes, such a thing could
be possible," said Idiz. "But, of course,
if you are willing to be a mediator it's
not up to you, it's up to the people you
going to mediate between, to accept you."
International relations expert Cengiz
Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University
said any mediation will be difficult, but
the bigger question is what is next if
"There is no structured opposition in
Libya, there is no structure even in
Libya. This is a big problem once Gadhafi
is ousted. What will happen no one really
knows. So this is a recipe for chaos,"
Both the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan
and President Abdullah Gul have warned
that Libya could become another Iraq or
A new bipolar strategy
Turkey has pursued an ambitious new
foreign policy under Mr Erdogan, with the
aim of becoming a regional power. The
policy relies on two strategies.
First, solving conflicts with its
neighbours. Twenty years ago, Turkey was
at daggers drawn with every country on its
border. Today, it has friendly relations
with all of them, except Armenia.
Second, allowing business ties to drive
foreign policy. Turkish companies are
among the most competitive in the region,
and they have led the way in establishing
a Turkish presence in Iran, Iraq, Syria,
the former Soviet Union and the Balkans.
Whenever the prime minister or president
travel, they are accompanied by big
business delegations. Visa-free travel has
been agreed with Libya, Syria, Jordan and
Lebanon. Free-trade zones are being
This has meant in the past cosying up to
leaders like Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar
al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak and Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad. It has resulted in
substantial Turkish investment in these
countries, and tens of thousands of
Turkish nationals working there.
So when the Arab uprisings began, Mr
Erdogan was presented with a dilemma.
His political success in Turkey is partly
due to his finely-tuned populist
instincts. As a politician who has loudly
stood up to Israel, he is something of a
hero both among his largely Islamic
constituency at home and among Arab
populations elsewhere. So he wanted to do
the popular thing by supporting the
uprisings. But doing so put the profitable
relationships his government had nurtured
with the governments confronted by these
uprisings at risk.
Tunisia happened too fast for anyone to
react, and Turkey was left with the easy
job of welcoming the new regime. Egypt was
trickier. If Mr Erdogan called for Mr
Mubarak to go, and he survived, there
could be potential reprisals. The Turkish
prime minister followed his instincts,
told the Egyptian leader his time was up
well before President Obama got round to
it, and events vindicated him.
Libya was trickier still. There were
30,000 Turkish workers there. Col Gaddafi
was less predictable. So the Turkish
government kept its comments neutral while
it organised a mass evacuation of its own
and other foreign nationals.
Turkish officials say Mr Erdogan has
called Col Gaddafi and his son Saif
al-Islam several times to explore a
negotiated end to the fighting. Libyan
opposition leaders have been flown to
Ankara for talks. Turkey says it was
making progress when they were stopped by
the start of French air attacks on Libyan
ground forces. Just how much progress is
not clear - the Turkish plan was to
persuade Col Gaddafi to step aside and
organise new elections, goals that never
seemed very close.
Events in Bahrain, Yemen and especially
Syria could provide further discomfort for
Mr Erdogan. He has maintained
conspicuously warm ties with the current
governments in all three countries.
The tortuous path of Turkish policy has
also been influenced by the general
election scheduled in less than three
months time, and Mr Erdogan's need to
shore up his conservative Muslim base.
Muslims in Turkey, like those all over the
Middle East, have conflicting feelings
about Libya. They have been clamouring for
something to be done to help the Libyan
opposition, but there is deep antipathy to
Western intervention, and to any action
that could result in Muslim civilians in
Libya being killed.
Once the UN resolution was agreed, though,
Turkey was always likely to want to play a
role. It prides itself on being a
responsible player in the UN and on its
support for multilateral security
operations. Turkey has 1,600 troops in
Afghanistan and has regularly commanded
the international force there.