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The Crescent Moon Rises

December 1, 2011
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Erdoğan Boldly Steps Forward

Prime Minister Erdogan

In the last few years, Turkey has gone from a consistent Western and Israeli ally to publicly threatening Israel. Relations between Turkey and Syria were also warming prior to Syria’s brutal crackdown on protesters in the country. Concurrently, Turkey has become a more vocal voice in the region and more recently sought to make itself a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East. Both changes—the gradual moving away from the West and the emergence of Turkish power—owe their origins to one man: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Almost 100 years ago, Turkey was the dominant force in the Middle East, but its Ottoman Empire had held supreme control of the region for hundreds of years. However, it chose the wrong side in World War I. Defeated, the Ottoman Empire was divided up among European states as the spoils of war. Much of their territory eventually turned into a mix of kingdoms and dictatorships. Later, Turkey was relegated to a piece in the global struggle over the region between the United States and Communist Russia, with Turkey siding with NATO. Turkey had fallen from superpower in its own right to superpower pawn.

But as a bold and strident leader, Erdoğan stepped forward in 2003 to change the Turkish nation, and possibly the entire region. Dr. Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey and now an expert on Turkey at Hebrew University, told The Mideast Update that Erdoğan has helped Turkey to snap out of its political and regional doldrums partly by jumpstarting the Turkish economy. He said Turkey’s economy used to be of the unstable start-and-stop variety, a definite roadblock to regional power. However, he noted that Erdoğan has affected a major impact in this area during his years in power.

“He has done almost, I would say, miracles in Turkey economically. He strengthened the country regarding its regional position [diplomatically],” said Liel. “And as a result of his economic success and diplomatic success, there are more and more talks of Turkey being a kind of regional power or even a regional leader…”

This new leader has won multiple elections in Turkey during his tenure, but Erdoğan’s apparent national popularity has done anything but calm everyone’s fears of where he plans to take Turkey. Erdoğan has definitely removed Turkey from the West’s control, even if they aren’t always opposing them. This shift really became apparent in early 2009 after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

New Policy toward Israel

Gaza flotilla protests in Istanbul, Turkey

Erdoğan made headlines in January 2009 at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when he made a public show of walking off the stage he was sharing with Israeli President Shimon Peres in protest over the Gaza war. In the conflict, an Israeli aerial assault and, eventually, ground troops were called in to stop Gazan terrorist rockets from falling on Israeli civilians. As of print time, the campaign’s goal of diminishing rocket attacks from Gaza largely has worked, but it also gave Erdoğan an opportunity to begin a change in Turkey’s foreign policy.

As pro-Palestinian supporters blindly ignored Hamas’s ongoing terrorism against Israel and accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza, Erdoğan set himself as the face of this perspective with his show at Davos. He then followed up his display of disgust with rants against supposed Israeli crimes against the Palestinians—rhetoric that has continued to this day. Israel and Turkey had been allies for decades, but following the Gaza war, Turkey also canceled military exercises with Israel.

Then came the May 2010 Gaza flotilla when the Israel–Turkey relationship took another blow. A group of ships, ostensibly bringing aid to Gaza, sought to break the Israeli naval blockade there, put in place to prevent weapons smuggling. In defense of the blockade, Israel sent commandos in to commandeer the vessels. But on the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship, activists armed with metal bars, staves, and similar instruments assaulted the boarding commandos.

Fearful for their lives, the Israeli soldiers opened fire in self-defense and nine activists, all of which had connections to Turkey, were killed in the fighting. Despite the legitimate reason for maintaining the blockade and the fact that Israel was attacked first by the activists, Turkey was outraged by the deaths of its citizens.

Military deals between the countries came into doubt, and the Turkish rhetoric against Israel continued. The break with Israel was really set into motion now. Turkey also started to warm relations with Syria, a sworn enemy of Israel and the West, and Turkish popularity among Palestinians soared. Ynet reported that a Gaza baby was named Erdoğan in light of his support for Gaza. The rift with Israel was scoring Turkey points in the Arab world.

However, the split with Israel was not necessarily part of Turkey’s grand plan—or at least the United States still wielded enough influence at the time to encourage Turkey to backpedal. In December of 2010 during Israel’s horrific Carmel forest fire, Turkey sent firefighting planes to help fight the flames. Following that, Israel and Turkey, with US help, started negotiations to mend their relationship, and Turkey even helped discourage another flotilla. But another fire in December 2010 gave Turkey a potential alternative to sticking with Israel. This time it was a Tunisian man who set himself ablaze in a suicidal protest that set political fire to the entire region.

Arab Spring’s Influence

What started as a protest by one Tunisian against his government’s stifling economic policies turned into a tumultuous march towards broader popular rights and democracy. Tunisia’s regime collapsed; then came Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, one of the most powerful men in the Middle East for decades. Muammar Gaddafi was next, and as of print time, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain were also being challenged.

The Arab Spring, as the demonstrations became known, opened new doors for Turkey. While continuing to try and mend relations with Israel at the time, Erdoğan had quite an opportunity. Prior to the Arab Spring, he was one of the only democratically elected leaders in the Muslim world, making him uniquely qualified to endorse the protesters with no fear of the same thing happening in his own country.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and others looked hypocritical and ridiculous as they supported protests in opposing states but assisted dictators in friendly nations. Therefore, Erdoğan has the potential to be the only stable leader assisting the fledgling democracies—a significant position of influence that can’t be bought.

Upscale stores in Istinye Park Mall, Istanbul Or maybe it can. Dr. Liel noted that Turkey’s economy enables them to give “massive” amounts of foreign aid, and they have already helped the rebels in Libya financially with “a lot of money.” And thanks to Turkey’s effective shift in loyalties, they were able to save relations with Libya, reversing what Liel had called a “substantial” blow in losing the relationship with Gaddafi.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all is perfect for Turkey in the region. A commentary in the Israeli Globes newspaper in September by columnist Jacky Hougy said Erdoğan’s planned triumphal visit to Egypt was largely muted and diluted by the Egyptian authorities. And his support for Egypt to be secular, as is technically Turkey, didn’t sit well with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, according to Dr. Liel. On the other hand, Liel said Turkish relations with Egypt used to be bad, so the relations are already closer than they were “by far.” There is “a lot of admiration in the Egyptian street for the Turkish achievements [economically].”

But giving dollars and declarations are one thing; actively supporting the protesters when the struggle is in doubt is something else. That’s exactly what has happened in Syria. As the death toll continued to rise in Syria at the hands of Assad’s regime, Turkey finally had enough. As of print time, Turkey was preparing sanctions against Syria’s regime over the crackdown on the protesters. It’s a risk that could cost Turkey its relationship with Syria, but it also has catapulted Erdoğan into a true regional showdown with Iran, Syria’s main ally, to see who can join Israel in the regional superpower class.

Dr. Liel said the Turkish steps are fraught with risk and potential. “It depends what will happen in Syria, because I have the feeling that Turkey is doing an enormous effort to get close to the rebels, is assisting the rebels, is enabling the leadership of the rebels to function out of Turkey…so I have the feeling that if Assad will be toppled, the relations between Syria and Turkey will recover,” said Liel. “If he will stay, they will not recover, at least not in the foreseeable future.”

Liel pointed out that thousands of Syrian refugees who’ve fled the violence have also been hosted by Turkey. Erdoğan had even been set to give a speech in the refugee area in October. Not everyone is happy about Erdoğan’s approach, however. The Syria disagreement has negatively impacted Turkish–Iranian relations, according to Liel.

The New Superpower?

As for Turkey’s position as Israel’s friend, that bridge was basically burned down in September. After lengthy negotiations that could not resolve the two countries’ relationship over the Gaza flotilla incident, Turkey dramatically downgraded their relationship with Israel. Israel’s ambassador was told not to return, and the Israeli embassy in Ankara was headed by the lowest-ranking diplomatic official possible. Turkey’s rhetoric also reached almost war-like proportions when it threatened to send warships with future flotillas to Gaza. For the first time in decades—if ever—the potential for military conflict with Israel seems theoretically possible.

In the midst of the souring relations, Erdoğan did receive some praise from Israeli President Peres for his country’s stance surrounding the prisoner swap for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, according to Ynet. Yet, if using Israel as a punching bag is a cheap way to win support in the anti-Israel Muslim world, then Turkey is scoring big. Erdoğan used his United Nations speech in September to assail the Jewish state, and that continued in his interviews with American media, as he called for sanctions against Israel in an interview with Time magazine.

Istanbul skyline So is it working? Is Turkey becoming such a power? Erdoğan is certainly a regional “rockstar” at this point. CNN host Fareed Zakaria actually referred to him as “arguably the man of the week at the United Nations” during the world leaders’ speeches at the UN General Assembly. In addition, if the Assad regime collapses and Turkey becomes the best ally to a new government in Syria, then Iran will be losing friends, and Turkey will be earning new friends throughout the region.

There’s no one else in the Muslim world who can challenge Erdoğan as the most powerful leader in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime isn’t going to find it easy to be friends with the Arab Spring nations. Iran is already more feared than loved, and the once-powerful Egyptian and Libyan regimes are history. In other words, the Middle East can change fast. Turkey may be yesterday’s news by tomorrow, but at this rate, they seem destined to reemerge from almost 100 years of limited relevance. Look out Middle East, the crescent moon is rising again!

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com

Photo Credit: www.wikipedia.org

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