Middle East

Turkey's Tug of War

The New Turkish Visitor

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP).

Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul has been undertaking a tour of the Arab capitals, perhaps the first of its kind since the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from Arab lands, the end of the Sublime Porte in Istanbul, and the establishment of the modern Turkish state in Ankara. Even though previous Turkish prime ministers have undertaken bilateral visits to the Arab world, they haven’t done so by way of such a complete tour, beginning in Damascus and ending in Riyadh via Cairo. Gul embarked on the tour at a time when both Turkey and the Arab world have been fortifying their nerves while waiting to see what will happen in Iraq.

Besides this issue, and despite the gravity of the situation, the tour seems to have other goals that have little to do with Iraq. Without any undue drama, Gul’s tour can be considered a clear call to establish relations that have been necessary for more than half a century. This is a major reversal of the past 50 years, which have witnessed severe tensions and continued mutual estrangement between Turkey and her Arab neighbors, culminating, ultimately, in a Turkish-Israeli alliance. In addition, Arab states have been at odds with Ankara over other alliances that the United States has established with Turkey’s inclusion, such as the Baghdad Pact [1955] and CENTO [Central Treaty Organization, formed in 1959]. In a similar manner, Arabs and Turks have differed in their approaches to establishing relations with the Soviets. It can be said that during the Cold War, from a strategic perspective, Turkey was in one camp while Arabs were in another. Relations degenerated to such a point that there were times when Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad were viewed by Turkey, as well as by the shah of Iran, as its enemies.

Whenever matters took a turn for the better and there was a change in regional politics, neither Turkey nor the Arab states made major official initiatives in enhancing the nature or extent of their interaction; all the while relations remained within a bilateral framework. The fallacy of this type of limited relations explains the necessity of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s mediation during the crisis between Syria and Turkey involving [Kurdish rebel leader] Abdullah Ocalan, by which war between Damascus and Ankara was narrowly averted. [The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led by Ocalan organized attacks in Turkey from Syrian territory; in 1998 Mubarak prevented an escalation by helping orchestrate the expulsion of Ocalan and getting Turkey to normalize relations with Syria.—WPR]

The successful conclusion to the Syrian-Turkish confrontation, however, did succeed in a notable relaxation in tensions and a clear rapprochement between the two nations—to such an extent that it now seems natural that Gul begin his tour from Damascus and hold meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. In another regard, each represents a new era in his respective country and holds a new regional outlook. Most importantly, the issues facing the two countries are all but the same: from the situation in Iraq to the water crisis to the Kurdish question. On this last point, their cooperation is explicit. They share the same worries about Kurdish separatism. When appeals were made almost two weeks ago by nearly a million and a half Kurds for Syrian citizenship, this served as a reminder to the rest of the world that there is a Kurdish “mistake” stretching from Syria to Iran and passing through Turkey and Iraq.

Turkey has been trying for many years to rush headlong after its dream of entering Europe through its western gates, while in effect ignoring the existence of the mighty gates on its eastern front to the Arab world, which have a basis in history. But apparently, with the new government, Turkey’s political inclinations have changed or undergone something of a modification. This doesn’t mean an abandonment of pro-European policies, which Ankara was following just a few weeks ago, but it does mean that the new Turkish government is amenable to investigating alternative options and to questioning the various strategies that have allied it broadly with Israel. Turkey hopes to reassess these policies without endangering its crucial and special relations with the United States. We can assume that any change in Turkish policies will not happen tomorrow. From this point on, enhanced diplomatic relations are more likely because they seem to have begun earnestly and progressively. Yet for change to be mutually beneficial and productive, it must be through a relationship exerted by both sides, Turkish and Arab.