Flotilla Signals Turkey’s Change of Heart

Flotilla Signals Turkey’s Change of Heart

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 Many were surprised that the Gaza flotilla that tried to break the Israeli blockade originated from Turkey. With nine Turkish activists dead, many are wondering if Israel’s strongest Islamic ally, with the second largest army in NATO, is having a change of heart.

Some long time observers in Arab media say the answer is yes. Turkey, in fact, is building stronger relations with Iran and Syria and Russia, and away from the West.

There are four reasons for this according to Arab media.

First, the shift in Turkey’s policy towards Israel is linked to the democratization process in Turkey.
For decades Turkey has been under the influence of the secular revolution of the 1920s, which distanced itself from the Middle East. Successive Turkish governments, which were strongly influenced by the military, were mainly interested in building stronger bonds with the West and Israel.

This changed when the Justice and Deployment Party (AKP) won the elections in 2002, which successfully led the democratization process, and decreased the strong influence of the military.
“In the past 10 years, Turkey has been democratized more than ever, so the government probably represents the general Turkish society better than the military generals [in previous regimes],” Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of Turkish Daily News told Al Jazeera English. “The general sentiments in Turkey are more in favor of Palestine than Israel. Support of the Palestinian plight has deep resonance in Turkish society, not only in the Islamic camp but also among the Turkish left as well. They see Israel as the obstacle to the two states solution and they feel strongly about the Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon and Gaza.”

Second, disrespectful Israeli actions towards Turkish officials have angered them. Oded Eran, former Israeli Ambassador to the EU, told Al Jazeera English that Turkey is angry with Israel because it undermined Turkish efforts to mediate peace talks between Syria and Israel as well as between Hamas and Israel on the issue of Gilad Shalit (the Israeli soldier held by Hamas). Israel preferred Egypt as a mediator and the Turks felt “rebuffed.”

Eran also said Turkey feels that it was “ill-informed to say the least” about the war in Gaza by Israel even though former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Turkey shortly before Operation Cast Lead started in Gaza in the winter of 2008. Turks felt disrespected because they were not notified about the operation beforehand.

Third, Turkey is disillusioned with the European Union, which rejected its membership. That rejection compelled Turks to go back to their roots. Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University, told Al Jazeera English, “When Romania and Bulgaria became members of the European Union, they were not more developed than Turkey at the time, nor [are they] today. Yet there was consensus on their EU membership and they never had to quarrel about all kinds of requirements.”

Dr. Muhammad Adel, the director of Turkish Arab Strategic Studies, agreed. He told Al Arabiya, “For the past 80 years, Turkey has turned to the West, but it became clear to the Turkish elite that the Turkish national security is not directly linked to the West. Rather it is directly linked with the Arab and Muslim region.”

Ergil also added, “Turkey is opening up to Iraq and Syria under the policy of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbors.” That is helping Turkey become more influential in the region both politically and economically.

Fourth, Turkish disillusionment with the United States after the war in Iraq also compelled it to reconcile with Iran and move closer to Russia.

Adel told Al Arabiya Television that Turkey has improved its relations with Russia and made an agreement to have the Russians build three nuclear reactors in Turkey.

But, why now? According to Adel, the United States insisted on going to war with Iraq despite strong Turkish opposition which led the Turks to believe that the United States does not respect Turkey’s national interests as a NATO member.

Turkey opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq because it feared that the Kurdish region in Iraq would destabilize the Kurds in Turkey, who exist in a quasi-independent relationship with Turkey. Iran, who shares the same concerns about its Kurdish population, became a useful ally.

In June 2009, Turkey was the first country to congratulate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his reelection. In that same year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Israel and the West for having very strong nuclear infrastructures, while opposing Iran’s quest to develop its own nuclear power.

Iran and Turkey are also forming strong economic ties. Turkey’s demand for energy continues to increase and Iran is always looking for new markets for its oil and gas. In addition, the two countries have entered into talks to deliver Iranian oil through Turkey to Italy in what is known as the Nabucco project.

This may explain why Turkey decided to move closer to Russia vis-à-vis Iran rather than joining the United States and Israel in their efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. In fact, Turkish officials have reiterated that tougher sanctions on Iran will not prevent Turkey from increasing its economic cooperation with Iran. Iran is the second largest exporter of natural gas to Turkey after Russia.

There is yet another reason why Turkey wants to bring Russia back to the Middle East region. Turkey feels that this will make it more difficult for the United States to impose more sanctions or launch a war against Iran.

Samir Salha wrote on Al Jazeera’s website, “Turkey is concerned that the U.S. has a plan to launch a war against Iran with the objective of toppling the Iranian regime. Turkey, which is obligated to NATO political and strategic decisions, wants to avoid being in an awkward position if confrontations should emerged between NATO and Iran.”

That the Gaza Freedom Flotilla originated from Turkey, not from Egypt or any other Arab country, is a turning point in Turkish foreign policy. While it maintains its alliance with Israel, the Turkish government is increasingly more critical of Israel.

Similarly, while it wants to maintain its NATO membership, Turkey is building new channels with Russia and Iran.

The current government in Turkey has simply realized where public support lies, not only at home but also in the Muslim world. In this context one can understand why Turkey is trying to emerge as a voice for Muslims everywhere. This explains why Prime Minister Erdogan highlights the plight of Palestinians, Pakistanis and others Muslim nations whenever he has the opportunity to do so such as the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Jalal Ghazi is producer of the Peabody Award-winning show “Mosaic: World News from the Middle East,” for Link TV, and author of the column “Eye on Arab Media” for New America Media.