Ankara's Influence Gains Sway: Erika Atzori Reports on Turkey's Growing Regional Influence

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THE EXPULSION OF ISRAEL'S AMBASSADOR FROM Ankara and the consequent suspension of all military agreements with Tel Aviv marked a historic low in Turkey-Israel relations. From Turkey's perspective, Israel's refusal to apologise and pay compensation for the Gaza Freedom Flotilla incident, which led to the killing of nine activists in 2010, could not just be tolerated without consequences.

As Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan put it, "Israel assumes that it can continue to act like a spoiled child, and evade punishment." Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949 and a close military and strategic cooperation between the two countries has been a Turkish foreign policy tenet ever since. Although Ankara has always expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause and criticism towards Israeli occupation, it was only in 2009 that Turkish-Israeli relations entered a turbulent phase, following Israel's War on Gaza. "When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill," Erdogan said to Israeli President Shimon Peres, before storming off the stage of the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos.

The Israel crisis and Erdogan's much-reported Arab Spring diplomatic tour last September, during which he visited post-revolutionary Egypt, Libya and Tunisia accompanied by a delegation of 200 businessmen, have aggravated Israeli and Western leaders' concerns that Turkish foreign policy might be turning its back to the West to pursue closer relations with the Middle East countries. Similarly, the Turkish Prime Minister's victory speech in June, saluting "all friendly and brotherly nations from Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, Sarajevo, Baku and Nicosia", was seen by many observers as the speech of a "Middle Eastern" rather than European leader. In fact, commentators and analysts have long been speculating on whether the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations, Turkey's closer ties with Syria and Iran, and Ankara's "hyperactivity" in the Middle East should be interpreted as a shift away from the western sphere of influence and, consequently, from its strategic interests.

Yet it would be misleading to look at Turkish foreign policy through a black and white lens. While Turkey's involvement in Middle East affairs has indisputably reached a new, enthusiastic phase, Ankara's proactive engagement in the region and, in general, with nonwestern partners is the result of a more independent, multidimensional approach aimed at facing new challenges and seizing new opportunities. Firstly, given Turkey's disillusionment with prolonged talks and the stagnation of the EU membership process, no wonder Ankara has decided to look for alternative partners to diversify its economic relations and investment strategy. In addition, the emergence of new economic and political powers such as China and Brazil, a global economic crisis deeply affecting Europe and the United States, along with the recent Arab Spring revolutions, have led Turkey to redefine its interests by maximising new economic opportunities and seeking greater influence both as a regional and as a world power.

Foreign policy

The man behind Turkey's new vision is Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic and--some say--visionary politician, who started as chief advisor to Erdogan in 2003 and then became Foreign Minister in 2009. Davutoglu rejects the idea that Turkey belongs exclusively to the western bloc and believes that its unique history and geographical position give Ankara the privilege of acting at the centre of a variety of regional constellations. As the Cold War is no longer dominating international relations, Davutoglu is convinced Turkey should stop conceiving its strategy according to a bipolar order and instead aim at building broader relations with the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Asia, as these regions expect Ankara's leadership role. In the age of interdependence and global governance, Davutoglu's doctrine of "Strategic Depth" states Turkey cannot wait for crises to emerge but must undertake proactive peace diplomacy based on a common understanding of security, political dialogue, regional economic ties and multicultural peace. …