After decades of keeping the Arab and Muslim countries of the
Middle East at arm's length, Turkey is trying to strengthen
relations with its neighbors while at the same time recasting itself
as a mediator in the region.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech at the
opening of the Arab League summit in Khartoum, Sudan, where Turkey
for the first time was given the status of "permanent guest" by the
The prime minister's appearance at the summit - the first time a
Turkish leader has done so - is the latest in a string of eyebrow-
raising foreign policy moves: In February, a top Hamas official
visited the capital, Ankara; soon after, Iraqi Prime Minister
Ibrahim al-Jafaari made a bridge-building trip; and the Turkish
government recently announced that it was planning to host firebrand
Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for an official visit - since
put on hold.
While the moves have ruffled feathers from Israel and Iraq to the
US and European Union (EU) - which Turkey hopes to join - analysts
say these aren't so much blunders as a reflection of a significant
change in Turkey's Middle East foreign policy.
"Turkey wants to be a message-bringer from the Islamic world to
the West," says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international
relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University (METU). "The
government really believes that it can be a bridge between East and
West, and this is the foreign policy."
The Turkish government offered to act as a kind of mediator
between the EU and the Islamic world regarding the controversial
cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Turkey has also suggested its ties
to the West and its improving relations with Iran could help it act
as a go-between in the diplomatic crisis over Tehran's disputed
"We have historical links to the region, to the Middle East at
large," says a senior Turkish foreign ministry official. "Turkey
also has another important quality in this regard, which is that it
has relations with everybody [in the region]. We can effectively
pass on messages. We have trust on both sides of various conflicts."
But critics warn that this new policy is flawed and carries with
it the risk of alienating Turkey's Western allies. The Ankara visit
of exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was strongly
denounced by both Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with which
Turkey has a military alliance, and by members of US Congress. …