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International Affairs Editor

Turkey's more assertive foreign policy now at a critical juncture

Le 10-02-2012

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoghlu is in the US for talks on the deteriorating situation in Syria, among other things. Ankara is leading calls for an international response to the crisis.

1. Turkish foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, is becoming increasingly assertive, isn’t it?

No question about it. If you think back just a little bit, the line coming out of Ankara was “zero problems” with the neighbours. That was always going to be a tough call but if you compare that with the way Ankara is behaving now, there has clearly been a sea-change in its regional strategy.  Ankara has new clout in the region - political and economic - and it is beginning to flex its muscles.

2. But if Turkey has abandoned its “zero problems with the neighbours” strategy, what’s the new approach?

Turkey was a little hesitant at first when the Arab spring got going. It didn’t know whether to side with the street or the crumbling Arab regimes that it had become used to doing business with - but in Egypt and then Libya and now Syria it has made its choice. Ankara wants to be seen as a positive force in the Islamic world - an Islamic democracy with a liberal and booming economy that is an alternative to the corrupt crony authoritarianism that is the norm in the Arab world.

Of course, there is calculation in all of this. Turkey is gambling on the collapse of Assad’s regime and wants to be in a strong position to reap the benefits when a new government replaces it. If it plays its cards well, Ankara could supplant Iran in Syria and extend its influence into Lebanon as well.

But it also fears that unless Assad and the opposition to his regime are controlled that the conflict in Syria could explode into first civil war and then regional, sectarian conflict. That would be a disaster for everyone, including Turkey. So this is about conflict management too.

3. But it’s risky too, isn’t it? Turkey is antagonising not just Syria but Iran as well.

It certainly is, but not just over the conflict in Syria. For a while, Ankara seemed to be ready to give Tehran the benefit of the doubt.  For instance, over its nuclear program. It strongly opposed sanctions - indeed, it still does. But it has also given Washington the go-ahead for the construction of a radar system in eastern Turkey that will form part of the US missile shield against Iran, a decision that has infuriated Iran. The new Turkey is not afraid of making enemies.

But it should not be assumed that Turkey will follow the US blindly in the region. On the contrary, it has made clear that it is not afraid to irritate Washington on sanctions against Iran, for instance, or on relations with Israel. Ankara is saying that there is often a confluence of interests but that it also has its specific national interest to consider. On Syria, too, it will not want to be seen to be as following the US' lead. It will try to forge a broad coalition of friends and will seek to take the lead itself - hence the call for an international conference in Turkey.

4. So what should we expect from the Turks now?

It's not absolutely clear where they want to take this beyond the coalition of friends idea and an international conference. They have already allowed the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council to set up shop in Turkey and there has been some suggestion that Ankara would like to set up a buffer zone in Syria for refugees and a corridor for humanitarian aid. Would this involve a military dimension? Not clear yet.

Turkey is also better placed than any other player now to influence the opposition forces. They have formed a disparate and fractious alliance and Ankara is going to have its work cut out to forge them into a united front. But that is certainly what it will be trying to do.