In 2009, on the occasion of the
Han-Uighur riots in Xinjiang, Erdogan had
infuriated Beijing by characterizing the
government crackdown as "a kind of genocide". 
He also stated that he would issue a visa
to Rebiya Kadeer - head of the World Uighur
Congress and perpetual thorn in Beijing's side.
(Kadeer apparently did not apply for the visa,
perhaps much to the relief of the Turkish
On his visit to China - the
first by a Turkish prime minister in 27 years -
Erdogan was keen not to upset the apple cart.
He scored the political coup of visiting
Urumqi - actually, his first
stop on entering China,
before he continued onward to Beijing - but did
not antagonize his hosts by posturing as the
protector of Xinjiang's Uighurs.
Kizilkaya, foreign affairs editor of Turkey's
Hurriyet Daily, observed dyspeptically on his
blog, Erdogan promised Beijing he was "not going
[to Xinjiang] to itch the problem".
most remarkable thing Erdogan did in Urumuqi was
apparently allowing himself to be photographed in
gaudy Uighur costume carving up a roasted lamb
under the solicitous gaze of some local
Kizilkaya took Erdogan to
task for using the China visit to harp on Syria,
instead of succoring Turkey's Uighur brethren:
OK, China was a world power, but why
did you go to Xinjiang if you would remain
silent about the inhumane repression against
It is worth noting how
powerfully Turkish nationalism - the legacy that
Kamal Attaturk bequeathed to his country through
intensive indoctrination in schools and media -
shapes Turkish attitudes, and limits Turkey's
efforts to bestride the world stage.
Kizilkaya fulminates about the oppression
of Turkic people thousands of kilometers away in
China, while his country struggles with an
intractable Kurdish problem at home, exacerbated
by the fact that the non-Turkic Kurds are viewed
as fundamentally alien to the body politic.
Add to that the fact that in 2009 Erdogan
felt comfortable employing the incendiary term
"genocide" to characterize the Chinese security
operation in Xinjiang, even as his government
fights a pitched public relations battle to deny
its application to the Turkish nation in the
deaths of over one million Christian Armenians
through execution, massacre, and death marches in
Overall, it paints the picture of a
country whose international role, at least in
non-Turkic sectors, is limited by a profound and
institutionalized ethnic chauvinism.
Turkey's natural allies reside in the
Turkic stans of Central Asia. In the Middle East,
it stands alone.
When Turkey becomes
assertive, many of the other nations of the region
respond with dislike and mistrust.
is on the outs with almost every one of its
neighbors, with the exceptions of Georgia and
Bulgaria: Greece, Syria, Iran and Armenia all have
long-standing or recent grudges with Ankara. Add
the Shi'ite power Iraq to the list - Turkey
recently decided to host the fugitive Sunni Vice
President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi.
Kurdish distaste for the extensive,
ongoing, and, in the Western press, virtually
unreported, Turkish government crackdown against
Kurd separatists, activists, and journalists go a
long way in explaining why Syria's put-upon Kurds
have not joined the anti-Assad rebellion.
Although Erdogan made an unscheduled trip
to Saudi Arabia directly from Beijing - presumably
to confirm the GCC's continued resolve to push
Assad to the wall - he is unlikely to find sincere
friends among the Gulf autocracies.
sclerotic, oil-exporting, Arab, and
theocratic/conservative Gulf states are unlikely
to welcome upstart Turkey's claim to regional
leadership on the basis of democracy, free-market
economics, a balance between secular and religious
authority, and a professed faith in the validity
of popular Arab Spring uprisings against
nationalism is matched in Europe by broad, barely
disguised racism and hostility. One of the many
reasons that Turkey's application to the European
Union has stalled has been a feeling, from Pope
Benedict on down to the right-wing chauvinist
parties that have sprung up like weeds across
Europe, that Turkey is too "non-European" to
integrate into the union. 
As for the
United States, Turkey has emerged as a key asset.
It is the yearned-for moderate Islamic
state (now that Egypt is teetering into populism
and/or radicalism) that will serve as Israel's
regional interlocutor, and the obliging host that
will undercut Russia's monopoly in the supply of
natural gas to Europe by allowing the Nabucco
pipeline or some variant thereof to be built
across its territory.
Nevertheless, it is
difficult to forget the contemptuous words of an
unnamed US administration official in 2003, when
Erdogan unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a
$25 billion payment in return for allowing 40,000
US troops to deploy into Iraq from Turkey:
The Turks seem to think that we'll
keep the bazaar open all night.
The United States seems to be
gleefully egging on Turkey in its Assad-bashing,
since the sound and fury of Turkish indignation
helps obscure the reality of a do-nothing Western
policy on Syria.
Erdogan, for his part,
seems to be trapped in a frontline confrontation
with Syria without genuine geopolitical backup,
and doesn't know how to extract Turkey from the
situation without losing face-or starting a war
that will leave the region in tatters.
Instead of relieving tensions, Ankara is
exacerbating them; and instead of acting as the
even-handed middle-man in regional negotiations,
Turkey is drifting into the role of Western
The Economist, which detects
imperial rumblings in Erdogan's foreign policy,
"It was this ability to talk to all
sides that made Turkey an effective player,"
says Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador
to Turkey. But "now it has chosen sides."
It is a remarkable and melancholy
comment on Middle Eastern politics that Turkey
has, over the past 12 months, forfeited its
primary regional diplomatic asset - its status as
the "honest broker" - and China, of all countries,
because of its close economic ties to both Saudi
Arabia and Iran, is stepping in to try to assume