Turkish snub changes Middle East game By M K Bhadrakumar
There are different ways of looking at the Justice and Democratic Party, or
AKP, which rules Turkey. Militant secularists and Kemalists allege it is a
Trojan horse of Salafists whose members masquerade as democrats. Others say the
AKP is so extremely moderate that it might get ostracized as infidel if it were
transplanted to Iran or Afghanistan.
But it appears there could be a third way - looking at the AKP as a progeny of
the 30-year-old Iranian revolution. At least, that is how Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri
thinks. He is one of Iran's senior clerics, used to be a speaker of the Majlis
(parliament) and now holds the exalted position of advisor to Supreme Leader
Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Nouri explained last Sunday, "When Iranians talked of 'exporting' their
revolution, they did not mean manufacturing something and
then exporting it to other countries by trucks or ships; rather, they meant
transmitting the message of their revolution and conveying its doctrine." Nouri
said he felt inspired to claim the AKP as a fine legacy of the Iranian
revolution by the fact it is in Turkey that the "most beautiful demonstrations
on the Gaza issue" were held in recent weeks.
A mighty snub
He may have gone slightly overboard by claiming that even the Turkish army
"which had certain records, has changed now". All the same, the point is well
taken that "things have changed" in Turkey, as Nouri put it, which is what the
avalanche of popular support for Hamas in its battle with Israel showed.
In particular, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's public snub of Israeli
President Shimon Peres last Thursday in a television chat show on the sidelines
of the World Economic Forum meet in the Swiss resort of Davos has caught the
imagination of the Islamic world and cuts across the Shi'ite-Sunni divide. All
of a sudden, Erdogan takes the form of a latter-day Ottoman sultan with an
empire that spreads all across the fertile Mesopotamian planes, the Arabian
desserts, the Nile Valley, the Levant and the Maghreb, all the way into the
heart of Africa.
Erdogan, a back-street boy from the working-class district of Kasimpasa in
Istanbul, has come a long way in his tumultuous political career. He is
undoubtedly one of Turkey's most charismatic and gifted politicians. His place
in Turkey's pantheon of leaders is secure. All the same, he couldn't have
fancied that one day he would be proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize - or that
his sponsor would be a revered religious figure in the world of Shi'ism.
Addressing a gathering of theological students on Sunday in the holy Iranian
city of Qom, Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi did precisely that. Erdogan's
protest, the ayatollah said, has had a profound effect on regional security,
and it has strengthened the Palestinian resistance and humiliated and further
isolated the "Zionist regime".
Erdogan's "claim" to a Nobel Prize tenuously hangs on the 56 words he spoke at
the Davos television show, when he told off Peres, "You are older than me and
your voice is very loud. The reason for your raising your voice is the
psychology of guilt. I will not raise my voice that much. When it comes to
killing, you know very well how to kill. I know very well how you hit and
killed children on the beaches."
It certainly speaks something of the profound alienation gripping the Middle
East today that the resonance of a mere cluster of 56 words spoken in anguish
about justice, honor and equity should so stubbornly refuse to die down.
Erdogan overnight joins Lebanon's Hassan Nasrullah of Hezbollah and Iran's
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who criss-cross with enviable abandon the historic
sectarian divides in the Muslim world. Surely, some food for thought for US
President Barack Obama.
Erdogan returned from Davos to Istanbul to a hero's welcome. Opinion polls show
that over 80% of Turks endorse his sharp retort and his "walkout" from the TV
show. The AKP's popularity is soaring above 50%, so much so that the opposition
parties, which had hoped to cash in on Turkey's economic problems in local
elections in end-March, feel crestfallen.
In Gaza itself, Erdogan has overnight become an iconic figure, so much so that
the pro-West Arab rulers look embarrassed - as indeed is "Abu Mazen"
(Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas), who nonchalantly heads the Palestinian
Authority. Of course, there is no way Saudi Arabia or Egypt will surrender the
mantle of leadership to Turkey. But from now, they will need to seriously
factor that Turkey's shadows are deepening on the Middle Eastern Sunni Muslim
Iran is plainly delighted. The powerful head of Iran's Guardian Council,
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, shot off a message to Erdogan, saying, "Your epic
stand has pleased Hamas and its supporters and humiliated the lackey leaders of
several Arab states."
'Neo-Ottomanism' gathers pace
In Turkey itself, the ricochet has ripped open the country's split identity.
The oligarchy of Westernized Turkish elites based in Istanbul feels scandalized
that Erdogan might have marred the cultivated image of the civilized Turk in
Europe. With his sense of history and culture, the Anatolian Turk, on the other
hand, feels jubilant that Erdogan is reclaiming Turkey's long-lost habitation
in its ancestral home in the Muslim Middle East.
To be sure, the AKP's agenda of "neo-Ottomanism" took a quantum leap last week.
An engrossing phase is about to commence where the primacy may incrementally
come to lie on the rediscovery of Turkey's imperial legacy while the country
continues its search for a new national consensus that can reconcile the Turk's
Under the seven-year AKP rule, Turkey began the painful process of coming to
terms with its Muslim and Ottoman heritage. Contrary to general impressions,
neo-Ottomanism is neither Islamist nor imperialistic. Arguably, it uses the
common denominator of Islam to derive a less ethnic idea of "Turkishness" that
is much more in harmony than militant secularism ever could be with the
multi-ethnic character of the Turkish state.
But in foreign policy, "neo-Ottomanism" has a more grandiose agenda. As
prominent columnist Omer Taspinar of Turkey's Zaman newspaper wrote,
"Neo-Ottomanism sees Turkey as a regional superpower. Its strategic vision and
culture reflects the geographic reach of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires.
Turkey, as a pivotal state, should thus play a very active diplomatic,
political and diplomatic role in a wide region of which it is the 'center'."
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan's critics among the Westernized elites in Istanbul and
Ankara view any such pan-Turkic or Islamic openings in foreign policy as
adventurous and ultimately harmful to Turkey's interests.
To quote a top Turkish commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand, of CNN Turk, Erdogan has
"disturbed" a delicate balance in Ankara's foreign policy and "put himself and
his country in a risky position ... It will be interpreted as a slow drift away
from the Israel-United States-European Union-Egypt-Saudi Arabia camp ... Even
if relations with Israel are not ceased, the color will start to change from
now on and turn toward dislike. If not balanced immediately, relations between
Israel and Turkey will not recover easily. The reflections will be seen in
Washington and on the money markets."
However, Birand's panicky prognosis seems presumptuous. There is no basis to
the argument that "neo-Ottomanism" means Turkey turns its back on the West. As
Taspinar pointed out, after all, the Ottoman Empire was known as the "sick man
of Europe" and not of Asia or Arabia. The European legacy of being open to the
West and Western influence was a constant feature of the Ottoman era. Erdogan's
ambitious regional policy in the Middle East, therefore, should not be
construed as sidestepping an active pursuit of European Union membership or
good relations with Washington.
Turkish-Israeli ties under cloud
No doubt, Israel's Gaza offensive and Erdogan's Davos episode have created
fractures in Turkish-Israeli strategic ties. But the question is whether the
damage is serious enough to start a major realignment in the region. The high
probability is that with the cooling of tempers, the Turkish-Israeli
relationship as such will recover.
The Turkish military has let it be known that there is no rollback in
cooperation with Israel. It said Turkey's military cooperation with all
countries, including Israel, was based on national interests and no
difficulties were foreseen in the scheduled delivery by Israel of high-tech
Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said, "There is a rift in our relations.
This cannot be hidden. But these relations are very important for both
countries." She took note that Ankara was "drawing a distinction between
bilateral ties and the censure they are leveling at us over the [Gaza]
operation". Jewish groups based in the US are also trying to calm the agitation
in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Conceivably, Erdogan harbors a sense of betrayal. He told the Washington Post
that Turkish mediation had brought Israel and Syria "very close" to direct
peace talks on the future of the Golan Heights. During the visit by Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara on December 23, not only did he hide from
Erdogan that Israel was planning to attack Gaza four days later, but he assured
the Turkish leader that as soon as he got back, he would consult his colleagues
and come back on the talks with Syria.
While Olmert was in Ankara, Erdogan telephoned Hamas leader Ismail Haniye in
Gaza and consulted him on the issues to be discussed with the visiting Israeli
prime minister. Quite understandably, Erdogan felt let down. "This operation
[in Gaza] also shows disrespect to Turkey," he said. Israel is used to acting
solely in its self-interest. But Erdogan is a proud Turk for whom loss of face
is simply unacceptable.
Israel's need of Turkey
Meanwhile, Turkey erupted into massive anti-Israeli public demonstrations over
reports of Israeli atrocities in Gaza. Turkey's highest policy-making body, the
National Security Council, which is chaired by the president and comprises the
prime minister and the military chiefs, said in a statement on December 30 that
Israel should cease military operations immediately, give diplomacy a chance
and allow humanitarian aid to reach the people of Gaza.
But Israel took the Turkish criticism in its stride. Israel said Erdogan was
being "emotional". Erdogan shot back: "I am not emotional. I am speaking as a
grandson of the Ottoman Empire, which welcomed your forefathers when they were
exiled ... History will accuse them [Olmert and Livni] of putting a stain on
humanity ... It is unforgivable that a people who in their history suffered so
profoundly could do such a thing."
On balance, it hurts Israel more than Turkey that a trust deficit has
developed. Turkey has many friends in the region, whereas Israel has hardly
any. Turkey is an irreplaceable ally for Israel not only in the Middle East but
in the entire Muslim world. With the expected US-Iranian engagement and the
ensuing realignment in the region, Israel (and the pro-West Arab states) needs
Turkey as a "balancer" more than any time before. Iraq cannot play that role
anymore. As the effusive Iranian salute to Erdogan shows, Tehran is acutely
conscious of the new imperatives, too.
Beyond all that, an ageless concern that Israel ought to sit up and take note
is that for the first time in the Anatolian heartland, a surge of anti-Semitism
is visible. If the Ottoman era's fabulous record of providing asylum for any
wandering Jew is indeed becoming a relic of history, don't ask who is
responsible. Israel's leaders must take the blame for it.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.