Under the surface, there have been growing concerns in the West about the general direction of Turkish foreign policy under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party. In an extremely important 2004 cable from the U.S. State Department revealed by WikiLeaks, which was described previously in this column, an American diplomat in Turkey wrote about his concerns over Ankara’s “new, highly activist foreign policy.” Like many other commentators he focused on what he called the “neo-Ottoman fantasies” of Ahmet Davutoglu, who was then only an adviser and today is Turkey’s foreign minister.
But the American diplomat went much further in his description. He attended a meeting at the main think tank of Turkey’s ruling AKP party where he heard many in the AKP saying that it is Turkey’s role to spread Islam in Europe. He added that there was “the widespread belief” among the participants in the think tank that Turkey should “avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683”– when the Ottoman armies lost to the Hapsburg Empire.
Even assuming that this American cable overstates the ideological orientation of the Turkish government by relying on impressions from a think tank of the AKP party, it nonetheless illustrates the concerns of a Western diplomat about the ideas making the rounds in ruling circles within Erdogan’s Turkey. Can Turkey still be viewed as a reliable NATO ally or is it now adopting an approach toward the world based on an Islamist agenda? As a result, will it give preference to its partnerships with Middle Eastern countries, like Iran, despite its disagreements with Tehran?
These trends are not just of concern for the U.S., but for other countries who are doubtlessly monitoring trends in Turkey. In late 2009, Davutoglu spoke in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and laid out his approach for Turkey’s foreign policy. According to a State Department report on the speech, Davutoglu said that, “The Balkans, the Caucuses, and the Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence.” For many states that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, especially in Europe, this statement undoubtedly raised eyebrows. Across Eastern Europe, from Hungary to Serbia, there are sites that are remembered as battlefields between Christian armies and the Ottoman Empire.
Many commentators have missed another recent tendency in Turkey’s approach to the Middle East, in particular. In a study by Steven Merley, an expert on the European Muslim Brotherhood networks, he points out that since 2006, when the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to convene a major international conference, it has not gone to Qatar or Saudi Arabia, which would not have granted permission for such a meeting. Instead, Muslim Brotherhood conferences have convened in Turkey, and on a regular basis.
It was also in 2006 that Turkey hosted Hamas for the first time, and welcomed its Damascus-based Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal. More recently, in 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, along with the rest of the Syrian opposition, has been meeting in the old favorite resort town of Israeli tourists, Anatalya. Even if the old regimes of the Middle East fall as a result of the Arab Spring, Turkey is well-placed for exerting influence among the parties that most are likely to replace them.
What is happening to Turkey may not be just explained by Islamism, but also by geopolitics. Prior to the French invasion of Egypt in 1799, the Middle East was dominated by two powers, the Ottoman Empire and the Persian (or Safavid) Empire. The West was not yet in control of the region. During the next two centuries, the Middle East was under mostly Anglo-French hegemony that was replaced by American power. Professor Bernard Lewis has remarked on occasion that the Middle East could return to its earlier state in which Turkey and Iran once again become the dominant powers. Today, if the U.S. is seen as losing influence in the region, Turkey may well be positioning itself to resume its earlier role.
Davutoglu has many reasons to escalate his conflict with Israel. There are those who might conjecture that it is a personal conflict, since his grandfather was an Ottoman soldier who fought the British in the Gaza Strip. A few years ago the prestigious American quarterly, Foreign Affairs, published an article entitled “Is Turkey Leaving the West?” Turkey is aware of these concerns. It has sought to blunt criticism by agreeing to the deployment of a NATO early-warning radar and offering its services to the West for helping prepare the groundwork for a post-Assad Syria. Some Western politicians have been satisfied by these Turkish moves. But many others are still concerned by Turkey’s overall direction. For them what Erdogan and Davutoglu do with Israel is seen as a warning sign regarding the future direction of Turkish policy. Will Turkey return to being a pragmatic ally of the West that serves as a bridge to the Middle East or will it pursue a new radical course that increasingly draws it into conflict with the countries around it?