x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Trouble at home, but Turkey gains strength abroad

Politics in Turkey can be puzzling at the best of times, but the term "byzantine" has never been more appropriate in describing what is happening than now

Politics in Turkey can be puzzling at the best of times, but the term "byzantine" has never been more appropriate in describing what is happening than now. This week the state prosecutor is attempting to have the ruling party banned and the prime minister and president disbarred from political life and possibly jailed. The chief opposition party, meanwhile, is claiming it is being persecuted by the government.

The critical issue is secularism, or in the case of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the alleged lack of it. The AKP has been charged with sabotaging the country's secularist foundation, despite the protestations of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that his party is a moderate Muslim organisation that adheres to the republic's democratic principles. And though the military, prone to violent coups in the past, has been uncharacteristically well-behaved, the arrest of former officials this week accused of plotting a coup against the AKP could not have been more incendiary nor set a more pointed message to those opposed to the government..

Yet while Turkey's domestic politics are in turmoil over the issue of secularism, the AKP administration has dramatically raised the country's profile abroad, thanks largely to its image as a pragmatic, moderate Muslim government. For the first time in many decades, Turkey is now a strong regional power with friends spread equally East, West and South. It is a marked departure from Turkey's previous position, distancing itself from its Middle Eastern neighbours and concentrating on its relationship with Europe.

While Turkey, thanks to its geographic position at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, has always been a major conduit between competing powers, religions, interests, and resources, the difference now is a determined attempt to make Turkey an indispensable "player". A large part of this strategy hinges on Turkey playing an active role in the Middle East. Since 2002, the country has engaged so much with its close neighbours that Avi Primor, Israel's former ambassador to the European Union, even suggested that Turkish troops could be sent to Palestine as peacekeepers if a West Bank withdrawal occurs.

Gabby Levy, the current Israeli ambassador to Turkey, feels the same with regard to Turkey's shuttle diplomacy in the recent Syria/Israel negotiations. Turkey became the diplomatic back-channel between Damascus and Tel Aviv after the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, paid a visit to Turkey in 2007. Asked why Turkey was chosen as the intermediary, Levy, who was born and raised in Turkey, explained that the country was regarded as having a "special status" as an "influence in the Muslim world and in the region". Syria also regards Turkey in this light; a senior AKP official said that many in Syria consider Erdogan "a Muslim leader who gets things done".

Iran, too, has felt the full force of Strategic Depth, as the AKP's foreign policy is called. In the past, Tehran's support for the militant Kurdish PKK party kept Ankara at arm's length. But now Iran is collaborating with Turkey on dismantling the PKK in northern Iraq and Iran, and also on energy deals. The US is still chafing at a $3.5 billion deal between Ankara and Tehran finalised last month, in which Turkey will develop Iran's South Pars gas fields.

Turkey has also sought to further consolidate its regional power by creating strong Middle East trading partners. Erdogan's visit to the UAE in 2005 called for a $6 billion increase in trade, and results have been profitable; among other deals, the giant Dubai-based developer Emaar is currently overseeing a multi-billion dollar project in Istanbul. Turkey and Qatar have also been busy investing in each other's growing markets.

"Today, the Middle East is like a magnet and Turkey should take advantage," said Ayhan Saroglu, deputy general manager of the construction firm Tekfen Qatar, in a recent Turkish Daily News article. "There is no need to fear investments from the Middle East. In today's global market, everyone is investing everywhere." Not all Turks, though, are enamoured of the new trade deals. The AKP's anti-Islamist critics see its connections with Saudi Arabia as being particularly sinister, claiming that the kingdom has donated generously to the party and maintains strong ties with it leaders.

Some analysts see Strategic Depth as a kind of "displacement activity" designed to divert attention both from the party's domestic troubles and the likely blocking of its bid to join the EU. Others, though, suggest that its diplomatic links to its Middle Eastern neighbours could give it added leverage for its accession bid. Hugh Pope, of the International Crisis Group, says: "Turkey's involvement with the Middle East is not an alternative to integration with Europe, but a result of its success with Europe. It is seen by Arab countries as respectable, as a country that is able to get things done."

Turkey's foreign policy could even be viewed as a failsafe means of preserving its status, no matter what happens with the EU: if it is accepted, everyone will be happy; if it fails, it would still be a dominant regional player, courted as much by its neighbours as by the global powers. As the constitutional court in Ankara prepares now to hear the AKP's defence, it won't be just Turks concerned about the outcome. Foreign ministries throughout the region will be anxious to know if the government will survive and Strategic Depth continue.