x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Turkey's minister aims for 'zero problems'

Turkey's foreign minister put country on a more popular course.

ISTANBUL // Since he became Turkish foreign minister in May 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has had his share of ups and downs. As the driving force behind Turkey's ambitions to become a regional leader, he recently suffered setbacks when his country's mediation efforts with the regimes in Libya and Syria failed. Now, a fresh approach signals that Turkey is adapting to new realities in the region.

On Thursday, Mr Davutoglu flew into Abu Dhabi to take part in a meeting of the international Libya Contact group that is exploring ways for a transition from the rule of Col Muammar Qaddafi to a more democratic government. Before his departure, he told a television interviewer in Turkey that the next meeting of the group would be held in Turkey in July.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has signalled that Ankara will get tougher with the regime in Syria after parliamentary elections today. "Let us get the elections out of the way, and then we will look at the situation again and then we will talk with them in a whole different manner," Mr Erdogan, speaking in a television interview on Friday, said about the Syrians.

As for Libya, Mr Erdogan said Col Muammar Qaddafi had "no choice but to leave the country". Turkey had offered its help to find him a new country of residence but had not heard back from him, he said.

Mr Davutoglu's government recently allowed several hundred representatives of Syrian opposition groups to gather in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya for a conference that called on Bashar al Assad, the Syrian leader and a close partner of Turkey in recent years, to resign. Ali Babacan, a deputy prime minister in the Turkish government, confirmed that Ankara was talking to the Syrian opposition.

"The government is trying a new tack," said Semih Idiz, a foreign policy columnist with the Milliyet daily. "They are trying to build new bridges" to opposition groups and new governments in the region. Weeks of insisting on talking to embattled Middle East rulers in the name of stability may have cost the Turks some credibility, but they remained important players, Mr Idiz said. "What Turkey says is still important," he said.

Mr Davutoglu, 52, a former political science professor and adviser to Mr Erdogan, the prime minister, became foreign minister in 2009. Since then, he has given his country's foreign policy a new drive, with an approach that combines the aim of "zero problems" with all of Turkey's neighbours with a vision of Turkey as an independent player and regional power broker.

As an EU candidate country, a member of Nato, heir to the Ottoman empire and a Muslim democracy, Turkey has a special position in the region. Even so, Mr Davutoglu feels his country has not done enough to realise its potential.

"I see my nation as a giant that has to be woken up," he told a television interviewer recently.

In his first two years in office, Mr Davutoglu has overseen the conclusion of a ground-breaking agreement with Armenia, dramatic improvements in Turkey's relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as closer contacts with Greece. Not every step has been applauded by the West. The crisis in Turkey's relations with Israel and last year's Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian agreement designed to defuse the row surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme triggered concerns in Europe and the US that Turkey might be turning away from the West and towards the Islamic world.

Taken by surprise by the Arab Spring, Turkey called for the resignation of the now deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, but was much less outspoken on Libya and Syria. In Syria, Turkey's calls on the government to enact reforms have been ignored.

Ankara has now changed course, taking a tougher position towards authoritarian regimes in the region. Last month, Mr Erdogan publicly called on Col Qaddafi to step down and leave Libya.

He said the Libyan leader had rejected Turkish suggestions for a peaceful solution to the crisis and had chosen "blood, tears, oppression" instead. In a veiled warning to Syria, Mr Erdogan added Turkey did not want to see another "Hama", in a reference to a bloody crackdown of Syrian security forces on Sunni Muslims in the city of Hama in 1982.

In response to a warning by a Kurdish politician who said Turkey could turn into another Egypt or Syria if Kurdish demands for more rights were ignored, the prime minister said such a comparison was wrong. "For starters, there is no democracy there. One cannot establish a political party and go to elections," Mr Erdogan said. "They have an autocratic system. Turkey does not have an autocratic system, it has a democracy." With those statements, Mr Erdogan made it clear that Turkey was not siding with the old regimes in the Middle East, Mr Idiz of the Milliyet said.

Setbacks and course corrections notwithstanding, Turkey has gained much respect throughout the region in recent years.

In a poll published by the PEW Research Centre in Washington last week up to 78 per cent of people in countries like Egypt and Jordan expressed confidence in Mr Erdogan. Turkey as a country is also popular in the region, the poll showed.