Turkey has moved closer to its Middle Eastern neighbours recently, forming diplomatic and economic links that have led some to suggest it is trying to join an ‘Islamic bloc’ following the lukewarm response to its efforts to join the European Union. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davetoglu (the ‘Turkish Kissinger’) has instigated a policy of ‘zero problems with neighbours’ that works both ways, west and east. This has taken several forms – new trade links, strategic alliances, the lifting of visa requirements for countries such as Lebanon, a mediating role in the region, and even the mending of fences with old enemies Syria and Iraq. Add this to the breach between Turkey and Israel following the attack on Gaza and it would seem as though Turkey, for years trying to join the Europe club, is turning to face eastwards.
To view this as some kind of ‘Islamic bloc’, with Turkey abandoning the West and turning towards Iran and Syria, misrepresents Turkey’s aims. Firstly, as Hugh Pope points out in FP, securing markets in the Middle East is very much in Turkey’s economic interest – but building links to the east is hardly coming at the expense of links to the west. Half of Turkey’s trade is still with Europe, and the large Turkish diaspora in places like Germany and the UK mean that ties remain strong. Furthermore, the ascendancy of Turkey that has led to the strong position from where it can make these kind of deals and alliances stems in part from the changes made in the process of EU membership. ‘Turkey is not turning its back on the West,’ writes Pope. ‘It is rather that a more Westernized Turkey now feels strong and secure enough to take up new challenges and opportunities in the Middle East.’ Strategically speaking, Europe still remains hugely important for Turkey, with its NATO membership and relationship with (if not membership of) the EU still forming ‘pillars of Turkish policy’.
In short, the Arabist puts it quite well: ‘Turkey is following the policy of a normal confident state’. The usual tendency to view developments in the Middle East as following a narrative of ideology and dogma has obscured the more prosaic truth, which is that a resurgent Turkey is making practical changes in its foreign policy which will no doubt strengthen it further.