Turkey looks to punch above its weight

By Daniel Dombey-Ft.com/

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s entourage brawled with UN staff last week, it was almost as if it was physically enacting the Turkish prime minister’s confrontational approach to diplomacy.After all, Mr Erdogan has spent recent weeks locking horns with Israel, sparring with Cyprus and making noises about sending troops across the border into Iraq.

At the same time, his government has alienated Iran, broken with Syria and annoyed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.With all due respect to the UN guard hospitalised for barring Mr Erdogan’s way, the fisticuffs in Manhattan were much less important than such global events.

But they were still in keeping with the country’s new philosophy of diplomacy, which seems designed to make Turkey irritating but indispensable, an independent-minded country that can make a big difference in the Middle East and beyond.

Listen to Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s normally softly-spoken president, who usually provides the counterpoint to the more confrontational Mr Erdogan.

After nine long years of knocking on the European Union’s door – mostly fruitlessly – Mr Gul has concluded that only by annoying its interlocutors can Turkey get what it wants. “I have intentionally and consciously adopted this tone,” he said last week on a trip to Germany. “Because I know that the more you assume a humble attitude, the more they treat you like that. You need to irritate them a bit.”

Similarly, Mr Erdogan has made it his mission not to be taken for granted, vowing a beefed-up naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to send a message to Cyprus, Turkey’s old adversary, and Israel, the former ally with which Ankara is now at odds.

Such gestures – together with Turkey’s threatened move against the northern Iraqi redoubt of Kurdish militants – may smack of hot-headedness and hubris, but there is a plan there too.

With the Middle East in flux and much of the west in disarray, Turkey wants to carve out an identity as more than a mere US ally – as a country not to be pushed around.

After early mis-steps, Ankara has shifted from its old policy of “zero problems with neighbours” – which in practice often meant zero problems with neighbouring authoritarian regimes – to proclaiming its wholehearted support for the protesters of the Arab spring.

In a newspaper article last week, Ibrahim Kalin, Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser, argued that the Turkish prime minister was “almost an idol for the Arab masses because he takes them seriously, speaks their language and stands up for justice on a global scale”.

Such language, and such ambitions, may well be overdone. Turkey, as western diplomats and even some Turks argue, could be overplaying its hand.

But there is another less told story to tell as well. Turkey has been doing plenty to curry favour with Washington of late.

It has signed up to host a Nato radar base intended to counter Iranian missiles, a step that could well outstrip the importance of the sabre-rattling with Israel.

It was not a move Washington was certain Ankara would make, not least because Mr Erdogan has sought to cultivate relations with the Islamic Republic. But now Turkey has done what the US wants and Tehran is furious.

Similarly, Mr Erdogan has shifted stance on Syria in the past week, declaring his willingness to impose sanctions on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That also came as music to Washington’s ears.

So too did his call for a Turkish-style secular system of government in Egypt, which drew criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Such factors underline not just Turkey’s value for the rest of the west, but what Turkish officials see as its indispensability.

Of course, much could go wrong. A confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean could be disastrous for Ankara and there are few happy precedents for a troop incursion into Iraq. Missile defence against Iran and sanctions against Syria could be equally ineffective. Inflamed by Turkey’s tough line on Israel, the US Congress could object to plans to use Predator drones to counter the Kurdish militants of the PKK.

Like his security retinue at the UN, Mr Erdogan is never afraid of a test of strength, however. He is a formidable mix: a leader who can accommodate his allies despite his fierce rhetoric, a brawler with a grand strategy.

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