Shifting sands within Middle Eastern alliance system

A while ago, I wrote about the mood changes in the Middle East, specifically the re-emergence of Turkey as a regional power.  Now in face of drama between Gaza and Israel, Americans and Europeans woke up to an angry Turkey.  Both are taken aback, albeit in different ways.

Americans suddenly realized their strategic partnership with Turkey is rapidly eroded by a more self-serving, assertive, and ambitious Turkish state.  Amazing what can happen in less than a decade while you are busy digging yourself out of two messy wars, no?

It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors — especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.

Monday’s events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara’s security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.

The stark reality is that while Turkey and the United States are not enemies in the Middle East, they are fast becoming competitors. Whereas the United States seeks to remain the predominant power in the region and, as such, wants to maintain a political order that makes it easier for Washington to achieve its goals, Turkey clearly sees things differently. The Turks are willing to bend the regional rules of the game to serve Ankara’s own interests. If the resulting policies serve U.S. goals at the same time, good. If not, so be it.

Europe, on the other hand, has little in common with the America’s strategic concerns in the region when it comes to its Islamic cousin.  Its point of reference is driven solely by its own narrow experience with the somewhat backwards (real or perceived) Turkish diaspora in Europe, and memories of Turkey’s desperate attempt to enter the Eurozone a few years ago.

Thus, despite its own complete and utter distain for Israel’s human rights violations (as a side note, Sweden’s most successfully and living crime writer Henning Mankell was on that ship, and mused alarmingly on the possibility of an Israeli atomic bomb), Europe is nonetheless horrified by Turkey’s more, visceral, reaction.

Writing for a Brussels audience, though, another more immediate thought occurs to me. This is yet another piece of bad news for those (like this newspaper) who believe that the EU’s ambition should be the admission of Turkey to the EU. True, the EU consensus is critical of Israel’s actions. And so the EU consensus, logically, is not a million miles away from the angry reaction of the Turkish government to the killing of activists aboard the Gaza flotilla. But emotionally, as a gut instinct, I have a feeling that lots of Europeans woke this morning to pictures of Turkish demonstrators in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, chanting “death to Israel” and “God is Great”, and thought: whoa, that really does not look like a European country.

Demonstrating its cluelessness with regards to the shift in Turkish political orientation, newspapers across Europe have little more than scathing criticisms for the Turks.  Little does the continent seem to have any appreciation for just how much its stock has dropped since the heydays of the naughties.

Italy: “[T]his is not the beginning but rather the climax of a negative development that has been going on for some time in Ankara’s relations not only with its neighbour Israel but also with the West as a whole. The deadly incident in international waters has triggered a major shift, a geopolitical cataclysm: the breaking away from the Atlantic alliance zone of a country which with 80 million citizens … was a Nato bulwark for decades . … We are facing a profound crisis in the once solid and fruitful relations between Turkey and the West.”

Spain: “It’s true that Turkey is a large country with an imperial past that can’t be ignored. As an independent nation it has every right to choose its priorities in foreign policy, but as an aspirer to join the European family it should not ignore that there are certain values and interests it cannot afford to neglect. If its objective is to become a regional power in line with its Ottoman past it will have to decide which of its two essences it prefers: being oriented towards Europe or towards the past.”

And from Germany:

Turkey has been a NATO member for almost 60 years. As an ally in the Western defense alliance, Turkey has a peace obligation. Recent Turkish diplomacy has succeeded in smoothing the tensions between Iran and the West and mediating between Syria and Israel while remaining credible in the process. But with this week’s incident, Turkey has reduced itself to just another member of the anti-Israel front in the Middle East. At the very least, Turkey’s credibility regarding future mediation is put in doubt.

Poor Europe. If I have to guess, Turkey is now quietly toasting its good luck in escaping the deathtrap that is the EU, and plotting its next move and asserting its long-dormant ambitions around its peripheral regions.

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