on the silk road


Gaza a Tool for Turkey’s Great Game in Middle East

Prime Minister Erdogan gets a heroes welcome at the Istanbul Ataturk airport.

BY ALLEN YEKIKAN

For some time now, Turkey has been posturing for a more influential role in the geopolitics of its region, step by step working to recreate the Ottoman Legacy by mediating conflicts in the Middle East and establishing footholds in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

To advance its image among the Arab world and carve for itself a new and larger role in the region, Turkey has taken up the mantle of the Palestinian Cause, damning Israel at every turn for its human rights violations in Gaza.

Until recently Turkey had, by and large, tried to portray itself as a neutral arbiter of peace between Israel and Hamas, ostensibly working for the interests of regional stability. Lately, however, Turkey has taken a sharp turn from its previous position, accusing Israel of war crimes and using it to bolster its already strong diplomatic position in the region.

The latest and harshest jab at Israel’s dismal human right’s record by Turkey came Thursday when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed at the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, during a televised panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Erodgan blasted the Israeli President with a lengthy and prepared condemnation for his government’s inhumanity.

“I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think that it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian,” Erdogan said, responding to a lengthy monologue by Peres defending Israel’s operations in Gaza. “You know very well how to kill people.”

Erdogan’s harsh criticism at Davos follows weeks of similar denunciations in which he has accused Israel of “savagery”  and “crimes against humanity.” Many analysts are predicting Erdogan’s verbal jabs have strained relations between Turkey and Israel, two countries who have close diplomatic and military ties and a long history of working together to lobby the US government against recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Sure enough, the influential American Jewish Committee slammed Erdogan on Friday for his remarks, saying his behavior was “a public disgrace that may well encourage further outrages against Israel and Jews.”

Earlier, on January 23, five major Jewish organizations called on the Turkish prime minister to “urgently address” the wave of anti-Semitism in his country manifesting through anti-israel protests. The organizations warned that Turkey’s recent condemnation of Israel will make it difficult to continue supporting Turkey’s attempts to prevent US recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the US congress.

But while some analysts predict that Turkey may have torpedoed its strategic alliance with Israel and thus the west, as well as burned its bridges with its allies in the Israeli Lobby, others see Turkey’s geopolitical position as having actually benefited from its harsh criticism of Israel.

“Turkey’s international profile has risen as a result of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Israel in the wake of the conflict in Gaza,” said Stratfor, a Texas based Private Intelligence agency. “Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party are making use of the Gaza crisis to further their goals of reasserting Turkey’s leadership of the Arab Middle East, and of the wider Muslim world.”

With a seat on the UN Security and a lock on the regions energy supply, Turkey is begining to weild the same crafty politics that built the Ottoman Empire, using the shrewed diplomacy of the Sultans to exploit the vacuum being left in the region by the slowly departing US Army.

On the international level, Erdogan’s condemnation of Israel may harm Turkish foreign policy positions, but in the streets of the Arab world Erdogan is becoming a ‘new Nasser’,” The Jamestown analysis noted, adding that a Turkish TV channel has reported Palestinians are planning to organize rallies after Friday prayers to show their appreciation for Erdogan’s comments.

According to Stratfor, Erdogan is “gaining tremendous respect and appreciation” in the Arab world for his recent condemnations of Israel, especially “at a time when the Arab masses perceive their leaders as either actively supporting Israel or at least doing nothing to stop it.”

With its continued survival dependent on Muslim divisivness, Israel would not be keen on having to deal with a Middle East united behind Turkey against Israel.  Peres was quick to nip any speculation Friday that Turkish-Israeli relations had tanked, saying that Turkey is an ally and that the public argument with Erdogan at the World Economic Forum will neither affect the relationship between Israel and Turkey nor between Peres and Erdogan, The Associated Press reported.

Aside from the diplomatic gambit this move may have given Turkey in its dealings with the regional players, Erdogan seems to also have benefited domestically as well, arriving in Turkey Friday to a hero’s welcome from thousands of Turks gathered at Istanbul’s Atatruk Airport waving Palestinian and Turkish flags while chanting slogans in support of the prime minister. Banners proclaimed Erdogan the “delegate of the oppressed.”  The passions, the New York Times reported Friday, reflected widespread anger about the Gaza war spreading throughoutTurkey, a secular nation whose population is mostly Muslim.

“I only know that I’m responsible for protecting the honor of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation from A to Z,” Erdogan was quoted by the Times as saying as he returned to Istanbul in the early hours of Friday. “I am not a leader of a tribe. I am the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. I do whatever I need to, so I did it, and will continue to do so. This is my character. This is my identity.”

Where Turkish-Israeli relations will go from here is unknown, according to the Jamestown Foundation, which said Friday that Erdogan’s risky move in Davos has made him a hero to Turkey’s masses, assuring him “victory in the municipal elections in March.”

According to Hurriyet, it has been revealed that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to arrive in Turkey on Feb. 7 at Ankara’s request. No further details have been made clear.

Turkey occupies some of the most valuable real estate on the planet, according to Stratfor. “It sits astride the land routes connecting Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East–not to mention the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,” a January 30 report by the intelligence agency said. “It is the only country in the world that is positioned to project influence readily into all of these regions.”

“Any time in human history that the Anatolian Peninsula has not been a leading force in geopolitics has been an aberration,” Stratfor aptly noted in its analysis. “And although the direction of its movement remains up for debate, Turkey–after more than 90 years of quiescence–is moving again.”

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