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Ted Galen Carpenter - Turkey’s Resurgence: Implications for the Region
Turkey’s Resurgence: Implications for the Region
Date: 05/05/2013 : 23:07:52Views: 610

A crucial development over the past year is Turkey’s increasingly prominent role as a regional power. It is clear that Ankara’s economic, military and diplomatic influence is on the rise. Any doubt on that score disappeared when Israel issued an apology to Ankara for the incident in which Israeli forces attacked a relief flotilla going to Gaza—an episode that resulted in the deaths of several Turkish nationals.

The Israeli government, especially under the hardline leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not in the habit of apologizing to anyone. Washington’s pressure on Netanyahu to repair Israel’s crucial bilateral relationship with Turkey, which had become badly frayed in recent years, was certainly a factor in the decision to issue an apology. The Obama administration was disturbed by the chill that had developed between its two most important allies in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv had previously resisted U.S. requests to reach an accommodation with Ankara. What changed in early 2013 was the Netanyahu’s perception that Israel could no longer afford the continuing hostility emanating from an important power like Turkey.

Other trends have also been going Ankara’s way in recent months. Cyprus’s financial implosion significantly increased Turkey’s leverage regarding that territorial dispute, which has festered for more nearly four decades. Not only did it weaken the position of the Greek Cypriot government, but the financial mismanagement irritated Nicosia’s partners in the European Union. German and British officials openly speak of pressuring the Cypriot government to withdraw its opposition to a "reasonable” solution, similar to the abortive Annan Plan in 2004, to end the island’s political division. If the EU imposed a measure like the Annan Plan, it would be a major victory for Turkey, because it would allow Turkish occupation troops to remain in northern Cyprus, legitimize the continued presence of settlers that were brought in from the Turkish mainland, and probably require Nicosia’s concessions to Ankara regarding the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the waters near Cyprus.

The weakening of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has also strengthened Turkey’s regional position. Although the Erdogan government undoubtedly worries about the instability that the toppling of Assad might cause in Syria (and in such neighboring countries as Lebanon and Iraq), it also apparently has concluded that Assad’s collapse would remove a rival with whom Turkey has had a long history of tense relations. That cost-benefit calculation has led Ankara to support the rebel forces seeking to topple Assad. Not only has the Turkish government given a safe haven to the insurgent Free Syrian Army and its political arm, but Turkey has supplied the insurgents with financial aid and weapons. Although the Syrian military has launched some credible counter-attacks in recent weeks, the long-term prognosis for the Assad regime’s survival is not good. Even if it somehow survives, there will be major portions of Syrian territory, especially in the north near the border with Turkey, where its writ will no longer extend. That means that Ankara’s influence in northern Syria will be substantially greater in the future.

Finally, Turkey’s power and influence is on the rise because the country’s economy is perhaps the healthiest and most vibrant in the region. That, in turn, has led to the rapid growth of economic ties with neighbors, including Iraqi Kurdistan. The economic influence that flows from such links may be subtle, but it is no less real.

Turkey’s power and prestige is definitely on the rise. What is far less clear is whether Ankara will seek to be a constructive, stabilizing force in the region, or whether it will use its growing clout to achieve narrow, nationalistic goals. Washington has apparently overcome the doubts that it exhibited on that score from, roughly, 2003 to 2010, and is now backing Turkey’s status as a key regional player. It is a speculative, risky bet, given both Ankara’s previous behavior toward neighboring countries and the growing strength of hardline religious elements in the nation’s domestic politics. Like it or not, though, Turkey’s power and influence is an important and growing factor throughout the region.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international affairs. He is also a member of the editorial board of Mediterranean Quarterly.

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