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New major player in Middle East? 26 février 2012

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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Voice of Russia, Feb 26, 2012

Kudashkina Ekaterina

Interview with Tom Wheeler – former South African Ambassador to Turkey and currently a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

How important do you think this kind of visit could be?

I think it is important, obviously China is playing a much bigger role in the world, now it is moving to a new leadership. And also Turkey itself is a major player, it’s now the sixteenth largest economy in the world very strategically located between Europe and Asia and between the north and the countries of Africa, so, it is a very strategically located country. It’s a member of the G20 and I would think that China would want to be in a good relationship with Turkey to the extent that is possible probably concentrating on economic matters.

Do you think we could expand a little bit on what could be the common grounds for the cooperation between powers as distant as Turkey and China? Turkey is NATO member, it’s a Muslim country, it has Uighur community in its territory and China is a little bit different.

Well, I think that Turkey has a policy of outreach at the moment. It has been really active in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America using all its methods of soft power. And I’m sure that they would appreciate, would want better relations with China in spite of the differences that might be between them. It is very much an economic relationship at this stage, and also nuclear power stations and airline connections and tourism and in the whole range of areas whereas I think from the Chinese side the new leadership is also expanding their horizons to make their impact on the world greater. We even heard, it’s said that Turkey had aspirations to become member of the BRICK for instance, you know, they thought they are qualified for that sort of grouping. So, they are an emerging economy, an emerging power and I think it’s mutual recognition of the importance of each other.

You said that Turkey was exercising soft power but their stance on Syria does not seem to be exactly soft, does it?

Well, I think that this of course is very close to run, this is a somewhat different issue than just expanding in the world. They have a very, very long frontier with Syria, something like 800 kilometers straight-line on a map and very open in a sense that’s just the Northern Mesopotamia, so it’s very easy to cross that border and of course they are being faced with the influx of refugees across that border as well.

And I think that they are probably very disappointed because they were acting as a facilitator of improving relations between Syria and Israel for instance and all that thing just collapsed as a result of a number of factors but particularly of what is happening in that country now. So, I think they feel very close to themselves – a serious problem which they I think would prefer to disappear, to be dealt with even if it takes a little bit of a harder approach than the softer approach we were talking about.

Do I get it right that the general expert community understanding is that – if Mr. Assad is to go – that does not actually mean that the violence in Syria stops altogether, more over it could develop into a civil war? So, why would Turkey want this kind of development in its borders?

It’s a very mute point because there is no obvious successor and Syria itself is a very fragmented society with many religious groups, it’s not a homogeneous country by any means. And it’s certainly a very difficult problem to deal with what would happen if Assad went. I think the resolution that was proposed in the UN Security Council and also again in the General Assembly of the UN was Assad should go and hand over the power to his deputy. I think that is probably the best solution they could come up with.

Doesn’t the situation in Syria resemble in a way a situation in Yemen? We have seen Saleh go and more violence to accompany that.

Well, the Yemen problems seems to have been solved when eventually there was the election and the President went on, his deputy was elected to replace him. You know, I think we’ve seen that the whole idea of the Arab Spring has not worked out as many people expected that this is going to be some marvelous thing that happened. And these things are a process they are not the event and I think that’s the one thing that one has to understand.

If we move along the Turkish border, what has been the relationship with Iran because at one moment it seems that the two countries were becoming closer?

I think they are old competitors, they have a common border and have been active at border, in the very far eastern Turkey at the mount Ararat. So, they have a common border but they have a very different philosophy. Iran is a theocratic state, Turkey is a secular state, even though it has an Islamist government and a Sunni government whereas Iran has a Shia government. So, there are all areas of tension.

Again I think Turkey tries to play a useful role together with Brazil on a question of Iranian nuclear activities but didn’t receive much support for that. And the way that the Iranians have been playing this game gives them very little credibility either, you know, they invite International Atomic Energy Agency there and then when they wanted to do an inspection they were not allowed in. So, it created the impression that they do really have something to hide and of course they are right next to Turkey. So, it is sort of a relationship that they can’t avoid because they are so close but at the same time their perspectives on the world are rather different.

In this difficult situation like we have just described how would Turkey go on with expanding its regional role? What is going to be their strategy?

I think they are probably using their economic strength to influence events there involved in rebuilding in Iraq, they are exporters of oil for Iraq. There are many things they can do in spite of the negativity around them. And I don’t think when you have a second largest army in NATO and one of the largest armies in the world they are not a country to be just cast aside, they have got not only soft power, which they prefer to use, but also a hard power if it were to come to that, but I hope that never happen.

Thank you very much. And just to remind you this time our guest speaker was Tom Wheeler – former South African Ambassador to Turkey and currently a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Download the interview (MP3)

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