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Turkish Clout In Middle East At Low Point 3 novembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Wall Street Journal Europe (USA) November 3, 2014, p. 10

By Yaroslav Trofimov, Istanbul

Not so long ago, a confident Turkey behaved as a natural leader of the Middle East, with friendly Islamist regimes mushrooming amid the rubble of the Arab Spring and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, mobbed by adulating crowds whenever he stepped on Arab soil.

Now, just when the U.S. needs Turkey’s help most against the surge of Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and beyond, Ankara’s regional influence has sunk to a low point.

Ambitious policies that overestimated the pull of political Islam — and misjudged the resilience of the Middle East’s old political order — have alienated Turkey from much of the region. With the exception of Iraqi Kurds, hardly any government in the Middle East is on good terms with Ankara nowadays.

« We came from a policy of having zero problems with our neighbors, and now we’re having problems with almost everyone, » said Umit Pamir, a retired diplomat who served as Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Greece.

Turkey’s relations with regional powerhouses Egypt and Israel are so bad that Ankara doesn’t have ambassadors in either country. Its insistence on regime change in Syria means chilly ties with Iran.

The Shiite-led government in Baghdad is wary of Turkey’s reach into Iraqi Kurdistan, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are upset with Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s designs on the region.

Even maverick Qatar, which used to enable Turkey’s foreign-policy ambitions, has moved closer to the rest of the Gulf.

Instead of becoming a leader showing the Middle East the way to democracy and prosperity, Turkey is struggling to cope with the spillover of the region’s problems — from Islamist militancy to sectarian strife to deadly street violence.

Turkish officials stress that they have taken in some two million Syrian refugees at a cost of billions of dollars. They argue the massacres perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — coupled with Western unwillingness to act against him — have fueled the rise of Islamic State and have forced Turkey to press for regime change in Damascus.

But Mr. Erdogan’s risky bet on a quick downfall of the Syrian regime has left Ankara with limited options now that Mr. Assad has proved resilient. Turkey is increasingly at odds with the U.S. as it builds a coalition to tackle Islamic State instead — a project that includes helping Kurdish factions long seen as foes by Turkey.

« Traditionally, Turkish foreign policy has been noninterventionist, cautious, status-quo-oriented. Adopting a policy of regime change vis-a-vis one of its neighbors — that was a sudden departure, » said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who is now a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and runs the Edam think tank in Istanbul.

Turkey’s shrinking regional clout was reflected in its failure to win a United Nations Security Council seat this month. While Turkey sailed into the Security Council with votes from 151 nations in 2008, this time — despite confident predictions of victory by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu — it garnered only 60 votes and was trounced by Spain, in part because of lobbying by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

There are no indications, so far, that Turkey is rethinking its regional approach.

« What kind of mistakes are we suddenly expected to confess? Turkey’s mistake is that it is a democracy, if it is a mistake. Turkey’s mistake is that it stands for human rights, if it is a mistake, » said Yasin Aktay, deputy chairman in charge of foreign relations at Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. « Nobody can isolate Turkey. But we are now surrounded by nondemocratic processes in the region, and this is making the region very dangerous, and not just for Turkey. »

Compounding the damage to Turkey’s influence abroad, however, is that its own democracy no longer looks as appealing as before. The crackdown on demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, moves to censor the Internet, and Mr. Erdogan’s insistence on shielding his associates from corruption investigations have all dented Turkey’s image in the region.

« Turkey was a model of sorts for a while, but the years after the Arab Spring have completely shattered that image of Turkey, » said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University. « First of all, Turkey has taken a side, the side of Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, Erdogan is acting as a dictator of sorts, cracking down on freedoms and demonstrators. The liberals of the Arab world no longer take Turkey as a model. »

Of course, with a modern economy, NATO’s second-largest army, and strategic position Turkey still remains a crucial power.

« They are influential and important, and what they say will always matter to the United States, » said Francis Ricciardone, vice president of the Atlantic Council in Washington who served until earlier this year as the American ambassador in Ankara. « They were not alone in making wrong guesses along the way, » he added.

In any case, support among the Middle East’s peoples, not its governments, is what really counts, Turkish officials say.

« For Turkey, the Middle East is very important, and it is also very important that the Middle East becomes democratic. Our hope is remaining, » said Osman Can, a senior official focusing on democracy issues for the AKP party. « We can establish good relations with the peoples, not the regimes, of the Middle East. »

As it happens, Turkey’s initial opening to the region, in 2009, made a lot of sense — and was welcomed by the U.S. By lifting visa requirements on citizens of most of the region’s countries, Turkey became the Middle East’s tourism and shopping hub, with everything from construction contracts to a regionwide obsession with Turkish soap operas following the flourishing of people-to-people ties. Mr. Davutoglu, as foreign minister at the time, was the architect of that outreach.

To some Turkish analysts, the first warning sign came in 2009, when current President Erdogan — then prime minister — was given a hero’s welcome after he returned home from the Davos summit in Switzerland. There, Mr. Erdogan had publicly insulted the Israeli president, triggering a policy shift that eventually killed a close security relationship.

« Israel-bashing worked so well politically that foreign policy became a way of accumulating political capital. And now they are trapped by that, » said Soli Ozel, a Turkish columnist who teaches international relations at Kadir Has University.

In 2011, as Arab regimes started collapsing, Turkey became a vocal ally of the Islamist parties vying for power. It was a natural choice: Mr. Erdogan was himself once jailed for delivering an Islamist poem, and his AKP party has long struggled to establish the supremacy of democratic institutions over the country’s military and security establishment.

It all seemed to go in the right direction. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi became president in Egypt in 2012.

The Islamist Ennahda party dominated the new government in Tunisia. Brotherhood-led politicians made advances in Yemen and Libya, and — most important — rebels, many of them with Muslim Brotherhood links, seemed close to toppling the Syrian regime.

Turkey, believing that the current Arab state order was doomed, increasingly adopted the policy of speaking above the heads of Arab leaders, straight to the « Arab street. »

Turkey’s passionate backing for the Muslim Brotherhood and its refusal to recognize Egypt’s new leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, has left Ankara with next to no influence in the pivotal Arab nation.

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