Sunday, February 22, 2009

Turkey's shift toward Iran, Syria

Analysis Feb. THE JERUSALEM POST, 19, 2009, by JONATHAN SPYER*:

Last weekend, a conference held under the title "Gaza the victory" took place at hotel near Istanbul's Ataturk airport. The conference brought 200 Sunni clerics and activists together with senior, Damascus-based Hamas officials.

Closed meetings held after the main conference sessions focused on the creation of a "third jihadist front" against Israel - the first two being Iraq and Afghanistan, in the view of the conference delegates. The gathering was addressed by Muhammad Nazzal, a top Hamas official from Damascus.

In an echo of the attempts by Islamists across the Middle East to pressure Egypt during the recent Gaza operation, Nazzal called on regional governments to "open the borders and let the fighters through."

The gathering in Istanbul is significant for two reasons. First, it showcases the continued efforts by Islamist movements to present the Gaza events as a watershed dividing the path of "resistance," which they favor, from the path of "collaboration" that they accuse leading Arab states of following.

Second, and perhaps more important, the location of the conference is a further indication of the move of the Islamist AKP government in Turkey toward a more and more open alignment with anti-Western and anti-Israeli forces in the region.

The conference organizers themselves were aware of the significance of the event's location. One of them told a BBC journalist attending the event, "During the past 100 years relations [between Arabs and Turks] have been strained, but Palestine has brought us together."

Speakers at the conference made constant reference to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to storm off the stage in protest during a recent debate in Davos, Switzerland, on the Gaza operation.

The current Turkish government's willingness to engage with and host regional and Palestinian Islamist forces is not new. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal made a controversial trip to Ankara less than a month after Hamas's victory in Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Interestingly, Mashaal was asked to come directly by the AKP government, after the more secular-minded Turkish Foreign Ministry refused to extend an invitation to him.

At the time, some analysts sought to present the invitation to Mashaal as a one-off gesture without deeper significance for the Israeli-Turkish relationship. Subsequent events have disproved this interpretation.

Turkey's response to the Gaza offensive has highlighted a deep rift in relations. Erdogan in the course of the operation questioned Israel's UN membership. The atmosphere in Turkey during Operation Cast Lead became deeply charged against Israelis and Jews - with a number of ugly incidents recorded across the country. Erdogan attended the emergency summit in Doha on January 16 that was convened by Syria and Qatar to offer support to Hamas.

Turkey's courting of Hamas and hosting of Islamist gatherings form part of a more general regional policy pursued by the AKP government in Ankara. The AKP seeks to build Turkey's regional "strategic depth" - in its preferred phrase - by building up relations with Syria and Iran. This is presented as a desire to counter-balance, rather than replace, Ankara's already deep links with the West.

However, in the current situation of sharp polarization and cold war in the region, it is becoming increasingly unfeasible for countries to maintain close relations with both the US-led and the Iranian-led camps. The prospect of Turkey moving toward the Iranian-led alliance can no longer be dismissed as fanciful.

Turkish analysts have noted the rise of a "Muslim nationalist" orientation in the country, of which the political dominance of the AKP over the last half decade forms the political expression.

From this perspective, a regional policy which stresses alliances with other Muslim governments and movements across the region is a natural choice. Growing warmth in Turkey's relations with Iran and Syria, and the sympathy shown their key client organization Hamas last weekend in Istanbul are all elements of this emerging policy.

Of course, it is much too soon to write off the relationship between Turkey and Israel. There are powerful forces within the country which oppose the AKP's "strategic depth" orientation. Nevertheless, Turkey's position on recent events has brought great cheer to the Iranian-led camp, and is leading to corresponding new efforts at courtship from Teheran.

Senior Iranian officials praised Turkey's stance during the Gaza crisis, and called for a strategic alliance between the two countries. Yahya Safavi, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and now security adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said earlier this month that "Erdogan's... courageous words at the Davos summit against the war crimes of the Zionist regime... are evidence of the Islamic awakening among the Turkish people - a result of the influence of Iran's Islamic Revolution."

Majlis speaker and former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani visited Turkey during the Gaza crisis, holding closed talks with Erdogan. Following the meetings, both men called to enhance the already extensive economic links between Iran and Turkey.

Where is Turkey heading?

What can be said with certainty is that Ankara's long-maintained policy of equidistance between Israelis and Palestinians has been dispensed with by the current leadership. The AKP government is aligning itself not only with the Palestinians, but with Hamas. In the longer term, this may portend a slow shift toward greater alignment with the Iranian-led regional alliance. Such a shift, if it occurs, will be of primary significance to the strategic balance in the region.

(Translations of comments by Iranian officials by Memri.)

*Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, IDC, Herzliya. He will visit Australia as a guest of the Australia/Isrel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) in March 2009. Watch your local press for opportunities to hear him speak.
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