In an interview with the Italian newspaper the “Corriere della Serra” last week, US President Barack Obama rebuked the European Union [EU] on the basis that it’s refusal to accept Turkey’s membership has made it look for alliances outside of the West. Obama told the newspaper that the United States believes that “it would be wise for the EU to accept Turkey”.
Obama reiterated what US Defense Secretary Robert Gates previously pointed out, which is that the European snub [of Turkey] would play a role in the way the Turkish people view Europe, and in Turkey’s “orientation.” President Obama said that “if they do not feel themselves part of the European family, it is natural that they should end up looking elsewhere for alliances and affiliations.”
It is not hard to figure out what the US president means when he says “looking elsewhere for alliances and affiliations.” Washington views Turkey as an important ally and a country with many strengths, including its strategic position. This is why Washington wants Turkey in the Western camp, rather than directing its attention towards the other regional sphere, which is the Arab or Iranian sphere. Washington is also encouraging both Turkey and Israel to overcome the crisis between them and reconcile their deteriorating relations [to the point] prior to the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla.
The US is not alone in trying to drag Turkey away from the Middle East and its problems; some European parties have also begun to issue similar statements, calling for Ankara to be included within the European family. Italy’s Foreign Minister [Franco Frattini], for example, said that the EU “made a mistake in pushing Turkey eastwards instead of bringing them towards us.” For its part, Israel is trying to contain the crisis with Turkey and repair its relations after a number of figures in Israel came out to warn Netanyahu against losing the alliance with Ankara and allowing Turkey to fall “into the arms of the Arabs and Iran.”
On the opposing side, what has the Arab world done with regards to Turkey’s orientation towards the region?
Rather than capitalizing on the new Turkish role and welcoming the change in the Turkish policy, many figures have come out to raise doubts about Ankara’s orientation, and some have even begun to talk about attempts to reinstate the “Ottoman influence” as if the Arab world has not changed, and the wheel of history did not turn. It is as if any Turkish turnaround or movement towards being concerned with regional issues will mean the return of the “Ottoman Caliphate” and the imposition of Turkish hegemony.
Many people have said that Turkey is using the regional issues to serve its own interests and in order to send a message to the Europeans to the effect that “when you reject us, we will head eastwards, and in a manner that might not appeal to you.” However even if this is true, what is preventing us from benefiting from the current Turkish orientation where our [mutual] interests converge, for all international relations are based upon the principle of interests. Turkey is a country with its own interests, and it does not have to become an Arab State for us to accept its support of the Palestinian Cause, or Ankara undertaking a role to shed light upon the suffering of the besieged people of Gaza. We consider the Palestinian Cause to be principally an Arab and Islamic issue, so how can we today reject a country that is a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] – which is currently headed by Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanogly, a Turkish citizen born in Cairo – playing a role or taking action on this issue?
Some justify their misgivings towards the Turkish role by saying that Turkey has strong relations with Israel, that there is close cooperation between the two and that the current tension between the two parties is circumstantial. However this does not mean that the Arabs should set out to help Israel by snubbing Turkey, pushing it away and back into the arms of Israel. It is interesting that the Israelis are seeking to restore their close relations with Turkey despite the fact that they consider Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to be a most dangerous personality, and they are vigorously attacking him accusing him of inciting hatred. Should we join them in attacking this man and questioning his motives for walking out of the Davos World Economic Forum conference following his clash with Israeli President Shimon Peres? Should we question his motives for triggering a crisis with Netanyahu’s government following the Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla?
The suspicions in some Arab circles over the recent Turkish movement, and their belief that this represents an attempt to dominate [the region] seems to be something of an over-exaggeration, because Turkey – even if it turned southwards – would not abandon its dream of joining the EU, and this is something that places a lot of restrictions upon Ankara’s movements, and even upon the movements of the ruling Justice and Development party, ensuring that it does not go too far in its regional relations, whether this is with states or organizations. This is something that Obama sees clearly, and this is why he is calling for the Europeans to assimilate Turkey, rather than allowing Turkey to move away. The Israelis are also aware of this, and this is why they are seeking western support in restoring their relations with Ankara.
It is in the Arab’s best interests to capitalize on the current inclination of Turkey’s [foreign] policy and its interest in engaging in regional issues, rather than showering Ankara with criticism and slamming the door in its face by questioning all of its steps, driving it to search for friends elsewhere. Turkey remains an important country, and its interest in developing its Arab relations helps to restore balance in the region as well as benefits Arab issues. There are many points of convergence and mutual interest that can be strengthened, but the problem is in our over-sensitivity, and our excessive fear even towards those who extend their hands in support of our issues.