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Turkey's aimless foreign policy strains ties

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Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, right, will replace current President Abdullah Gul, left, at the end of August.   © Reuters

ISTANBUL -- Turkey prides itself on being the Middle East's lone Islamic democracy and aspires to regional hegemony. But the NATO member and crossroads between Europe and the Mideast has fallen out with its neighbors, partly because it has misread the events unfolding around it.

     Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister and president-elect, appears eager for a more vigorous foreign policy. But he will need to rebuild some bridges first.

    U.S. President Barack Obama phoned Erdogan on Tuesday to congratulate him on becoming Turkey's first directly elected president. They "agreed on the importance of close cooperation on Syria and Iraq and the terrorist threat emanating from the region," according to a White House statement.

     But gone are the days when Erdogan used to be "No. 2 on Obama's speed dial," Mideast expert Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was quoted as saying to The Daily Caller, a U.S. news website.

     Far from serving as a deterrent against Islamist radicals in Syria and Iraq, Turkey has in effect contributed to their rise. Militants bent on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have moved unchecked across the border from refugee camps in Turkey, as have weapons. The U.S. designated the Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel outfit affiliated with al-Qaida, as a terrorist organization back in 2012; it took Turkey until this past June to follow suit.

     In the meantime, other extremist groups have exploded onto the scene, notably Islamic State, which is wreaking havoc in Iraq. Around 50 Turkish consulate workers were taken hostage in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June. Turkey's handling of the civil war in Syria typifies the aimlessness of its foreign policy.

     Ankara's relationship with Cairo has been fraught with discord since Egyptian armed forces chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a coup last summer against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Turkey has supported. Since becoming president himself in May, Sisi has faced withering Turkish criticism. Turkey and Egypt have expelled each other's ambassadors. Their row stands in stark contrast to Western efforts to make nice with Sisi's government. Turkish envoys are also conspicuously absent from Syria and Israel.

     Turkey has paid a price for this feuding. Its relations with the Persian Gulf states that back Egypt have cooled. Case in point: Abu Dhabi National Energy backed out of plans to invest $12 billion in coal-fired power plants in southeastern Turkey.

     "We cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of people in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other places," insists Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's senior foreign policy adviser.

     Turkey faces a wide gap between its foreign policy ambitions and its ability to achieve them, says Turkish commentator Soli Ozel, adding that Ankara has neglected the pursuit of pragmatism.

     Some accuse Erdogan of creating phantom foreign enemies to shore up his domestic support. Such witch hunts need not be confined to the Middle East. The prime minister has turned on critical Western media, likening U.S. cable news network CNN's reporters to "spies." Murat Yetkin, a Turkish columnist, predicts more adventurism ahead in Erdogan's foreign policy.

     Erdogan's high-handed tendencies have not gone unnoticed in the West. Der Spiegel, a German magazine, asked whether his actions signal the birth of a "dictator." Erdogan did not help his image by revealing in a television interview in June that he looked to China and Russia as models for a new Turkish presidential system.

 

 

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