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Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations Organizes a Panel Discussion on “The Turkish Regional Role and its Implications on the Palestinian Issue”

The Turkish regional role has evolved controversially in the last two years, specifically with regards to the Palestinian issue and the Turkish-Israeli Relations. Although this change was visible through many events, its extent and significance has not yet been clearly identified. But according to Dr. Mohammad Noureddine, the expert in Turkish Politics and Diplomacy, “it is not until the internal Turkish scene is stabilized and arranged, that we will have ‘serious’ Turkish Foreign policy encounters; regardless of the existing sympathy among the Turkish masses and the Justice and Development party towards the Palestinian issue and rights.” Noureddine’s statement was one among many other significant ones regarding the above mentioned issue: “The Turkish Regional Role and its Implications on the Palestinian Issue”; that was the subject of the discussion panel held by al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations in Beirut, on 4/1/2010.

The panel was attended by a select of academics and intellectuals who are concerned with the Palestinian issue and the Turkish role, including besides Noureddine, Dr. Talal Atrissi, Hilmi Moussa, Saqr Abu-Fakher, Ahmad Khalifeh, Dr. Hussein Abu-n-Naml, and others.

    The discussion was organized in two sessions, the first focused on exchanging and analyzing the factual settings; and the second on the expected future scenarios and possible developments.

I. The Turkish Role: A Reading of the Present

 The first session started with the aim of reading the present situation regarding the Turkish role. Brigadier Dr. Amine Hoteit considered that this role is the result of interest-alignment among many sides; and had it not been the case, this role would not have evolved to be of such impact and concern. He added that to understand this role, we should understand the major factors behind it, most remarkably: the internal Turkish environment and the increasing Islamic awareness within, the decline of the Turkish interest in the West that has expressed clear enough that Turkey will not be accepted into the EU, and the Turkish pursuit of a strategic and central role. The latter pursuit has found its ideal opportunity in the Middle East, with the Palestinian issue being the key to the Middle East. The Western attempts at solving this conflict have withered, and many questions have been posed at the ability of the West to maintain its policies in the Middle East. Add to this the rise of Islamism in the region. For Turkey, it was the choice of riding the tide rather than be against it. Turkey wants a strategic role in the current critical “re-arrangement” stage in the Middle East. At this stage, every side is concerned with pursuing the most possible affluence to achieve its desired role. Turkey is betting on the Arab need for its role, at both the “moderate” and “refusal” fronts. Syria for example is looking for an ally, while the “moderate” Arab countries are looking for an Islamic state that could compete with the Iranian role. The United States also has been interested in preparing Turkey as a contingency unit for a new manner different from its previously planned role. Thus said, Hoteit concludes by assuring that for the mean time the Turkish role will continue to be an interplay of the above mentioned interests and factors.

     Adding to the above, Saqr Abu-Fakhr argued that the Turkish role has started to take shape since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David treaty (that effectively marked the withdrawal of Egypt from the Arab-Israeli conflict); in addition to the growing Iranian role after winning two wars that it didn’t actually fight (Iraq and Afghanistan), which led the United States to overlook the growing Turkish role. Abu-Fakhr noted that the Turkish role is essentially based on economics, where the Turks could possibly pressure others through the economy; or through the water issue, in the case of Iraq and Syria. In addition, Turkey is partly involved in the Sunni affairs in Iraq. 

     But Turkey is seeking diversity through its economic relations, according to Hilmi Moussa; who noted that the absence of leading Arab states has left a gap in the Arab world. This gap has furnished the way further for increased Turkish influence, that builds on the past Turkish experience and history.

     Ziad al-Hassan introduced his argument as the fruit of his experience of direct interaction and cooperation with the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Al-Hassan noted that the Turkish concept of regional foreign policy is non-conventional, in that the Turks have their own semi-developed concept of the “Turkish World.” “Turkey is looking for an alliance coalition similar to the former Soviet Union, extending from the Balkans to China,” according to al-Hassan; who added that Turkey already patronizes the Mufti-s (Sunni Religious Leaders) of the Caucasus region, and offers grants and scholarships for Caucasian students. While Turkey indeed held a conference for supporting Gaza, it has held three conferences, in the same period, to discuss the situation of the Uighur Muslims.

     In turn, Ahmad Ramadan considered that there are three major dimensions within the growing Turkish role: first, the issue of internal political stability within Turkey; second, improving its relations with neighbouring countries and solving the different conflictual issues of the past; third, the economic growth and development, where the economic factor has been a basic pillar in Turkish foreign relations. For Ramadan, Turkey satisfies an American and European interest: the United States wants a regional power to counterbalance Iran, while Europe wants Turkey a stable zone of separation from the “problematic” Middle East  region. Ramadan finally noted that Turkey could play a role in the Palestinian issue, and could possibly prevent Israel from waging a war or a large-scale aggression against Gaza Strip. But for that, he concluded, we need to have a more rigorous political analysis and vision to base our expected scenarios on.

     Dr. Talal Atrissi pointed out to the discussants the role of the Turkish Islamic background in adopting stances that support the Palestinian issue. According to Atrissi, the Turkish role has been visibly stronger after the fall of Iraq, in parallel to the Iranian growth. On the public level, the Turkish role has been visibly stronger only after the aggression on Gaza. Both Syria and Iran were ready to interact positively with Turkey, significantly more than other Arab countries. And on both the public and political levels, some conspiracies about the Turkish role are being promoted, especially with regards to Turkey versus Iran issue. With regards to the Palestinian issue, there is an “exaggerated hope,” according to Atrissi, in that the relations between Turkey, Israel and  the US would vastly decline; who added that he doesn’t foresee any serious opportunity for Turkey to pressure the West towards a different perspective in dealing with the Palestinian issue.

In this context, Waleed Muhammad Ali said that the American and European stances toward Turkey have developed, especially in the wake of the American administration’s failure in the Middle East. The United States and Europe have no interest currently in supporting any military coup in Turkey against the AKP. Muhammad Ali foresaw a number of challenges facing the Turkish role, including those imposed by the nature of the diverse Turkish neighbouring environments; internal challenges related to other Turkish Islamists, or to the military institution that is still controlling many aspects of the Turkish scene. He added that Turkey is currently in a transitional stage, with 60 security agreements with Israel in-effect; and this needs in-depth consideration. But the Zionist superiority tendency might eventually benefit in further developing the Turkish role, to be more in harmony with the needs of the region. The problem however remains in the weakness of the Arab world, that has no leading state and no vision of national security.

Eng. Abdullah Babitti commented that the success of the AKP party was two-folds; internal success that was clearly reflected through economic development, and in facing the military institution that became incapable of doing a coup, especially as the AKP party has taken on its behalf the pursuit of EU membership, and efforted seriously towards this end. On the external level, the AKP party has succeeded in winding up the conflictual issues with its neighbouring countries, without making an internal or external fuss about it.  Babitti assured the earlier mentioned point regarding the absence of a leading Arab state, which facilitated the growth of the regional Turkish role.

This role, as well as the Iranian role, is inherent in the region, as Tayseer al-Khatib put it. The Turkish and Iranian roles didn’t grow out of the vacuum, but rather to fulfill a deep regional need. They are not contradicting roles, and they can both continue to grow simultaneously. Regarding the Palestinian issue, al-Khatib said that the Turkish role indeed provided some support to the Palestinians, but the major support remains in Hizbullah and Iran. Al-Khatib called upon the Palestinians to arrange their internal affairs, to be better able to capitalize this regional support

II. The Turkish Role: Future Scenarios

The major contribution in this context was by Dr. Muhammad Noureddine, who said that the current priority of Turkey is re-establishing its civilizational and cultural depth, in parallel to promoting regional economic cooperation; in pursue of the vision that by 2023, its borders will be fully open to its neighbouring community. And this cannot be achieved by solely depending on the military power or religious mobilization.

     With regards to the Palestinian issue, Turkey is eventually bound to the ceiling of international resolutions. 

     Additional comments regarding future scenarios were made by each of Dr. Hoteit, Dr. Atrissi, Abu-Fakhr, Moussa, and Mahmoud Haidar.  

     The future scenarios mentioned by Dr. Hoteit, were essentially tied to other regional developments: either Turkey succeeds in maintaining a middle position between all key parties; or Turkey, Syria, and Iran establish a strategic regional coalition; or the Israeli and American pressures succeed in diametrically aligning Turkey and Iran as two opposite regional powers. The first scenario was for Hoteit the most likely.

Haidar considered that the Turkish role will stay limited to intermediation; while Dr. Atrissi added that this would be the maximum foreseeable achievement for Turkey’s regional role. “Expecting from Turkey more than support to the peace process, would be an exaggeration,” according to Atrissi, who suspended the possibility of witnessing profound changes because of the complex Turkish environment, and the Turkish strategy that gives priority to zero-sum games, seeking stable and peaceful internal and external relations.

Abu-Fakhr addressed the challenges facing the Turkish role in the region, most significantly: the possibility of clashing with Iran in some strategic interests; the internal challenges within Turkey; and the possible dissent with the United States, as Turkey opposes the presence of US naval forces in the Black Sea on the background of the US-Russian discord.

Hilmi Moussa noted the empathy of the Turkish public and officials with the Palestinian issue, but tipped off that Turkey will not go beyond the international legitimacy and the Arab initiative.

Finally, Dr. Noureddine remarked that the internal challenges will always be Turkey’s primary concern, i.e., establishing genuine secularism and full democracy. Until then, the AKP party will not embark upon serious foreign affairs ventures; no matter how the public sympathy with the Palestinian issue, or with the AKP party itself, increases.

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Beirut, 1/4/2010