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Is Turkey spearheading a new Middle East foreign policy?

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BY Ceylan Ozbudak

The question in many Arab capitals these days is: What is Turkey’s strategy in today’s Middle East? An ever-changing region, Turkey has adapted fastest to regional changes. Since the beginning of March, Turkey has been sending clear messages about its new foreign policy path. President Erdoğan visited Saudi Arabia and Tehran and multiple AKP members, sending strong indications of warming ties with Israel at the same time. Can Turkey take on such crucial role – mediating between the region’s rivals?

During the decades of Middle East mayhem, I believe Turkey has managed to steer clear from the region’s major tensions, managing to compartmentalize its relations with neighbors who can’t seem to get on with each other.

Starting from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-Israel pan-Arab uprising, Turkey had established better ties with Israel. During the Syrian civil war, Turkey reached its best relations with Iran despite taking an opposing side in the proxy war. Who else has managed to live in this neighborhood and maintain close relations with both Tehran and Israel while staying close to Saudi Arabia at the same time?

Those who’ve worked with Turks know how fast we handle business when bypassing the bureaucracy. Turkey has provided the humanitarian aid it has been asked for. Ask for bridges, airports, hospitals, pipelines and Turks will finish construction in the blink of an eye. Don’t think we are only fast in construction; Turks can be fast with diplomacy, too.

Maintaining peace

It is no secret that Turkey’s relations with Israel went sour in 2010 after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident. While the ties in trade and tourism skyrocketed after 2010, diplomatic relations could not get back on a warmer track. However, lately Turkey has been sending positive messages to Israel for a new era in the relations. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç stated that was not right for Turkey to comment on Israeli elections and called on Israel to choose Turkey as a partner in maintaining peace. The Deputy PM also said Turkey is proud to have never been home to anti-Semitic thought and that Turkey would react to the actions of the Israeli state, not the Jewish people. Then Turkey’s Tel Aviv charge d’affaires Doğan Işık said in a meeting that Turkey and Israel are like two brotherly statesand cannot be separated, despite the state of sour political relations. Turkey’s warming ties with Israel will put Turkey’s relations with its Western allies at ease and will offer more stable footing for a region gasping for democracy.

On the other hand, Turkey-Iran relations survived an Islamic revolution, joining two rival pacts, regional sectarian tension, civil wars and NATO radars. It is a mature, indispensable geo-economic partnership and an ancient friendship. I believe one has to admit Turkey’s ability to compartmentalize its relations and take no part in sectarian advancements. Even though some interpret Turkey’s desire to see Assad leave Syria as sectarian, it is solely about the desire to see the end of a tyrannical regime. This fact was made clear by the President Erdoğan himself on his latest Tehran visit, where we saw him walking hand in hand with President Rowhani.

Erdoğan said last week in Tehran, “I don’t look at the sect. It does not concern me whether those killed are Shiite or Sunni, what concerns me is Muslims” and he called on Iran to cooperate with Turkey to end tensions. It was no coincidence that President Erdoğan met with the Saudi deputy crown prince hours before Tehran visit; it was a clear message of being neutral in sectarian affairs.

If Turkey can act as a hub when it comes to trade, humanitarian aid, tourism and energy, if it can offer visa-free travel to both Iranian and Israeli citizens and host them together, if Turkey can be a part of bringing Iran to the table for nuclear talks, the same Turkey can step up its campaign in diplomacy and pioneer a regional mediation court for solving Middle Eastern problems without the need for Western intervention.

For this picture to emerge, Turkey needs to normalize relations with Egypt. Even though this looked quite out of sight until now, after Erdoğan’s Saudi Arabia visit, the Turkish president hintedat normalizing ties, saying: “[The Kingdom] wants Turkey to make up with Egypt … We can never neglect Egypt’s presence. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This trio is made from the most important countries in the region.” We may well witness Turkey making up with Egypt soon.

What Turkey has to offer is beyond the power of the Arab League. Turkey’s relations with Arabs, Iranians and the Jewish people are far older than, let us say, Russia’s relations with Ukraine. The people of this region, whose rights have been stolen by colonial powers and brutal dictators, can no longer trust Western international organizations.

It is time Turkey, which offers a model that transcends sectarianism, becomes more assertive in its diplomatic relations and establishes a new body with those who seek to end regional wars. Contrary to popular belief, what Turkey seeks is not to be the leader but the servant of regional nations on a path to sustainable peace. If Germany and France, who were ready to fight even after devastating world wars, could lock their hands in peace under the umbrella of the EU, why shouldn’t Arab, Turks and Persian brothers do the same?
Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. As a representative of Harun Yahya organization, she frequently cites quotations from the author in her writings.