ANKARA – It has become a cliché to characterize our era as one of multiple rapid transformations. But 2012 was particularly eventful. Not a single day passed without requiring continuous and concerted attention to economic crises, political and military conflicts, social upheavals, cultural clashes, or environmental problems in some corner of the world.
Turkey’s immediate neighborhood occupied the top spot on the global policy agenda in 2012, and will continue to so in 2013. To our north, Europe is at a crossroads, undergoing a process of creative destruction, with potentially far-reaching ramifications well beyond the confines of the European Union. To our south, an irreversible quest for dignity, freedom, democracy, and peace is altering the region’s political landscape.
Needless to say, economic measures alone cannot end the EU’s ongoing crisis. Europe must redefine itself and identify its mission anew if it wishes to retain its geopolitical weight. The EU must decide whether it represents a community of values or a narrowly defined geographic entity whose exclusionary impulses will eventually erode its global relevance.
As an integral part of Europe with EU membership as a strategic objective, Turkey is not an indifferent bystander; on the contrary, we strive to participate in the current debate by offering our own views and ideas. We believe, for example, that EU integration needs to be wider as well as deeper, thereby maintaining its positive transformative influence in neighboring regions.
Here, of course, the Middle East and North Africa should be of paramount concern. Historically, whatever happens on one side of the Mediterranean has had a direct impact on the other; given today’s high level of global interdependence, there is every reason to believe that this will remain true.
The Arab peoples’ genuine aspiration to secure for themselves the universal rights that Europeans enjoy refutes the West’s long-held orientalist perspective. Of course, it is still too early to predict the outcome of the Arab Awakening, and the countries in transition still face daunting challenges. But none of the various nightmare scenarios materialized, which augurs hope for the future. Moreover, in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, free and fair elections – the first in these countries’ history – were held in 2012.
But democracy is not only about elections. The task of creating essential democratic institutions – the rule of law, habits of accountability, gender equality, and freedom of expression and faith – still awaits these countries. Yet the Arab peoples have finally experienced genuine empowerment, and have crossed the threshold of fear. I believe that they will continue to advance toward democracy.
That said, the situation in Syria and recent Israeli aggression in Gaza remain open wounds. In Syria, a bloody civil war is laying waste to some of the world’s most magnificent ancient cities. The Syrian people’s demands are the same as those heard in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt: a dignified, democratic life. Instead, they have gotten an inhuman campaign of violence – including attacks by warplanes, helicopters, and tanks – by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The regime’s effort to turn its struggle for survival into an ethnic and sectarian conflict could wreak havoc across the region, starting with neighbors like Lebanon and Iraq.
From the very outset of the Arab Awakening, Turkey has taken a principled stand on the side of legitimate and democratic aspirations. Aware of our special role as a historical partner and, more so, as a source of inspiration to those demanding their rights and freedom, we felt particularly compelled to do so.
For Turkey, the civil war in Syria has created an additional challenge in the form of a humanitarian crisis. We are now hosting approximately 200,000 Syrians who fled their country’s growing violence, and have already spent more than $400 million to accommodate these desperate people – with almost no assistance from the rest of the world. But we will never be dissuaded from helping our Syrian neighbors in their most difficult hour, given the special bonds emanating from centuries of shared history.
Two other fundamental and inter-related security challenges in the region – the Arab-Israeli conflict and the growing danger of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – also must be resolved in order to ensure that the Middle East’s historic transformation leads to security, stability, and prosperity. Here, the recent violence in Gaza has once again demonstrated the risk of an all-out regional conflict.
Israel’s latest operation in Gaza brought it no benefit, either tactical or strategic. On the contrary, this aggression, clearly staged for domestic political consumption, will harm Israel’s long-term security. For the first time, Hamas proved capable of causing disruptions as far away as Tel Aviv, while Israel was forced to defend its behavior and reputation even with its traditional allies, including the United States. But the biggest lesson for Israel is that it needs to comprehend better the new strategic environment following the Arab Awakening.
It is imperative to adopt a more holistic approach to both of these problems. The reference point for such an effort should be parallel implementation of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which addresses Israel’s security concerns, and a regional disarmament mechanism based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, adopted in 1991 to enable the elimination of WMDs from the entire region. I deeply appreciate US President Barack Obama’s remarks at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010, at which he supported this idea and invited other major actors to take the initiative on disarmament.
This approach would enable a fair and lasting resolution of the Palestinian issue, which profoundly offends people’s sense of justice and causes instability and extremism, while eliminating tensions arising from the threat perceptions of Iran and other countries in the region.
Beyond this, advanced countries and international financial institutions should implement a comprehensive economic recovery program for the Arab countries in transition, similar to the Marshall Plan implemented after World War II. Europe and the international community have an opportunity to help the Mediterranean region to regain the prosperity and grandeur that it once had, and to turn the Middle East into a zone of peace, democracy, and stability. Turkey will play whatever part it can in order to realize this vision.