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Turkey’s Balancing Act

EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN – Turkey has over the past few weeks become the spearhead of a joint Western-Arab-Turkish policy aimed at forcing President Bashar al-Assad to cede power in Syria. This is quite a turnaround in Turkish policy, because over the past two years the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had gone out of its way to cultivate good relations with neighboring Syria, with whom it shares a long land border.

This change of course on Syria has also cost Turkey a great deal in terms of its relations with Iran, the principal supporter of Assad’s regime, which Turkey had also cultivated as part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

Given these new strains, it is worth recalling that a only few months ago many American leaders were livid at what they perceived to be Turkey’s betrayal. In their view, Turkey had re-oriented its foreign policy toward the Muslim Middle East and away from the West – a shift supposedly reflected in the country’s deteriorating relations with Israel and improving ties with Iran and Syria.

Many American policymakers and publicists, unable or unwilling to distinguish Turkish-Israeli relations from Turkish-American relations, interpreted Erdoğan’s condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Gaza as a bid to cozy up to his Arab neighbors at the expense of Turkey’s relations with not only Israel but with the West in general. Turkey’s attempt to mediate between the major Western powers and Iran concerning the Islamic Republic’s uranium stockpile went unappreciated in the West; indeed, the United States scuttled the effort just as it seemed to be bearing fruit. And Turkey’s subsequent vote in the United Nations Security Council against imposing additional sanctions on Iran seemed to offer further proof that Turkey had adopted an “Islamic” foreign policy.