TEL AVIV – Ever since Turkey’s establishment as a republic, the country has oscillated between the Western-oriented heritage of its founder, Kemal Ataturk, and its eastern, Ottoman legacy. Never resolved, modern Turkey’s deep identity complex is now shaking its strategic alliances and recasting its regional and global role. Indeed, Turkey’s changing perception of itself has shaped its so-far frustrated drive to serve as a peace broker between Israel and its Arab enemies, Syria and Hamas.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s missionary zeal to replace Egypt as the essential regional mediator, and his violent tirades against Israel’s behavior in Gaza, looks to many people like an attempt to recover Turkey’s Ottoman-era role as the guarantor of regional peace and security. Its credentials for this role in the Middle East are by no means negligible.
Turkey is a true regional superpower, with one of the largest armies in the world. At the same time, it is the only Muslim country that, while no less worried than Israel about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, can maintain excellent economic and political relations with Iran, regardless of American displeasure. Of course, Syria is Iran’s ally, too, but no country in the region has the leverage with it that Turkey possesses. And Turkey’s diplomatic reach in the region is also reflected in its recent signing of a friendship treaty with Saudi Arabia, while maintaining excellent relations with Pakistan and Iraq.
Europe’s persistence in snubbing Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union, the rise of violent anti-Western popular sentiment in the wake of the Iraq war, and strained relations with the US – owing in part to the forthcoming Armenian Genocide Act – are major factors in Turkey’s change of direction. The civilizing efforts that Ataturk’s revolution directed inward and in favor of disengagement from the Arab and Muslim worlds are now being revisited. The Turkey of Erdogan’s dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be seeking a new mission civilisatrice , with the Middle East and the former Soviet republics as its alternative horizons.