Monday, December 29, 2008

The Limits of Turkish Soft Power

While bombs rain down on Gaza, there is growing and visible anger in Turkey in response to the Israeli operation. Interestingly, one thing frequently being heard in the Turkish press and from Turkish politicians is that Israel has somehow "disrespected" Turkey by launching its attack. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has angrily called Israel's actions "a crime against humanity," while also saying they are "disrespectful to Turkey." 

How so? Apparently Erdogan felt misled by Israeli leader Ehud Olmert, who visited Ankara earlier last week and led the Turks to believe that no Gaza operation was imminent (although the story might be more complicated than that, as Yusuf Kanli reports in a column in the Hurriyet Daily News). But what might also be angering Erdogan is that Israel's Gaza attack sets back Turkey's recent efforts to act as a kind of regional mediator and (soft) power broker.

After all, one of the things Olmert's visit dealt with was the question of the stalled indirect talks that Turkey was brokering between Israel and Syria. Syria has now announced that any resumption of talks is off because of the Gaza operation (although, realistically speaking, Damascus was waiting to see what happens in Israel's upcoming Feb. elections before restarting anything). Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan has also announced that, for now, Turkey is backing away from mediating the talks.

But the events in Gaza point to the limits of Turkey's soft power ambitions. Certainly, Ankara's efforts to mediate in the region should be commended, but it also appears that Erdogan and his advisors have been seduced by their own talk about Turkey's ability to bridge the Middle East's deep divides. Turkey's neighbors are certainly happy to call upon Ankara's good offices when it suits them, but that's only until the region's harsh realities intrude and every country starts to follow its own political formula -- one that probably doesn't take into account whether Turkey feels like it is being "disrespected" or not. 

In the past, some have questioned whether Turkey had the diplomatic maturity and chops to play the kind of meditator role that it would like to. Erdogan's statements and Ankara's quick exit from the Syria-Israel track might revive some of those questions. (UPDATE -- Take a look at this caustic editorial in the Jerusalem Post to get a sense of where the discussion in Israel over Turkey's role in the Middle East might be heading.)

On another note, what's happening in Gaza is also a reminder that -- despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Ankara -- Israel and Turkey have more in common than some might like to admit. "Let’s not forget this: violence will bring about new violence," Erdogan said in response to Israel's Gaza attack. While he was saying this, Turkish jets were returning home from yet another bombing attack against PKK targets in Northern Iraq.

No comments: