REGION Turkey in regional activism mode

Since the Israeli war on Gaza, Ankara has become a frequent critic of Israeli policy, despite the strong alliance the two sides formed in the 1990s.

By Rauf Baker, Special to Gulf News
November 22, 2009
Image Credit: EPA

The Middle East has been noticing with both curiosity and admiration — mostly in the Arab world, the resurgence of Turkey as a regional power player. Since the Israeli war on Gaza, Ankara has become a frequent critic of Israeli policy, despite the strong alliance the two sides formed in the 1990s.

Recently, the Turkish government voiced unprecedented support to Iran's position on the current standoff over the nuclear issue between Tehran and the West. In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu outlines what he describes as his country's ‘recent activism' in the Middle East.

Gulf News:  Are we witnessing the formation of a new alliance in the region that includes Turkey, Iran and Syria, especially after the Turkish support to a nuclear Iran; and can we expect talks between Washington and Tehran in Turkey similar to the ones between Syria and Israel?

Ahmet Davutoglu What you are referring to seems to be the recent activism that has been observed in the Turkish foreign policy. This is actually a policy of dialogue, inclusiveness and constructive engagement that is based on common denominators of achieving sustainable peace, stability and prosperity in the entire region. As such, our initiatives regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, among others, should also be taken into consideration as integral parts of a larger regional and global vision.

As to the particular countries that you mention, Syria is one of our most important neighbours with whom we share the longest border. Our relations are defined by strong historic and cultural ties between our peoples, as well as dictates of geography, common interests and concerns relevant to regional developments. On the other hand, Syria is a key country in the region whose contribution is essential for regional peace and stability. Moreover, for Turkey, Syria is a gateway opening into the Gulf region. Therefore, our enhanced relations with this country would also help promote intra-regional economic and commercial integration.

We believe that a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear issue is achievable and necessary. Given the already volatile situation in the region, diplomacy is the only viable avenue for a solution. Any solution to this issue should observe the right to make peaceful use of nuclear energy, as well as the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] norms and the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] obligations. Concerns of the international community regarding the proliferation of WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction] should also be addressed. Our position on this matter has not changed since the outset of the problem. The Geneva meetings between P5+1 [France, Germany, UK, China Russia and the US] and Iran on October 1st and ensuing talks demonstrate that diplomatic process is underway. We welcome the ongoing efforts. It is important to keep the momentum. Turkey will be ready to assume an active role if needed in order to facilitate a diplomatic solution.

Are you concerned with the troubled situation in Iraq, and do you doubt that the issue of Kirkuk carries potential threat to the next Iraqi elections and even to Ankara's relations with Baghdad?

The deterioration of the security situation in Iraq will profoundly undermine what Iraq and Middle East needs today, which is peace and stability. Therefore, the countries of the region all have a stake in a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq. Turkey believes that, before the legislative elections in January next year, there is a need for continued and enhanced international support from all countries and international organisations to assist the Iraqi Government and the people in their quest for democracy, national dialogue and political reconciliation.

As Kirkuk is a microcosm of Iraq, a small spark in this governorate is likely to inflame the whole country. Therefore, working towards a settlement that will be acceptable to all groups in Kirkuk, is crucial for the maintenance of peace, stability and tranquillity in Iraq. We believe that giving a special status to Kirkuk, which will allow all the communities in this governorate to live in peace and harmony, would offer a lasting solution to this issue.

Is Turkey disappointed with the ‘veto' raised by Greece, France, and Germany on its bid to join the EU and is it possible that you might halt what some inside Ankara describe as a ‘humiliating process'?

Since there is no ‘veto', there is no disappointment! Nevertheless it is an undeniable fact that we face some artificial political obstacles while we move on in our accession process. Politically motivated statements by some EU leaders have negative repercussions, in this respect. Yet, given that this process continues on its path, these views should not be perceived as ‘veto'. On the other hand, the aim of the reforms undertaken in line with accession negotiations is to attain the highest possible standards and norms in all walks of the daily lives of Turkish citizens. If carefully followed, one would see that the record of the last seven years is unique in this respect. Consequently, the distance between Ankara and Brussels is now closer than ever. Furthermore, accession process has never been easy for aspiring countries. Some of today's member states had to deal also with severe opposition both internally and externally. However, they moved forward with determination. With the same resolve, we are fully committed to the accession process and determined to continue with reforms.

Many predict that the recent Turkish-Armenian rapprochement is far from guaranteed, what are the main obstacles facing the reconciliation?

Turkey would like to develop good-neighbourly relations based on mutual respect with all its neighbours. In the recent past, we have achieved progress in solving our differences with many of our neighbouring countries. We also took a courageous step by initiating a process of dialogue with Armenia, which culminated in the two protocols that were signed on October 10 in Zurich. It provides a significant opportunity to establish lasting peace and security between Turkish and Armenian States, as well as between Turkish and Armenian nations and beyond, contributing to the solving of other outstanding issues in the region.

There is an opposition stemming from the Armenian Diaspora towards these protocols based on their different interpretation of the events of 1915. However, the protocols present an opportunity to conduct an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives on this painful episode of the Turkish-Armenian common history and shed light on the truth. A sub-commission will be created with this task. This is what we long asked for. We believe, this sub-commission will be instrumental in overcoming the conflict of collective memories with respect to the events of 1915 and reach to a just memory together.

Turkey has started the process of normalisation with Armenia in good-faith and with a sincere political will and therefore my government remains committed to taking this process forward. However, realism dictates evaluating the fate of our relations with Armenia not in a total vacuum, but rather in light of the big picture in the South Caucasus.

Our efforts with Armenia, if not supplemented with some progress in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, would not suffice to bring a comprehensive and sustainable normalisation to this region. Concrete steps for the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem would also be necessary in this regard. A positive development; a tangible progress would not only contribute to the ratification process, but also to the peace and stability in the whole region. We trust that both of the parties to this conflict, as well as the co-chairs of the Minsk Group who are tasked with facilitating the negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, are well aware of this reality on the ground.

The protocols are now submitted to the Turkish Grand National Assembly for approval. If all the actors act with responsibility and do their utmost to contribute to the realisation of long awaited peace in the South Caucasus, our parliamentarians would not have much difficulty in giving their consent to these protocols which will facilitate these two neighbouring people to embrace each other again. And this is the only prospect that we would currently like to place our bets on for the sake of all the peoples of South Caucasus.

Will Turkey make parallel steps with Greek Cypriot government?

We should, before everything, be aware of the nature of the Cyprus question which is totally different from the Turkish-Armenian context.

Cyprus is a complex political issue. It ultimately revolves around one fundamental fact: the existence of two distinct peoples on the Island, namely the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots; and their relationship. It is both useful and important to keep in mind that there has never been a ‘Cypriot nation' in Cyprus due to the distinct national, religious and cultural characteristics of each ethnic people who, in addition, speak different languages.

The Republic of Cyprus established on August 16, 1960 in accordance with the international treaties as a partnership based on the political equality of the two peoples. The sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus was limited by the guarantor rights given to three countries, namely Turkey, Greece and the UK.

The Partnership Republic of 1960 was destroyed by the Greek Cypriot side who tried to change unilaterally the very nature of the state of affairs in the island in detriment of the Turkish Cypriot people. The Turkish Cypriots, at the end of 1963, were systematically excluded from the state mechanism at gunpoint and were to live in enclaves corresponding to the 3 per cent of Cyprus under Greek Cypriot siege. As of that date, the Republic of Cyprus has become defunct and the Greek Cypriots have no authority to represent the whole of Cyprus or the Turkish Cypriots.

In 1964, the UN Peacekeeping Force was established in the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots from further massacres, but had been unsuccessful in this task. This tragic situation lasted until 1974, when the military regime in Greece instigated a coup d'etat in the island in order to achieve ‘enosis', which led to the intervention of Turkey in line with its rights and obligations stemming from the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Turkey's intervention saved the Turkish Cypriot people from ethnic cleansing.

The negotiations between the two peoples in the island have been going on since 1968. The Turkish Cypriot side has always supported a just, lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue throughout the negotiations under the auspices of the UN secretary-general's Good Offices mission. The Greek Cypriot side, however, rejected all the settlement plans devised by the UN and lastly, the UN Comprehensive Settlement Plan in 2004. As a matter of fact, the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, in his report dated May 28, 2004 (S/2004/437), clearly stated that "if the Greek Cypriots are ready to share power and prosperity with the Turkish Cypriots in a federal structure based on political equality, this needs to be demonstrated, not just by word, but by action".

As for the ongoing negotiating process for a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus, Turkey as a guarantor power has given its full support to the constructive efforts of the Turkish Cypriot side for the establishment of a new Partnership in Cyprus with two Constituent States of equal status based on political equality and bi-zonality. Turkey has already expressed its readiness to establish relations with the new Partnership State that will emerge following the comprehensive settlement which will bring peace and stability to the Eastern Mediterranean. Let me also emphasise that we are grateful to our Muslim brothers as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference adopted various resolutions that supported the call of the UN Secretary-General to end the unjust isolations imposed on the Turkish Cypriots.

- Rauf Baker is a Dubai-based journalist who specialises in Eastern European Affairs

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