Turkey: The sentinel swivels

A Turkish Air Force F16 jet fighter takes off near Konya as Turkey

From Delphine Strauss and David Gardner, the Financial TimesToronto, Brussels, Bishkek and London in one week; in another, visits ranging from Lisbon to Kabul. Since he became Turkey’s foreign minister just over a year ago, Ahmet Davutoglu has clocked up more than 100 international trips as he hyperactively pursues his vision of Turkey as a rising regional power. Not for nothing does he hail from Konya, ancestral home of the whirling dervishes. …

Ankara’s evident willingness to assert its independence from Washington has enhanced its regional credibility. The government is on a firmer footing in Moscow and Baghdad because it resisted US pressure to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and restricted American warships entering the Black Sea during Russia’s 2008 clash with Georgia.

Conversely, the perception in Washington is that Ankara is becoming a volatile and unreliable partner. Some in Congress view the breakdown of relations with Israel as proof of an eastward tilt by an authoritarian Islamist government. US officials, usually careful to keep differences behind closed doors, are expressing doubts. Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state and one of Turkey’s strongest supporters in the state department, says the country’s commitment to Nato, the EU and the US “needs to be demonstrated. …”

[Turkish Prime Minister Recep TayyipErdogan does want to demonstrate that a confident and dynamic Turkey has options and is proficient in the “soft power” that Europe seems to have forgotten how to use in its Middle East backyard. But, says Mr Davutoglu, there is no turn east or against the west: “Still our first and most strategic objective is [integration with] Europe. …”

As for Turkey’s 40-year-old bid to join the EU, Suat Kiniklioglu, the AKP’s deputy chairman for foreign affairs, diverges from the official line to suggest that both sides are “happy with low-level engagement that doesn’t force a decision”. Technical negotiations on food safety standards began this month but the fig leaf of progress is looking flimsier. …

Even the urbane Mr Davutoglu has courted controversy. According to anecdotes circulating in Washington, the ex-academic thumped the table and shouted at Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, when he went to demand US help in securing the pro-Gaza activists’ release. The foreign minister refuses to be drawn on this, merely observing that “no country should have the feeling it is above the law”. …

The official line in Ankara is that Turkey’s partners will simply have to get used to its new assertiveness. Even so, Mr Davutoglu is at pains to correct the impression that he cares only about the Middle East. Last week’s appointment of a Turkish diplomat to a senior Nato post proves Turkey’s importance in the organisation, he maintains.

Yet Mr Davutoglu may soon be forced to limit his foreign adventures to attend to events closer to home. This summer is proving one of the bloodiest for years in Turkey’s south-east, where the rebel Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) is launching one raid after another from its mountain bases across the Iraqi border.

As PKK violence mounts, so does the pressure on the government to secure help from all its allies to curb the group. Mr Erdogan wants more direct military assistance as well as intelligence sharing from the US, action from the EU to cut off funding sources, and more effort by the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq to cut the PKK’s supply lines and dislodge it from mountain bases.  (photo: Reuters)

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