The question has echoed in Middle East policy circles ever since Israeli commandos intercepted a "Free Gaza" flotilla that originated in Turkey on May 31, killing eight Turkish activists and an American of Turkish descent. The volume grew a few days later when Ankara sided against the United States in the U.N. Security Council on further sanctioning Iran. Those incidents were just the latest evidence to convince some conservative experts in particular that Turkey, long seen as a critical bridge between East and West, has shifted its strategic orientation decisively eastward towards the likes of Iran and Syria.
So who lost Turkey?
"Turkey is no longer a reliable ally of the United States, but then it hasn't been since before 2003. Turkey's denial of access to its territory for the invasion of Iraq illustrated where democratic Turkey was headed," Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration, recently wrote on National Journal's National Security Expert Blog. "Anti-Bush sentiment elsewhere masked the effect. Turkey has already re-positioned itself; we're just now noticing."
In the narrative of Turkey as a lost ally, Ankara's reorientation began with the 2002 election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party. Erdogan's government quickly championed the wearing of head scarves by women in secular but overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey. It also began marginalizing the Turkish military, long the guarantor of Turkey's secular Constitution. Most notably, the government has jailed more than 65 military officers on charges of plotting a 2003 coup against the Islamist government.
As Turkey's internal balance of power has shifted from an influential secular elite and military to a more populist Islamist government, some experts believe Ankara has increasingly found common cause with U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Syria and even the Hamas terrorist group. Turkey's enabling of the Free Gaza flotilla, whose Turkish ship Mavi Marmara reportedly held more than 100 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, was just the most obvious sign of that shift in allegiances.
The Gaza flotilla incident "clarified several major trends in the region -- all of which are dangerous for the United States and for our allies in the Middle East," Elliot Abrams, a former Bush administration official and neoconservative intellectual, writes in the June 21 Weekly Standard. "First, it's obvious that our formerly reliable NATO ally Turkey has become a staunch supporter of the radical camp. In the flotilla incident, it not only sided with but also sought to strengthen the terrorist group Hamas.... Turkey's U.N. Security Council vote against the newest round of sanctions this past week put it in Iran's camp against Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. That's quite a re-alignment for a NATO ally."
If true, such a strategic reorientation of Turkey would certainly represent a major blow to U.S. interests in the Middle East. In the post-9/11 era, the United States has consistently held up Turkey -- democratic, secular, Muslim -- as a model for an Islamic world clearly struggling with modernity. Turkey was not only seen as a critical bridge between the West and Islam, it also represented the southern anchor of the NATO alliance. A Turkey aligned eastward could damage the alliance's prospects in Afghanistan; put at risk the U.S.-run air base in Incirlik, Turkey; embolden Iran; and further isolate Israel.
"Not since 'Truman lost China' has a Democratic administration been at such great risk of being blindsided by such a significant cataclysmic geo-strategic reversal," James Jay Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote on National Journal's security blog. "... For many years the United States took Turkey for granted -- a solid member of NATO; constantly knocking on the door for [European Union] membership; proudly secular governance. Those days are in the past."
The Turkish Narrative
Turkish officials argue, however, that recent turbulence in U.S.-Turkish relations is actually the result of a more mature and self-confident Ankara assuming a greater role in regional diplomacy. The Erdogan government has exerted greater civilian control over the Turkish military, for instance, but that is not only popular with the Turkish electorate, it is required in the bylaws of the European Union, which Ankara is trying to join with the blessing of the United States. Given that the Turkish military has conducted three coups in the relatively brief history of the Turkish Republic, civilian governments arguably have good reason for vigilance.
Turkey's refusal to allow the U.S. military to invade Iraq from its territory in 2003 did cause a rupture in relations. Ankara's warnings about the destabilizing impact of the Iraq war, however, proved prescient. Partly as a result, Turkey has adopted a "zero problem" policy with its regional neighbors that's consistent with the European Union's "good neighbor" policy.
"In fact, Turkey has raised its foreign policy profile, not as a way to detach itself from the West but rather to apply Western values to problems in our immediate neighborhood that have the potential to cause conflict," said Zeynep Dagi, a member of the Turkish parliament and part of a high-level delegation of Turkish officials visiting Washington this past week for talks with the Obama administration and members of Congress. As examples of that "zero problem" policy, she notes that Turkey has in recent years brokered talks between Lebanon and Syria, Iraq and Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and as recently as 2008, Israel and Syria.
"Please bear in mind that the AKP [Justice and Development] party was the first in Turkish history to actually start official negotiations for Turkey's full membership in the European Union in 2005," said Dagi. "So rather than a shift in direction, I think you're seeing a Turkish foreign policy that is multidimensional, and in many ways aligned with very important U.S. interests in the Middle East, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq."
Senior Turkish officials argue that the same desire to head off conflict informed the "Tehran Agreement" that the leaders of Turkey and Brazil signed with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on May 17. Though it attempted to resurrect a similar uranium swap that fell through last year, the Obama administration rejected the deal as insufficient and an unhelpful distraction on the eve of the recent Iran sanctions vote on the U.N. Security Council. More fundamentally, Turkey's vote against sanctions pointed to a divergence of views in Washington and Ankara about the efficacy of sanctions and the risks of another conflict in the Middle East.
"Some people have mischaracterized our vote against further sanctions as Turkey siding with Iran against the United States, but in truth it revealed that we are pursuing common objectives in different ways," said Omer Celik, deputy chairman of the AKP party. The Tehran Agreement included the three major elements that President Obama outlined in a letter to Erdogan, he said, and after proposing it Ankara felt it had to vote "no" on a new round of sanctions to keep Iranian officials at the negotiating table. Even after the sanctions passed the Security Council, Celik noted, Tehran has indicated that the uranium swap is still possible. "We prefer diplomacy and negotiations with Iran because sanctions don't work," he said. "And if we don't keep talks between the West and Iran going, instability will once again unfold throughout the Middle East region, from Iraq to Lebanon."
There is no doubt that the flotilla incident represents a major rupture in relations between Israel and Turkey, long the Jewish state's closest Muslim ally. Unless Jerusalem publicly apologizes for the fatal incident and agrees to an independent investigation, Celik said, "Turkey will confront Israel in international forums at every opportunity. We do not wish our relations with Israel to take such a turn, but the bottom line is eight Turkish nationals and one American of Turkish descent were killed on the high seas by Israeli forces. And our expectation of the United States as interlocutor is simple: Israel shouldn't be encouraged in such aggression."
Whatever Turkey's complicity in the flotilla and the confrontation that ensued, Ankara has largely succeeded in its larger goal of undermining Israel's blockade of Gaza. Since the incident, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called the blockade "unsustainable," and on June 16 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with his closest advisers to consider loosening the blockade.
"In principle we believe that it is in Israel's interest to lift the blockade of Gaza and establish some mechanism of international inspections, because the blockade created a humanitarian disaster for the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza, and it cornered the Hamas government in a way that was only going to lead to further violence," said Ibrahim Kalin, chief foreign policy adviser to Erdogan. "We're trying to bring [Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials] together so they can talk with the Israelis, which is also a core U.S. goal. So if you look at the issues, we are working together with the United States -- we see a lot of convergence. We've fully cooperated on Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Balkans. So the fact that we disagree on style in terms of addressing Iran's nuclear program doesn't mean our strategic alliance is in jeopardy. On the contrary, the list of issues we work together is long."