Turkey downgrades ties with Israel and the West, and forms better links with Muslim neighbours

There is no doubt that relations between Turkey and Israel and the West have been strong. Turkey has military and economic ties with Israel and the US, and is a member of NATO, contributing the second largest army of the organisation. It also continues its efforts to join the European Union, despite the open determination of some members of the EU, such as Germany and France, to exclude it. However, the invasion of Ghazzah and the mass murder of Palestinians by the Israeli army last January have led the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to downgrade those relations and establish firmer diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey’s Muslim neighbours, including Iran and Syria. This has taken place despite the fact that Iran and Syria are in the West’s bad books, and therefore in Israel’s.

Formerly both Iran and Syria were also in Turkey’s bad books, to the extent of even being engaged in military confrontations with each other. A few years ago, for instance, Turkey massed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Syria because Damascus had been backing the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group. Now the cooperation between the two is such that they have lifted the requirement of visas for travellers to cross their common borders. Another eye-catching development took place earlier this year, when Turkey and Syria held their first joint military exercise: the first between a member-state of NATO and an Arab country. Add to this the fact that Turkey’s trade with Syria is now up 40% from last year.

It is true that both Israel and the West were upset by Turkey’s rapprochement with Damascus, but Ankara has made no effort to be discreet about the new improvement in relations. On the contrary, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister often publicises it, as he did on October 13, when he joined his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, in a ceremony to mark the removal of visa restrictions between their two countries. Of course there is little doubt that Israel and the West are more alarmed about Turkey’s new friendship with Islamic Iran than these improvements between neighbours.

Iran is in principle a strictly Islamic state and shows no readiness to compromise with, or accept, dictation from the West and Israel over issues vital to Muslim countries or interests; this is one of the reasons for which the US and its allies are determined to isolate it. When the official result of Iran’s hotly contested pre-sidential election was announced in June, Turkey was one of the first countries to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. This caused dismay in the US, and Europe, making their rulers and media wonder whether Turkey might turn its back on them.

But Western governments were relieved when Tur-key used its links with Tehran to ne-gotiate with it be-hind the scenes, playing a role in the recent release of British embassy staff in the Iranian capital. But Turkey also used its links with the West to bring about the release in June of five Iranian diplomats who had been detained by the Americans in 2007. Turkey also improved its relations with the pro-Western Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, signing economic and trade agreements with them. Ankara has even signed trade relations with Iraq.

The US and Europe know that the fact that Turkey has signed agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia does not make it more cooperative or restrict its Islamic policies. They are now convinced of this, following Ankara’s condemnation of Israel’s destructive military assault on Ghazzah in January, despite the strategic relations between the two neighbours.

In fact, Turkey was among the first to recognise Israel in 1949 and subsequently developed strong military and economic ties with it, no doubt under pressure from their common ally, the US. Under the military alliance, Turkey received Israeli arms, and the two held joint military exercises. All that became history in January, when Israel assaulted the Palestinians of Ghazzah.

The Turkish state television began to show a drama called Separation which depicted in full the images of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children and women. It is true that the events in the drama were ostensibly fictional, but they drew public attention to Israel’s war crimes in Ghazzah, which were largely ignored by the international community and media. This explains Israel’s strong complaint to the Turkish government and its allies about the drama. Turkey dropped the series as a consequence.

But the drama was not alone in expressing Ankara’s displeasure at the mayhem in Ghazzah as Turkish leaders also widely and loudly displayed their anger. Prime Minister Erdogan, for instance, walked out of a debate in Davos with Israeli President Shimon Peres last January in protest at the attack on Ghazzah, an act which turned him into a hero in Arab countries. And after the government decided on October 12 to exclude Israel from military exercises, Turkish ministers declared that the decision was linked to public anger at Israel’s policies.

On October 16, Foreign Minister Davutoglu stressed that the cabinet’s decision on the Ghazzah issue would remain in place, “Our attitude will be unchanged as long as the tragic events in Ghazzah continue.” Moreover, Turkey’s decision to take an independent line in its foreign policy was confirmed by the prime minister himself. “Turkey is a strong country and takes its own decisions,” he said.

The Turkish leader’s new stands and declarations, particularly on Israel and Israel’s war on Ghazzah, were widely reported and brought to an end the ability of the international community, including the United Nations and the international press and broadcast media, to ignore the genocide being inflicted on the Palestinians. The recent investigation of, and consequent report on, the human-rights violations and crimes in Ghazzah, by Judge Goldstone, would not have been undertaken without the loud and persistent publicity given to the issue. Turkey and its people are entitled to be proud of their role in this development, and of their adoption of an independent foreign policy that can be beneficial to them and other Muslims.

Although Turkey, with a population of 74 million people, is a strong country and can pursue an independent foreign policy, it is no accident that it has been able to do so only under a government and party with Islamic aspirations. Not surprisingly, the only other Muslim state that has adopted an independent foreign policy is also under Islamic rule. Iran insists that it is entitled to develop and use nuclear energy, and has therefore encountered strong resistance from Western powers, which contend in effect that in the Middle East the only country that is allowed to have access to nuclear technology of any sort (energy or military) is Israel. As Israel is known to possess at least 200 nuclear warheads, Iran has exposed Israel’s exemption from criticism of its actions and policies by the so-called international community, including the UN.

The majority of Turkey’s people are ostensibly secular, and still seem to hope that Turkey will eventually achieve membership of the EU. Their belief that this is possible if Turkey becomes “less Islamic” is demonstrably wrong. Turkey, which applied to join European organisations as long ago as 1958 (more than half a century ago) is still waiting for a result, and is unlikely to be accepted. German and French leaders have admitted recently that this is simply because Turkey is Muslim. The final decision of the EU will be known next month, and it will be in Turkey’s real interests if its application is rejected. This will give Turkey’s people the opportunity to support the Islamic aspirations of its governing party, and help it to work for the unity of Muslims and the improvement of their own organisations.