Turkey's rising role: Diplomacy

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008

Americans who explore the wonders of Istanbul rarely visit Turkey's capital, deep in the plains of Anatolia. It is a city of nondescript high-rises, government offices and new shopping centers that reflect Turkey's growing prosperity.

Ankara is known mainly for two things: a stunning museum that highlights Turkey's ancient Anatolian past, and the vast hilltop mausoleum of Ataturk, Turkey's founder, whose stern face is visible on huge banners throughout the city.

But Ankara is becoming known for something else that's of great strategic interest to Americans: an active foreign policy that may help resolve conflicts in critical regions where the United States has faltered. That includes the troubled Caucasus region, where Russia just warred with Georgia, and the Middle East.

"If you list the key issues which Turkey and the U.S. pursue, you'd be amazed by how many parallels there are," Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, told a small group of visiting U.S. journalists and think-tank experts in an interview in his office this week.

Indeed, almost every foreign crisis on the American agenda is also a concern for Gul. Turkey sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, bordering not only the European Union, but also Georgia, Iraq, Iran and Syria. It has been adversely affected by growing Mideast chaos since the Iraq war.

Turkey also sits at an energy crossroads. Efforts to build new oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia and the Caucasus - pipelines that will circumvent Russia and make Europe less dependent on it - all rely on Turkey. A crucial pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia uses the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

Instability in its environs has prompted Turkey to become more active in efforts at conflict resolution. "In regional foreign policy, we had numerous problems with our neighbors," Gul said. "They must be resolved, or there cannot be peace."

Turkey's emphasis has been, for the most part, on soft power and diplomacy. It is the only country with fair to good relations with every country in neighboring regions: close ties to Israel as well as to Arab states; good relations with Iran and carefully managed relations with Russia; and close ties to Georgia.

Two of Turkey's many mediation efforts could have a positive impact on key concerns of the United States. First is Turkey's recent overture to Armenia. The two nations have deep disagreements over how one million Armenians were killed in the early 20th century; Armenians call it genocide, while Turkey insists it was the result of warfare.

In September, Gul became the first Turkish president in history to visit Armenia. Gul had sent congratulations to Serge Sargsyan upon his election as Armenia's president, and Gul in turn was invited to attend a soccer match between the Turkish and Armenian teams in Yerevan. Both leaders faced strong domestic opposition to the visit.

"Of course, I didn't just go to watch soccer," Gul said. "The major aim was to establish a climate in which we can operate from now on."

The goal is to work toward normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey and opening their border. Turkey also may be able to mediate the poisonous split between Armenia and a third Caucasus country, Azerbaijan; Armenia now occupies a large chunk of Azeri territory.

Progress on resolving these conflicts could have a positive spillover for the Russia-Georgia standoff and prospects for new pipelines. "Solving any (Caucasus) problem would affect us all positively," Gul said. Turkey's (and Armenia's) efforts are a brave try.

A second example is Turkey's mediation of peace talks between Syria and Israel. "We've worked hard to bring peace in the region," Gul said. "Recently, that work became more visible."

At a time when the United States preferred to isolate Syria, Turkey worked to get Syria and Israel back to the table (and kept Washington informed of the effort). Four rounds of private talks have taken place; they are now on hold as Israel forms a new government.

A Syria-Israel peace would end the current alliance between Syria and Iran and undercut Hezbollah, forcing Tehran to rethink its policies in the region. Such an outcome could also help resurrect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The bottom line: The next U.S. president should encourage Turkey's mediation and take a cue from its soft-power efforts. Turkey's diplomacy has opened up new possibilities for its American ally.

• Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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