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Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Switching sides

Middle East | Turkey's embrace of extremist neighbors signals a new regional calculus

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

A major shift has taken place in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Turkey, a strategic ally of the West and Israel-and the only Muslim country in the region with a secular government besides fractured Iraq-has effectively signaled that it's leaving its Western friends and reorienting itself eastward.

In January, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland after accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres of "murdering children on beaches"-a reference to Israel's incursion into Gaza last December.

In early October, Turkey disinvited Israel to Anatolian Eagle-a war games exercise held annually with the United States and NATO. Two days later, Turkey invited Syria to joint military exercises instead. While verbal assaults against Israel are nothing new, October's events mark the first time Ankara's increasingly harsh rhetoric has spilled over into acts of foreign policy, and some analysts fear Turkey may be saying goodbye to the West.

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For decades Turkey has been hailed as a beacon of hope in the Middle East-proof that a majority Muslim country can maintain a secular and democratic government. While some Turks complained that it was too secular-churches often face difficulties obtaining permits and it is still unlawful for Muslim women to wear head coverings in government institutions-others warned that it's better for Turkey to err on the side of overt secularism than to lean toward Islamism.

The test came in 2002 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party with Islamist roots, came to power. Since then, analysts have watched to see if Erdogan's "moderate Islam" is a believable aspiration or a deceptive claim used for tactical gain. Initially, the AKP's influence brought increased religious freedom and much needed economic reform. But over time the AKP has moved its members into positions of influence; the controversial jockeying of Abdullah Gul into the presidential seat in 2007 caused a stir while other AKP advancements have been more gradual.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Erdogan has succeeded in gradually transforming the Turkish identity: "After seven years of the AKP's Islamist rhetoric, public opinion has shifted to embrace the idea of a politically united 'Muslim world.'" He cites independent polls showing that the number of Turks identifying themselves as Muslim increased by 10 percent between 2002 (the year Erdogan was elected as prime minister) and 2007. More than half of those polled described themselves as Islamists.

Historically, Turkey's military has been the guardian of the country's secular identity, forcefully moving in when Islamists step over the line. This version of "checks and balances" has eroded through a seven-year power struggle between the military and the government, and it now appears that the latter is steering the country's foreign policy.

What was for more than a decade a strong relationship with Israel-­supported by billion-dollar arms deals, military exercises, and intelligence transfers-has deteriorated under the AKP and been replaced by overtures to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, Damascus, and Tehran (Turkey openly supports Iran's nuclear weapons program). Even Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas didn't make the cut: AKP leaders have labeled him the "head of an illegitimate government," recognizing Hamas-a terrorist organization-as the rightful ruler over the Palestinian territories.

The transformation suggests more than a new political calculus, says Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post: "Part of the reason [for Turkey's embrace of Syria] is that the Turks have been carefully advancing the notion that Turkey may emerge as a neo-Ottoman caliphate. The Ottoman Empire controlled much of the Arab world, including Syria," Glick told me.

In her view, Turkey has already joined the Iranian axis: "[These events] give a great push to the most destabilizing countries in the region-Iran and Syria. Similarly, the U.S. and NATO now need to deal with the fact that a linchpin state in the Western alliance has effectively switched teams."

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