Turkey: The France of the Middle East

There’s a real bitter irony to the fact that the historic visit of Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to Ankara was overshadowed by the diplomatic firestorm over the Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. In many ways, Turkey’s success in 2007 in getting the Bush administration to take seriously its concerns over Kurdish PKK militants camped out in northern Iraq was a turning point in Turkey’s emergence as a diplomatic force to be reckoned with in the region. That campaign included a very loud phase of sabre-rattling that culminated in the U.S. holding Barzani back as the Turks conducted cross-border air raids targeting PKK camps in the Qandil mountains. And that was just the latest in a long history of heavy-handed Turkish reprisal attacks against a terrorist outfit whose armed struggle was in defense of Turkey’s poorly treated Kurdish minority.

In other words, regardless of how justified the condemnation of Israel’s handling of the aid flotilla, in particular, and Gaza, in general, might be, there’s no small amount of hypocrisy, and an enormous amount of opportunism to Turkey taking such a vocal lead in those condemnations. And I say that as someone who has been on the record as being a real admirer of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Turkey’s foreign policy over the past few years.

That said, I think the backlash against Turkey is also a bit overblown. Every few years, there’s a collective recognition that Turkey is a friend and ally, one with its own agenda, and one not willing to bow down in submission to the U.S. The same thing happened in 2003 before the Iraq war, and a few times since then. But that usually gets expressed as a panicky sense that we’re “losing” Turkey. (And yes, I’ve been guilty of that in the past myself.) A good illustration from this week is this Steven Cook piece currently gaining traction. The body of the piece basically describes Turkish behavior that is consistent with its past independent stance, and even adds that for the most part U.S. and Turkish interests and agendas in the region align, even if the methods employed are not identical. But the piece’s takeaway calls Turkey a strategic competitor, and the subheadline calls Turkey our new regional rival.* That is just farfetched, to say the least.

Turkey is the France of the Middle East. A friend, willing to speak its mind, and one not willing to sacrifice its own interests for ours. We should be used to that by now.

*Note: Revised for clarity.