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The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, arrived in Egypt yesterday at the start of a three-nation tour as Turkey toughens its stance towards Israel and seeks to become the predominant power among Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa.
After Egypt, Erdogan will visit Tunisia and Libya to show Turkey’s support for both countries after the overthrow of long-standing police states in the Arab Spring. Turkey’s strong, democratic and mildly Islamic regime makes it a model for new governments in all three countries.
Erdogan’s assertive and critical attitude towards Israel, until recently a close ally of Turkey, makes him attractive to the Arab world. In Cairo, the burning down of the Israeli embassy last weekend was the latest incident marking the hostility at street level between post-Mubarak Egyptians and Israel.
At the same time, the perception among Arab states that President Barack Obama has failed to help the Palestinians, while lending Israel his total support, has diminished US popularity and influence in the region.
Erdogan said in an interview before leaving for Cairo that he had seen “grounds for war” against Israel last year after nine Turks had been killed by Israeli commandos on the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara bound for Gaza, but had “decided to act with patience”. He hinted that in future the Turkish navy would protect any Turkish aid flotilla going to Gaza.
“Turkey will get most of what it wants if it does not overplay its hand,” said one commentator. Turkey has already imposed sanctions on Israel in retaliation for the aid-boat raid, but according to his aides Erdogan appears to have abandoned, for the moment, his declared long-term intention to visit Gaza.
Turkey has benefited from the Arab Spring because it is likely to be in tune with new democratic governments, even when it had good relations with their predecessors.
The country can also move to fill a vacuum since most of the more powerful Arab states, such as Egypt and Syria, are weaker than they were before their governments were overthrown. Iraq has never recovered from the rule of Saddam Hussein and the violence that followed.
In sharp contrast to Iran, Turkey has few serious enemies. It has sought to mediate over Iran’s nuclear program between the Iranian government, which it regards with suspicion, and the US and Europeans. The two countries also have a common foe in the shape of festering Kurdish insurgencies which engage in persistent guerrilla attacks. An attack by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas in Hakkani Province in eastern Turkey overnight killed five people, including two security men.
The PKK has killed about 50 Turkish security personnel in recent weeks since it ended its ceasefire earlier in the year. Although Erdogan has brought the Turkish army under civilian control, his government does not want to look weak in any confrontation with the PKK.
It is putting pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, to isolate the PKK from its mountain strongholds inside Iraq. Mr Barzani, who would like Turkey as a counter-balance to Baghdad, has demanded in recent days that the PKK and the Kurdish guerrilla movement in Iran give up armed resistance.
Turkey has been playing an increasingly influential role in Iraqi politics because it is able to mediate between different parties, sects and ethnic groups. It also plays a growing commercial role: Turkish companies have even won contracts to collect the rubbish in Baghdad and Basra.
In Syria, Erdogan has criticised President Bashar al-Assad’s repression of protests, probably calculating that his regime is not going to survive, at least in its present form. Similarly in Libya, Turkey was at first slow to break with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but when it did so, it advanced $300m to the rebels at a time when they were short of money. Turkey was heavily involved in construction in Libya.
Overall, the isolation of Israel, the democratic uprisings in the Arab world, the weakness of the Arab states, and the diminished strength of the US in the region have all worked to Turkey’s advantage.
Its influence is growing throughout the region but it is a long way from being in control of events.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq and Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq