"Turkey Creates Balance in the Middle East"

Turkey's foreign policy has been under the spotlight in recent months, with many Western commentators expressing concern about a perceived swing toward a more Middle Eastern orientation. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu speaks to Ayşe Karabat about his country's new regional role

By Ayşe Karabat

Turkey's foreign policy has been under the spotlight in recent months, with many Western commentators expressing concern about a perceived swing toward a more Middle Eastern orientation. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu speaks to Ayşe Karabat about his country's new regional role

"The more we democratize, the more confident we become." – Ahmet Davutoğlu, Professor of Political Science and International relations, was appointed Turkey's top diplomat in May 2009

​​In the past Turkey was not involved in inter-Arab conflicts, but now just the opposite is the case. What changed, what is the aim of this recent involvement? Ahmet Davutoğlu: It is true that in the past Turkish foreign policy preferred to remain at a distance from inter-Arab conflicts, a policy that may have been reasonable in the past, but not any more. Now we sometimes step in with regards to inter-Arab conflicts, because we know that sometimes tension between two countries can affect stability in the whole region and lead to further regional problems. Our intercession is not considered interference from the outside; it is perceived as mediation from within. Sometimes Arab countries seeking to legitimize some of their policies attempt to gain Turkey's backing. Turkey is now a country creating balance in Middle Eastern politics. If we are able to do so, then there are two main reasons for this: first, our strong economy and second, our democratization process. In the past, those who could speak Russian were considered communist and thus seen as a threat. The number of public officials who can speak Armenian or Arabic is also small. Today, we have removed such perceptions. The more we democratize, the more confident we become. I will give you another example: We have also decided to ask the European Union to lift visa requirements altogether, not just ease them; it is long overdue. Do you know when Europeans began asking for visas? On 5 October 1980, just weeks after the military coup on 12 September. The visa regime towards us was the product of undemocratic rule in Turkey and it is time to demand that it be changed.

Politics of "zero problems with neighbors" and "maximum cooperation": Turkey is redefining its role in the region

​​You have set "zero problems with neighbors" and "maximum cooperation" as the main targets of your foreign policy, but are they realistic, especially in a region like the Middle East? Davutoğlu: Yes, they are our main targets. But first of all, of course, there should be a reciprocity of political will. And we don't mean that we will not have problems, but that we can develop our relations in such a way that rather than producing problems they will provide a suitable atmosphere in which to solve them. Reintegration is the most important issue for us. If you concentrate on risks and imaginary threats, you will always see danger. We are trying to eliminate these imaginary risks and reintegrate the region. Of course there are risks, but our perception should not be based on crises but on being vision-oriented. This vision has four principles: economic interdependence, a common security understanding, high-level strategic dialogue and the coexistence of multicultural, multi-religious life. If we were cooperating in our region, the situation would be totally different. This might seem like a utopia to you, but imagine that for the next 20 years we have stability in the region and no tension. We would be richer than any other emerging powers. There is some skepticism regarding the intentions of your policies; some claim Turkey is trying to buy a ticket into EU via its good relations with the Middle East, while others say it is targeting a return of "Ottoman" hegemony to the region.

Tension between two countries can affect stability in the whole region, says Davutoğlu. Consequently Turkey engaged in easing Iraq-Syria tensions. Pictured: the Foreign Ministers of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey at a meeting in Istanbul

​​Davutoğlu: In our endeavors, we neither seek prestige nor pursue self-interest; our aim is to promote regional ownership and a unified regional approach. Countries cannot change their history and geography, but they can reinterpret and rediscover them, and it is time for the countries in the Middle East to do this. There are rising powers in the world, and if the countries of the region are not cooperating in a way that will bring prosperity, it is inevitable that the region will become the scene of struggle between [these] rising powers. The region belongs to us. This is our home. We should decide on how to organize it, and no one should impose their view on others. Nor should we lay the blame on others, their colonialism and their imperialism. We should take our destiny into our own hands, and for this we need full cooperation and regional integration. The foundation for it is in our history and geography. In our region will we compete and fight with one another, making all these powers richer and richer by their controlling our resources and manpower – or will we combine our assets in order to bring back the golden era, which produced so many of the world's important civilizations? Turkey is trying to mediate between Western powers and Iran regarding the nuclear dispute. Do you think your efforts will be enough to prevent further conflict? Davutoğlu: We want no nuclear armament in our region, regardless of who has it, but we are also defending the right to have nuclear facilities for peaceful reasons. We have had many meetings and contacts with Iranian officials. There were several options on the table. As you recall, there were suggestions that a third place like Turkey could be a venue for exchanging the low-grade enriched uranium of Iran with higher-grade fuel. We are ready to do anything we can to contribute to the process.

"Of course there are risks, but our perception should not be based on crises but on being vision-oriented." Ahmet Davutoğlu and Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki in Teheran

​​Recently I was in Iran for talks. What I understand is that for internal reasons Iran wants this exchange to take place in its territory initially, and that Turkey can also be involved in this process. However, we are against any tough sanctions on Iran or a military campaign that might harm the stability of the region. We think diplomacy still has a chance of succeeding. The Middle East peace process is another subject in which Turkey is involved; how do you see things progressing on this front? Davutoğlu: We don't need a road map; we need the end of the road. And the international Quartet [of senior representatives from the US, Russia, EU and UN] were no longer relevant in efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian side is not sufficiently represented in the Quartet. There should be a clear vision of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian state should be recognized. People need to stop saying "roadmap". We want the end of the road, not more new processes without timeframes. There can be no solution without unity first being achieved among our Palestinian brothers. We appreciate Egypt's efforts to ease disagreements between rival Palestinian groups and we are ready to offer our help. There was no coherent government in Israel either. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak do not share a common vision on the future. Settlement is not possible as long as such rifts persist. Then, the Western countries need to be told that the decades-old [Israeli] invasion must end. There must be a solution based on the pre-1967 borders. Peace efforts must now have a very clear political goal. And for these efforts to be successful, Israel must be brought to the table. But on the other hand some of Turkey's relations, for example those with Hamas, Sudan and Iran, have come under criticism due to these parties' human rights records. Don't you think relations with Turkey only serve to encourage them? Davutoğlu: Well, those who appear critical of us sometimes come to us in order to benefit from the relations we have. For example, Turkish involvement and engagement was requested to ensure NGOs were able to work in Sudan. For humanitarian reasons, Turkey's diplomatic activity had been conducted in secret several times, and we assisted in the release of some arrested people or hostages, but I don't want to give details. And of course we tell our counterparts the importance of respect for human rights. But we don't do it in public; this is a requirement of sincerity. Sometimes opposition groups or leaders from different countries meet in Istanbul and have contacts with Turkish officials. But our message to those countries from which this opposition comes is also very clear: "Nothing can take place in Turkey that might harm you, but you have to tolerate opposition." Those countries are also certain of our good faith and have full confidence in our message. We know how best to distinguish respect for human rights from terrorism. When Turkey became a member of the United Nations Security Council, the very first order I gave to officials was to participate in all the meetings concerning human rights at the UN. I said that we should talk about human rights as a priority. We cannot have any hesitation on this issue. Interview conducted by Ayşe Karabat © Qantara.de 2010

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