Arab Spring Tests Turkey's Foreign Policy Goals

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Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party — or, AK Party — assured of a third term in power, is continuing to flex its diplomatic muscle in the region. But the upheavals of the Arab Spring, now stretching into summer, are providing a severe test to Turkey's foreign policy goal of "zero problems with the neighbors." There is a huge problem on the border with Syria at the moment, as thousands of Syrians flee a violent government crackdown. Analysts say Turkey doesn't seem to have any better notion for dealing with the uprisings than Western powers, but it can still be an inspiration to young Arab pro-democracy activists.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, secured a remarkable third term in office yesterday. And he did it thanks largely to the strength of Turkey's surging economy.

But there may be trouble ahead, the turmoil in much of the Arab world is challenging the country's economic and foreign policies. Of particular concern is Syria, on Turkey's southeastern border.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

(Soundbite of cheers)

PETER KENYON: As he thanked voters last night for returning his AK Party to power for a third consecutive term, Prime Minister Erdogan promised a bit more caution on domestic issues.

But when it came to foreign policy, Erdogan sounded as aggressive as ever, declaring that his victory was a win for the entire region.

(Soundbite of speech)

Prime Minister RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Turkey): (Through translator) Believe me, Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul. Beirut won as much as Izmir. Damascus won as much as Ankara. Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.

(Soundbite of cheers)

KENYON: Turkey's policy slogan - zero problems with the neighbors - has never been literally true. But recently, the problems have been multiplying. And nowhere are the issues hitting closer to home than in Syria. Erdogan invested a good deal of time and effort to develop a personal relationship with Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad and that is now in jeopardy.

The U.N. Refugee Agency puts the number of refugees who have poured into Turkey at nearly 7,000. After reports of a bloody battle between loyalist forces and what the government calls armed terrorists - Syrian activists say they're defecting soldiers who refuse to shoot their fellow citizens - more refugees are expected.

Erdogan's rhetoric has grown steadily harsher. He now accuses Damascus of committing atrocities and savage repression. Like the West, he has stopped short of calling on President Assad to step down.

Writer and analyst Mustafa Akyol says as the flow of goods across the Syrian border was dwarfed by the flow of terrified, traumatized refugees, Ankara was forced to react.

Mr. MUSTAFA AKYOL (Writer): The Arab Spring brought a new angle that Turkey had not foreseen before: what do you do when a country that you have good relations with starts to kill its own people? Turkey fell into this dichotomy between realpolitik and moralpolitik, as Americans always do.

KENYON: Turkey is hardly alone in improvising responses to the astonishing popular uprisings that have toppled two Arab dictators and are threatening at least two more.

But as a majority Muslim country with a huge investment in the region, as well as a historic legacy as an empire that ruled most of the Middle East for centuries, Turkey's actions attract a lot of attention.

(Soundbite of cafe)

KENYON: Analyst Hugh Pope with the International Crisis Group says Prime Minister Erdogan, newly empowered with a solid mandate at home, will probably continue to reshape the relationship with the Assad regime in Damascus, which has grown increasingly tense.

Mr. HUGH POPE (Analyst, International Crisis Group): They became very, very frustrated. And they're not making any secret of it anymore. I think, like everybody, they're leaving the door open a crack, hoping that - a miracle that Bashar al-Assad will see that the security option is actually bringing the house down around his ears. But I don't think that the regime in Damascus is listening to anybody right now.

KENYON: Pope says Syria has always known that its ties with Turkey were a double-edged sword, bringing in not only goods and services but a greater appreciation among the Syrian public for Turkish freedoms.

He says it can hardly have gone unnoticed in Damascus that Syrian demonstrators have been seen carrying Erdogan's picture. Still, Pope adds, those relations could also provide leverage for an effort to end the violence in the right circumstances.

Mr. POPE: Because one thing that makes Turkey different to the U.S. approach to the Middle East is that Turkey has a very broad relationship with Syria. I think that, at the end of the day, the prime minister is in a much stronger position. And I think it will be the guys in Damascus who will be watching very carefully what he does.

KENYON: As will leaders in Russia, Iran, Europe and the U.S., who have competing and often conflicting views on how turkey should deal with its troubled neighbor.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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