Turkey Steps Up Role As Regional Broker

Representatives of countries aiding Libya's rebel government are meeting in Turkey Thursday. Turkey has tried to position itself as both role model and mediator not only with Libya, but with Syria as well. Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group talks to David Greene about Turkey, and the role it is playing as a regional broker.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Representatives of countries who are aiding Libya's rebel government are meeting in Turkey today. Turkey has tried to position itself as both role model and mediator, not only with Libya, but with Syria, as well.

To learn more about Turkey's attempts to play regional broker, we turn to Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Good morning.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Good morning.

GREENE: Well, let's start with Libya, which we just heard about. Turkey went from opposing the NATO intervention in Libya to providing hundreds of millions of dollars to support the rebels. Why the dramatic shift?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, one could look at it as a matter of good political sense. Once Turkey - which at first was really opposed to the military intervention. It went against its own philosophy of against foreign involvement - and in favor of the kind of mediation that it's tried to exercise throughout the region. But once it saw the tide turning, once it saw that popular opinion - in Libya, but also in Turkey - was turning against Gadhafi, it sort of made its calculation that it wanted to be on a winning side.

And that's sort of one of the things we see in Turkish diplomacy: attempts to skillfully change course when circumstances dictate it.

GREENE: Well, let's turn to Syria, if we can. Turkey's foreign minister was in Damascus last week and told Syria to end the attacks on protestors.

Mr. MALLEY: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: What is Turkey's interest in Syria? These countries have been allies.

Mr. MALLEY: Well, that's right. I mean, in the case of Libya, the main interest was economic and financial. In the case of Syria, it's that and much more. They have a common border. They have a long history of cultural and population exchanges, and there's the risk that Syria has posed in the past of destabilizing Turkey, whether it's through support for Kurdish rebels or simply because of how close the two countries are.

So for the past several years, the new Turkish leadership under Prime Minister Erdogan has invested huge amount of time, huge amount of capital in trying to create a new, much better relationship with Syria.

Syria was supposed to be the cornerstone of a new regional economic policy with Syria and Jordan and Lebanon. And so that investment is now being tested, because if President Bashar falls, what would happen to the relationship between the two countries? So Turkey has been torn between trying to preserve that relationship, but also, as in the case of Libya, seeing that the tide is turning, that popular opinion in Syria is decisively turning against the regime, and Turkey has had this notion of having zero problems with its neighbors: no problems with Syria, no problems with Iran, no problem with Saudi Arabia. That policy cannot survive when regimes are at war with their own people, because then you have to choose: general problems with the regime, or no problems with the people.

GREENE: Well, take us into the next year or five years. I mean, if Turkey's wanted to keep this zero-problems-mentality approach, do they totally have to rethink that as a regional strategy?

Mr. MALLEY: I think they've had to rethink it, for two reasons: Number one, they have to choose between having, as I just said, no problems with the people or with the regime. And Turkey's smart enough to read the region. It's seeing that people are coming out on top. And so if you want to have zero problems, you're going to have to look at where the people are going. But they also have to decide: Do they want to have zero problems with the current regimes, or with the regimes that might follow? And the more they are associated with a regime like Bashar Assad, or in the past with Muammar Gaddafi, the less they're going to be able to have good relations with the regimes that would have toppled them.

GREENE: Turkey has often been viewed as this model, bringing democracy and Islam together. Do you see any of the revolutionary movements in the region drawing inspiration from Turkey and what they've accomplished?

Mr. MALLEY: Well, yes and no. I mean, Turkey has been a perpetual balancing act, at least for the last few years. It's balancing between very strong relations with the West. I mean, this is a country that's a member of NATO, that has very good relations with Washington, and whose trade pattern is much more directed towards Europe than it is towards the Arab world, but also is a bridgehead to the Arab world.

It's a large Muslim country. It has the history of the Ottoman Empire. It's balancing between an Islamist government, but also a government, as I said, that has good relations with the West. And it's balancing in a country that has a strong military, and a military that wants to preserve its role, but a civilian form of government. And that's the kind of model that Turkey wants to present to the world, and which frankly, many in the west would like Turkey to present in the world.

But at the same time, if Turkey overreaches, if it becomes too overbearing, there could well be a resentment building in the Arab world, and we're seeing some of that already. So Turkey has to be careful. It's a model, but it only can go so far.

GREENE: Robert Malley is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program for the International Crisis Group. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. MALLEY: Thanks for having me.

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GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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