Turkey: Rising from margins to centre stage

By Catherine Field

Turkey has become the linchpin in crises involving neighbours Syria, Iraq and Iran.

For half a century, Turkey occupied a marginal place in Western minds as a poor but frontline state in the Cold War, a country with leaders who were nasty ... but dependable.

For Turkey, the future lay only in the European Union. It put in a membership bid that the EU viewed with all the enthusiasm of a vintage-car collector being offered a rusting Austin Allegro.

But today, Turkey ranks in the top tier of countries in strategic importance. A giant straddling the crossroads of three regions, Turkey has become an economic powerhouse and the linchpin in crises involving neighbours Syria, Iraq and Iran.

The new Turkey, say analysts Nathalie Tocci of Italy's Institute of International Affairs and Dimitar Bechev of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has no problem in believing it can go its own way. Opinion polls say its public is getting fed up with Europe's sermonising for meeting the conditions of EU membership, and many mock the EU's failures to resolve its own crisis.

Turkey's economy has grown fivefold in a decade, helped in great part by a river of petrodollars from fellow Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf. Per capita income for its 79 million people has doubled over the same period.

"Turkey feels empowered - no longer on the European periphery, but at the centre of its own world, spanning from North Africa and the Middle East all the way to the Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia," Tocci and Bechev write in a new essay.

As Turkey prepared in April to host talks on Iran's controversial nuclear programme, Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen predicted the country would play "an increasingly important role" in the Atlantic alliance, supported by its historical and cultural weight and geographical position.

Turkey exerts huge clout in the Syrian crisis. The two countries share an 800km border across which more than 100,000 Syrian refugees have fled. The porous frontier is also a furtive transit route to arm Gulf-backed Sunnis fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The architect of Turkey's rise is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party swept to power in democratic elections in 2002. Erdogan is widely believed to have his eyes on the presidency after his third term expires.

Erdogan has extended Turkey's influence throughout the Middle East, gaining popularity for standing up to Israel and backing the Palestinians. He has made useful contacts with Iran, but relations are tense because of differences over Syria, and the risks of armed conflict will rise if a power vacuum occurs post-Assad. The dominant Sunni and Iranian-backed Shia groups would fight for control and each may take revenge against Assad's Alawite minority.

Syria's Kurds - whose kinfolk in Turkey are a thorn in Ankara's side - would step up their fight for independence, creating a de-facto state as they have already done in northern Iraq. Balkanisation of Syria would throw up temptations for powerfully-armed Turkey to intervene on the grounds of national interest, says Saban Kardas of Ankara's TOBB University.

Turkey "is a fertile breeding ground for the nationalist myths and conspiracy theories that may eventually haunt its regional policies," he wrote in an analysis for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.


Turkey

Region: Laps southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia.

Capital: Ankara with 3.8 million. Istanbul is the biggest city with 10.3 million.

Population: 79.7 million.

People: Turkish 70-75 per cent, Kurdish 18 per cent. Muslim 99.8 per cent, mostly Sunni.

Leaders: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured), President Abdullah Gul.

Politics: Turkey joined the UN in 1945 and Nato in 1952. In 1964, Turkey became an associate member of the European Community. It began accession membership talks with the European Union in 2005.

Unemployment: 9.8 per cent

- CIA Factbook

- NZ Herald

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