At the end of Casablanca, when Rick and Louis walked off into the fog, Renault says “ I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is walking off into the sunset with many Islamist Middle Eastern leaders saying “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship.”
When President Barack Obama announced the decision to withdraw military forces from Iraq, circumstances in the Middle East immediately changed.
Turkey is a multi dimensional political player in the Middle Eastern chess game. She sits on the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Bosporus, and shares a maritime border with the former USSR. Her contiguous neighbors are Bulgaria and Greece on the European side of the Bosporus and on the Asian side Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan elevates himself as an assertive player. In September 2011 Turkey agreed to station high powered U.S. radar on its territory as part of a missile defense system to protect NATO allies from the threat of long range Iranian rockets. As Turkey refuses to share data with Israel; the radar systems will operate separately. The system will be integrated with U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers equipped with Aegis ballistic missile defense systems.
Turkey faces a challenge with Kurdish Separatists. They want self determination. Turkey considers this a threat. During WWI, elimination of Kurdish identity was accomplished by deportations, death marches and forced Turkification. According to the Journal of Genocide Research, more than 350,000 Kurds perished. This was similar to the Armenian marches at the time. Currently about 18% of the population is Kurdish. The primary Kurdish populations are in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, they live around the triangle where the three countries meet.
Kurds carry out ongoing attacks on Turkish military. The conflict has intensified. On October 20, 2011 an attack at the Turkish Iraqi border killed at least 24 Turkish soldiers.
President Erdogan said “Whoever in secret or openly supports terrorism, the breath of the Turkish State will be on their necks.” Turkey responded with attacks involving warplanes, and 10,000 troops which pursued the militants over the border into Iraq. Erdogan does not tolerate Kurdish terrorist attacks in Turkey on military targets; however he condones attacks on innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas from Gaza.
For decades Turkey was one of the United States’ most dependable allies. Now the region is in turmoil. A void left by declining American power, is being filled by Erdogan. He challenges America on two important issues: Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli Palestinian peace process.
Erdogan is building connections throughout the region. He does this by creating economic integration with roads, railroads, airports, oil and gas pipelines. For Arabs Erdogan is becoming a regional hero.
Azerbaijan was elected to the non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council in October 2011. Subsequently, President Ilham Aliyev and Prime Minister Erdogan have created a Strategic Cooperation Council between their countries.
Agreements were signed in Izmir between Azerbaijan and Turkey which remove remaining hurdles to the Southern Gas Corridor. This involved Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR and the Turkish pipeline company BOTAS. Energy Ministers from each country signed intergovernmental agreements on the sale and transportation of Azerbaijani gas to and through Turkey.
Each day 1500 trucks bring Turkish goods into Iraq. Trade between the two countries last year was more than $6 billion. It is a huge and growing export market for Turkey. The Nabucco gas pipeline project is an $11 billion project that will bring Iraqi gas to Europe through Turkey. The Turks also have stakes in other oil and gas projects that all organized in Basra, Iraq. Turkish companies have refurbished the Sheraton Hotel in Basra and Turkish Air has four flights a week between Istanbul and Basra. They sell amusement rides and candy and opened an international Fair Ground organized for Iraq’s petroleum industry. Turkish companies make up 75% of all foreign companies in Iraq. There are four Turkish Consulates in Iraq.
Erdogan continues a hostile stance towards Israel. He blockades Armenia and attacks Kurdish rebels. However he faults Israel for the Gaza blockade and takes the side of Hamas terrorists in Gaza. Erdogan threatens military action regarding gas fields in the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel. He backs Lebanon in a dispute of previously agreed upon maritime borders with the United Nations. Turkish war ships are off the north coast of Cyprus in an effort to thwart drilling of discovered gas fields in the area. Turkey maintains 30,000 troops in Northern Cyprus which Turkey calls Turkish Cyprus, something which no nation legally acknowledges.
Last month Erdogan went to Egypt for meetings with the top military leaders seeking strategic alliances and diplomatic ties between Egypt and Turkey. During this trip he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He has also visited Jordan’s King Abdullah II. In Istanbul last week Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan agreed to hold military drills together.
It is speculated whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks the greatness of the former Ottoman Empire. Perhaps Erdogan believes that he is the reincarnation of the 16th century Islamist, Suleiman the Magnificent!