Turkey changes policy toward neighbors as EU 'promise' nears

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Turkey, in an attempt to follow European Union policy, has revised its policy toward Iran and Syria.

A report by the Washington Institute said Ankara's hopes to be accepted into the EU have affected Turkey's policy toward its neighbors. Rather than treat them as rogue states, the report said, Turkey now advocates the use of dialogue and engagement toward Damascus and Teheran.

"The dynamics of Turkish politics have transformed since Turkey received a 'promise' in December 2002 that the EU would decide on Ankara's application for membership in December 2004," the report said. "The sudden and likely prospect of EU accession has made the impossible possible in Ankara. Toward this end, the country has adopted dramatic political reforms to satisfy EU accession criteria."

The report came in wake of a three-day visit by Syrian President Bashar Assad to Turkey in January. Assad termed the visit historic and both countries said this would open a new chapter in their relations, Middle East Newsline reported.

Authored by Soner Cagaptay, a leading Turkish expert, the report said Ankara's position on Iran and Syria appears influenced by the EU. The report said Turkey has played down the harboring of Kurdish insurgents by Iran and Syria.

"With this in mind, Ankara's new attitude toward the Middle East is that Turkey will be nice to its neighbors as long as they are nice to Turkey," the report said. "With EU accession in mind, Turkey wants to treat its Middle Eastern neighbors a la Europe. Engagement and dialogue, rather than confrontation and containment, are the leitmotivs."

The report said the Turkish security establishment still regards Iran and Syria as bases for Al Qaida-related insurgency groups. Turkish intelligence determined that the masterminds of the November 2003 Al Qaida bombings in Istanbul were hiding in Syria as well as either in Georgia or Iran.

Another factor in the Syrian-Turkish rapproachment, the report said, was the influence of the Islamic-dominated government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. The report said Erdogan regards Turkey's Islamic neighbors as natural allies regardless of their previous support for the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, and Al Qaida-related groups.

The report warned that Turkey's foreign policy could encounter a crisis regarding policy toward Cyprus, which enters the EU in May 2004. The EU has linked Turkish accession to the solution of the divided Cypriot island, where more than 30,000 Turkish troops have been deployed.

"The greatest foreign policy problem in Turkey this year will be Cyprus, whose solution Brussels is making a condition for Turkey's EU accession," the report said. "With the liberals and Islamists pushing for a quick solution and the nationalists opposing, the outcome of this debate may also determine whether a new Turkish foreign policy consensus on Iran and Syria will survive the year 2004."

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