Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdoğan has embarked on a three-country visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. What could be the motives of such a visit and what can be said about its timing?
There is no doubt that Mr. Erdoğan wants to experience the Arab Spring firsthand and possibly help the ushering in of the “Arab Summer.” Turkey has come a long way in establishing its democracy and getting rid of the bureaucracy that overshadows its politics. The Turkish prime minister has a lot to offer these Arab countries in establishing democracy and building popular governments. Turkey has an interest in making sure that it is really a political spring rather than autumn as signs of backsliding and counter-revolution are becoming visible. Dictatorships are neither reliable as allies nor stable.
The second aim of the visit is to build an alternative system of alliance to that of Israel. While the US, EU and NATO want Israel and Turkey to reconcile their differences and go back to their previous camaraderie, the two countries have forsaken such an opportunity to show how strong and unbending they are. Israel refused to apologize and pay compensation to the families of the people it killed during an assault on a humanitarian aid ship destined for Gaza last year. This was its way of showing how strong and unyielding it is. In return Turkey added another (third) condition to its list of demands to repair relations with Israel. The Turkish prime minister wants Israel to end its blockade on Gaza.
It is obvious that Israel will reject the demand, on the grounds that Gaza has been taken over by the terrorist organization Hamas and that it threatens Israel's security. It will support its claim -- as it always does -- with its military capability. This attitude makes Israel the strongman of the Middle East. At least that is what the Israelis think; their retaliatory power is subduing neighboring potential threats for the time being.
Turkey also wants to be considered part of the same region. There is no doubt that there will be a power struggle between the two countries. They both want to be the leading power in the Levant and they want to consolidate their power by building political and economic alliances.
Israel and the government of the south Cypriot republic have agreed to explore gas and oil in the high seas of the east Mediterranean. Upon Turkey's declaration of discontent, not only did these two countries emphasize their resolve, but Greece joined Israel and Greek Cyprus in support of their quest. No doubt Erdoğan is trying to balance this alliance of interest with another alliance of interest by striking deals with Egypt. A reformed (post-Assad) Syria and northern Iraq may soon join this economic zone of interest. This prospective political and economic crescent may not only prosper, but also restrain Israel, which acts like an unruly maverick.
How can Prime Minister Erdoğan's visit to the eastern Mediterranean be interpreted? It is definitely a search for strategic balance. His tour has three aims: 1) To create a zone of influence in the Levant. 2) To strike economic and diplomatic deals that will enhance Turkey's power in the region. 3) To build a preemptive alliance against Israel.
Mr. Erdoğan is aiming for the hearts of the Arab people, who were recently freed from their homegrown tyranny. He knows that governments are ephemeral in the volatile Middle East and that the Arab people feel resentful of Israel for what it has done to the Palestinians. These unjust and mostly lethal acts have never been penalized nor stopped by the West. Erdoğan, for the Arab people, represents a country that is modernizing without following the Western way. This is an alternative way of development for the Muslim countries that have a colonial past with the West.
Tunisia and Libya are countries in the phase of state-building or transformation. Emotionally and economically investing in their future may yield positive political and economic payoffs. After all the Mediterranean Sea is a natural highway. Turkey has recently been realizing this fact and wants to use its civilian and military maritime capacity to reconnect with the people it had very close relationships with in the past. This is a larger framework of vision which Turkey abandoned in the post-republican era.
We will see more of Turkey in the Levant and no doubt it will evoke the wrath and competitive resistance of other contenders for power in the region. There are risks and advantages ahead.