There's a historic echo in the fact that Turkey is being tapped to provide the troops to keep the peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the latest Gaza cease-fire proposals: for hundreds of years, Istanbul was the seat of power for an empire that, among other things, maintained tranquility between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land. But since its founding in 1923, modern Turkey has shied away from any involvement with the Muslim world, once ruled by the Ottomans, instead orienting its foreign policy firmly toward the West. The predominantly Muslim nation is officially secular it's a longtime U.S. ally and NATO member and it's currently in a tortuous process of negotiations over eventual accession to the European Union. In the Middle East, until now, Turkey has been largely invisible.
But a combination of the failure of the long-established Western and Arab players to manage Israel's conflicts with its neighbors and a seismic political shift underway in Turkey has prompted Ankara to seek to restore some of the regional clout enjoyed by its Ottoman forebears. Since its election in 2002, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has renewed political and trade relations across the Middle East, promoting itself as a mediator in long-standing conflicts. It achieved a breakthrough in May by bringing together Syria and Israel for their first direct talks in eight years, and it played a role in resolving the dangerous presidential standoff in Lebanon earlier in 2008. (See images of Gaza's agony.)
"Turkey is playing a far more proactive role in the region; we recognize that," says a Western diplomat based in Ankara. "A country that is Muslim but secular, with close links to the West and Israel but also good relations with Arab countries, is obviously very helpful in terms of mediation and promoting regional solutions to regional problems."
After Israel began its offensive in Gaza 12 days ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Arab leaders in Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to promote a cease-fire. He also spoke to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and this week Erdogan's Foreign Minister is promoting truce proposals at the United Nations, where Turkey is starting a two-year term as a member of the Security Council.
Turkey is the only country in the region with strong military and economic ties to Israel, which supplies Ankara with defense equipment estimated at $100 million annually. The two countries also have a long-established relationship of intelligence cooperation. So, though Erdogan lambasted Israel's Gaza attacks as a "crime against humanity," he also affirmed that long-term relations between the two countries would not suffer.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's chief foreign policy architect and Erdogan's top adviser, summarized Turkey's new strategy as "zero problems with its neighbors." The reclusive Davutoglu wrote last year: "A central country with such an optimal geographic location cannot define itself in a defensive manner. It should be seen neither as a bridge country, which only connects two points, nor a frontier country, nor indeed as an ordinary country, which sits at the edge of the Muslim world or the West."
Ankara's changed orientation is not without its detractors. Secularist Turks, worried about what they see as Erdogan's Islamicizing agenda, accuse the government of pulling away from the West and abandoning its E.U. membership drive, pointing to controversial decisions like Ankara's hosting of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in 2006 as proof.
But others see such relations as key to a mediation role. "There can be no peace without Hamas," says political commentator Sahin Alpay. "So it's now clear that Turkey's decision to talk to all sides in the region, including Hamas, will have a positive payoff. By building itself up as a regional powerhouse who can talk to all parties, Turkey is actually enhancing its credibility in the eyes of the E.U. and U.S. It's making itself more indispensable."
One key area in which Turkey can contribute is by providing troops for a peacekeeping force in the Gaza Strip, where Western monitors might face hostility on the ground. "The military contribution is important," said the Western official. "Turkey has done a good job as part of military contingents in Lebanon and Afghanistan. Their ability to talk to all sides in the conflict [in Gaza] means they have real credibility, and as a NATO member they have a professional military, so [they] are well placed to be effective."
Turkish officials are pushing for an international peacekeeping force to supervise a new cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas and have offered to commit troops. Ankara has also offered its services to incoming U.S. President Barack Obama to act as a mediator between the U.S. and Iran. "If Obama pursues new policies in the Middle East, as is expected, Turkey could be a key supporting partner in building peace," says Alpay. Which is just how the Ottoman pashas of old would have had it.