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Turkish Involvement Could Stimulate Middle East Development

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) seems intent on increasing Turkey's influence with such neighbors as Syria's President Bashar Assad (2nd right).
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) seems intent on increasing Turkey's influence with such neighbors as Syria's President Bashar Assad (2nd right).
In the Middle East, Turkey could play a leading role in resolving political conflicts; boosting economic cooperation and investment within the region; and supporting political, economic, and social reforms.

As the most democratic Muslim country in the Middle East, one with rich experience dealing with and adapting to Western institutions, Turkey is the best-suited Middle Eastern country to lead the effort to advance regional stability and development. The European Union and the international community should support Turkey in this role.

Ankara has demonstrated a consistent commitment to good relationships with all countries of the region, regardless of their domestic, regional, or international policies. Except for occasional military actions against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) pockets in northern Iraq that Ankara considers essential for its national security, Turkey has abstained from interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

After some years of hesitation, Ankara has begun improving relations with the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, a key factor in improving stability and security in that country. Turkey was also one of the first countries to contribute to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Turkish efforts over the last two years to mediate between Syria and Israel, the Lebanese groups, and, more recently, Palestinian organizations -- as well as its offer to mediate between Iran and the United States -- have met with limited success so far. But they have nonetheless underscored Turkey's capability and potentially suitable positioning to act as a regional leader.

While primarily leaning toward the West in the past, the Turkish government (controlled by the Justice and Development (AK) party) has -- especially over the last few years -- improved its relations and image among the Muslim countries of the region, occasionally at the cost of Western reservations or objections.

Leading The Middle East

Boosting economic relations and investment between Middle Eastern countries would -- especially if accompanied by relaxation of travel, residence, and work-permit limitations -- gradually contribute to the overall improvement of living standards, education, and social services in the region. The result would be the mitigation of the actual and potential dangers of extremism and ethnic conflict.

With its experience with its own democratic reforms (free and fair elections, media, education, privatization, and modernization), Turkey is in a position to help other Middle Eastern countries implement reforms. Doing so could also help Ankara unblock its own reform process and move ahead with EU-required measures that have been bogged down considerably for the last two years.

If the Middle East were developing economically and socially as a region and countries there had direct and growing interest in cooperation and integration, there would be much less grounds for repression, terrorism, and war.

The modalities of EU involvement in such a regional initiative remain undetermined, but it seems evident that a leading role for Turkey would be one of the best guarantees of success. Many Turkish officials have expressed a desire for greater Turkish engagement in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Ankara has signaled Washington's support for Turkey's role in the Middle East, and EU officials have seconded that support. The time seems ripe to build on these initiatives in order to keep the Middle East process active even as Brussels and Washington are preoccupied with immediate concerns closer to home.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary, which is a summary of an address he gave at the Fourth Annual Conference of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (Metropolitan University, Prague) are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL