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Where Turkey Can Help

Turkey seems to be turning its attentions to the more remote regions of the globe, where cultural and ethnic connections run deep.
Turkey seems to be turning its attentions to the more remote regions of the globe, where cultural and ethnic connections run deep.
Much has been made of Turkey’s pretensions of being a regional, if not global, power. Given the Islamist roots of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), some are justifiably uneasy about the specter of Turkish power, and deride the AKP's aspirations as a function of "neo-Ottoman" impulses.

The country's attempt at EU membership foiled for the foreseeable future, Turkey is looking eastward, forging new relationships with erstwhile foes like Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly wild, anti-Israel rhetoric (telling Israeli President Shimon Peres last year at Davos that "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill") has not endeared him to U.S. policymakers, who have long viewed the Jewish state as the United States' sole, reliable ally in a tough neighborhood.

Yet Turkey has many boosters in the United States, who urge that Washington should welcome a rising Turkey, which they say could serve as a perfect mediator between West and East given its status as one of the world's largest Muslim democracies and its geographic location as the bridge linking Europe to the Arab world. This is the thrust of former "New York Times" correspondent Stephen Kinzer's new book, "Reset: Iran, Turkey, And America's Future," which calls upon the United States to downgrade its traditional alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia in favor of ones with Iran and Turkey.

Kinzer's prescription is as rosy as it is unrealistic, given the militantly anti-American and theocratic ideology of the Iranian mullahs and the illiberal values expressed by large sectors of Turkish society, rejecting the country's officially secular character. And much of Turkey's foreign policy under the AKP has indeed been harmful to U.S. interests. Witness, for instance, its repeated efforts to weaken international sanctions against Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program, or its attempt earlier this year to veto the appointment of former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO secretary-general over his refusal to apologize for a Dutch cartoonist's images of the Prophet Muhammad.

The near-severing of its relationship with Israel, once considered the ne plus ultra of Muslim-Jewish diplomatic cooperation, while warming up to the likes of Syria and Iran, is also a sign that its foreign policy is moving in a troubling direction (last week, a policy paper produced by the country's National Security Council removed Syria, Armenia, and Iran from the list of countries that pose a threat, while adding Israel).

None of this is to say that Turkey cannot play a constructive role in world affairs, and that the United States should not welcome its rise as a cultural and economic power. It’s just that Turkey should turn its attentions elsewhere, to the more remote regions of the globe where it boasts cultural and ethnic links. And it seems to be doing just that.

Turkey's Role As Reconciler

Take a look at the event it quietly hosted last month in Kyrgyzstan, which was the scene of a revolution and ethnically driven rioting over the past year. On the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, Turkey convened a "Conference On Interaction And Confidence-Building Measures In Asia," which brought together leaders of the Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic communities, the latter of which bore the brunt of violence in June that led to the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of 400,000. Presided over by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the conference also included participation from Kyrgyzstan's political leadership.

Reconciliation between Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks is the most urgent task in Kyrgyzstan right now, and also the most difficult. One meeting won't make old wounds and animosities -- so strong that they result in widespread atrocities -- go away. But Turkey is uniquely placed to foster precisely this kind of dialogue. Kyrgyz and Uzbeks both trace their ancestry back to the inhabitants of the Turkic steppe, and both the Kyrgyz and Uzbek languages are Turkic. Turkish products and culture are ubiquitous in both lands, and Turkey is widely viewed as a neutral, friendly country in the way that Russia (the former occupier from Soviet times) or the United States (a bewildering, blundering outsider) is not.

The Balkans -- which, prior to the formation of Yugoslavia, was part of the Ottoman Empire for five centuries -- is another region where Turkey is playing a helpful role. The impetus for Turkey's diplomatic initiative, aside from a general desire to extend its influence, was the strain that its 2008 support for Muslim-majority Kosovo's independence caused in Serbia, which has strongly opposed the former province becoming a sovereign state. Since that time, Turkey has played a busy role in the Balkans, facilitating summits between the region’s leaders.

In April, Serbian President Boris Tadic and his Bosnian counterpart, Haris Silajdzic, shook hands for the first time under the auspices of a meeting held in Istanbul by Turkish President Abdullah Gul. It was at that summit that Tadic announced his intention to venture to the Bosnian village of Srebrenica and issue a formal apology on the 15th anniversary of the massacre in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. Tadic furthermore announced his support for Bosnia's joining the European Union and congratulated it for receiving a Membership Action Plan for NATO. Much of this progress is, of course, due to Tadic himself, who has made Westward integration a priority (consider, for instance, his support for last month’s gay-rights march in Belgrade, which was held amidst violent riots that caused over $1 million worth of damage).

But Turkey deserves credit too. Within Orthodox Christian Serbia, Turkey played a crucial role last year mediating a violent dispute between rival, Muslim political factions in the country's Muslim-majority Sandzak region. According to a former official in the Office of the High Representative (the institution responsible for overseeing implementation of the 1995 Dayton accords) interviewed by "The Wall Street Journal": "If you compare the solo Turkish diplomatic efforts to everyone else's in the past six months, they are the only people who got anything done at all."

Turkey's role in forging ethnic understanding in a Central Asian backwater may not earn it plaudits from the Muslim street, which is what Erdogan's relentless slamming of Israel and cozying up to Iran and Syria is aimed at garnering. But it is precisely the sort of diplomacy that a Turkey serious about its role in the world should pursue.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL