Turkey is turning towards the East

A lack of progress on accession to the EU in recent years has seen Ankara increasingly emphasise its ties with its Muslim neighbours

As one of the few countries in the world that can claim to span two continents, the question of whether Turkey’s identity lies with Europe or with the Middle East has become a perennial one.

During the Cold War, Turkey was a firm ally of the West. In 1952, it became a member of Nato, the Western alliance founded in 1949 on the principle of mutual protection in case of aggression by a third party. By the early 1960s, Turkey was being used as a base for US medium-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. When Washington offered to withdraw the missiles as a means of resolving the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Ankara was vocally opposed.

Turkey balancing alliances

Today, Turkey is still a key Nato member. As a proportion of gross domestic product, its military spending is the fifth-highest in the organisation, at 1.9 per cent in 2010. That year, it increased its defence budget by 1.2 per cent, while two-thirds of Nato members cut military expenditure. Turkey has contributed troops to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. And not only does it remain a base for US tactical nuclear missiles, in contrast to other European Nato members, it is also a strong proponent of their presence being maintained.

In recent years, however, Ankara has demonstrated an increasing willingness to break with the priorities of its allies in the West. At the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the Turkish parliament was obstinate in its refusal to allow US ground troops to move into northern Iraq through eastern Turkey. And in a period when US relations with Iran and Syria have become increasingly strained, it has treated Tehran and Damascus as partners, rather than adversaries.

In 2010, Israel’s deadly action against an aid flotilla sent from Turkey in an attempt to break the siege of Gaza brought condemnation from leading government officials in Ankara. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated rapidly thereafter, despite Israel being a key ally of Washington.

In March 2011, when the US proposed handing responsibility of the implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya to Nato, Ankara was against the idea. “Military intervention by Nato in Libya or any other country would be totally counterproductive,” said Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, at the time. “Such an operation could have dangerous consequences.”

The sense that Ankara’s focus is moving away from the West has been accentuated by the failure of negotiations on Turkey’s membership of the EU. Since Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) first came to power in 2002, the government has pressed earnestly for EU membership and Turkey remains an accession candidate. But while Europe has responded with encouraging words, the lack of any concrete progress speaks volumes about the reluctance of key member states, such as France and Germany, to match rhetoric with action.

In the meantime, Ankara’s relationship with the Middle East has gone from strength to strength.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.