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Turkey hopes to grow economic ties and influence within Middle East

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By Janine Zacharia

Washington Post Foreign Service

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY — Since Turkey and Syria eliminated border restrictions several months ago, the crowds of Syrians at the glittering Sanko Park Mall in this southeastern Turkish city have grown tenfold. Exports from Gaziantep to Syria are booming, and rich Turkish businessmen are stepping up their investments across the border.

“There’s no difference between Turks and Syrians,” said Olfat Ibrahim, a 35-year-old Syrian construction engineer with bags of goods in hand. She said she has stepped up her visits across the border since the lifting of visa requirements. “Syria is Turkey.”

The thriving trade is a sign of Turkey’s rising influence with Syria, part of its effort to reach out to neighboring countries to build economic ties it hopes will also stabilize political relationships and expand its influence in the region. Those efforts, which include business ventures with Iran, illustrate to some extent how futile U.S. efforts to isolate those countries with sanctions have become. They’ve also raised concerns in Washington and in Israel about whether this key Muslim member of NATO is undergoing a fundamental realignment.

Turkey’s efforts, however, seem as much about economic expansion as they do about foreign policy, with an aggressive strategy of seeking new markets for Turkish businessmen, many of them backers of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

“We want to have an economic interdependency between Turkey and neighbors and between different countries in these regions. If you have an economic interdependency, this is the best way to prevent any crisis,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

The push has included an effort to broker a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks, easing tensions between Syria and Saudi Arabia — the main power brokers in Lebanon — to help avert a political crisis there, and trying to mediate an end to the West’s dispute with Iran over its nuclear program.

With wealth garnered in emerging markets and growing self-confidence as a new member of the G-20, Turkey is reaching out as much to former European enemies, such as Greece, as to its Muslim neighbors. In the past year and a half, Davutoglu and his predecessor made roughly twice as many trips to Europe as they did to the Middle East. A Turk serves as president of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly as well as the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

To some analysts, Erdogan doesn’t seem as much of an ideologue as a pragmatic capitalist trying to make money and create markets. When he visited Tehran in October, he described the Iranian nuclear program as “peaceful,” causing U.S. officials to bristle. Less noticed was Erdogan’s push for a free-trade agreement.

Accompanying the Turkish leader on the trip was Rizanur Meral, chief executive of Sanko Holding’s Automotive Group and president of TUSKON, a Turkish business association representing 50,000 small and medium-size Turkish companies.

Business leaders are playing an important role in Turkey’s foreign policy, serving as unofficial ambassadors and advisers. Syrian businessmen in Gaziantep pushed for the relaxation of the visa requirements. When President Abdullah Gul visited Cameroon last month to sign a free-trade accord and open a new embassy, he was accompanied by three cabinet ministers, four members of parliament — and 147 businessmen. Erdogan took similar-size delegations to India, Iran and Libya.

“The business consideration is very important for this government,” said Ismail Hakki Kisacik, general coordinator of Turkey’s Taha Group, which controls the country’s largest clothing chain and joined government officials on the recent Africa trip. “If you’re developing your business with countries, it means your relations improve.”

The United States may be an exception.

Washington’s relations with Turkey took on a sour tone in February when the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a resolution calling Turkey’s killing of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 “genocide.” Turkey recalled its ambassador, Namik Tan. The Obama administration has insisted that it does not support the panel’s move.

Over the past year, U.S. officials have shown muted tolerance toward Turkey’s outreach to Syria and outright disapproval of Turkey’s rhetoric on Iran. The United States has openly chastised Turkey — which is heavily dependent on Iranian-supplied energy sources — for undercutting the U.S. push to isolate Iran internationally over its nuclear program.

“It seems, to me at least, that Turkey is contemplating a fundamental realignment,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

Phil Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, said recently that the United States doesn’t necessarily believe that Turkey is turning away from its Western allies. He said Turkey’s move to improve relations with its neighbors was understandable, but warned that that effort “should not be pursued uncritically or at any price,” especially at the expense of its relationship with Israel.

Relations between Israel and Turkey were good until Israel launched a military offensive in the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Erdogan’s popularity soared after he lectured Israeli President Shimon Peres about the attacks in January last year.

His criticism, which has continued, contributes “negatively to the way Israel is perceived in Turkey,” said an Israeli diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations between the two nations. “It’s not clear which direction Erdogan is taking Turkey.”

But to Turkish officials, the direction is obvious. As their nation has grown economically, it is only natural for Turkey seek a bigger role in global affairs.

Turkey, meanwhile, is also looking to export some of its cultural influence. In recent years, the country has had about 30 television shows broadcast across the Arab world.

Kivanc Tatlitug, a popular soap opera star, has been so effective at promoting Turkey’s interests and tourism in the region that during Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s recent visit to Bulgaria, “there was a question whether Turkey, as a government, is promoting these series as propaganda,”‘ Davutoglu said.

It is, he said, one thing the government is not doing. Washington Post

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