posts the article “Turkey`s new foreign policy vision” by Xinhua news agency.

“West or East, this is a question Turkey is often being asked today.

A Muslim nation bridging European and Asian continents, Turkey has long been taken as Europe`s periphery since the West-inspiring republic emerged from the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Today, seeing no promising hope of becoming a member of the European Union (EU), Turkey started to gain momentum in re- engaging with its Middle East neighbors, making the West dubious about its identity.

Turkish leaders and observers say what Turkey demonstrates is an all-rounded foreign policy vision in answer to a changing regional environment, rather than a shift of axis from the West to the East.,” the source reads.

“Turkey`s orientation and strategic alliance with the West remains perfectly compatible with Turkey`s involvement in, among others, Iraq, Iran, the Caucasus, the Middle East peace process, and Afghanistan,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu wrote in an article for the Foreign Policy magazine in May.

New vision

“Those in the West doubting that Turkey is drifting away have their reasons: a traditional U.S. ally in the Middle East, Turkey has raised its voice in opposing sanctions against Iran and slamming Israel`s policy towards Palestinians. While accession talks with the EU falter, Turkey is building rapprochement with Russia over nuclear power and gas pipeline projects. It also continues to seek closer ties with Syria, its long-time foe in the region, after exempting visa procedures and signing business pacts last year.

“Iran is the most contentious issue. Ankara has repeatedly argued sanctions would not solve the nuclear impasse with Iran, its neighbor and second-biggest gas supplier. It also supports Iran`s right to make peaceful use of nuclear programs.

Worrying that further sanctions would hurt its own economy, Turkey reached a deal with Iran and Brazil in May under which Iran will ship part of its low enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for reactor fuel rods. In June, it voted no at the UN Security Council against the fourth round of sanctions.

Turkey`s already cooling relations with former ally Israel hit a fresh low this year. Israeli forces raided a Turkish aid ship, Mavi Marmara, bound for the blockaded Gaza in late May, leading to the death of eight Turkish citizens and an American of Turkish origin on board. Ankara demands apology and compensation from Israel before getting their relations back to normal,” the source reports

“During Russian President Dmitry Medvedev`s visit to Turkey in May, the two once-estranged countries signed deals to lift visa requirements, boost trade and build a multi-billion dollar nuclear power plant in south Turkey.

Davutoglu defends that Turkey desires no sanctions, isolation and trade barriers in the region but wants its economy to integrate with all surrounding countries.

“What do we want? Nothing more, nothing less: equal relations with all nations around us and political stability and security around us,” Davutoglu said in a speech to the U.S.-based Brookings Institute late last week.

Davutoglu took office last year and is the chief engineer of Turkey`s "zero problem with neighbors" foreign policy. To that end, Turkey inked protocols with Armenia to shelve the near century-old feud, built trust with Iraq to win its support for combatting the outlawed Kurdish Workers` Party (PKK), became active in the Balkans and improved relations with regional rival Greece.

One of Turkey`s announced goals in the next decade is to become an influential role in regional conflict resolution. That ambition has already been exhibited by its mediation between Israel and Syria and efforts to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq as well as Serbia and Bosnia in the Balkans.

Changing scenario

“Some observers attributed the success of Turkey’s new foreign policy to the changing scenario in the Middle East. Syria, Iran and Iraq now need Turkey more than before, said Prof. Suha Bolukbasi of the Ankara-based International Relations Department of the Middle East Technical University.

In Iraq, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all wanted Turkey’s support to maintain their presence; Syria and Iran were isolated by Western forces, especially after becoming neighbors with U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Bolukbasi.

“They (Syria and Iran) needed an escape hatch, which turned out to be Turkey,” he said.

Analyst Nilgun Arisan Eralp from the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) said the change in Turkish foreign policy resulted from a vacuum of regional leadership after the Soviet Union broke up and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There was a vacuum of a regional leader, and Turkey happened to be the only secular and democratic country here and it was economically doing relatively better than others,” she said.

Making use of the new opportunities earned both political and economic profits for Turkey as trade with Middle East neighbors boosted economy in its under-developed southeast.

Exports from southeast Turkey to adjacent markets such as Syria and Iraq rose 12.5 percent to 4.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2009 while global recession sank national exports, Turkish State Minister Cevdet Yilmaz told reporters this June.

Turkey took the new path partly to search for new markets in the Middle East and other regions as financial crisis hit traditional export destinations such as the EU, said Eralp.

Turkey is also looking farther to Africa and China for new opportunities as it has recently opened or plans to open 15 new embassies in Africa and signed eight economic and cultural agreements with China during Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit in October.

Mixed with the pragmatic side in Turkey’s new foreign policy is a stronger ideological and religious streak observed, apparently adopted for the purpose of winning friends in the Middle East.

Erdogan became a “hero” to the Arab street after protesting against Israel’s offensive in Gaza and storming out of a discussion panel with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. He has continued to denounce Israel’s way of treating Palestinians since then, urging pressure over “Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.”

Despite its roots in a former Islamist party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdogan was using religious and ideological tools to earn political and economic profits rather than harboring a deep religious agenda, said Eralp.

“The tendency is mainly on the surface. They are using the religion for practical benefits. Turkey’s foreign policy is mostly a realistic one,” she said.

Diplomats in Israel and Turkey saw an opening for improving relations when Turkey sent two fire-fighting planes to help Israel put out its worst-ever forest fire early this month. Erdogan said it was “a humanitarian and Islamic duty” to extend a helping hand but made it clear no normalization of ties before Israel made apology and compensation over the ship raid.

EU priority

Another major drive behind Turkey’s new foreign policy is the change of domestic public opinion, mainly resulting from an ever stalling EU membership process.

The Republic of Turkey has been a staunch follower of the European model since its founder Mustafa Kemal carried out extensive social and political reforms to westernize the Muslim nation. It aligned with the West during the Cold War and applied to join the EU in 1987.

Candidacy was not granted until 1999 and another six years passed before accession talks started. As of today, only 13 out of 35 chapters, or negotiating areas, have been opened so far.

Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided between the Turkish north and the Greek south, was the biggest snag in the process. With dimming prospect of a near solution to the dispute with Greek Cyprus and Greece, both EU members and the public are losing patience.

Turkish public support of EU accession used to be high above 70 percent in 2004 but has plummeted to 38 percent nowadays, a poll by the Italian foundation Compagnia di San Paolo and the German Marshall Fund of the United States revealed in September.

What complicates the situation was France and German’s outspoken opposition against an eventual membership for Turkey. Instead, their governments want to grant Turkey some sort of partnership.

“The public feel humiliated by the EU’s attitude towards Turkey ... they feel they’re gaining back their pride with the AKP’s new foreign policy,” said Eralp.

However, it is too early to talk about a shift of axis in Turkey’s foreign policies, and the EU bid remains Turkey’s foreign policy priority, at least for now, observers remind.

“Obviously Turkey’s rhetoric changed towards Iran and the Palestinians, but in practice not much concrete has happened, except for the Mavi Marmara ship incident with Israel and Turkey’s mediation between Iran and U.S.,” said Bolukbasi.

Turkish leaders vow to continue with EU-demanded reforms regardless of where the negotiations lead to. Trade with EU still accounts for over half of Turkish trade.

The trade with Europe and the Middle East were largely complementary and could be pursued at the same time, and close economic trade with EU is important for Turkey to become a regional power, said Eralp.

What’s more, the Middle East countries’ support and interest in Turkey largely derives from its EU process. Turkey is seen as a successful model of the coherence of Islam and democracy and there is widespread support in the Arab world for Turkey’s EU membership, according to a survey by the Economic and Social Studies Foundation of Turkey last year.

With setbacks along its path to the EU, Turkey has little choice but wait for changes and look for friends elsewhere, including the Middle East, Russia and China, said Bolukbasi.

“Still Turkey’s main goal is membership in the EU. If, however, this will take at least 10 years, it is understandable Turkey would seek at least short term options, not the least for economic reasons,” he said.

If the accession talks could not pick up momentum, Turkey’s priority could really change, said Eralp, who had worked in the Prime Ministry’s Secretariat General for the EU Affairs for years.

“You can feel it from the discourses of the AKP politicians, and I’m sure opposition parties will give you the same response,” she said. “The EU process is very, very, very slow.”