- Associated Press - Sunday, April 3, 2011

ISTANBUL | When the uprising broke out in Libya, Turkey first dismissed the idea of sanctions or any NATO military action, denouncing what it called Western designs on Libya’s oil.

Later, Turkey reversed that decision after the United Nations approved steps to protect civilians from Moammar Gadhafi.

Turkey’s evolving responses to the war in Libya are just the latest indication of its goal to be a power broker on the world stage — one that balances its alliances to Mideast leaders such as Col. Gadhafi with calls for them to reform in the face of street revolts.

It was only last year that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan demonstrated close ties to Libya by collecting a human rights award from Col. Gadhafi. He has since spoken to Col. Gadhafi several times by telephone, suggesting that he cede leadership to a figure who can pursue reconciliation, and Turkey agreed to a robust humanitarian role in NATO’s mission in Libya.

As a NATO ally, Turkey has cultivated warm relations with countries such as Libya and Syria as part of a regional outreach that included nations with a history of enmity with the West.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) walks with Syrian counterpart, Naji al-Otari. He has urged Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to step down. (Associated Press)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) walks with Syrian counterpart, Naji ... more >

Now, this democracy led by devout Muslims is scrambling to preserve economic and other links to Mideast nations while urging their autocrats to meet the demands of protesters who want change.

The balancing act tests Turkey’s avowed policy of “zero problems” with neighbors. It also raises questions about what drives Turkish intentions in the region: its growing Muslim identity, “realpolitik” interests such as trade and power, commitment to democratic reform or some combination.

For instance, in February, the leaders of Turkey and Syria laid a foundation stone for a “friendship dam” that will provide cross-border irrigation and electricity.

Turkey doesn’t want to be viewed as a sort of de facto nation, a nation that just went along with every plan created by the West and NATO,” said Cengiz Aktar, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul. “Turkey wants to make a difference in the region.”

Even so, Mr. Aktar said Turkey’s diplomatic heft has limits and noted: “Like everyone else, Turkey is running with the unfolding events.”

Turkey’s independent streak, symbolized by the blunt and sometimes combative populist statements of Mr. Erdogan, reflects the confidence of Turks who have largely shed their own record of chaos. Turkey will hold an election in June that is likely to return the governing Justice and Development Party to power for a third time since 2002.

Turks have their own problems, including free-speech worries, the grievances of the Kurdish minority and a stalled bid to join the European Union.

But they draw Mideast admiration for their electoral vitality, a strong economy and their stature as a voice for Muslims that is unafraid to criticize Israel and the West. Even their television soap operas have regional fans.

“In some ways, Turkey’s alliance system is falling apart. On the other hand, it seems likely that the sort of ‘soft power’ that Turkey represents is going to be effective regardless of who’s in power,” said Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

Turkey is increasingly convinced that European and American influence in the region is on the decline and that Turkey can pick up that role,” said Mr. Eissenstat, who compared its Mideast cachet to the “love affair” of Western Europeans with the United States in the early years after World War II.

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