- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2010

Turkey’s growing ties to Iran and opposition to NATO missile defenses targeting Tehran are raising “many doubts about Turkey’s future” among officials in the alliance, Greece’s No. 2 defense official says.

“I’m a bit pessimistic about the Turkish future,” Greek Deputy Defense Minister Panagiotis A. Beglitis said in an interview with The Washington Times. Mr. Beglitis was in Washington on Thursday for meetings with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and other Pentagon officials.

Mr. Beglitis said Turkey’s government recently “objected to mentioning Iran as a potential threat in a NATO text concerning” missile-defense doctrine.

“Also, they objected very, very recently to [the Security Council] of the United Nations concerning sanctions against Iran. They voted against sanctions. That’s the reality. We have to pay attention to that,” he said.

Mr. Beglitis said he does not know what the future holds for Turkey’s place within NATO, but he said Greece “share[s] the same concerns with many, many colleagues within the alliance.”

“I can tell you I would not be surprised to see a Turkey outside of the Western institutions and playing an autonomous strategic role in the whole region.”

Turkish officials declined to comment on Mr. Beglitis‘ statements.

Turkey also had a strong alliance with Israel until December 2008, when Israel launched its 22-day war against Hamas in Gaza. Relations further deteriorated after May 31, when nine Turkish nationals were killed in a confrontation with Israeli commandos aboard a ship seeking to run Israel’s blockade of the territory.

Turkey has demanded an apology from Israel for the deaths. Israel has refused.

Greece, a historical rival of Turkey, meanwhile, has been developing closer ties to Israel.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited each other’s capital earlier this year, and Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas also visited Jerusalem last month, where he signed a civil-aviation agreement — the countries’ first bilateral pact in six decades.

Mr. Beglitis, who said that the two countries “share the same concerns about Turkey’s attitude in our region,” is scheduled to meet Wednesday with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon to discuss areas of cooperation following last month’s “very, very successful” joint military exercise between the countries’ air forces.

Mr. Beglitis said that while Greece supports the Palestinian cause and remains concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, his government took a dim view of the flotilla incident “because we had some information coming from Turkey concerning the involvement of some very strange people in the flotilla … some Turks which have been undercover as members of humanitarian NGOs [nongovernmental organizations].”

He said the flotilla incident and other crises “have been and continue to be exploited by the Turkish authorities in order to show to the Muslim world, to the Palestinians, to the Arab world that Turkey is a regional power [that] could support them, which could come to their help.”

“They want to demonstrate their determination to be a regional power and a critical spokesman of the Arab and Muslim world in our region,” Mr. Beglitis said.

In a recent survey conducted by the Brookings Institution’s Shibley Telhami and pollster John Zogby, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged as the most admired leader in the Arab world.

Inside Turkey, Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, has earned support from Turks for its handling of the country’s growing economy. The AKP government’s gradual weakening of the country’s secular foundations, however — as well as its growing relations with Iran and Syria — are raising concerns in the West.

“The signs so far are alarming,” said Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, speaking Thursday before the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. “It looks as though the present rulers of Turkey have decided to reverse the processes which began with the creation of the Turkish republic and to turn in another direction.”

Mr. Lewis said he could envision “a not-impossible situation in which Turkey and Iran may change places, in which Turkey becomes the Islamic republic and Iran becomes the Western democracy.”

In an interview Thursday, Vassilis Kaskarelis, Greece’s ambassador to the United States, said that “it’s premature to say the West is losing Turkey.” But he echoed Mr. Panagiotis‘ concerns about AKP’s moves at home and abroad, saying, “This is not encouraging, what has happened during the past months.”

“For the past six years, Mr. Erdogan has been trying to change the face of Turkey,” Mr. Kaskarelis said, citing the Turkish prime minister’s ongoing clashes with the country’s secular and historically powerful military.

Mr. Beglitis said he thought “here in the United States, people do not understand the evolution of the political, social and economic situation of Turkey.”

Turkey is every day transforming profoundly,” he said. “That is, for me, the major political and strategic problem for all of us — even for the United States.”

Mr. Beglitis, a member of parliament from Mr. Papandreou’s Socialist Party (PASOK), was in Greece over the weekend to campaign for PASOK candidates in Sunday’s regional and municipal elections.

Mr. Papandreou, who became prime minister in October of last year, faced the possible backlash of many voters dissatisfied with his austerity package designed to deal with Greece’s crippling national debt.

Mr. Papandreou had called the elections a referendum on his economic policies, threatening to call snap parliamentary elections in the event of a poor PASOK performance, but said after the vote that such a move was unnecessary in light of his party’s relatively steady performance.

Mr. Papandreou, who served as foreign minister from 1999 to 2004, is widely credited with improving Greco-Turkish relations. The neighboring countries, which came to the brink of military confrontation in the 1970s over Cyprus and again in the ‘90s over a small disputed island in the Aegean Sea, have been at odds over for most of the 20th century. Mr. Beglitis, a close friend of Mr. Papandreou’s, was a Foreign Ministry spokesman during his tenure.

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