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Turkey FM Davutoglu embraces mediation role

By Jonny Dymond
BBC News, Brussels

Ahmet Davutoglu
Mr Davutoglu said failure in Afghanistan was not an option

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may not use the phrase "regional power", but nearly everyone else does to describe his country's new influence in the Middle East, Balkans and Caucasus.

Some go so far as to describe the policy as "neo-Ottoman" - a nod back to the times when the Caliphate's writ ran from the Balkans to North Africa. Mr Davutoglu bats away such a label.

But the range of his direct concerns at the ongoing Nato foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels is an indicator of how critical Turkey has become to the western alliance's security architecture.

Afghanistan comes first. He rejects criticism that, given the 500,000-strong standing army at Turkey's command, its contribution of 700 non-combat troops is a little thin.

"Turkey is one of the biggest contributors to peacekeeping efforts in a military sense, everywhere, all around the world," said Mr Davutoglu, in an interview squeezed between meetings in Brussels hotel rooms.

In Afghanistan, he said Ankara had pledged to increase its contribution by 1,000 troops in the last month.

Turkey has taken over military command in Kabul; it has spent more than $200m in the past five years on reconstruction, building 50 schools and hospitals that have treated a million Afghans.

Mr Davutoglu called for a comprehensive military, political and social strategy in Afghanistan.

"We shouldn't use the term foreign troops," he said. "We are there as the international community to help Afghan people."

There will, he promises, be more help for the Afghan military from Turkey - help that has been forthcoming since the early days of the Turkish Republic.

'Zero-problem' policy

Bosnia, too, is a concern for the minister, and it is clear that Turkey will press hard for the country to be given a nod towards Nato entry.

Bosnians, he says, feel left out by the EU, which has recently extended visa-free travel to Serbia and Montenegro.

Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul
Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel in November

"Now if they feel isolated from the support of Nato, it will be a big problem," said Mr Davutoglu.

"We want Bosnia-Hercegovina to feel that the international community cares for them. We cannot forget that we watched three years of massacres in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Now we can't just leave them alone."

Mr Davutoglu describes Turkey's new regional vision as "zero-problem" with its neighbours; its relations in particular with Iran, Iraq and Syria have improved dramatically compared to a decade ago.

Turkey is also reaching out to Kurdish-run northern Iraq, and offering itself as a mediator in several conflicts.

Criticism rejected

But criticism of Turkey has increased too - that it is sacrificing its longstanding closeness with Israel because of an Islamist agenda due to the governing AK party's roots in political Islam; that it is too close to the Iranian government; that links with the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir are too cosy.

I'm sure Turkey will be a member, a contributing member - not a burden, but a big asset for the EU
Ahmet Davutoglu

The foreign minister rejects such criticism. This time last year, he said, Turkey was working with Syria and Israel towards a settlement. But it felt obliged to speak out after Israel's military offensive in Gaza this January.

On Iran, he said: "In a negotiation, 60% is psychological, 20% is methodological and 20% is more substantive.

"If there is no mutual confidence in the negotiations the substance becomes less important."

Turning to Europe, Mr Davutoglu said the Swiss vote on Sunday to ban the building of minarets had rung an alarm bell.

"There is a rise in Islamophobia, in the concept of 'the other', as if they do not belong to society," he said. "It may be today Muslims, tomorrow Jew, the next day blacks, the next Africans.

"In this new global world we will be living together everywhere, so we need a new spirit of tolerance everywhere."

EU optimism

And what of the drive to join the EU? With popular support dropping in Turkey, and political opposition hardening in Europe, is this still the Turkish government's priority?

Display team of Turkish jets over Turkish flag
Turkey's powerful armed forces play a major role in Nato operations

"We want to be a member of the EU," said the minister. "I am an academic. Statistics say something. All the countries that start accession negotiations with the EU, they became members of the EU, except Norway which didn't want it.

"Based on this statistical analysis, I can say, Turkey will be a member of the EU, 100%," he laughs.

Leaders, opinion formers and intellectuals, he added, now recognise that Turkish membership would be a strategic asset for the EU.

"There are two ways in front of the EU," he said. "Either the EU will be a global power, a dynamic economy and a multicultural global environment, or a continental power with a less dynamic economy, with a more inward-looking culture. These are the two options."

"Turkey is a litmus test for this. With Turkey the EU will be a global power, much more strategically important, with a much more dynamic economy, with a strong hinterland with rich economic resources.

"I am optimistic. I believe in the rationality of the EU approach. I'm sure Turkey will be a member, a contributing member - not a burden, but a big asset for the EU."



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