Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the military's highest annual meeting with top military officials at the army headquarters in Ankara on August 1, 2010.

AFP Photo / Adem Altan

By Michel Sailhan

Some politicians, by their very nature, provide journalists with their daily bread. Just hang around long enough, and there is bound to be grist for the media mill.

A few reliable archetypes: the head-strong (or hot-headed) statesmen who talks as often ‘off the cuff’ as ‘on message’; the dynamic leader forging – for better or worse -- new pathways for his country; the black sheep, often from a different class or region, who stands apart from cookie-cutter peers. When men or women like this make it to the top, it can be a field day for the reporters who cover them.

Turkey’s Islamic government, to which I recently bid farewell (but not, perhaps, adieu) after four years as AFP’s bureau chief in Ankara, is rich in such personalities. Observing them up close over this critical period leaves the impression that, especially in the realm of diplomacy, they are racing ahead of their regional neighbors, as if to get a leg up on history.

President of Turkey Abdullah Gul gestures as he arrives at the Guildhall in London, on November 23, 2011, for a State Banquet in their honour.
AFP Photo / Carl Court

It didn’t take long for me get an inkling of the richness that lay ahead. In May 2009, two months after I arrived, I signed up to accompany President Abdullah Gul on an official visit to Syria, where he was to meet with his counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Back then the two leaders greeted each other with a kiss on the mouth, and their countries did a booming business across a shared border. (As the uprising in Syria took on the proportions of a civil war, Ankara later cut all ties with Bashar al-Assad, aligning with Washington’s condemnation of the Damas regime and supporting the rebels).

There was no big or disruptive news on that trip. The relationship between the two regional titans was too strong, and the cry for revolution in Syria had yet to sound. But the outing offered a chance to size up Gul, who had worked his way up from the humble grassroots of socially-conservative central Turkey.

Half-an-hour after take-off Gul, casually dressed in an open shirt, appeared in the aisle and began moving from one row to the next, devoting a few minutes to each of the businessmen and editors on board. Rakishly good looking and ever smiling – he’s been nicknamed George Clooney – he came across as more than just friendly. Gul had a way of holding your gaze that suggested you just might be the most important person he’s ever met.

All politicians are necessarily image conscious in the age of instant news and social networks, even those who wield near absolute power. On that trip, I recall the surprise of seeing al-Assad, his striking wife at his side, behind the wheel of a car as he pulled up for an official dinner at the Citadel of Aleppo. He discretely greeted what was probably a hand-picked group of admirers before slipping behind closed doors. Conveniently, a small scrum of journalists was present to bear witness. In 2008, the now-embattled leader – eager to draw a contrast with the ruling style of his father, the guarded tyrant Hafez al-Assad – was working hard to project openness and modernity, the aura of a man in touch with his people.

A handout picture from the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows Turkish President Abdullah Gul (C) and his wife Hayrunnisa (2nd L) touring Aleppo with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his wife Asma (L) in northern Syria on May 17, 2009.

And what to make of Gul’s  performance? At home, the president was clearly comfortable with his reputation as a not-so-moderate Muslim, and almost every trip abroad the Turkish president made a point of promoting the schools of Fethullah Gulen, the leader of a large and many-tentacled Islamic community in Turkey. At the same time, he has surrounded himself with a cadre of young, US-educated advisors and was clearly at ease hobnobbing with a cosmopolitan, secular elite. (Perhaps a sly way of getting to know a potential adversary?)

In any case, I was enchanted by the subtle theatrics of the visit, and decided to sign up for more.

Over the following months, it became apparent to me that Gul and his near equal partner in shaping Turkey’s destiny, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cast themselves as in constant competition with Western leaders. In Egypt, Somalia and Libya they strained to be the first to embrace, with high-level visits, the changes that swept these nations. In so doing, the implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – called out Western leaders, accusing them of preaching one thing and practicing another.

Rich to the poor, poor to the rich

As the leaders of a developing country and a member of the G20, Erdogan and Gul have a political margin of maneuver not enjoyed by London, Paris, or Washington. They can lecture on behalf of the world’s 99 percent, and succor the 99 percent – inside and outside Turkey – with money, aid and influence.

I witnessed this ambidexterity, for example, when I travelled on March 4, 2011 to Cairo with Gul, who was the first head of state to visit Egypt after the fall of the Hosni Mubarak on February 11. In a single day he met everyone who mattered in the new Egypt, including 30 young Egyptians – gathered at the Turkish ambassador’s residence – who participated in the revolt. The press was also invited. With remarkable aplomb, “Professor” Gul listened to their stories and shared his recipe for strong governance, presenting the Turkish model as a successful marriage of Islam and democracy.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (C) and Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (3rd R) pose with some youths of the "January 25th revolution
AFP Photo / Khaled Desouki

On a trip to Benghazi in July 2011, it was Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s turn to show off his diplomatic chops.

During the flight on July 3, I couldn’t help but wonder about the 10 beefy behemoths  that had joined his entourage.  Their raison d’etre became clear later that evening, after the formal meeting between the Turkish minister and president of Libya’s National Transitional Council (CNT), Mustapha Abdeljalil. As night fell, our convoy of three buses and as many limousines stopped without warning at the Place de la Liberte, an open square swarming with merchants, refugees and young rebels. 

Libyan rebels guard the plane which carried Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu upon his arrival on a one day visit at Benina airport, Benghazi, on July 03, 2011.
AFP Photo / Patrick Baz

Like a Roman Praetorian Guard protecting their emperor (with Kevlar vests rather than shields), the bodyguards surrounded the minister and slowly moved him to a platform in the square. Amid the cheers of rebels brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles, Davutoglu gave an impassioned speech about the friendship between the two peoples. “Libya and Turkey have a common past, and a common future!”, he told the crowd. “Turkey, Libya!” and “Libya free, Gadhafi go away!” the mob shouted.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is surrounded by security upon his arrival at Benina airport, close to the eastern city of Benghazi on July 03, 2011.
AFP Photo / Patrick Baz

In August 2011 Erdogan’s pulled off another diplomatic “coup” by being the first non-African head of state to visit the failed state of Somalia since the botched attempt by US special forces in 1993 to topple rebel reader and self-declared president Mohamed Farrah Aidid. It was a risky, fascinating maneuver that boosted the prime minister’s credibility in the Muslim world and is still resonating today. “The tragedy that unfolded here is a test for civilization and modern values (…) The western world needs to pass this test, if they want to prove that western values are not just hollow rhetoric,” he said in Mogadishu, chastising rich nations for reneging on promises to deliver Somalia from its sustained misery of war and starvation.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd Top L) and his wife Emine (bottom R) hold children during their visit to a refugee camp in south of Mogadishu on August 19, 2011.
AFP Photo

That’s the diplomacy of Turkey’s leaders today: bold, hyperactive, hot-headed, sometimes messy. It can be dizzying. Every day, they are knocking on new doors, and often they find their way in: Africa, the Balkans, the Caucasus, old Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, the Far East, all the way to Brazil. The number of new routes for Turkish Airlines is a crude measure of just how successful Turkey has been in advancing its diplomatic and economic ambitions.

In Pakistan in October 2010, Erdogan toured thousands of square kilometers ravaged by floods, travelling at an infernal pace, moving from plane to helicopter to armored car for 15 hours. His speeches were quasi-religious: “My brothers, we share the same faith!”

The “zero problem” strategy

But the final tally has yet to be made.

Ahmet Davutoglu took the reigns of Turkish diplomacy in May 2009. In some ways it was more a continuation that a change, since the polished diplomat had been counselling Erdogan on international affairs since 2003. But Davutoglu’s mandate was also to give a new impetus to Turkey’s “zero problem” strategy towards its neighbors. For decades, those relations had been strained, often encapsulated as consisting of “two-and-half wars” (used by military leaders to justify a standing army of 500,000): near wars with Greece and Syria, and a costly internal conflict with the Kurdish rebel group PKK.

A Turkish soldier patrols a road near the Turkey-Iraq border in the mainly Kurdish southeastern province of Sirnak, on February 23, 2008.
AFP Photo / Mustafa Ozer

Four years on, has Ahmet Davutoglu succeeded in reversing the trend and getting Turkey on good terms, politically and economically, with its many European, Middle Eastern, and Caucasus neighbours? For many observers the answer is a simply ‘no’.

Take Armenia. Starting in 2009, Davutoglu spearheaded an attempt to reconcile with their aggrieved neighbor. Despite the huge strain caused by Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, the two capitals did announce a historic reconciliation. For Turkey, peace with Armenia would be a powerful argument for entering European Union. For isolated Armenia, opening the border would bring a much-needed explosion of trade.

But the attempt fell through, and four years later the two countries still lack diplomatic relations. Today, the media in Istanbul dreads an international diplomatic attack for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide (2015) that Turkish authorities won’t know how to respond to.

And what of Greece? What appear to be stable relations is, in fact, evidence of a profound stalemate and the seemingly intractable territorial disputes – along their shared border and in Cyprus  -- that divide the nations. The irony, say some, is that it may take a conflict to actually break the deadlock. For the time being, however, a tacit agreement to do nothing reigns.

A couple walk through the buffer zone as they cross from the Turkish-controlled northern Nicosia to the Greek side of the Cypriot capital via Paphos Gate pedestrian border crossing on June 28, 2012.
AFP Photo/Behrouz Mehri

Nor has there been any movement towards joining the E.U., a failure for which both sides are to blame.  Turkey’s has delayed expected reforms, while Paris and Berlin continue to oppose Turkey’s induction into the European family.

In many other domains, it’s more a problem of going backwards than a blockage.

Dialogue with their old ally Israel has been exhausted since 2010, after nine Turks died in an attack by Israel Defence Forces on a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian aid and pro-Palestine militants to Gaza. The split is maintained by extremists in both countries, notably in Erdogan’s violent verbal attacks against the Jewish state, mainly targeted at a domestic audience. For Ankara, there’s a cost: By falling out with Israel – historically a strategic, political and military ally – the conservative Islamic regime in Turkey also lost their role as intermediary between the Arab world and Israel.

A television grab made from the Turkish TV channel Cihan News Agency shows Israeli Navy troops storming the "Mavi Marmara
AFP Photo / Cihan News Agency

As for Iran, the close political ties praised by both capitals in 2010 seems to have burnt out over two major conflicts -- the United States (Turkey is a close ally of Washington) and Syria (where Ankara supports the rebels, while Tehran is pro-regime). Ankara’s relationship with Bagdad degrades daily; Iraq accuses its neighbor of interfering with domestic affairs.

Whether due to missteps or the vagaries of a volatile region, overall prospects don’t look so bright on the diplomatic front. Some wags have said that Turkey has shifted from a “zero problem” strategy to “zero relationship” one.  But whatever the outcome in the years ahead, one can be sure that the current leadership will keep trying find new pathways, east and west.

A Turkish army watch tower is pictured at Turkey's Dogu Kapi border gate with Armenia, in Akyaka, province of Kars on April 15, 2009.
AFP Photo / Mustafa Ozer