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Erdogan Navigates Turkey’s Rapidly Rising World Profile

September 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the stage Thursday at the United Nations as part of a continued effort to boost his country's profile in the Middle East and beyond. Ray Suarez reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight, Ray Suarez reports on a Mideast leader rapidly raising his country’s profile in the region and beyond.

RAY SUAREZ: The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took his latest turn on the world stage this afternoon. He addressed the U.N. General Assembly and called for recognizing a Palestinian state.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish prime minister (through translator): It is necessary to put pressure on Israel to achieve peace, despite what those who govern this country do, and to show them clearly they’re not above the law.

And one of the most important steps that needs to be taken in this regard is recognizing the just demands of the Palestinian people to be recognized as a state and to have the representatives of the state of Palestine take their well-deserved place in this august assembly as a member of the U.N.

RAY SUAREZ: It was Erdogan’s latest move in a growing effort to bolster Turkey’s standing in the Middle East. And it’s gotten Washington’s attention.

Henri Barkey is a specialist in Turkish affairs and a former State Department official in the Clinton administration. He now teaches at Lehigh University.

HENRI BARKEY, Lehigh University: Now you see that, given that the Turks have done very well economically, they have essentially used soft power to establish a position in the region. Given that they are both a NATO country and also a country that is a candidate for the European Union, they are in an exceedingly good position.

On top of that, in the region, countries like Iran, Egypt, Syria, Israel are all having their own problems. And, therefore, the Turks have emerged as the uncontested, if you want, regional power.

MAN: Please come down and take your seats.

RAY SUAREZ: As part of their political offensive, the Turks have broken with longtime ally Israel. Relations were strained by last year’s Israeli raid on a Turkish-based aid flotilla trying to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Nine people were killed.

Last month, the Turkish government again demanded an apology, and again the Israelis refused. Turkey then kicked out the Israeli ambassador, and renewed a threat to have Turkish navy ships escort future aid flotillas.

Erdogan addressed the issue at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers last week.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (through translator): The conditions we have set are still in effect and must be met in order for Turkish-Israeli relations to return to normal. So long as Israel doesn’t apologize, so long as they do not pay reparations to the victims’ families, so long as they do not lift their naval blockade to Gaza, Turkey-Israeli relations will not return to normal.

RAY SUAREZ: That appearance was part of what you might call the Turkish leader’s Arab spring tour. He received a warm reception in Egypt and met with that country’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf.

And Erdogan was lauded in Libya on Friday. He greeted crowds and later discussed Turkish aid for the new government and potential investments.

Henri Barkey says the Turkish break with Israel has greatly enhanced Ankara’s influence across the region, but it does pose a risk.

HENRI BARKEY: Turkish-Israeli relations are in a low point, the lowest point they have been in a very, very long time.

What I worry is that they actually can go even lower. And that is the big danger at the moment. The worrisome part is that an accident may happen on the high seas, something else. There are many other incidents that can take place that will make the relationship even worse. And that will also be very dangerous obviously for the United States because it will involve the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s also been a new flare-up off the divided island of Cyprus, long a flash point between Turkey and Greece.

Greek Cypriots and a U.S. partner started drilling for offshore oil and gas this week. But, yesterday, Erdogan signed an agreement to help Turkish Cypriots conduct their own exploration. And he warned, the Turkish military would protect them. Today, the Greek Cypriots announced they’d be willing to share any energy finds.

All of this has added to Erdogan’s widespread support back home. His Justice and Development Party won re-election by a landslide four months ago, giving him a third term. But even as he seeks a larger profile in the wider world, his government faces many challenges. They include a stalled bid to join the European Union, failed attempts to get a new constitution, and an increasing terrorist threat.

Kurdish separatists have escalated attacks in the country since July. And, today, they claimed responsibility for a deadly car bombing at a high school in Ankara on Tuesday.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the United Nations tomorrow, the Palestine issue will continue to be center stage, with speeches from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.