M.K. Bhadrakumar

The two powers, archrivals for centuries in the vast region stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus, are responding with agility to the complex Anglo-American manoeuvring in their backyard.

ARIEL SHARON in his memoirs described water as "a stark issue of life and death." According to Mr. Sharon, while the world would generally think that the Six Day War began on June 5 1967, in actuality war began two-and-a-half years prior to that date on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan River.

Therefore, when Turkey and Israel signed an agreement on a Peace Water Project in March 2004, involving the shipment of 50 million cubic metres of water annually over a 20-year period from Turkey's Manavgat river, it spoke volumes about the strategic partnership between the two countries.

A terse announcement by the Israeli Foreign Ministry recently said the agreement had been abrogated as the project was "no longer feasible" due to cost escalation. It draws attention to the phenomenal change in Turkish-Israeli relations and in the co-relation of forces in the region as a whole since the Iraq war began.

A profound shift is apparent in Turkey's foreign policy orientation toward the region stretching from Iran to the Levant a region that bore the imprint of the power and the glory of the Ottoman Empire but on which modern Turkey brusquely turned its back in 1923 with a resolve never to get entangled with it ever again.

Turkey is "re-engaging" the region. This huge paradigm shift can be viewed in different ways. We in India might awkwardly whisper that it amounted to Ankara "communalising" its foreign policy. But its striking similarity with an equally dramatic shift in the Russian policy toward the Muslim world may prompt us to be thoughtful.

Certainly, one has to look at it at some point in secular terms as an assertion of multipolarity in world affairs. It challenges U.S. hegemony without being confrontational. It is of course permeated with "Eurasianism." But, most importantly, it connotes a certain willingness to pursue an "independent foreign policy."

Great Game watchers may see here a fascinating spectacle of two great historical powers, which have been perennial archrivals for centuries in the vast region stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus, responding with agility to the complex Anglo-American manoeuvrings in their backyard.

In Turkey's case, it can be related to domestic politics. But then a good foreign policy is an extension of national politics. Turkey has a ruling party with a pronounced religious disposition, which is heading toward election in 2007 and will be sensitive about the national opinion. And, the national mood is disgust and horror at the carnage in neighbouring Iraq, following the American invasion.

Turkish opinion suspects the Americans do not have an "exit strategy" in Iraq because no exit is intended; that the Anglo-American strategy is to create a New Middle East that enables the U.S. to control the oil, weapons, and money in the region.

Turkey fears that if Iraq fragments, Kurdish nationalism may spill over. Turkey is a country where memories are vivid, where people remember their history. The current regional situation is comparable to the tumultuous 1914-1923 period when Turkey ended up becoming a victim of the vaulting ambitions of powerful external players and was dismembered.

The shift in the Turkish thinking appeared in its outlook toward the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). After maintaining a careful distance from the OIC since its inception, Turkey sought the post of Secretary-General of that body. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended an Arab League summit for the first time as a "permanent guest." On his way back from the summit meeting at Khartoum, he made a symbolic visit to the OIC headquarters at Jeddah.

Turkey came under relentless American pressure on the Iran nuclear issue. But, to quote the prominent Turkish columnist Sami Cohen, "in the final analysis, Turkey's views are different from the West's and closer to Russia's." Turkey opposes any use of force or "regime change" in Teheran and Damascus. In a demonstrative way, it warmed up its ties with these besieged neighbouring countries.

The leading daily Hurriyet quoted Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul: "The Israelis say they don't have a nuclear programme. But people were saying 25-30 years back that Israel had a nuclear programme. If Iran's nuclear programme is dangerous, Israel's is dangerous too. All countries should be open to the U.N. inspections."

Turkey must have one of the few Foreign Ministers with the moral courage to speak out against the U.S.' double standards. Again, a Hamas delegation led by Khaled Mashaal visited Ankara on February 16. This was immediately after Mr. Mashaal's visit to Teheran.

Israel and the Israeli lobby in the U.S. reacted harshly but Turkey held its ground. The Turkish media reported on the likelihood of visits by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the Iraqi radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to Turkey.

Equally so, the Muslim world has become a major arena of Russian foreign policy. Russia obtained the observer status in the OIC; Soviet era ties with Syria and Egypt were revived; Russian-Saudi mutual understanding was taken to unprecedented levels; Russia established links with the Arab League and Hamas; and, all this while crafting a highly nuanced policy on the Iran nuclear issue despite sustained American blackmail.

Vladimir Putin's message to the Arab League summit meeting at Khartoum on March 28 highlighted how much Moscow would reach out to harmonise its stance on various regional issues with the countries of the Arab Middle East. He said: "I am well aware that the heads of state and peoples of the Arab world, and in other Muslim states, share Russia's and the international community's growing concern with regard to the danger resulting from new divisions among the international community. It is our deep conviction that the time has come to act, and to act together, under the auspices of the United Nations as a key player. As the events of the last few years in the Middle East have shown, unilateral actions do not resolve problems, and they even aggravate them. Russia, a multi-confessional country that has recently received observer status at the Organisation of Islamic Conference, has firm intentions to make significant contribution to this teamwork."

Putin calls for consensual approaches

In an implicit criticism of the U.S.' hegemonic policies in the region, Mr. Putin called for "consensual approaches" to resolve the region's problems. He asserted that concerning the social, economic and political issues of the modernisation of the Arab world, the initiatives must rest solely with the countries of the region, "the experience and traditions of the people living here, and in the spirit of a partnership between civilisations."

Mr. Putin underlined: "Events should not be rushed in an artificial way, nor should outside pressure be applied." He said what is presently taking place today is a cause of concern, as it has a "negative effect on international affairs in general", as it is increasingly taking on an "inter-civilisational aspect."

In an article titled "Russia in Global Politics" featured in the daily Moskovkiye Novosti on March 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was explicit that the shift in the Russian approach to the problems of the Muslim world has been necessitated by the current international situation characterised by the U.S.' hegemonic policies.

He said: "Contemporary international relations are difficult to grasp unless you consider that they are in transition ... certain partners of ours would like to secure their dominance in any new world order ... Russia cannot cooperate on the basis of such a worldview. Our criteria for cooperation in international affairs are uniform for all our partners, including the C.I.S. countries, China and India, the U.S. and Europe ... They are complete equality and mutual engagement ... This is one of the basic distinctions in the foreign policy philosophy of Moscow and the approach of some Western capitals ... Russia cannot be on the side of a narrow, blindfolded view of things ... narrow postulates like "those who are not with us are against us... Professionals who study Russia or are involved in policy making cannot but see that it will be naïve to expect us to be content in the world with the role of one being led."

With specific reference to the Muslim world (and while discussing the Iran and Iraq issues), Mr. Lavrov asserted: "Russia does not intend to take the position of a detached onlooker ... Russia will not let anybody set it at loggerheads with the Islamic world ... Russia cannot and will not play the role of a "frontline state" in a new Cold War one among civilisations."

Moscow has since constituted a new forum with Muslim countries "Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group." It held its first session in Moscow on March 27-28, attended by delegates from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Central Asian states, Indonesia, etc. Mr. Putin greeted the delegates. Significantly, the statesman who presided at the meet was former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, renowned orientalist who played a key role in formulating the Soviet Union's ties with the Muslim world during the Cold War years.