As one of the few countries in the world that can claim to span two continents, the question of whether Turkey’s identity lies with Europe or with the Middle East has become a perennial one.

During the Cold War, Turkey was a firm ally of the West. In 1952, it became a member of Nato, the Western alliance founded in 1949 on the principle of mutual protection in case of aggression by a third party. By the early 1960s, Turkey was being used as a base for US medium-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads. When Washington offered to withdraw the missiles as a means of resolving the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Ankara was vocally opposed.

Turkey balancing alliances

Today, Turkey is still a key Nato member. As a proportion of gross domestic product, its military spending is the fifth-highest in the organisation, at 1.9 per cent in 2010. That year, it increased its defence budget by 1.2 per cent, while two-thirds of Nato members cut military expenditure. Turkey has contributed troops to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. And not only does it remain a base for US tactical nuclear missiles, in contrast to other European Nato members, it is also a strong proponent of their presence being maintained.

Erdogan made a …statement that if there was any danger to GCC sovereignty, Turkey would intervene

John Sfakianakis, Banque Saudi Fransi

In recent years, however, Ankara has demonstrated an increasing willingness to break with the priorities of its allies in the West. At the start of the Iraq war in 2003, the Turkish parliament was obstinate in its refusal to allow US ground troops to move into northern Iraq through eastern Turkey. And in a period when US relations with Iran and Syria have become increasingly strained, it has treated Tehran and Damascus as partners, rather than adversaries.

In 2010, Israel’s deadly action against an aid flotilla sent from Turkey in an attempt to break the siege of Gaza brought condemnation from leading government officials in Ankara. The relationship between the two countries deteriorated rapidly thereafter, despite Israel being a key ally of Washington.

In March 2011, when the US proposed handing responsibility of the implementation of the no-fly zone over Libya to Nato, Ankara was against the idea. “Military intervention by Nato in Libya or any other country would be totally counterproductive,” said Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, at the time. “Such an operation could have dangerous consequences.”

Turkey has definitely been expanding its role as a regional power over the past five years

Ed Parker, Fitch Ratings

The sense that Ankara’s focus is moving away from the West has been accentuated by the failure of negotiations on Turkey’s membership of the EU. Since Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) first came to power in 2002, the government has pressed earnestly for EU membership and Turkey remains an accession candidate. But while Europe has responded with encouraging words, the lack of any concrete progress speaks volumes about the reluctance of key member states, such as France and Germany, to match rhetoric with action.

In the meantime, Ankara’s relationship with the Middle East has gone from strength to strength. Erdogan has adopted a policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbours, underpinned by the government’s willingness to reach out to countries to its east. In the nine years since the AKP came to power, free trade agreements have been signed with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Libya, in addition to growing energy and transport infrastructure links and deepening political ties.

Turkey’s relationship with the wider Arab world has also strengthened. When Saudi Arabia intervened on behalf of a Bahraini government facing a wave of protests earlier in the year, Ankara answered Riyadh’s call for support with an offer of military assistance.

“Erdogan made an important statement that if there was any danger to GCC sovereignty, Turkey would intervene,” says John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh.

Strategic shift for Turkey

Turkey’s attitude towards the Gaza flotilla has also helped to cement its image as a country at one with its Muslim neighbours. “There was definitely a change [in strategy],” says one political analyst. “Turkey had been one of Israel’s most staunch defenders. Then in recent years the government started to increase their engagement with the Muslim world and to play to their own population by standing up to Israel as good Muslim defenders.”

Ankara’s ability to stand up to its partners in the West and to extend its reach in the Arab world reflects a confidence that Turkey can behave as a significant political player in its own right. Erdogan’s government has repeatedly demonstrated it has the will to assert its own agenda, both within and outside the structure of alliances that has governed its foreign relations in the past.

“Turkey has always see-sawed between Europe and the Middle East, but with its increasing economic growth and political stability over the past 15 years, it feels, much like the Bric countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China], that it should be playing a greater political and economic role on the world stage,” says Andrew Neff, a specialist in Turkey at the US’ IHS Global Insight. “It is among the top 20 countries in the world in terms of its economy and there is a sense it could become a top regional power.”

Timely prominence

Turkey’s wish to enhance its standing has found expression in its efforts to mediate several international political disputes.

In 2009, it hosted proximity talks between Israel and Syria over the disputed Golan Heights region. In May 2010, in cooperation with Brazil, it brokered a deal on the enrichment of Iranian uranium on Turkish soil. And it played a lead role in establishing the Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral forum in 2007, with the aim of promoting improved relations between the three Muslim states and working towards peace in Afghanistan. Ankara has hosted five presidential summits under the auspices of the forum, and in March 2011, the three countries carried out a joint military exercise in the Turkish town of Tuzla.

In the context of the Middle East, the rise of Turkey’s political status has been a timely one. Over the past few years, the influence of the region’s traditional leaders has ebbed. Iraq is only at the beginning of the long road to rehabilitation, Iran has become a pariah and Egypt has had to contend with rising social and economic problems. Even Saudi Arabia, which remains an important political and economic force in the region, has had to deal with a domestic terrorist threat, instability on its borders, a decline in its influence over the global oil price and the political uncertainty arising from an ageing monarchy.

“Turkey has definitely been expanding its role as a regional power over the past five years or so, reflecting its economic power and the declining power of others in the region,” says Ed Parker, head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa sovereign ratings at New York and London-headquartered ratings agency Fitch Ratings.

It is a strategy that is starting to bear fruit. “Their voice is being heard,” says Sfakianakis. “When they talk, other countries listen to what they have to say. Turkey is becoming an important regional power for the Middle East.”

In the past few months, popular uprisings across the region have thrust Turkey still further into the limelight as a possible template for those countries looking for a political model to replace the fallen autocracies.

“It hasn’t tried to ram its idea of itself as an example to the rest of the Arab world down anyone’s throats, but it’s quite happy to be seen in this way,” says Parker. “It’s a model others in the Middle East can look to, to see the challenges involved in balancing religion, secularism, democracy and minority rights. And it’s a good example of a country making a political and economic success of itself.”

The idea of Turkey as a model for those countries seeking to build a new political order is persuasive. “It has a legacy of military intervention and subsequent recovery, and it shows that it’s possible for a Muslim state to become a democracy, grow its economy, and find relative political and social stability,” says Neff.

After parliamentary elections on 12 June returned the AKP to power with a resounding majority, Erdogan was quick to suggest that the pre-eminence of his moderate Muslim party in Turkish politics had a wider significance for the region. “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul, Beirut won as much as Izmir, Damascus won as much as Ankara, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir,” he declared in his victory speech.

Twin strategy

But the role that Turkey has cast for itself in the Middle East is not without its pitfalls. The relationships that Ankara has nurtured with the autocratic regimes of Libya, Syria and Iran are now at odds with its image as a model for moderation and democracy in the Islamic world.

“They have to decide whether they support the dictators they initially got into bed with or side with the people,” says the political analyst. “It is a quandary that has really hamstrung their international policy.”

Ankara has adopted a twin strategy towards Damascus, condemning the regime’s attacks on its own people, but still engaging with the government in an effort to find a way to stop the bloodshed. Having met senior Syrian officials on 16 June, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called for the violence to “stop immediately” to enable the implementation of “comprehensive reform process towards democratisation” promised by the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

How Turkey deals with the flood of refugees from Syria, and how it responds to the possible collapse of its neighbour’s economy, political regime, or both, will be the greatest challenge yet to Erdogan’s aim of having “zero problems”.