Turkey in new quest to patch up with regional foes

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Ankara (AFP) - Reaching out to Russia and working to normalise ties with Israel, Turkey is moving to mend fences and restore its waning regional clout by returning to a policy known as "zero problems with neighbours".

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim hinted at a new approach after he took over in May from Ahmet Davutoglu, a former academic who masterminded an aggressive foreign policy that some analysts fear brought Turkey more problems than profit.

Davutoglu left office with Turkey in the throes of an unprecedented diplomatic crisis with Russia, as well as having reduced ties with Israel and Egypt and having failed to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Analysts said the appointment of Yildirim lets Erdogan quietly distance himself from this legacy, and keeps Turkey from plunging into a risky isolation.

Mending ties with neighbourhood foes is also of crucial importance at a time when Turkey's relationship with the European Union is hit by heavy turbulence, with Erdogan threatening to hold a referendum on whether to continue its EU membership bid.

- 'Charm offensive' -

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, said Davutoglu's foreign policy initiatives resulted in Turkey ending up with "nearly no friends" in the Middle East, with the exception of Qatar and the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"It looks to me that the new Turkish prime minister's mission is to launch a charm offensive to undo the foreign policy wreck left behind by ousted premier Davutoglu," he told AFP.

Yildirim, a loyalist of Erdogan, said last week he wanted no permanent enmity with Israel, Syria, Russia or Egypt.

Turkey has previously boasted of "precious loneliness" -- a phrase first floated by Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin to defend the government's policies.

Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Turkey's "reckless foreign policy," however Ankara describes it, was an "embarrassing failure."

"Realising the catastrophic results of isolation, Ankara was forced to switch to an 'any neighbours?' policy, desperate to enter into transactional relations with neighbouring countries," he told AFP.

- 'Shaky ground' -

The list of troubled relationships for Ankara is troublingly long, but in at least three cases it is trying to make progress.

- Israel: Six years after a deadly storming by Israeli commandos of a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza leaving 10 Turkish activists dead, officials from both countries have been negotiating for months to forge a deal to normalise ties.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday there was a "big possibility" that a potentially final round of talks could take place this month.

- Egypt: The row with Egypt came to a head after the country's military rulers ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, a close ally of Turkey's AKP government.

Erdogan condemned the "coup," and in a show of solidarity he often uses at rallies a hand gesture known as "Rabia" showing four fingers -- seen a symbol of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

But Turkey's increasingly close ally Saudi Arabia is keen to bring about reconciliation with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with Yildirim saying political disputes should not be an obstacle in developing commercial relations.

- Russia: Turkey has reached out to Moscow after the 2015 downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey's air force, which resulted in a drastic drop in the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey.

Erdogan this month sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin marking Russia's national day, in their first contact since the plane crisis.

But Ankara has refused to bow to the Russian demand for an apology. "If there is one thing Erdogan is not capable of, it is to apologise," said Cagaptay.

- Syria: This month, the El Watan newspaper reported that Algeria had been secretly mediating between Ankara and Damascus about Syrian Kurdish aspirations to create an independent state.

But Cavusoglu denied any mediating role by Algeria and said it was "out of the question" to cooperate with a Syrian regime that murdered its people.

Erdemir said in general finding compromise for Turkey would be hard, with the charismatic and combative personality of Erdogan casting a long shadow.

"As long as Erdogan dominates Turkish politics, any pragmatic partnership that Ankara establishes would be on shaky ground and unlikely to be sustainable."

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