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Turkey if looking for build up its regional muscle

European countries like to view Turkey as a bridge between the West and the Orient.

But as the Islamic-conservative AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grows in self-confidence, it is looking beyond this, anxious to build its regional muscle alongside Iran to form a presence that the Arab and southern Caucasian states cannot ignore.

'Turkey is in the front row when it comes to Middle East issues,' Foreign Minister Ali Babacan stressed at the World Economic Forum (WEF) regional meeting his country has been hosting.

Milestones, he said, were the recently-agreed cooperation pact with the Arab League, and an agreement signed two months ago with the Gulf Cooperation Council, to which the main Arab Gulf oil monarchies belong.

Although NATO member Turkey has never questioned its solid relations with Israel, even with the moderate Islamist government it now has, its ties are getting closer to Israel's arch-enemy Iran, above all at the economic level.

Trade between the two regional heavyweights has doubled in the past three years, and next month a major agreement is due to be signed on Iranian gas exports passing through Turkish territory.

In this, Turkey sees itself not just as a transit country, but also as a business partner, investing 3.5 billion dollars in Iran's South Pars gas field.

At the same time, Turkey is already vaunting itself as a perfect problem-solver in indirect peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, without 'any hidden agenda in the region', as Babacan put it.

'Turkey could be a leading broker in the region,' said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

And Buthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syrian President Bashar Assad, said: 'Many people in the region now think of the US as a power that has come to divide us - we witness the emergence of Iran and Turkey as regional powers.'

Turkey, in the assessment of one EU official, is looking towards Europe less than it was a few years ago, and wants to build its influence, and not only in the Middle East. Erdogan has declared mediation in conflicts in the Balkans and the Caucasus as a foreign policy goal alongside moving toward membership of the EU.

EU states, in considering the question of if and when Turkey should become a member of the Union, are at odds. They view the efforts of Turkey to build its regional clout with goodwill - as well as mistrust.

On one side EU leaders hope that with Turkey's help, the European Union can work towards their own energy security and stability in the Middle East.

On the other side, EU politicians are asking themselves whether Turkey is moving towards its neighbours to the south and east because they feel rejected by Europe.

The Iranians, under pressure because of their nuclear programme, and increasingly isolated in the world, have welcomed Turkish overtures with open arms.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki spoke at the WEF on Friday of the beginning of a new era where conflict in the region can be solved without intervention from the EU or Washington. He called for a new formula, 'to solve problems among one other.'

The criticism that Erdogan aimed at Washington's strategy while he was speaking at the WEF - namely that Syria and Iran were being isolated - can therefore be seen as not just pleasing the Iranians but also the delegation from Damascus, which was still in shock following the US attack on a Syrian village on Sunday.

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