ISTANBUL As Islamist groups emerge triumphant in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan seems decided to act as their mentor -- and to throw its weight behind the Syrian opposition seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, a former ally.
Ankara's evolving response to the upheavals of the Arab Spring is broadly in harmony with its NATO and European Union allies, who had balked at the AKP's previous "zero problems with the neighbors" policy, that indulged Syria and its ally Iran, and which some derided as a neo-Ottoman turn away from Turkey's long-standing Western ties.
Both Turkey and its Western allies now hope the success of the AKP in transiting from Islamist roots to a sort of Muslim version of Christian Democracy, and in running a dynamic economy that has doubled the income of its people, will be an attractive model to Arab Islamist parties now coming to the fore.
"I think the AKP hope is that they will be really an example for the Islamists of the region and they will moderate themselves and become parties like AKP which respects Islamic values but mainly focuses on economic development and doesn't support a radical agenda," said Mustafa Akyol, author of the recent book "Islam without extremes: a Muslim Case For Liberty".
Erdogan and his government are nonetheless intent on influencing the reformists in the Arab Islamist parties.
On a triumphal tour in September of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya -- the three countries that successfully overthrew their dictatorships this year -- he pointedly defended Turkey's model of a secular state as a shield that defended the beliefs of all, including Islamists.
Tunisia's Ennadhda party has publicly embraced the AKP as a source of inspiration, while the new generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt, look to the AKP as an example.
"They want to be a mentor to all these Islamist groups in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia," says Soli Ozel, a prominent academic and commentator in Istanbul.
INVESTING IN THE FUTURE
Islamists did not instigate the Arab uprisings that have shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but in the last two months, Islamist parties have come out top in parliamentary elections in Morocco and post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Egyptian Islamists, who have won a first round of elections, want to emulate those triumphs, but it is unclear how much influence the previously toothless legislature in Cairo can wield while the generals remain in power.
Sinan Ulgen, head of the independent EDAM think-tank in Istanbul, said the Arab Spring offered Turkey an immense opportunity because it allowed the AKP to engage the new emerging political actors on the ground.
"There is a political factor that is at play here. There is a good opportunity for years to come for the AKP to start to chaperon these parties in the region. It will be a demand driven dynamic rather than supply-driven," he added, emphasizing that Ankara would be careful to avoid reviving memories of Ottoman domination of the region or playing 'Big Brother'.
The experience of Turkey, where the AKP was built from the debris of several failed and proscribed Islamist parties but widened to include centre-right elements and nationalists, suggests Islamism can be synthesized with secular norms and that there is a middle way between the extremes of despotism and Islamic radicalism, argues Akyol.
"In the past century the Middle East has been doomed by those secular dictators suppressing opposition, including Islamist groups, and those becoming more radical. I call them the two extremes.
"The middle way is something now represented by the AKP: It restores respect for religion, it is run by pious Muslims but it does not envision a theocratic state. It creates room for Islamists to come to the centre of society," he added.
This year's upheavals across the region have nevertheless brought new pressures to bear on Turkey's ruling government.
Worried that the conflict in neighboring Syria is taking a sectarian turn as the minority Alawite rule of the Assads tries to paint its opponents as Sunni fundamentalists, the mainly Sunni AKP, whose natural sympathies lie with Syria's Sunni majority, has adopted a resolutely non-sectarian line, evident in its dealings with all parties in fractious multi-confessional states such as Lebanon, Iraq and even Bosnia.
Turkey's Western partners regard this role as invaluable, and one they cannot themselves easily play.
"The Turks are very aware that there is a tendency to picture them as the big Sunni player but it is more complicated than that. Turkey doesn't want to be cast as part of this sectarian balance, they don't like this idea of them being patron of the Sunnis. They like Turkey to be an inspiration and a model," a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
That has forced a government U-turn on Syria, where previously Erdogan and his activist Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, had labored to persuade Bashar al-Assad of the need to lead change before he was engulfed by it.
Once the scale of anti-government protests and the number of deaths went up enormously, Turkey, conscious of its reputation in the Middle East, quickly realized it had to make a choice. After failing to persuade the Syrian president, with whom Erdogan had built special ties, to introduce reforms Turkey concluded it should switch horses.
Not only that, Turkey opened its doors to Syria's main political and armed opposition, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Free Syrian Army, in a clear departure from its previous policy which scrupulously avoided openly hostile behavior against any of its neighbors.
"The zero policy with neighbors ended. There was the start of a new policy to try and portray itself as the protector of the victimized people of the region. There is going to be much more focus on democratic reform, on human rights," said Ulgen.
Turkey has made progress in curbing the influence of the military in politics and taken action against police officials over torture allegations. But the AK Party is accused by critics of muzzling media debate and criticism of the government -- something it denies.
The second consequence is that there is going to be realignment in Turkey's foreign policy with the West," he added. Rebuffed in its negotiations to become a member of the European Union by France and Germany, Turkey is now invited to EU foreign ministers' meetings setting policy towards Syria.
Government officials are frank about the volte-face. A foreign ministry official in Ankara said Turkey could not put its interest and ties with Assad ahead of its principles.
"When the Arab Spring erupted we had to take a decision. We knew that it wouldn't stop in Tunis but that it would blow up everywhere," the official said. "We had to take a principled approach otherwise it would have been double standards. We decided to support these social movements. And we supported the demand and aspirations of the Syrian people".
But the AKP government's calculation was also dictated by its conviction that Assad's days are numbered, and by its long-term interest in building ties with the new emerging powers.
"It is our belief as a leader he is finished. It is a gradual bleeding of the regime in Syria", the official added.
"Turkey invested heavily in Syria. It was blind to its human rights violations" adds Soli Ozel. "But if you decide that this regime is going you have to invest in the future".
But there is widespread concern in Turkey that the longer the Syrian conflict goes on, the more likely it is that it will degenerate into a sectarian war -- which will spill over Turkey's frontiers.
Ankara has already warned Damascus against resuming its support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, who have stepped up their secessionist campaign in south-east Turkey but now, the government suspects, with Syrian connivance.
"All the skeletons of sectarian strife are coming out of the closet. Once the regime falls I don't see how we avoid major sectarian strife if not a bloodbath" says Ozel. "So Far Turkey has tried to adopt an ecumenical position:
'We're Muslims, not Shi'ite or Sunnis'", he adds.
"But if the Syrian regime falls and we have total loss of control in Damascus, what will the Syrian Kurds do? Will they want independence? What will Turkey do regarding its own Kurds or the fight against the PKK ?
"A country which has sectarian and ethnic faultlines of its own should be more circumspect about where it deploys its forces. I wish we had not crossed the sectarian Rubicon in Syria," Ozel said.
(Created by Samia Nakhoul)