May 6, 2013 § 7 Comments
Israel’s massive strike on military targets near Damascus early Sunday morning paired with its earlier strike on surface-to-surface missiles at the airport on Friday that were presumably destined for transfer to Hizballah has reopened a furious debate in Washington over U.S. intervention in Syria. Proponents of intervention, such as Senator John McCain, are pointing to the seeming ease with which Israel has been able to hit Syrian targets as an argument that the U.S. should be intervening in Syria and at minimum setting up a no-fly zone. The logic employed is that if Israel can use American-made weapons to penetrate Syrian air defenses seemingly at will, it shows the ineptitude of Syrian air defenses and eliminates the argument that setting up a no-fly zone will be dangerous or stretch U.S. capabilities. I am certainly no expert on the relative efficacy of Syrian military capabilities so I will not deign to wade into the argument over whether or not the Syrian army would present a legitimate military threat to setting up a no-fly zone, although I am as confident as I can be that any Syrian air defenses, no matter how robust, aren’t anything that the U.S. military can’t handle. We are talking about the most formidable fighting force with the best technology in the history of mankind, and as Steven Cook has pointed out, the difference in U.S. military resources vs. Syrian military resources is laughable, so I don’t think anyone serious is making an argument about U.S. military capabilities in warning against setting up a no-fly zone. Rather, the opposition to a no-fly zone that centers on the dangers of maintaining one is concerned with the costs of doing so and not arguing that setting one up is an impossibility. In this vein, I’d like to make a few points on why what Israel has just done over the past few days holds very few lessons for a hypothetical U.S. intervention in the form of a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
First, the types of strikes are different. Israel has now conducted three one-off strikes in Syria since the conflict between Assad and the rebels began, and each has been an independent operation aimed at keeping what Israel terms “game changing” conventional weaponry out of Hizballah’s hands. A no-fly zone, in contrast, would consist of constant daily sorties along a predictable schedule and route. Dan Trombly this morning has done a much better job than I could ever hope to do of laying out exactly what a sustained no-fly zone would entail so rather than attempting to get into the specifics of it, just go and read his post instead. That is not to say that the U.S. cannot do so; we maintained a no-fly zone over Iraq for more than a decade. My point is that holding up three Israeli strikes, one of which happened in January and two of which happened two days apart last week, as definitive proof that a Syrian no-fly zone would present absolutely no logistical quandaries seems premature to me.
Furthermore, it is unclear whether Israel even penetrated Syrian airspace. The strike on the airport on Friday apparently took place from Lebanese territory with guided missiles that can skim along the ground for miles after being fired before reaching their intended to target, so the question of whether Syrian air defenses presented a challenge or not is moot. As of this writing, I have not seen any definitive statement as to whether the much larger strike in the wee hours of Sunday morning also came from Lebanese airspace or not. Even if it did not, I would surmise that it took the Syrian regime by surprise given that Israel has not been conducting constant strikes in Syria by any means and that Israel had already struck targets two days before. In any event, assuming that Israeli planes flew over Syria for the second strike, a solitary sortie again does not provide the evidence needed to draw any firm conclusions about Syrian air defenses against a long-term no-fly zone.
Third, even if Israel did launch the second strike from Syria itself, keep in mind that Syria has a long history of not responding to Israeli incursions while not extending the same courtesy to other countries. Israel flew eight planes in and out of Syria to destroy its nuclear reactor and extract its commandos on the ground in September 2007 without a shot being fired. Israel also conducted a strike in Syria through Syrian airspace in January, as noted above, and possibly again this past weekend, all without running into any resistance at all. In contrast, Turkey had its F-4 downed over Syria last summer, and whether it was brought down by Syria or – as has been widely rumored – by a Russian anti-aircraft battery, the fact remains that Syria generally keeps its head down when Israel is involved. In fact, a former Syrian air force major now with the rebels has claimed that Syrian air defenses were actively ordered to stand down during the Israeli raid on the al-Kibbar reactor once the planes were detected and it became clear that it was an Israeli operation. The reason might be that Israel has a carefully cultivated reputation for responding to provocations with overwhelming and even disproportionate force, which smartly deters retaliatory action. If Syria thinks that Israel will bomb it back to the Stone Age if it shoots at Israeli planes, it has every reason to stand down. Indeed, if the reports of the massive explosions in Damascus on Sunday are to be believed, Israel is still making sure to employ its own version of shock and awe. I am not sure that the U.S. reputation in the region is quite the same as Israel’s, and so extrapolating from Syria’s turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions that it will also ignore sustained U.S. incursions is, in my view, a bridge too far.
Finally, and most importantly, Israel has a clearly defined and limited goal in mind when it strikes Syrian targets. As Brent Sasley emphasized today, Israel is engaging in finite operations specifically designed to avoid reprisals by only targeting a specific category of weaponry that is in danger of being transferred to outside parties. The U.S., on the other hand, is dealing with a very different kettle of fish. If the U.S. sets up a no-fly zone, what is the objective? Is it to remove Assad? Even the playing field to give the rebels a better chance? Protect civilians without putting our thumb on the scale on behalf of one side? Israel can more easily carry out its objectives in Syria because they are simple – prevent chemical weapons or new missile technology being given to Hizballah. The U.S.’s objectives will be murkier, particularly since President Obama’s “red line” comment was apparently unplanned. When you don’t have a sense of what exactly you hope to accomplish, nor how long it will actually take to accomplish this hazy objective, taking lessons from a country that has an actually clear red line and knows that it does not have to commit many resources to enforce it may not be the best idea. If we have learned anything from our excursion in Iraq, surely it should be that predictions of a cakewalk should be cast aside in favor of a strategy that hopes for the best and plans for the worst.
Again, none of this is to say that the U.S. is not up to the job, or that the Syrian military is an awesomely fearsome fighting force, or that our capabilities are anything short of allowing us to do pretty much whatever we set out to do. What I am saying is that pointing to what Israel has just done and using that as definitive proof of anything related to a potential U.S. no-fly zone is taking the wrong frame of reference as a lesson.
One last related note: to those who incessantly insist that Israel is of absolutely no strategic worth to American interests and is nothing but an albatross around the neck of the U.S., I’d submit that having the Israeli military around to prevent transfers of Iranian-furnished weapons to Hizballah and to make sure that Assad’s delivery systems for chemical weapons also stay right where they are, all while battlefield-testing American weapons in the process, is pretty useful right about now. Just sayin’…
March 25, 2013 § 6 Comments
As everyone knows by now, on Friday Bibi Netanyahu talked to Tayyip Erdoğan (for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in 2009!) after being handed the phone by President Obama and apologized for operational mistakes causing the deaths of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and both men somewhat fudged the issue of the Gaza blockade by noting that Israel has already lifted some restrictions and pledging to work together going forward to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This formula should not be surprising; in November I wrote the following:
All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
As readers of this blog know, I have maintained for awhile that Israel was ready and willing to apologize to Turkey but that I did not think Turkey was prepared to accept an apology given the domestic political benefits for Erdoğan and the AKP of feuding with Israel. Indeed, over the past few months there have been reports of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish officials rebuffing Israeli attempts to meet and lay the groundwork for a rapprochement. That the apology was suddenly offered and accepted took me by surprise, and got me thinking about what would make Turkey change its calculus. I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs identifying Turkey’s suddenly more pressing need for better intelligence in Syria given the chemical weapons angle and Ankara’s desire to meet its energy demands through channels other than Russian natural gas as the primary reasons, and noting that the timing here is also related to the successful talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here’s the core of the argument:
For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara’s demands for Assad to step down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have also been brushed aside.
All this has been unfortunate for Turkey’s leaders, but it was the recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that really changed Turkey’s calculus; now more than ever, the country needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help to monitor Assad’s weapons stores and troop movements on both sides. In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.
Another area in which Turkey needs Israel’s assistance is energy. Turkey’s current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in 2012, is almost entirely a result of the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey — government ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group leaders — and they all mentioned Turkey’s growing energy needs and lamented the country’s overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.
Because it is – in my view – Turkey that changed its mind on reconciling, I focused on the Turkish side of things in the FA piece, so I thought I’d now write a little bit about the Israeli side. From Israel’s perspective, making up with Turkey has made sense for awhile now, and the reasons to do so only grew stronger with each passing day. First, there is the regional dynamic in the Middle East, which is hardly trending in Israel’s favor post-Arab Spring. While I do not think that Israel has anything to fear from new governments in the region, the upheaval has opened up power vacuums in the Sinai and Syria that allow hostile non-state actors to operate with impunity. Add to this the existing threats from Hamas and Hizballah and the distinct possibility that the Jordanian government falls, and Israel desperately needs any friend who will have her. Making up with Turkey means that at least Israel is not entirely alone in the region, and being able to coordinate with Turkey and with Jordan (so long as King Abdullah remains in power) will be extremely helpful in containing the spillover threat from Syria. While I highlighted the urgency for Turkey in my FA piece, Israel’s biggest concern with regard to the Syrian civil war has always been the transfer of chemical weapons to hostile non-state actors, and now that the chatter around chemical weapons has increased, apologizing to Turkey took on an urgency for Jerusalem that was absent before.
Second, Turkey has successfully blocked Israel from NATO military activities and summits, and the ability to get back in the game has always been important to the Israeli government. While the Noble Dina naval exercises with Greece and the U.S. that Israel began doing in 2011 are nice, they are a poor substitute for Israel being able to use the vast Turkish airspace for aerial training or being able to participate in NATO military exercises. Israel has attempted to ramp up its military relations with Greece and Cyprus in response to the freeze in relations with Turkey but this has always been a suboptimal solution, and Israel has felt this acutely as the government has become increasingly preoccupied with possible threats from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s defense industry has had billions of dollars in contracts with Turkey suspended by Ankara, and being able to resume sales to Turkey should provide a nice jolt to the Israeli economy.
Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to where they once were. Turkey does not feel as alone in the region as it once did, there is still a benefit from having cool relations with Israel, and too much has taken place between the two, from Davos to the Mavi Marmara to the “Zionism is equal to fascism” kerfuffle of a month ago. It is unfortunately not surprising to already see Erdoğan backing away from his commitment to normalize relations, although it will happen sooner rather than later since this is only Erdoğan playing politics in response to some hardline domestic criticism over the deal with Israel. Exchanging ambassadors and resuming limited military and intelligence cooperation does not negate the fact that bashing Israel will remain a potent element in Erdoğan’s box of tricks, and I expect to see issues big and small arise between the two countries, particularly as things remain static on the Israeli-Palestinian front and settlement building in the West Bank continues. Nevertheless, this restoring of formal ties is good for both sides, and I hope that both countries can get over their past issues and begin work on developing a healthier relationship.
February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.
February 4, 2013 § 8 Comments
Following Israel’s strike last week on a Syrian convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles that were presumed to be headed for Hizballah, my friend Aaron Stein pointed out the dilemma facing the Turkish government in formulating a response. On the one hand, Israel and Turkey have incentive to cooperate on Syria, but on the other hand an Israeli strike always has the potential to rally Assad’s forces or empower the most radical elements of the Syrian rebellion such as Jubhat al-Nusra. As Aaron laid out, the question facing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu was whether to keep quiet in recognition of this first dynamic or blast Israel in light of the second. Had I written about this last week, I would have added in another piece to this equation, which is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu simply cannot help themselves from pouring gasoline on the fire when it comes to Israel and are incapable of acting prudently even when it is in their interest to do so. This is why my very first reaction to the news of the Israeli strike on the convoy was to wonder whether Erdoğan would manage to let this pass without comment. In this situation, the Israeli strike was contrary to the Turkish government’s oft-stated desire for a multilateral rather than unilateral solution in Syria, but the prospects of Assad being able to use an Israeli strike to win over the opposition to his side and contend that a united front is necessary to face the looming Zionist threat were always slim given how far down the rabbit hole Assad has gone. Furthermore, Israel’s strike was aimed at stopping the spread of weapons to Hizballah, which Turkey does not want to see happen either, so if there was any instance in which it made sense for Turkey to stay quiet, this was it.
Much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza in November, Turkey initially had no response to the Israeli operation. Also much like with Operation Pillar of Cloud, this silence was short-lived. Over the weekend, Davutoğlu taunted Bashar al-Assad for not responding militarily to the Israeli raid, alleged that the reason for Syria’s lack of response must be because there is a secret agreement between Israel and Syria, and maintained that Turkey herself will stand up for Syria since it cannot stay quiet in the face of an Israeli attack on a Muslim country. Not to be left on the sidelines, Erdoğan called the strike an example of Israeli state terror, dubbed Israel a spoiled child, and tried to tie the raid to Israel’s conquering of the Golan Heights. So for those of you keeping score at home, Turkey wants to see Assad gone and has been trying for over a year to organize a U.S. or NATO-led attack on Syria in the form of a no-fly zone and furthermore has deployed Patriot missile batteries along its border with Syria in recognition of the military threat that exists, but it also is going to defend its friend Bashar from Israeli aggression and will not abide an attack on Syria and doesn’t really see why Israel has anything to worry about when it comes to Syrian military threats. The Turkish stance on this would be funny if it weren’t so downright absurd. For all of Davutoğlu’s reputation as a serious and deep thinker, when it comes to the subject of Israel he turns into a caricature.
There is another dynamic at work here, which is that Israel’s foray into Syrian airspace untouched is deeply embarrassing to Turkey. After Syria shot down Turkey’s F-4 last year, Turkey blustered and threatened and ultimately did nothing. Until the Patriot batteries arrived, Ankara was unable to prevent Syria from shelling over the border into Turkey. All the while the Turkish government played up Syrian air defense capabilities and the difficulty in deterring Syria from attacks. Yet Israel was able to fly jets into Syria, bomb a convoy, and fly back out untouched, either because the planes were undetected or because Syria is afraid of messing with Israel in a way that it is not when it comes to Turkey. This entire episode makes the political leadership in Ankara look skittish and overly cautious in comparison and illuminates the gaping chasm between the Israeli military and intelligence and the Turkish military and intelligence in terms of capabilities. Furthermore, Israel conducted the raid with the knowledge and likely complicity of the U.S., whereas Turkey’s repeated requests for action on Syria have fallen on mostly deaf American ears. By blasting Israel, Turkey is trying to overcome its own insecurities, but is instead serving to highlight them even further.
The Turkish government for whatever reason is incapable of rational and level-headed behavior when it comes to Israel. Instead, it reverts to all sorts of childish tactics; empty threats, bullying, ridiculous attempts at shaming, name calling, etc. when it could do a much better job by calmly assessing the situation, realizing that the Israeli raid benefits Turkey as well, and stop with the empty boasts of coming to Syria’s defense. Not only does nobody buy the act for a second, it makes Turkey’s own Syria policy more complicated and makes Erdoğan and Davutoğlu look small rather than like serious statesmen with aspirations of turning Turkey into a dominant regional power. Not to mention that by Davutoğlu’s standards, Turkey’s non-military response to Syria shooting down its plane means that Ankara and Damascus must have a secret deal in place, which is an issue fraught with danger for a government whose prime minister just a few short years ago was vacationing with the Assads and calling Bashar a brother.
December 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a meeting of foreign ministers yesterday, NATO gave its ok to deploy Patriot missile batteries to Turkey in order to guard against a missile attack emanating from Syria. While this is welcome news in Ankara, it is a move that Russia has been complaining about and trying to sandbag ever since Turkey made its initial request for Patriots last month. Russia’s concerns over deploying Patriots to the border with Syria are twofold and both fairly obvious. First, as Syria’s external patron, Russia wants to avoid intervention by any outside actors, and it has been afraid that sending Patriot missiles to Turkey is a precursor to wider action on the part of outside powers. Second, the fact that the Patriots are coming from NATO adds to Russian paranoia. NATO is and always has been a sore spot for Moscow, and understandably so. The organization that was formed during the Cold War as a way of containing the Soviet Union did not disband once the USSR broke apart and its raison d’être no longer existed, but actually expanded and in the process encircled Russia even more. Despite repeated American and Western assurances that this was not aimed at tamping down Russian power, Russia has never quite believed this version of events, and so it reflexively opposes any increased NATO presence in its backyard or in any situations in which it is intimately involved.
Nevertheless, following NATO’s decision to send Patriots to Turkey, Russia actually downplayed its criticism. At a press conference in Brussels after a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia did not object to the Patriot deployment but that it did not want the situation with Syria to escalate any further. Lavrov was clear that Russia differs with NATO on issues of missile defense, but Moscow has apparently decided not to take a hard stand in this particular instance. The reason for this is partly because NATO has made it abundantly clear that placing Patriots on the Syrian border is not in any way a harbinger of an eventual NATO intervention, but is rather a measure designed to placate and reassure a skittish Turkey. The Patriots have been programmed so that they can only intercept missiles crossing over into Turkish airspace and cannot cross over into Syrian territory preemptively. If it had not already been clear enough, the NATO foreign ministers issued a statement emphasizing that the Patriots would not be used offensively in any way and will not be linked to any theoretical no-fly zone. While Russia is still not thrilled with the development, the effort to reassure the Russians that the Patriot missiles do not herald Western states actively intervening on behalf of the rebels in the Syrian civil war seems to have paid off.
There is, however, another reason that Russia is all of a sudden displaying a more pliant side, and it has to do with Turkish energy demands. As sanctions have kicked in on Iranian oil, Turkey has been meeting its vast and ever growing energy needs with Iranian natural gas, and it has been buying that gas with gold in an effort to evade the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. In response to Turkey’s end around, the Senate is considering a new sanctions bill that would cover the sale of precious metals to Iran, and while Turkey insists that it will continue buying up to 90% of Iran’s natural gas exports, at some point the White House is going to be forced to take a tougher line with Turkey given the pressure from Congress over the issue. As I wrote back in April when looking at Turkey’s energy trade with Iran, Turkey’s biggest oil supplier is not Iran but Russia, and if Turkey is forced to look elsewhere for its natural gas needs, Russia is the logical partner. There are signs that Turkey is preparing for this very eventuality, as it has asked Russia to increase its natural gas sales to Turkey by 3 billion cubic meters per year, which does not entirely replace the 10 billion cubic meters per year that Turkey gets from Iran but significantly cuts into it. Russia wants Turkey to buy more of its gas at Iran’s expense, and this may partially explain Russia’s backing down from its strident stance on NATO deploying Patriot missiles in Turkey. Russia wants to keep Turkey as a happy client, and if placing some defensive missile batteries along the border with Syria are the price of doing business, Russia has concluded that the pros outweigh the cons.
November 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Prime Minister Erdoğan seems to be going out of his way lately to push the European Union’s buttons. First, while in Berlin for meetings with Angela Merkel, he gave the EU an ultimatum that Turkey would halt its accession talks for good if it was not granted EU membership by 2023. Turkey’s frustration at being strung along is quite understandable, but there’s no doubt that Erdoğan’s threat to drop out of the process ruffled some European feathers. While in Germany he also made a strange reference to Turkey not adopting the euro but setting up its own “lira zone” which would presumably compete with the euro zone, thrilling a segment of Turkish nationalists who are convinced that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU but leaving many observers scratching their heads as the lira has a low trading volume and it is unclear which countries, if any, would ever join such a project.
The biggest salvo aimed at the EU, however, has been the prime minister’s recent comments on the death penalty. Erdoğan has now hinted that Turkey should reinstate the death penalty in a number of different forums, including an AKP meeting, a press conference, and on twitter, where he said that the state is not entitled to forgive a killer and that some killings may warrant the death penalty. Ahmet Davutoğlu and Sadullah Ergin both insist that Erdoğan was only referring to the Norwegian mass murdered Anders Breivik and that no preparations are being made for Turkey to reinstate the death penalty, but the issue rankles the EU nonetheless. While Turkey has not executed anyone since 1984, it officially abolished the death penalty in 2002 as part of its reforms aimed at joining the EU, and this issue is associated with EU reforms perhaps more than any other. That Erdoğan is now bringing up the death penalty is seen as a direct affront to the EU and is being taken by some as a signal that Erdoğan is trying to put some distance between Turkey and Europe. The prime minister’s comments prompted a swift response from Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, who stated in no uncertain terms that a Turkish move to reinstate the death penalty would deliver an enormous blow to Turkey-EU relations.
It seems strange that Erdoğan is going out of his way to upset the Europeans, and while the death penalty row is a patented Erdoğan technique for deflecting attention away from the government’s missteps by bringing up a controversial issue (see his comments on abortion sweeping the Uludere airstrikes right off the front pages over the summer), this time it fits into a larger pattern of implicit and explicit EU-bashing. I actually don’t think that what is going on is about the EU at all, but is a misguided effort on Erdoğan’s part to pressure European countries into being more active in solving the Syria mess. Erdoğan has been trying in vain to get the U.S. or NATO to intervene, so far to no avail, and not only has he not made any progress but has managed to annoy both the U.S. and NATO by keeping up the rhetorical pressure in public and constantly bringing up intervention in private. Instead of recognizing that this strategy has failed and coming up with a new approach, I think Erdoğan is trying something similar now with the EU but from a different direction. Ankara has made it clear that Syria is its absolute top priority right now, and Erdoğan is playing on European fears that the West is going to “lose” Turkey. By threatening to withdraw from the EU process and by implying that he will consider reinstating the death penalty, Erdoğan is trying to do whatever he can to get European states to act to bring back Turkey into the fold - a fold that Turkey has never actually left – and the easiest way to do that is to give Turkey a helping hand on Syria. Deploying Patriot missiles along the Syrian border is the U.S. and NATO response to keeping Turkey happy and by taking constant digs at the EU, Erdoğan is trying to coax some European action in order to pacify Turkey, whether it be greater rhetorical pressure on Syria and recognition of the Syrian opposition (as France did yesterday) or a renewed push in the Security Council for some sort of action. The question is whether Europe is going to play along or call Erdoğan’s bluff, and that remains to be seen. In any event, I don’t think that the recent attempts to imply distancing from Europe is about Europe at all, but like so much else going on with Turkey these days, is actually about what’s taking place with its next door neighbor.
November 8, 2012 § 6 Comments
I was talking with my good friend and colleague Steven Cook about the news that Turkey was planning to request that NATO deploy Patriot missiles along the Syrian border, and since we both had nearly identical thoughts on the subject, we thought we’d link O&Z and From the Potomac to the Euphrates together and write a joint post. You can read it here or on Steven’s blog (where he has a cool picture of a Patriot missile battery up top).
Wednesday saw a strange confluence of events surrounding Turkey and its oft-stated determination to intervene in Syria with the help of its Western allies. It began with an unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official – presumably Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – revealing that there have been talks between Turkey and the United States about deploying Patriot missile batteries on the Syrian border. According to this report, the purpose of the Patriots would be to create a safe zone inside of Syria as a way of supporting a limited no-fly zone. This report would have been unusual by itself given that Patriot missiles are an odd vehicle to use for creating a no-fly zone, but it was particularly puzzling given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement the day before explicitly disavowing any Turkish intentions to buy Patriot missiles. More drama ensued after Davutoğlu was identified as the official claiming that a NATO deployment of Patriots was imminent, with the Foreign Ministry subsequently denying that Davutoğlu had ever made such a claim.
There are a couple of things here that don’t quite seem right. First, Patriot missiles are not what one would typically use to enforce or support a no-fly zone. Patriots are defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming missiles and not fix-winged aircraft or helicopters. Their deployment would only make sense if Ankara were concerned about a barrage of Syria’s Scud missiles tipped with chemical weapons—a largely theoretical threat. Second, despite the calls for intervention in Syria from some quarters of Washington, the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved in Syria beyond technical support that may or may not include small arms. Anonymous reports coming out of Turkey the day after the election claiming that the U.S. and NATO are now about to prepare for staging a no-fly zone seem a little more than idle chatter. Neither the White House nor the State Department nor the Pentagon have demonstrated any appetite for getting involved in Syria, with its layers of political, sectarian, and regional complexities that could suck Washington into yet another long-term military and diplomatic commitment in the Muslim world. Against this backdrop, the recent meeting that the United States orchestrated in Doha to broaden the Syrian opposition was an effort to preclude a greater American involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The deployment of the Patriots is likely a precursor to no new initiative, but rather has more to do with U.S. and NATO relations with Turkey. Ankara, incapable of managing the Syrian crisis on its own, has continually sought to involve Western powers in a greater way. For much of the past year, Prime Minister Erdoğan has been attempting to drum up support for outside intervention by threatening to unilaterally create a buffer zone inside Syria, making noise about invoking NATO Article 5, calling out the U.S. for dragging its feet while Assad butchers his own people, and implying that NATO is in danger of losing its credibility as the Syrian civil war drags on. Despite a combination of public and private cajoling, Erdoğan has made little headway, and Wednesday’s barrage of leaks and half-truths fits into the pattern of doing anything possible to pull the U.S. into Syria one way or another. By making it seem as if a no-fly zone is a fait accompli, Ankara is hoping to create enough momentum to spur some real action. Yet rather than respond to the Turkish government’s posturing and efforts to shame the United States and NATO into taking Turkey’s preferred course, Ankara’s allies have sought to placate it with a symbolic dispatch of largely useless weapons.
Overall, the announcement that Patriots will be deployed to Turkey fits a pattern that has developed in Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners, who have sought to keep Ankara minimally satisfied without actually having to commit much of anything to Syria. If scattering Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border is the price of keeping Turkey temporarily happy, it’s a pretty small price to pay, and certainly nothing compared to the cost of actually intervening in Syria.
October 24, 2012 § Leave a Comment
One of the things that clearly emerged from the debate on Monday is that, despite some predictions to the contrary, there is not going to be any serious U.S. assistance to Turkey on the Syria front after the election. As regular readers know, I have argued that no U.S. or NATO military action is forthcoming but I have still seen and heard speculation that neither candidate can make promises to intervene during campaign season but that it will happen following the election. On Monday night though, both President Obama and Mitt Romney insisted in no uncertain terms that the U.S. military is not going to get involved. Romney displayed a willingness to supply the Syrian rebels with heavier arms but not to send U.S. troops to intervene in the conflict, and Obama reiterated previous warnings about the dangers of blowback once you arm rebels with anything more than light weapons. Neither of the two men left much wiggle room at all in their answers, and it did not seem to me as if these were positions being staked out for campaign purposes that will be quickly rolled back once the election is in the rearview mirror. It goes without saying that if the U.S. is reluctant to intervene in Syria, NATO is even more so, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which there is a NATO presence in Syria or along the Syrian border without American involvement.
So what does Turkey do now? Prime Minister Erdoğan has been agitating for months to get the U.S. to intervene, ideally by setting up a no fly zone, and has denounced the U.S. for dragging its heels. That strategy has not paid off, and more tough rhetoric from Ankara is not going to change that since both Obama and Romney have calculated that it is simply not in American interests to intervene. It seems to me that Turkey has a menu of very bad options from which to choose. One is to try and go into Syria alone, which as I have detailed and as Dov Friedman and Aaron Stein have documented even more thoroughly, is a bad idea that is unlikely to happen. Another is to sit tight, try to keep the status quo, and respond to each instance Syrian shelling across the border with a more forceful round of Turkish shelling, which is what Turkey has been doing for the past month. I think that this second option is what is going to keep on taking place, but it should be perfectly clear by now that this doesn’t exactly solve the problem. If Turkey expected this strategy to be a placeholder until it got outside help for intervening, now is the time to rethink things in a serious way. Ankara has to come up with a new strategy that assumes no eventual U.S. or NATO involvement, since it has appeared up until now that Erdoğan has been waiting for exactly that. It goes without saying, of course, that Turkey can use all the help that it can get, and to that end the continuing refusal to back down from demanding that Israel end its Gaza blockade is not doing Turkey any favors. The Israeli government certainly seems open at this point to apologizing and paying compensation, and the faster that Turkey drops the Gaza demand, the faster Israel and Turkey can reconcile and perhaps some coordination will allow Ankara to start developing a more realistic long-term strategy to deal with its truculent neighbor next door.
October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment
There are many good reasons to support some form of international intervention in Syria. Among them are that Bashar al-Assad is indiscriminately killing and torturing his own people, there is an enormous refugee crisis that is only growing, and the chaos in Syria might very well ignite a larger regional war. These are all credible arguments that have been made by people I respect, and they lead to a healthy and informed debate about the right course of action. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, however, Jorge Benitez made an argument for intervention in Syria that stretches the bounds of credulity.
Benitez claims that NATO is obligated to intervene in the conflict because Turkey has been attacked on two separate occasions – the shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June and the shelling of Akçakale a couple of weeks ago – saying, “If NATO persists in offering only paper promises to Turkey, the perception that the alliance lacks the political will to back up allies even if they are attacked will be a major blow to NATO’s credibility.” The problem here is that the definition of “attack” is not as cut and dry as Benitez suggests. The details surrounding the downing of the Turkish F-4 in June are still hazy since it is not yet clear where or even how the jet was brought down, and in any event Turkey has admitted that the jet was at some point flying in Syrian airspace. The Akçakale shelling was certainly reprehensible and Turkey has every right to respond as it sees fit given that five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian artillery fire, but it is also a fact that Syrian forces were not intentionally shelling Turkey but were aiming at rebel forces on the Syrian side of the border. None of this is meant to excuse Syria’s actions in any way; Turkey’s retaliatory shelling of Syrian positions has been absolutely legitimate and justified in my view. Has Turkey suffered an attack? Yup. But has Turkey suffered an intentional and purposeful attack from Syria to the level that should automatically trigger NATO intervention? That one, which is what Benitez is arguing, seems to me to be more of a stretch. I understand why Ankara wants firmer support from NATO than ineffective statements expressing strong condemnation of Syrian actions, but it is one thing to argue that NATO should be doing something and quite another to argue that NATO is obligated to be doing something. I don’t think that the situation supports this latter argument just yet.
Benitez does not advocate a full-scale NATO invasion of Syria, but rather suggests that NATO should deploy AWACS early warning aircraft and/or a rapid reaction force to the Syrian-Turkish border, and argues that doing so would deescalate any confrontation between Turkey and Syria. The logic here appears suspect to me as well. Again, we can have a serious debate over whether NATO should be doing more to help one of its members, and whether the absence of any serious action on Turkey’s behalf puts the future of the alliance in danger. But let’s also not kid ourselves – getting NATO aircraft and soldiers involved is not going to deescalate anything. In fact, it will almost certainly have the exact opposite effect, which is why Turkey is trying its hardest to get a NATO commitment, since the Turkish government does not want to deescalate things but wants to set a series of events in motion that will lead to Assad’s ouster. A NATO presence along the border will not lead Syria to cease attacking rebel positions, but will act as a tripwire for greater NATO involvement and eventually active intervention in Syria. I am open to a wide variety of arguments about why NATO, the UN, or the U.S. should be intervening alongside Turkey in Syria, but they should at least be credibly honest arguments rather than attempts at Jedi mind tricks.