Turkey and the U.S. – Hearing But Not Listening

November 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

I spent the better part of last week in Istanbul talking U.S. and Turkish foreign policy under the auspices of the Hollings Center, and I came away with a lot to mull over, but if there was one big overarching takeaway, it is that the U.S. and Turkey have a serious and real communication problem. There are structural issues that are complicating the bilateral relationship as well, and I’ll save those for a different post, but much of the recent downturn in relations (and yes, the relationship at the moment is at an ebb, no matter how much spin and damage control came from Ahmet Davutoğlu prior to his Washington visit this week) is resulting from a lack on both sides of understanding the other country’s priorities. The U.S. and Turkey are hearing each other, but not really listening.

This has manifested itself in a few ways, but the easiest way of illustrating the problem is by looking at the contretemps over Turkey’s decision to chose a Chinese firm to partner with in order to build an anti-missile defense system. When Turkey announced the decision, the reaction from the U.S. and other NATO allies was swift and furious. In their eyes, Turkey was turning its back on the NATO alliance and going with a Chinese firm – one that is under sanctions, no less – simply because it was cheaper. Turkey’s reaction to U.S. displeasure was that the U.S. does not understand the “new Turkey” that is stronger and more independent than it has been in the past, and does not feel like it needs to be tied down to whatever U.S. preferences are in every situation.

The Turkish decision, the U.S. reaction, and the Turkish counter-reaction have been acutely felt in both places, but in both instances they are partially predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of decision making and preferences in each country. Starting with Turkey, the decision to go with the Chinese tender was not made on the basis of price alone, nor was it done to stick a thumb in NATO’s eye. As Aaron Stein very accurately pointed out at the time, the Chinese firm offered a complete technology transfer and a favorable co-production agreement, and co-production was the most important factor in the decision on which of the four bids to accept. As multiple of my Turkish colleagues stressed to me last week, the Turkish defense industry has been on a mission for years to become self-sustaining, and the anti-missile defense system is no exception. Prime Minister Erdoğan actually changed the tender process midway through in order to incorporate co-production agreements, which effectively eliminated the U.S. bid since there are export control laws against this sort of thing. The point was not, however, to put the U.S. at a disadvantage, but to benefit the Turkish defense industry to the maximum possible amount. Yes, this had the side effect of making the U.S. bid a surefire loser, but that was not what Turkey was purposely aiming to do. According to the Turks, this was a strategic decision at heart, and while the Chinese bid was the highest rated one on both cost and price, it was the technology transfer and the co-production that were the decisive variables. The U.S. is understandably and justifiably upset at a NATO ally going to China to purchase an anti-missile system that is not able to be integrated into existing NATO defenses, but the U.S. government seems to be misunderstanding how the decision was made and what factors were most important to Turkey.

On the flip side, the Turks are downplaying U.S. and NATO anger under a mistaken impression that this is about lost money for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or a desire not to see Turkey pursue an independent defense policy. What Turkey does not understand is that accepting the Chinese bid is an enormous deal because the Chinese system cannot  and will not be integrated into NATO combat management systems – can you imagine giving the Chinese access to such sensitive information? – and Turkey is now cut out of the NATO sensor system. Following the deployment of the X-Band radar on Turkish territory and Patriot missile batteries in Gaziantep, Turkish obtuseness on this issue is puzzling, to say the least. I was told that the defense industry committee that made the decision to accept the Chinese bid did not involve the foreign ministry at all, which makes the picture a bit clearer, as had there been any type of foreign policy aspect to this decision, the Chinese firm would have been eliminated from the start. To reiterate, this is a Chinese firm that is under sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, and by going with this firm, the Turkish defense industry is opening itself up to its own round of sanctions. U.S. anger on this is genuine, yet the Turks keep on insisting that the Chinese system will be compatible with NATO – which is incorrect – and that the penalties for cooperating with a firm under sanctions won’t apply to Turkey – which is also incorrect. Turkey is convincing itself that U.S. anger is about not wanting to see an independent Turkey, which is a load of utter nonsense, and is missing the point about the message that it sends to the U.S. and NATO, who do not see why a desire for co-production outweighs a defense alliance that is more than half a century old.

The fallout from this decision is going to reverberate, and hopefully going forward each side will do a better job of realizing the core interests of the other. In the meantime though, if Turkey thinks it can smooth things over by referring ad nauseam to the countries’ shared values and pretending in hindsight that it welcomed the Gezi protests, then there is a delusion at the heart of Turkish foreign policymaking these days that is worse than I thought.

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Turkey’s House of Cards Tumbles Down

June 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

The AKP was elected in 2002, and in the decade that it has been in power under the direction of Prime Minister Erdoğan, it has risen to enormous heights. The AKP has received credit for the Turkish economy taking off, Turkey has been viewed by many (whether appropriately or not, and I am on record as voting for not) as a model for Arab countries, and Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu have been frequently and repeatedly lauded as brilliant and innovative thinkers. Whether any of this was correct or accurate at the time is beside the point; what mattered was the perception that Turkey under Erdoğan and his acolytes was, as Foreign Policy put it in 2011, “a regional powerhouse” with “a level of influence in the Middle East it hasn’t had since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” Particularly when it came to the Arab Spring, Turkey was seen as the clear regional winner, having avoided any upheaval while touting its version of electoral democracy and pushing an image of itself as an indispensable bridge between Europe and the Middle East and the lynchpin of stability in the region. All the while, Turkey attracted billions of dollars in foreign capital and talked of making Istanbul a global financial center on par with New York and London, opened embassies and consulates all over Africa, massively increased trade with Arab countries, and became America’s go-to regional partner. All of this took a decade, and in the span of just ten days Erdoğan has destroyed an image that took ten years to painstakingly build.

Last month the Center for Strategic Research, which is a think tank affiliated with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, published what it called a conceptual map of Turkish foreign policy under the AKP. It is a 35 page attempt to define what it sees as important foreign policy concepts and terms used by the AKP, and it is simply stunning in its complete lack of self-awareness. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would swear that it was not a real report but rather a parody. To take one of my favorite entries, “rhythmic diplomacy” is defined thusly: “Although it has not found an exact conceptual equivalence in international relations theory, rhythmic diplomacy is a specific style of foreign policy practiced in Turkey. It is a tactical activity that envisages simultaneously and harmoniously using diplomacy in different fields.” In case you are still confused, there is a quote from Davutoğlu purporting to explain it. “What is meant by rhythm is the co-existence of mobility and harmony. If there is mobility but not harmony it might lead to chaos. Unnecessary leaps might bring along unnecessary risks. However, if you have rhythm but no mobility than you will not make any progress. There needs to be mobility as well. Yet, if you desire for the perfect harmony and wait for it there will be no mobility.” Confused? You should be, although this combination of arrogant assertiveness and meaningless pablum is what Davutoğlu has ridden to widespread international acclaim and a reputation for unparalleled brilliance.

Other gems include lines like, “Being an order-building actor has been said to be one of the methodological macro-level objectives of foreign policy in the AK Party era.” Or asserting that Turkey has successfully pursued a win-win strategy when it comes to Cyprus. Or describing Turkey as a “wise country” which “is listened to on global matters, who predicts incidents in advance, takes precautions against these, and produces solutions for them.” Or the fact that despite the sheer volume of self-serving nonsense contained in its pages, the very first term defined in the paper is self-perception. A couple of weeks ago, some good friends – who are all veteran Turkey analysts – and I got a good chuckle out of mocking the report, but just stop for a moment and reflect upon how even more insane this stuff sounds in light of what is going on in Taksim, John F. Kennedy Avenue in Ankara, and other places around Turkey where the police are wreaking havoc on protestors and civilians of all stripes. Once Christiane Amanpour and Richard Engel are reporting live from Istanbul in gas masks while the world watches the Turkish police storm Taksim Square on the orders of the government – and after promising not to touch any of the protestors in Gezi Park, no less – your claim to be some sort of exceptionally wise country and model state is pretty much destroyed.

Perception matters a great deal in world politics, but in Turkey’s case perception has been even more important, as it fueled Turkey as a figurative growth stock all the while masking some very serious problems. As should now be clear to everyone, Turkish democracy is not nearly as robust as the government wanted the world to believe. Turkey under Erdoğan has had a real problem with creeping authoritarianism that is looking a lot less creeping every day. And yes, the problem is authoritarianism and not Islamism. This has been a recurring theme for me, as lots of people have a hair trigger when it comes to any action on the part of the AKP that has a whiff of Islamist rationale behind it while glossing over the much larger issue, which is garden variety autocratic and illiberal behavior.

On a related note, Michael Rubin somehow accused Aaron Stein and me of “dismiss[ing] the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness” because we interpret Erdoğan’s alcohol bill as more a problem of authoritarian instincts than a problem of Islamism, and says that since the protests have started – which Rubin implies are being driven primarily by the alcohol bill – “there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.” First, if Rubin genuinely believes that the protestors in the streets are primarily motivated by an alleged Islamist turn by Erdoğan and the AKP, then I have serious doubts about whether he has actually spoken with anyone in Turkey over the last two weeks. The alcohol bill is certainly a factor in these protests, but it is one factor of many, and anger over a majoritarian theory of governing, mistreatment of minorities, crony capitalism, rampant over-development in Istanbul, and most importantly police cracking heads in the service of clearing environmental protestors out of Gezi Park have absolutely nothing to do with backlash against Islamism. I’d urge Rubin to read today’s post from Zeynep Tufekci, who has spent days interviewing Gezi protestors and has catalogued their complaints, which have nothing to do with religion or Islamism. Second, if Rubin thinks I have dismissed Turkish repression, it is glaringly obvious that he has never read a thing I have written. He might want to try this or this or this, or perhaps he might want to check out “subsequent introspection” such as this widely read piece. *Deep breath* And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Turkish economic growth has been driven by foreign borrowing and increasing reliance on energy imports from Russia and Iran, which have led to an over-leveraged economy and a structural current account deficit, neither of which have any prospect of abating in the near future. There is a civil war taking place right across Turkey’s southern border, and not only is it not going to end any time soon, the Turkish military is in such a sorry state as to be unable to respond to the downing of its aircraft or to stop the Syrian military from shooting across to the Turkish side. These are all problems that have existed in one form or another for some time, but now that Erdoğan has decided to go postal on his own citizens, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Turkey to paper them over.

Turkey is about to see its foreign financing disappear as the perception of Turkey as an island of stability goes up in a cloud of tear gas smoke. The enormous building projects designed to attract the 2020 Olympics are now going to be used solely by Istanbul residents, since not only will Turkey not get the Olympics but regular tourists are going to stay away in droves. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can also forget about hosting various foreign conferences, as Western countries are going to elect to forego the optics of meeting in a country where protestors are being dubbed as marginal terrorists. The next time that Davutoğlu insists that Turkey isn’t a model for anyone while actually implying that Turkey is indeed a regional exemplar for Arab states to emulate, who is going to take him seriously? The next time Erdoğan crows about how the European economy needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe, who isn’t going to dismiss him out of hand? What Turkish diplomats are going to have the gall to seriously talk about Turkish democracy as a genuine success story? All of those issues that Turkey was able to largely keep under wraps by painting a portrait of a country on the rise, a country with a vibrant economy and a vibrant democracy and a vibrant diplomacy, are now about to be exposed to the world.

I wrote last week that Erdoğan isn’t going anywhere and that these protests are not going to dislodge him, and I am confident that is still the case. When this is all over, Turkey is still going to be stuck with its prime minister, for better or worse. But that does not mean that what is taking place is inconsequential; indeed, the long run consequences of the last few days are potentially devastating. Erdoğan has taken the conscious decision to pursue a strategy of solidifying his base and pitting it against everyone else in an us-versus-them rhetorical battle. He has dismissed the people in the streets as marginals, hoodlums, foreign agents, international provocateurs, parasitic financiers, and any other derogatory term that he can come up with. He is quite clearly trying to mobilize his supporters by acting as if his opponents are attempting to carry out a civilian coup, and by repeatedly refusing to stand down and instead upping the ante with tear gas, truncheons, water cannons, and endless tone deaf insults, he is beginning to tear the country apart. There are numerous cleavages in Turkish society that run along fault lines of religious-secular, rural-urban, conservative-liberal, rich-poor, and Sunni-Alevi-Kurdish, to name just a few. Some of these have been more under wraps than others, but this brings them all to the surface in a way that will be difficult to undo. After the government’s over the top and appalling response to the protests, the AKP won’t be able to command half of the votes anymore come the next election, and neither will it be able to run on the economy after what I think is about to happen. What this means is more of an appeal to people’s base instincts, more nationalist rhetoric, more pitting one group against another. I think we are in for a return to a distinct past flavor of Turkish politics, and not one that has ever ended well. Turkey’s house of cards has fallen down, and everyone can now see what Erdoğan has been holding.

Turkey’s Schoolyard Behavior

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.

The Cost Of Erdoğan’s Bombast

November 21, 2012 § 11 Comments

When Israel launched Operation Pillar of Cloud, Prime Minister Erdoğan initially kept silent. This lasted for a couple of days, and when he finally opened his mouth, what came out was not pretty. First he deemed what Israel was doing to be a “massacre” and then he accused the Israeli government of shooting Palestinians for the sole purpose of winning an election, and finally moved on to calling Israel a terrorist state and denying that Israel is in any way acting in self defense. The real piece de resistance came yesterday, when Erdoğan accused Israel of ethnic cleansing, reiterated his view that Israel has no right to self defense against Hamas rockets, and stated that Hamas firing rockets at civilians is legitimate resistance. In the process, he made sure to question the UN’s legitimacy and insult the U.S. as well. All in all, a banner performance.

I was all set to write a post about what this stance has cost Turkey in terms of its influence as a regional actor, and as I sat down to write it last night, I saw that the New York Times had already said what I was going to say (not to mention they gave a big shout out to friend of O&Z Aaron Stein, whose excellent new blog can be found here). The relevant quotes from the Times:

But by Tuesday, Turkey seemed to indicate that while its strident anti-Israel posture has been popular on the Arab street, it has been at its own expense, undermining its ability to play the role of regional power broker by leaving it with little leverage to intercede in the Gaza conflict…

Turkey’s stature in the Middle East has soared in recent years as it became a vocal defender of Palestinian rights and an outspoken critic of Israel and pursued a foreign policy whose intent was to become a decisive power in regional affairs. But as Gaza and Israel were once again shooting at each other, Turkey found that it had to take a back seat to Egypt on the stage of high diplomacy. The heavy lifting unfolded in Cairo under the inexperienced hand of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, whose political roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sunni Islamist movement that helped found Hamas.

“Egypt can talk with both Hamas and Israel,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of international politics at Istanbul’s Sabanci University. “Turkey, therefore, is pretty much left with a position to support what Egypt foresees, but nothing more.”

Turkey finds itself largely shut out of the central and defining Arab-Israeli conflict. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan helped seal that reality speaking at an Islamic conference in Istanbul when he called Israel a “terrorist state.” At a parliamentary meeting on Tuesday that was broadcast on Turkish television, he said Israel was guilty of “ethnic cleansing.” Moreover, Mr. Erdogan’s stance continues to play well with his domestic constituency of conservative Muslims, making a rapprochement with Israel even more difficult, even if he were interested in winning back Turkey’s seat at the negotiation table, said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University.

Let me add two points to what is a very good analysis. First, it’s not just that Turkey has cost itself when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu’s head over heels rush to damn Israel at every juncture has actually contributed to Turkey losing its foreign policy direction more generally. Whereas Turkey under the AKP initially aspired to the role of being a mediator in all sorts of areas, whether it was between Israel and Arab states, the U.S. and Iran, or the Europe and the wider Middle East, at some point Turkey decided that it would rather try and throw its weight around on a host of issues. While this might have enhanced Turkey’s influence had it worked out, it quite obviously didn’t, and so now not only does Turkey appear impotent when it comes to Israel or pressuring the Assad regime in Syria, it has also lost its credibility as a valuable interlocutor. Turkey no longer can be the party that facilitates back channel negotiations between Israel and Hamas, or the state that attempt to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. Erdoğan’s bile toward Israel is only one manifestation of this, and Turkey’s casting aside the role that it had once claimed has led to a loss of influence, rather than greater influence, on larger regional issues. One look at Davutoğlu telling reporters today that a ceasefire was about to be announced while Israel and Hamas continued to exchange blows and no ceasefire materialized provided a microcosm for how the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s power to get things done has waned.

Second, it’s not just Israel that Erdoğan went off on, but on the U.S. as well, and on that front Erdoğan is truly playing a dangerous game. The mood in Congress right now is not terribly hospitable to Turkey, and Ankara has been banking on the close relationship between President Obama and Erdoğan and the influence that Turkey wields with the White House and the State Department. Instead of recognizing that Turkey’s high profile right now is entirely dependent on the executive branch and laying off, Erdoğan decided to direct his ire at the U.S. despite conversations with Obama in recent days about how Turkey can play a productive role in ending the fighting in Gaza, implicitly criticizing the U.S. by blasting the anonymous “they” who claim Israel is acting in self defense. In employing increasingly unhinged rhetoric about Israel, Erdoğan also forced the State Department to publicly chastise Turkey and to reveal that the U.S. has done so in private as well. Anyone who thinks that all this is not harming Turkey’s status here in the U.S. is either being willfully delusional or is too block headed to see what is glaringly obvious.

It might be good domestic politics in Turkey to foam at the mouth whenever the subject of Israel comes up, and Erdoğan clearly relishes the opportunity to bash Israel whenever he can for a combination of some principled and some cynically self-serving reasons. It probably feels good to do so, but at the same time it is clearly harming Turkish interests and Turkish prestige, putting the U.S. in an awkward and difficult position, harming Turkey’s defense posture, and making the prospects of an Israeli apology and compensation for the Mavi Marmara ever more remote. Turks of all political stripes are beginning to realize this, and if Erdoğan is the last person to see the writing on the wall, it is not going to resound to Turkey’s benefit. Let’s hope that the prime minister wakes up to this reality sooner rather than later, since the  country that is suffering as a result of his verbal barbs is his own.

U.S. Intervention In Syria Isn’t Coming, So What’s Next?

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.

When It Comes To Turkey & Syria, Is Robert Wright Right?

October 11, 2012 § 9 Comments

Robert Wright has been keeping an eye on developments between Turkey and Syria, and unlike me, he thinks there is at least a 50/50 chance that the two countries end up going to war. Wright’s argument boils down to the fact that events on the ground are rapidly spinning out of both Turkey’s and Syria’s control and Turkey is facing serious refugee and Kurdish problems, so that “both of these issues–refugees and Kurdish nationalism–could lead Turkey to conclude that the sooner the Syrian civil war ends, the better.” In addition, Wright believes that the U.S. and NATO may get involved, and that the Turkish-Syrian border is not going to quiet down since Syria cannot afford to ignore it and because Turkey is basically poking Syria in the eye by arming the rebels.

With one exception (the point about the U.S. and NATO), all of these things are arguably correct to some degree, but Wright is overlooking a bunch of other factors that either mitigate or cancel out completely the variables that he has pointed to as reasons a full blown war may happen. First and most importantly is that Turkey does not necessarily have the ability to intervene in Syria in such a way as to end the civil war. As friends of O&Z (and superb guest posters) Aaron Stein and Dov Friedman persuasively argued in the National Interest yesterday, Turkey’s military options in Syria are actually quite limited. Ankara does not have the intelligence capability to carry out extensive target selection, its air force faces a challenge in the face of Syrian air defenses, and its months-long bluster has not been backed by equivalent action, destroying its ability to use credible threats to deter Syrian provocation. In short, Turkey has been exposed as a paper tiger when it comes to Syria. Despite General Özel’s constant tours of the Syrian border and the military buildup, this appears to be similar to what Turkey did following the downing of its F-4 during the summer, when it made a show of force but ultimately did not use it. This is the double secret probation strategy, in which Turkey keeps on ramping up the threats to punish Syria to the point of absurdity. Wright’s argument is that Turkey will end up intervening in Syria in order to put a swift end to the civil war, but the inconvenient reality here is that Turkey might not have the capability to do so, which has obviously been affecting Ankara’s calculus this whole time. In addition, even if Turkey did have the capability to step in and put an end to the sectarian fighting in Syria, Wright assumes that this would put a damper on Kurdish nationalism, but in fact it might very well have precisely the opposite effect. Once the Assad regime falls, the PYD and other Syrian Kurdish groups are likely to try and carve out their own autonomous sphere within Syria, and Turkish intervention on the side of the rebels could accelerate this process.

Wright’s argument about NATO arrives at a similar dead end. He writes that “helping fight it [the Syrian civil war] could help end it–especially if Turkey’s fellow members of NATO help out. Speaking of NATO: The fact that a Turkish-Syrian war could draw America into the conflict will make such a war more attractive to some backers of American intervention.” There is, however, no way that NATO is going to get drawn into this war. There is zero appetite for it among NATO countries not named Turkey, and while NATO may be willing to convene an Article 4 meeting any time Turkey requests one and issue strongly worded condemnations of Syria, that is as far as NATO is going to go. The same goes double for the U.S., which is also going to sit this one out no matter how much Turkey begs and pleads. Wright is buying into the Turkish pipe dream that an international coalition is eventually going to be shamed into intervening in Syria, but I don’t see any plausible way that this happens.

Finally there is Wright’s point about the shelling along the Syrian border and Turkey already essentially fighting a war against Syria by arming and training the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. The tit-for-tat shelling has been going on now for a week, yet despite this Syria has shown no inclination to ramp up its military activity, and Turkey has been making a big show of force while essentially standing pat. Wright asks, ” If Syria doesn’t want a war, and Syrian shells that fall on the Turkish side of the border could start a war, why doesn’t Syria quit firing shells anywhere near the border?…The answer is simple: The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy.” There is another simple calculation in play here as well though, which is that Syria is not targeting Turkey with its shelling but is targeting the rebels on its own side of the border, and Syria knows that Turkey knows this too. Intervening in Syria is a potential nightmare for the Turkish army given the sectarian issues and the fact that Turkey will be fending off attacks from not only the Syrian army but Kurdish fighters well. When Syrian artillery misses, as it is bound to do, and kills Turkish civilians, then Turkey is forced to respond, but Turkey does not want to go into Syria on its own and will do nearly anything to avoid such an outcome. By the same token, Turkey has been arming rebel groups now for months, yet Syria is not deliberately shelling Turkish military positions because it too does not want to draw the Turkish military across the border. I get that there is a logic of unintended consequences at work here with the potential to spiral into a war, but Wright’s arguments for how this will happen ignore that there is a very powerful set of incentives on both sides to avoid such an outcome.

There Won’t Be A War Between Turkey And Syria

October 4, 2012 § 19 Comments

Following yesterday’s shelling of Akçakale by Syrian forces and the retaliatory artillery strike by Turkey on Syria, there has been lots of speculation about what will come next and loose terminology about the “pending war” between the two countries. If a war actually happens, it won’t be the first time I’ve been very wrong and certainly won’t be the last, but I just don’t see a war happening for a number of reasons.

First, as I have noted too many times to count and as Aaron Stein firmly argued yesterday, there is simply no appetite on NATO’s part to get involved in Syria. Turkey was able to convene an Article 4 meeting in which NATO strongly condemned the Syrian shelling that killed five Turkish civilians, but that is about as far as NATO is willing to go. NATO is not going to get involved in setting up a buffer zone, a no-fly zone, or a humanitarian corridor inside Syria, and the U.S. is also not going to commit to doing any of those things any time soon. It has been clear for a year now that Turkey is not going to invade Syria on its own, which is why Ankara has desperately been trying to convince outside actors to intervene, and absent an international intervention, I don’t see yesterday’s incident changing this calculus. Without international support – and I’d note that Prime Minister Erdoğan has explicitly ruled out anything outside of official UN auspices – Turkey is going to stay out of Syria. With reports of Hizballah fighters and IRGC soldiers crawling inside Syrian borders, the Turkish government does not want to get entangled in a scenario that might quickly blow up out of its control.

Second, there is no reason for Syria not to back away from this as quickly as possible. The only way in which Turkey will be drawn into Syria unilaterally is if the Assad regime escalates this in a serious way, and while Assad and the Syrian army are unpredictable, this is not a fight they are eager to have. Syria has spent months testing Turkey’s patience and trying to figure out what its boundaries are, and yesterday’s events will make it clear to Syria that this was one step too far. The regime has its hands full with the FSA and doesn’t need to add the Turkish military into the mix, which explains the quick decision to express sorrow over the death of Turkish civilians and a promise to investigate. There are two possibilities here; either the shelling was unintentional, in which case Syria has every reason to back down, or it was done on purpose to test how far Turkey is willing to go in retaliation, in which case mission accomplished and Syria still has every reason to now back down. While allowing for the fact that this cannot necessarily be gamed out in an entirely logical manner, I don’t see a scenario in which Syria decides to turn this into a high intensity conflict.

There is little question that Turkey had no choice but to retaliate in some form yesterday. When Syrian forces shot across the border last spring and killed two Syrian refugees in Turkish camps, Turkey threatened retaliatory action but did nothing. When the Turkish F-4 reconnaissance plane was downed this summer, Turkey moved tanks and artillery to the border but ultimately stood down. This time, however, Turkish civilians died, and no government can afford to sit idly by when its citizens are targeted and killed by a hostile foreign government. Turkey needed to respond in some way, but it is instructive that the Turkish response was to shell some as yet to be described Syrian targets rather than launching an air strike. From a domestic political perspective, Erdoğan had to respond quickly (particularly given the near riot in Akçakale), and the move to get parliamentary authorization to launch operations inside of Syria is part and parcel of the same political concerns. The government needs to be seen as strong when Turkish blood is spilled, but Erdoğan is also playing this game very exactly, since there is a fine line between taking limited action that conveys strength and resolve and getting drawn into a tactical mess in Syria. What I expect will happen is another round of strong condemnations, more strident threats to intervene in Syria, mobilizing tanks, artillery, planes, and troops to the border…and ultimately Turkey will stay on its own side of the line. As I keep on reiterating, Turkey is in a lose-lose situation when it comes to Syria without a good answer at hand, and yesterday’s events reinforce that even further. The bottom line though is that given the constraints involved, it is going to take a lot more than shelling a border town to start a real war between Turkey and Syria.

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