July 18, 2014 § 9 Comments
If Prime Minister Erdoğan is to be taken at his word, we can officially declare Israeli-Turkish rapprochement dead. Speaking this morning, Erdoğan announced that under no circumstances will Turkey’s relationship with Israel improve as long as he is in power – which after the presidential elections next month, will be for a long time – and that the West can protest all it likes to no avail. Erdoğan also accused Israel of committing genocide and of knowing best how to kill children, which was a repeat performance from yesterday when he alleged that Israel has been committing systematic genocide against Palestinians during every Ramadan since 1948. This comes after more delightful outbursts earlier this week, during which Erdoğan claimed that there have been no rockets fired into Israel since there have been no Israeli deaths and compared Israeli MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler, among other things.
Never one to be left out of the action, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Israel of crimes against humanity and revealed that he has never taken Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman seriously (although to be fair, that last point bolsters the case for Davutoğlu’s good sense). Ankara’s mayor Melih Gökçek, fresh off the heels of tweeting out pro-Hitler sentiments, urged his government yesterday to shut down the Israeli embassy in Ankara, referring to it as “the despicable murderers’ consulate” and stating that “they are 100 times more murderous than Hitler.” Not to be outdone, Bülent Yıldırım, the odious head of the “humanitarian relief NGO” IHH – the same NGO that organized the Mavi Marmara flotilla – warned Jewish tourists (yes, he said Jewish rather than Israeli, and yes, that was deliberate on his part) not to show their faces in Turkey and threatened Turkish Jews that they would pay dearly for Israel’s actions in Gaza.
While Yıldırım may have come to the conclusion of collective Jewish guilt on his own, he also could have been influenced by Yeni Akit reporter Faruk Köse. Köse wrote an open letter in his newspaper on Tuesday to the chief rabbi of Turkey in which the phrase “Siyonist/Yahudi Terör Üssü” – which translates to Zionist/Jewish terror base and is his oh-so-clever term for Israel – appeared seven times while he demanded that the rabbi and his flock apologize for Gaza because Turkey’s Jews have lived among Turks for 500 years and gotten rich off them and now support the terrorist Israeli state. Or perhaps Yıldırım is a dedicated reader of Daily Sabah, the English language AKP propaganda organ where Melih Altınok argued yesterday that not only Turkish Jews but Jews everywhere need to, in his words, “make a historic gesture” and denounce Israel publicly. According to his logic, Israel’s actions are solely responsible for increasing anti-Semitism in the world, and “hence, nationalist Jews as well as the humanist and anti-war Jews have to calculate the situation” and do what is necessary in order to stem the inevitable backlash against them. Lovely, no?
What a surprise and shock it must have been then when last night, mobs that included MPs from the AKP attacked the Israeli embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul, leading Israel to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country and to send the families of diplomatic staff home. The police in Ankara, who are never hesitant to break out the tear gas, truncheons, and water cannons against Turkish civilians protesting things like government corruption, were mysteriously somehow powerless this time as they stood on the sidelines and watched. Of course, there can’t possibly be a connection between the rhetoric of high government officials lambasting Israel as a genocidal terror state and mobs attacking Israel’s diplomatic missions and chanting for murder, right? This is clearly all a misunderstanding and emanates not from Erdoğan using ugly and hateful tactics to improve his political standing but completely and entirely from Israel’s actions. Now please excuse me while I go wash off the sarcasm dripping from my keyboard.
I understand why Turks are upset about the images and news reports coming out of Gaza. Just as Diaspora Jews feel a deep sense of kinship and brotherhood with their Jewish brethren in Israel, there is a genuine sense of pan-Muslim solidarity between Turks and Palestinians. While I believe that Israel tries in good faith to minimize civilian casualties, not only do mistakes happen but sometimes Israel makes intentional decisions – like every other country in the history of the world that has ever fought a war – that it knows will lead to civilian deaths. I get the anger and frustration, and I see it personally from Turkish friends on my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream, who are furious with Israel not because they are Jew-hating anti-Semites but because they deplore the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, which they see as disproportionate and excessive. And it isn’t just the AKP; anger at Israel is widespread among all segments of the population, as evidenced by the multiple leftist Gaza solidarity rallies taking place in Turkey today and by joint CHP/MHP presidential candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu bashing Israel’s actions in Gaza and the CHP generally trying to score points over the last few days by absurdly trying to paint the AKP as in bed with Israel and complicit with its actions. Israel isn’t exactly popular in Turkey, to make the understatement of the decade, and to expect Turkish politicians to hold their tongues completely or to support Israel’s actions in Gaza is unreasonably naive.
But there is a world of difference between criticizing Israel out of a deeply held difference of opinion versus comparing Israelis to Hitler, equating Israel with Nazi Germany, throwing around the term genocide, openly advocating violence against Israeli nationals and property, and threatening Jews over Israel’s behavior. It is completely beyond the pale, and anyone who cares a lick about liberal values should be denouncing it loud and clear without qualification. Erdoğan is appealing to the darkest forces imaginable in order to win a presidential election and bolster his laughably pathetic standing in the Arab world, and let’s not forget that he said straight out today that he will never normalize or even improve relations with Israel while he is in office. He has dropped the charade that this has anything to do with the Mavi Marmara or even a set of fulfillable demands that Israel is not meeting, so let’s all remember that the next time someone blames Israel for the impasse in the bilateral relationship. Erdoğan is anti-Israel because he does not like Israel, full stop. If Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, stopped responding to Hamas rockets with missiles, ended the blockade, and awarded Khaled Meshaal the Israel Prize, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would just find some other reason not to normalize relations. Yes, the situation in Gaza undoubtedly plays a big role in all of this – just look at Israeli-Turkish relations under the Erdoğan government between 2002 and 2008, which were cordial and cooperative – but it’s about more than that at this point. Erdoğan and the AKP have gone too far down the garden path of anti-Israel rhetoric at this point to ever turn back.
June 3, 2014 § 7 Comments
Despite my instincts that Prime Minister Erdoğan was going to decide that it is better to be a super-empowered prime minister than the Turkish president under the current constitutional configuration, it seems pretty clear at this point that he has his sights trained on the Çankaya Palace. The AKP has officially announced that it is not going to change its internal party regulations to allow MPs who have served three terms to run for a fourth, which means that Erdoğan will be term limited out and will thus seek the presidency. There is no doubt that Erdoğan will win and become the first directly elected Turkish president, and there is also little doubt that he will transform the presidency as he sees fit from a traditionally apolitical office with few real powers into something far different. The more interesting question that remains is who will replace Erdoğan as prime minister, and the answer to that is a lot murkier.
Due to the AKP’s three-terms-and-out rule, 73 AKP parliamentarians are unable to stand for election again and the list is a rundown of nearly all of the party heavyweights. Bülent Arınç, Bekir Bozdağ, Ali Babacan, Ömer Çelik, etc. The A team, that founded the party and shepherded it through three consecutive electoral victories, is out, and that leaves precious few suitable candidates to replace Erdoğan. It will have to be someone who has some modicum of name recognition and influence, but also someone whom Erdoğan can control. To the best of my calculations, there are two people who fit the bill and who are not subject to the term limit conundrum.
The first, and most obvious one, is Ahmet Davutoğlu. There is no question that he has a burning ambition to move on to bigger and better things, and his standing as a candidate for election in 2011 – after being appointed foreign minister despite not being a member of the Grand National Assembly – was a signal that he knew he would need to be more involved politically if he hoped to replace his patron. In many ways, Davutoğlu is the ego (in more ways than one) to Erdoğan’s id, tamping down some of the prime minister’s more rash instincts and never failing to parrot what Erdoğan is saying but putting it in a more favorable light. Whatever the level of outrageousness that Erdoğan is spouting, Davutoğlu always has a ready explanation for what the prime minister actually meant, and he has also shown a willingness to play the attack dog and go on the offensive. Like the prime minister, he always has a scolding lecture handy for those who challenge him. Because he is more reserved and far less willing to reveal whatever he happens to be thinking at any given moment though, Davutoğlu is in some ways more predictable that Erdoğan but in other ways less so, and he is similar to Abdullah Gül in that he plays better with foreign audiences. I once sat through a Davutoğlu lecture at Georgetown where he was at his most charming and dissembling best, and by the end the dean of the School of Foreign Service had literally offered him a position as a professor whenever he was ready to leave the Foreign Ministry. The downside to Erdoğan handing the reins to Davutoğlu is that he might be too ambitious; while he has never publicly displayed any willingness to challenge Erdoğan in any way and has been nothing but the loyal servant, he might very well act differently once prime minister and be less willing to defer to Erdoğan on any and all subjects.
The other plausible candidate is Numan Kurtulmuş, who is far less known to those outside of Turkey. Kurtulmuş and Erdoğan rose up together through the ranks of the Fazilet Party, but split after Fazilet was banned by the Constitutional Court and dissolved, with Kurtulmuş joining with the hardliners to found Saadet and Erdoğan going on to found the AKP. After he was ousted from Saadet, Kurtulmuş formed the HSP – known colloquially as HAS, meaning pure – and then merged HAS with the AKP in July 2012. Unlike Davutoğlu, Kurtulmuş has the street cred that comes from having been part of the crowd around Necmettin Erbakan and the old Islamist parties, and he has a devoted following among Turkish religious conservatives. When the AKP absorbed HAS two years ago, I wrote the following:
There is speculation that the reason Erdoğan has now invited HAS into the fold has to do more with Kurtulmuş than with HAS itself. As he announced yesterday,Erdoğan is only going to run as AKP leader one more time, which means that he needs a way to remain as the dominant figure within his party. While everyone anticipates that the new constitution spearheaded by the AKP will transform Turkey into a presidential system and that Erdoğan will run to be Turkey’s first newly powerful president, that does not mean that his path forward is completely clear. Should Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, make a bid to be PM, then Erdoğan will have a serious and credible rival standing opposite him within his own party. Gül is a popular politician, a serious thinker, and less divisive than Erdoğan, and it is unclear that a President Erdoğan would be able to dominate a Prime Minister Gül. Kurtulmuş, on the other hand, is another story. He is exactly the type of PM that a President Erdoğan would want, since he is pliable and less likely to seek to carve out an independent power base from which to challenge Erdoğan. In fact, when the HAS Party was formed, some of its members were concerned that Kurtulmuş was not tough enough and that his lack of an “authoritarian mentality” would be a weakness compared to the leaders of other parties. Should HAS merge with the AKP, and all signs so far point to this happening, look for Kurtulmuş to slowly emerge as Erdoğan’s favored candidate to replace him as PM.
I don’t think that Gül is going to try and become prime minister, but the rest of the analysis still holds true. Kurtulmuş seems like precisely the type of PM that Erdoğan could manipulate as president, and who would not protest once Erdoğan begins to expand the powers of his new office and infringe upon the prerogatives that belong to his old office. The question is whether Erdoğan actually trusts Kurtulmuş after their years apart, and to that I have no answer. With the presidential race not in doubt though, how the prime ministry shapes up is what all of those interested in the inside baseball of Turkish politics will be watching as the summer progresses.
February 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
I have a piece in Foreign Affairs today in which I argue that Turkey is backtracking on a couple of issues that have created friction with the U.S. in response to more open American criticism of Turkey. The Obama administration has generally given Turkey a free pass on its bad behavior across a range of issues, and I’m not confident that this new approach – which is more of a piecemeal one rather than a comprehensive rethinking of our strategy toward Turkey – is going to be more than a temporary blip. It should be though, and it shows that Turkey is indeed responsive to pressure. Here is a teaser:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”
Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.
It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.
To read the rest of the article, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
February 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
Almost one year after Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about about normalizing relations with its former ally. In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.
Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.
So what’s up with the mixed signals? Are Turkey and Israel close to an actual deal that will see ambassadors return to Tel Aviv and Ankara, or is this more of the same old routine? It is pretty easy to explain what is going on here, and it boils down to Turkey’s competing priorities that are pulling it in different directions. On the one hand, Turkey has had a very rough eight months. The Gezi protests, the economy spiraling downward, the lira crashing, the corruption scandal, the war between the AKP and the Gülenists, a growing Syrian refugee problem…it is entirely understandable that Turkey is feeling battered. On top of that, the Western response to attempts to blame Turkey’s problems on the U.S., Israel, Lufthansa, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the interest rate lobby, the porn lobby, and anyone else the Turkish government can come up with has been to warn Turkey that it is destroying its reputation in Western capitals. When you add anger over Turkish behavior such as agreeing to buy a missile defense system from a Chinese firm under sanctions or funneling money to Syrian jihadi groups into the mix, Turkey all of a sudden has legitimate concerns about its relationship with the U.S. and EU countries. Viewed this way, the turn toward getting serious about reconciliation with Israel isn’t actually about Israel at all. Because the Turkish government in many instances takes an Israel-centric view of the world, it thinks that patching things up with Israel will solve its problems with Washington. By normalizing ties with Israel, it is signaling to the West that it is still a reliable ally who can be trusted, and that it shouldn’t be left on the outside looking in. Normalization with Israel is another way of saying, “We know we have behaved badly and in strange ways, but we haven’t gone all the way down the rabbit hole quite yet.” This explains Davutoğlu’s comments, particularly since the Foreign Ministry is more sensitive than other Turkish state institutions to Turkey’s perception among Western policymakers and its diplomatic status.
On the other hand is the force that generally drives everything in the Erdoğan era, which is Turkish domestic politics. I’ve written about this so many times that there’s no need for yet another megillah, but making up with Israel doesn’t exactly play well with your average Turk, and that goes double for Erdoğan’s base. I’ve seen some counterintuitive speculation that normalizing ties would be politically helpful since it will give the AKP a foreign policy victory that it can hold up, but I think that misreads the nature of Turkish politics along with mistaking the nature of whatever deal emerges. Forcing Bibi to apologize could be spun as bringing Israel to its knees; signing a deal to normalize relations that lets Israel pay some compensation money without any real movement on Gaza (since Israel is simply not going to end the blockade just because Turkey asks) doesn’t have the same shine to it. Erdoğan is looking at municipal elections next month – elections that he has repeatedly been touting as a harbinger of the AKP’s strength – and then the presidential election this summer and parliamentary elections next year. He is, as always, thinking about maintaining and growing his political power, and taking a hardline with Israel is a no-brainer for him electorally. He is already facing much lowered polling numbers and political approval ratings, so he can’t take a chance at losing what has been such a fruitful issue for him.
Which one of these impulses will win out? I claim no inside information on how the talks are actually going, and my general cynicism and conviction that domestic politics rules all makes me think that normalization is not actually close. But I have been wrong on this issue before and very well may be again, so I don’t rule anything out. These dueling constituencies though – the outside world and the domestic audience – are tough to satisfy simultaneously, so at some point Erdoğan will have to make a choice as to which constituency is more important for Turkey’s long term health and his own political survival, and which of these two outcomes he values more dearly.
December 26, 2013 § 8 Comments
I said last week that I thought things were inevitably destined to get uglier, and it seems that uglier has arrived. The latest from the AKP-Gülen fallout is that over 500 Turkish police officials and officers have been sacked, investigations have been launched into Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sons Bilal and Bürak along with the newly government-appointed Istanbul police chief, the chief prosecutor in the corruption case has publicly claimed that the government is obstructing his case by ordering the police not to arrest suspects and not to implement judicial decrees, and, in the biggest sign of just how much things have gone off the rails, Erdoğan last night replaced ten cabinet members at once. There is now no question left that this is the biggest crisis by far of the AKP’s time in power and that it overshadows Gezi by orders of magnitude.
If anyone still harbors any doubts that this is an AKP-Gülen fight, those doubts can be put to rest. After the initial arrests and announcements of corruption probes, Erdoğan purposely went after one of the Gülenists’ strongholds in replacing high-ranking police officials wholesale. What is now happening is a showdown between prosecutors, who are still largely Gülenist, and newly appointed police who refuse to carry out the prosecutors’ orders. Any semblance of impartiality and rule of law on either side has been completely thrown out, and Turkish institutions are being harmed in ways that will take years to overcome. When the courts and the police are being used to further nakedly political agendas, it is the first and easiest sign that Turkish democracy is as hollow as it has been since the military was openly running things. How this is going to eventually be sorted out I have no idea, but at this point neither side appears willing to back down and each day brings a new escalation.
Were this the only element to this, I’d put my money on Erdoğan emerging from this bloodied but still standing. However, the earth shattering cabinet shuffle, how it was done, and how Erdoğan assembled his new cabinet lead me to believe that the prime minister is in very serious trouble. In fact, this is the first time it has ever crossed my mind that his tenure as PM is legitimately in danger. First there is the fact that in the span of just a couple of days, Erdoğan went from denouncing any and all allegations of wrongdoing as a foreign plot to accepting the resignations of the three ministers he had been defending so wholeheartedly. Of the three, his closest ally was Erdoğan Bayraktar, who on his way out revealed that he was not resigning of his own free will but had been fired, and – this one is the real shocker – threw Erdoğan under the bus by alleging that any corruption in construction deals had been signed off on by Erdoğan and called on him to resign. For those of you who do not follow Turkey as obsessively as others, high level AKP officials simply do not publicly challenge Erdoğan like that. To put this in context, deputy PM Bülent Arınç made front-page headlines last month when he criticized Erdoğan’s stance on mixed-sex university housing and said that there was a contradiction between his own statements on the issue as the official government spokesman and the PM’s position. That was about the harshest public disagreement I can ever recall seeing between Erdoğan and one of his cabinet members or inner circle. Now, one of his closest cabinet allies has called on him to resign and implicitly accused him of wrongdoing. In addition, the previous interior minister, Idris Şahin, resigned from the party over the police purge and after accusing Erdoğan of allowing a small oligarchy to run the party. While this might be sour grapes due to his being replaced in the last cabinet shuffle earlier this year, it is still another crack in what up until now has been an impenetrable dam. Bayraktar made his comments during a live interview on NTV, which tried to cut him off and then later edited the interview clip on its website and during subsequent airings on television so that Bayraktar’s comments about Erdoğan were absent. That Turkish cabinet ministers now have to be censored because of comments they have made about the prime minister, and particularly when it is a minister known to be close to him, is one sign that the AKP is right now floundering around without much of an idea how to right itself.
Another sign is that it wasn’t just the three ministers whose sons have been implication in corruption who were shown the door. Egemen Bağış, who was EU Affairs minister and who is one of Erdoğan’s closest confidantes and attack dogs, and who often provides a window through his comments into what the prime minister is actually thinking, was removed as well, which to me is the most illuminating part of this entire episode. There have been rumors floating around about Bağış’s role in the scandal and about videotapes of him accepting seven figure bribes, but jettisoning him under pressure is still a remarkable move given his proximity to the prime minister. Furthermore, the new cabinet ministers are only going to make the AKP’s political problem worse, because instead of appointing people who might be more conciliatory, Erdoğan appears to have doubled down in appointing close allies with not much political experience and who are known hardliners. As a representative example, new Interior Minister Efkan Ala is not a member of parliament but is rather one of Erdoğan’s political aides, and reportedly urged Erdoğan to crack down harder on Gezi protestors this summer, calling the Istanbul chief of police to cajole him to use greater force. This is the guy who is now going to be in charge of Turkish domestic security and dealing with unrest, which signals to me that Erdoğan is in full panic mode and not thinking clearly. Once the public becomes more involved in this ongoing saga, things are going to get even worse, and I fear that what we have seen so far is just the warmup act to much more unpleasantness ahead.
All the while, Erdoğan’s comments and the comments of those around him increasingly beggar belief. Whether it is veiled threats to expel the U.S. ambassador, the by now rote accusations of U.S. and Israeli perfidy, the denunciation of foreign plots, Erdoğan’s claiming that photos of ministers accepting bags from businessmen implicated in the corruption scandal could be bags of books or chocolate rather than money (yes, he really said both of those things), Ahmet Davutoğlu’s tired refrain that this is all resulting from the jealousy of unnamed foreign countries determined to keep the new Turkey down…does any of this sound like it is coming from a government that has things under control? Let’s also keep in mind that this is all going down before large-scale or widespread public protests have broken out, and if Erdoğan already felt so much pressure that he was backed into turning over his cabinet in the middle of the night, just think about what will happen once real mass public pressure begins to bubble up. The AKP is shockingly off-message and has gone into full-blown populism mode, but with everything that has gone on and the implicit acknowledgement with the cabinet shuffle that all is not right, I think that Erdoğan might actually have suffered a fatal political wound. If the AKP does worse than expected in the local elections in March, which is a very likely possibility, it seems to me that Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility and stranglehold on his party will be permanently broken. Once that happens the long knives are bound to come out, and with the perfectly acceptable alternative of Abdullah Gül waiting in the wings, Erdoğan’s tenure as the sun around which Turkish politics revolves (to quote my friend Steven Cook) may be done. While I have learned enough to know that Erdoğan should never, ever be counted out or underestimated, we may have finally arrived at the exception to this longstanding rule of Turkish politics.
November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.
Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late. In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara. Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability. Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.
Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy. They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.
The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past. The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.
In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers. For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.
Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone. Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.
Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations. The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime. He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence. The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.
Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence. After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution. Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off. Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.
In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection. Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership. At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.
But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result. Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.
At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border. This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.
The result of these Syria policies? This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch. It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.
Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers. As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.
How deep can these ties possibly run? On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds. Their divergence over Syria is well known. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator. Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.
On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s. The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq. Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation. Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief. If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.
Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime. At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.
Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy. But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems. If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution. But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform. Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.
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.
August 20, 2013 § 12 Comments
Apologies to all for the extended blog hiatus over the last few weeks. I had to go on a self-imposed blog and twitter blackout in order to finish my dissertation, since otherwise it was never going to get done. Now that a complete draft is in to my committee, it’s time to get back to the topic du jour, which is the continuing crackup of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Turkish prime minister today accused Israel of being behind the Egyptian military coup and claimed that he has evidence, which consists of an unnamed Jewish French intellectual – and Erdoğan took pains to emphasize that this person is Jewish – telling an Israeli minister in 2011 that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be in power even if they won elections because democracy is about more than the ballot box. As it turns out, the intellectual to whom Erdoğan was referring is Bernard Henri-Levy, who was on a panel with Tzipi Livni in June 2011 and said that the military should be called out if the Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt through elections. Got that straight? A French Jew said two years ago that he does not want the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt, so therefore Israel is behind the current military coup. Who can possibly argue with such sound logic?
Even for Erdoğan, this latest broadside is absurdly over the top, and make sure to keep it in mind the next time a Turkish government official insists that nobody in the government has a problem with Jews but only with Israel, and that references to Jews and Zionists are always meant to refer solely to Israelis. Erdoğan’s paranoid scapegoating of Henri-Levy ( “O da Yahudi” as Erdoğan would like to remind us) is part and parcel of his general histrionics surrounding the military coup in Egypt. Since the generals overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu have been raging on a daily basis against the Egyptian army, at first refusing to recognize Adly Mansour as the new Egyptian president and eventually temporarily recalling the Turkish ambassador in Cairo back to Ankara last week. With Qatar appearing to recognize the writing on the wall and working to establish a good relationship with the military government in Egypt, Turkey is now standing alone in its vociferous support of the MB and largely isolated in the measure of rage it is directing toward the generals.
The coup in Egypt touches a nerve with Erdoğan for a number of reasons. First, the downfall of Morsi and the routing of the MB exposes the emptiness of Turkish foreign policy, which had placed all of its eggs in the basket of a new MB-dominated order in the Middle East. With its Syria policy in complete shambles and the new Middle East starting to look a lot like the old Middle East, Ankara is as isolated as it has ever been. None of its initiatives have worked and not only does it not have influence with important regional actors such as the Israeli and Egyptian governments, but it has gone out of its way to offend leaders who view Turkey as trying to meddle in the internal affairs of other states. Morsi’s removal dashes Erdoğan’s hopes of building a new regional order with Turkey at its head.
Second, the specter of crowds massing in the streets and the military overthrowing the government hits a little too close to home for Erdoğan given what he was dealing with in June and the history of Turkish military coups. Erdoğan’s biggest claim to fame is his defanging of the military, and even after demonstrating that Turkish civilian control (and undemocratic intimidation) over the army is complete with the Ergenekon verdicts a couple of weeks ago, no Turkish prime minister – and certainly no Turkish prime minister with Erdoğan’s background – is ever going to feel completely safe from the long arm of the military. Erdoğan looks at what is taking place in Egypt through a distinctly Turkish prism, and in many ways his views on the Egyptian coup are actually a complex psychological projection of his fears about his own position.
Finally, the view that, despite being elected in free and fair elections, the Morsi government was not a democratic one because of its embrace of absolute majoritarian rule at the expense of all minority viewpoints is the same charge hurled at the Turkish government (including by yours truly) when the Gezi protests were brutally suppressed. Erdoğan hangs onto the idea that elections confer absolute legitimacy that can never be overridden no matter what the circumstances because that is how he legitimates all manner of questionable Turkish state action. He will never abide admitting that perhaps the Morsi government was damaging its democratic credentials because to do so would open the door to accusations of error on his part as well. Erdoğan sees the army removing an elected government amidst accusations of policy overreach and undemocratic behavior, and he imagines a nightmare alternate universe where the same could happen to him. This is the context in which his ridiculous comments today about Israel come in (although it should be said that while Israel had absolutely nothing to do with the coup, it has supported the Egyptian military in the aftermath with a zeal that is worrisome). He is so incensed and blind with rage about what went down in Egypt that he is wildly striking out and trying to hit any target that he can with anything that will stick, and Israel is always a convenient piñata.
Erdoğan is accelerating a trend that began in earnest with the government’s response to the Gezi protestors, which is sacrificing any vestige of Turkish influence internationally in order to solidify his position at home. Blaming Israel – or more accurately, Jews – for the Egyptian coup, the Gezi protests, and anything else he can think of will play well domestically, but his reaction to Egypt has just deepened Turkey’s isolation. Turkey has gone from a zero problems with neighbors policy to one in which it is hard to find any former regional ally left with whom Turkey is not feuding to one degree or another. As Erdoğan allows his worst instincts to overtake him, he is bringing Turkish foreign policy down with him as well.