Pressure On Turkey Works And There Needs To Be More

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.

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Turkey’s Competing Impulses On Israel

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.

This Is What A Panicked Erdoğan Looks Like

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.

Structural U.S.-Turkey Tension Isn’t Going Away

December 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Ahmet Davutoğlu this week implicitly acknowledged that the U.S. and Turkey have seen better days in their relationship, saying that “relations are proceeding on a dynamic and honest ground,” which is not exactly the “model partnership” that the Turkish foreign minister was so fond of touting a couple of years ago. Whatever “dynamic and honest ground” means, unquestionably things are not going nearly so well as during President Obama’s first term, when Prime Minister Erdoğan was on Obama’s Oval Office speed dial and Turkey was viewed by U.S. policymakers as the key to a new Middle East. Many events have conspired to shatter that vision, and Turkey is no longer through such rose-colored glasses as it was. To my mind, the new status quo is not just a temporary blip in an otherwise robustly healthy relationship; there are major structural forces that are putting the U.S. and Turkey increasingly at odds over issues large and small, and three in particular stand out.

The first is that the U.S. perceives Turkey to be pursuing short term aims, oftentimes explicitly political ones, at the expense of long term goals, and the pursuit of these short term aims often conflicts with U.S. interests in the region. For instance, the rift that the Turkish government opened up with the Egyptian government following the military coup that dislodged Mohamed Morsi when Erdoğan not only insisted that Morsi be reinstated but refused to even acknowledge the new Egyptian officials as legitimate was an example of Turkey pursuing a policy that caused long term harm (to wit, the Turkish ambassador to Egypt was expelled last month) for no purpose other than domestic politics. Another obvious example is the continuing feud with Israel, where Turkey has continuously blocked Israeli participation in NATO summits, sold out Israeli intelligence assets in Iran to the Iranian government, bolstered Hamas and given it as much international credibility as it can at the Palestinian Authority’s expense, and dragged its feet in every way possible to avoid true reconciliation with Israel following Bibi Netanyahu’s apology last March for the Mavi Marmara deaths. In both of these cases, the U.S. would strongly prefer that Turkey work with its other allies in the region, and Turkey’s intransigence in both instances is not the result of any bigger plan or in the pursuit of foreign policy aims, but is rather almost entirely for domestic political consumption.

More serious than these two cases is the shortsighted Turkish policy of allowing jihadi fighters to stream across the border into Syria in order to join the fight against Bashar al-Assad – a policy that even Turkey now seems to realize was dangerously myopic – and the agreement to purchase an anti-missile defense system from China, about which I have already written at length. Turkey’s Syria policy has been an unmitigated disaster, and the Chinese anti-missile decision has caused huge waves with the U.S. and Turkey’s other NATO allies, and both are examples of Turkey pursuing what it perceives to be easy short term gains to the great detriment of long term strategic goals. While Turkey is, of course, free to do as it pleases, both of these decisions have created great fallout for the U.S. and thus cannot be simply ignored by the Obama administration or chalked up to internal Turkish business. They fit into a general pattern of Turkey rushing headlong into foreign policy decisions without taking a minute to look at the big picture and assess the impact of its actions on other parties, specifically the U.S. in this case, which is bound to cause some friction.

The second structural force driving the two apart is that their priorities in the Middle East are moving in divergent directions. Just as Turkey was deciding to ramp up its involvement in the region and become more active and vocal, the U.S. was deciding to ramp down, pivot to Asia, and leave the Middle East behind to the greatest extent possible. The U.S. has a couple of core things it wants to be involved in, such as coming to some resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and pushing Israel and the Palestinians to work out a comprehensive peace agreement, but otherwise it wants to bow out as much as feasible. This is why the U.S. basically threw its hands up at the Egyptian coup and looked for any way out of getting military involved in the Syrian civil war. Turkey, in contrast, wanted to be deeply involved in reshaping the region in the wake of the Arab Spring (or whatever it is we are calling it these days), and was particularly assertive when it came to loudly insisting that Assad had to go. The problem is that Turkey could not force Assad out on its own and so assumed that the U.S. or NATO would eventually take care of the job, and after it became apparent that this was not going to happen, Turkey felt a sense of betrayal. In essence, the problem is that Turkey wants to see certain outcomes, but those outcomes require the U.S. to make them happen, and the U.S. has absolutely zero desire to get any more involved than it already is. So you have a hyper-involved Turkey that wants more active U.S. involvement on certain fronts, and a U.S. that just wants to be left alone.

The third structural force contributing to tension is the basic power imbalance that exists between the two countries. The U.S. has its own set of interests and oftentimes Turkey’s wishes and views rank low down on the list of American priorities, but at the same time Turkey tends to interpret U.S. action through a distinctly Turkish prism. Thus, the U.S. instinct to stay out of Syria was a result of war-weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq, sequestration and other budgetary problems, politics leading up to the 2012 election, a desire not to increase tensions with Russia, a growing sense that the Syrian opposition was extremely problematic…I could keep on going, but Turkey was not part of the equation. In Turkey, however, U.S. inaction in Syria despite months and months of Turkish demands for NATO involvement and strident Turkish calls for Assad to leave has been interpreted as a purposeful slap in the face to Turkey. Many Turks believe that the U.S. led them down the garden path and implied that help would be coming, and the fact that Assad is still in power is because the U.S. wanted to humiliate Turkey. The best example of this overall general dynamic was the controversy in Turkey in August of last year over the photo of Obama holding a baseball bat while on the phone with Erdoğan. As I wrote at the time, this had nothing to do with Erdoğan and was nothing more than the White House releasing a photo in the midst of a presidential campaign designed to reinforce the image of Obama as a regular guy, but in Turkey it was imbued with all sorts of deeper meanings over the type of hidden message that Obama was trying to send to his Turkish counterpart. Because it is Turkey’s most powerful and most important ally, the U.S. will always have an outsized image in Turkey and Turks will imagine that anything the U.S. is doing is directed at them, when in reality many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what language is spoken in Turkey (you have no idea how many times I have had someone ask me if I know Arabic after hearing that I study Turkey), place it on a map, or identity Ankara as its capital. This imbalance, where Turkey always has the U.S. on its mind but does not get reciprocal attention, is another source of tension.

Of these three forces, the first one can easily dissipate, and in fact there are signs that it is already happening, particularly when it comes to Turkey’s Syria policy. The other two, however, are here to stay, and are not easily overcome. Does it mean a major rift between the two allies? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the halcyon days of Barack and Tayyip’s late night gabfests and both public and private talk of model partnerships is over, and unlikely to return anytime soon.

Guest Post: Zero Problems But Few Common Interests

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.

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.

Erdoğan’s Paranoia Hits An All-Time High

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.

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.

The Apology And What Comes Next

March 25, 2013 § 8 Comments

As everyone knows by now, on Friday Bibi Netanyahu talked to Tayyip Erdoğan (for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in 2009!) after being handed the phone by President Obama and apologized for operational mistakes causing the deaths of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Netanyahu also agreed to pay compensation to the families of the deceased, and both men somewhat fudged the issue of the Gaza blockade by noting that Israel has already lifted some restrictions and pledging to work together going forward to ease the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This formula should not be surprising; in November I wrote the following:

All this aside, there seems to me to be an obvious out here. As I mentioned above, the real long term sticking point here is the demand that Israel end the Gaza blockade, but the imprecise language makes this a point that can easily be massaged. Israel is not going to end its naval blockade, particularly given the renewed focus on Iranian missiles that are being shipped to Sudan rather than directly to Gaza in an effort to avoid the Israeli navy. There is also, however, the land blockade that is enforced by both Israel and Egypt, and if Israel and Egypt jointly loosen restrictions on the land crossings to allow more goods in and out of Gaza, then Israel and Turkey can both reasonably claim victory, and it might pave the way for the countries to make up. Unless something changes though, feel free to ignore any and all news reports about secret talks and back channel negotiations between Ankara and Jerusalem.

As readers of this blog know, I have maintained for awhile that Israel was ready and willing to apologize to Turkey but that I did not think Turkey was prepared to accept an apology given the domestic political benefits for Erdoğan and the AKP of feuding with Israel. Indeed, over the past few months there have been reports of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other Turkish officials rebuffing Israeli attempts to meet and lay the groundwork for a rapprochement. That the apology was suddenly offered and accepted took me by surprise, and got me thinking about what would make Turkey change its calculus. I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs identifying Turkey’s suddenly more pressing need for better intelligence in Syria given the chemical weapons angle and Ankara’s desire to meet its energy demands through channels other than Russian natural gas as the primary reasons, and noting that the timing here is also related to the successful talks with PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Here’s the core of the argument:

For Ankara, the Syrian crisis has been a major headache. Turkey has suffered a loss in trade, been forced to rely on NATO for Patriot missiles to defend against border threats, and accepted just under half a million Syrian refugees. Ankara’s demands for Assad to step down have fallen on deaf ears, and its requests for NATO intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and heavy arms for the Syrian rebels have also been brushed aside.

All this has been unfortunate for Turkey’s leaders, but it was the recent introduction of Syrian chemical weapons into the equation that really changed Turkey’s calculus; now more than ever, the country needs better intelligence and allies to bring an end to the civil war or at least prevent it from spilling over. Turkey cannot afford to have chemical weapons used anywhere near its border with Syria, and the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the chances of a chemical weapons strike gone awry. Israel simply has better intelligence on regional developments than Turkey does, and Turkey can use that help to monitor Assad’s weapons stores and troop movements on both sides. In addition, whereas the United States and other NATO countries have been reluctant to support the Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, Israel has a greater incentive to make sure that the moderate Sunni groups prevail over the more radical jihadist elements of the opposition. As the situation in Syria heats up, Turkey and Israel will be thankful that they can talk to each other and coordinate.

Another area in which Turkey needs Israel’s assistance is energy. Turkey’s current account deficit, which stood at $48.8 billion in 2012, is almost entirely a result of the country’s reliance on oil and natural gas imports; Turkey has no natural resources of its own. Furthermore, Turkey is paying through the nose for both Russian and Iranian natural gas, due to onerous price contracts. Earlier this month, I talked with a number of people in Turkey — government ministers, opposition politicians, business tycoons, and trade group leaders — and they all mentioned Turkey’s growing energy needs and lamented the country’s overreliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas. Israel, meanwhile, has just discovered two major natural gas basins, the Tamar and Leviathan fields, off its coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since Turkey has no hope of smoothing over ties with Cyprus, its longtime adversary, which has been the other main beneficiary of the Mediterranean gas boom, it will likely turn to Israel as a natural gas supplier. With Turkey’s economic growth slowing, Israel’s potential as a partner makes reconciliation more attractive now than at any point in recent years.

Because it is – in my view – Turkey that changed its mind on reconciling, I focused on the Turkish side of things in the FA piece, so I thought I’d now write a little bit about the Israeli side. From Israel’s perspective, making up with Turkey has made sense for awhile now, and the reasons to do so only grew stronger with each passing day. First, there is the regional dynamic in the Middle East, which is hardly trending in Israel’s favor post-Arab Spring. While I do not think that Israel has anything to fear from new governments in the region, the upheaval has opened up power vacuums in the Sinai and Syria that allow hostile non-state actors to operate with impunity. Add to this the existing threats from Hamas and Hizballah and the distinct possibility that the Jordanian government falls, and Israel desperately needs any friend who will have her. Making up with Turkey means that at least Israel is not entirely alone in the region, and being able to coordinate with Turkey and with Jordan (so long as King Abdullah remains in power) will be extremely helpful in containing the spillover threat from Syria. While I highlighted the urgency for Turkey in my FA piece, Israel’s biggest concern with regard to the Syrian civil war has always been the transfer of chemical weapons to hostile non-state actors, and now that the chatter around chemical weapons has increased, apologizing to Turkey took on an urgency for Jerusalem that was absent before.

Second, Turkey has successfully blocked Israel from NATO military activities and summits, and the ability to get back in the game has always been important to the Israeli government. While the Noble Dina naval exercises with Greece and the U.S. that Israel began doing in 2011 are nice, they are a poor substitute for Israel being able to use the vast Turkish airspace for aerial training or being able to participate in NATO military exercises. Israel has attempted to ramp up its military relations with Greece and Cyprus in response to the freeze in relations with Turkey but this has always been a suboptimal solution, and Israel has felt this acutely as the government has become increasingly preoccupied with possible threats from Iran. Furthermore, Israel’s defense industry has had billions of dollars in contracts with Turkey suspended by Ankara, and being able to resume sales to Turkey should provide a nice jolt to the Israeli economy.

Nobody should expect Israel and Turkey to go back to where they once were. Turkey does not feel as alone in the region as it once did, there is still a benefit from having cool relations with Israel, and too much has taken place between the two, from Davos to the Mavi Marmara to the “Zionism is equal to fascism” kerfuffle of a month ago. It is unfortunately not surprising to already see Erdoğan backing away from his commitment to normalize relations, although it will happen sooner rather than later since this is only Erdoğan playing politics in response to some hardline domestic criticism over the deal with Israel. Exchanging ambassadors and resuming limited military and intelligence cooperation does not negate the fact that bashing Israel will remain a potent element in Erdoğan’s box of tricks, and I expect to see issues big and small arise between the two countries, particularly as things remain static on the Israeli-Palestinian front and settlement building in the West Bank continues. Nevertheless, this restoring of formal ties is good for both sides, and I hope that both countries can get over their past issues and begin work on developing a healthier relationship.

Is Turkey Really An Unhelpful Ally?

February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.

Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.

Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.

There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.

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