September 20, 2012 § 3 Comments
Spend five minutes listening to Turkish politicians or reading their speeches and you immediately get a sense of how high Turkey’s ambitions are. The best recent example of this is a speech Ahmet Davutoğlu made in April in which he declared, “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” adding that “even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Hugh Eakin captures this notion of immense Turkish ambition in a piece that uses Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plans to build an enormous new mosque overlooking the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey’s grand strategic plans. As Eakin notes, Turkey under the AKP wants to lead the Sunni Muslim world and take charge of the Middle East while building up Istanbul in a style reminiscent of development in Gulf states.
I think that some of what Eakin writes is either wrong or goes too far; for instance, he implies that Turkey is turning away from the West which is neither true nor even possible given Turkey’s presence in NATO and the fact that over 60% of its trade is with the EU. The thrust of Eakin’s piece is that the AKP is moving Turkey in a more religious direction, but the talk of increased religion misses the point in two ways though; first, Turkey is and always has been a traditional/conservative/religious society once you move away from Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities, so I don’t think it is the government that is driving a religious revival, but rather a religious revival that is emboldening the government. Second, what should be the greater concern is not the move toward more overt acceptance of religion but the move toward more overt authoritarianism, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the AKP transforming into a typical Turkish proto-authoritarian party. The focus on Islam is misplaced here, in my view, and risks overlooking the greater danger that is brewing. In any event, Eakin is making a larger point about Turkish ambitions, and it is certainly an accurate one.
Walter Russell Mead also wrote about Turkey earlier this week, but his argument was that Turkish ambitions are about to be dashed. In a typical Mead-ian historical flourish, he compares Erdoğan to Woodrow Wilson:
Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)
Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.
September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
Dov Friedman (whose previous guest post can be found here) is taking over the reins of O&Z once again for an insightful counterfactual of what might have been had Shaul Mofaz used his time in the Israeli coalition to mend ties with Turkey. Dov thinks that Israel missed a golden opportunity with the release of the Lindenstrauss Report, and here’s why:
Though few realized it at the time, the day Israeli Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss released his highly critical report detailing the government’s mishandling of the Mavi Marmara raid—June 13th of this year—doubled as the best chance for Israel and Turkey to repair the countries’ damaged relations. Only four weeks prior, Shaul Mofaz had led Kadima into Netanyahu’s government. The expanded coalition had weakened the power of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a chief opponent of an Israeli apology. The Lindenstrauss Report revealed new information that would have made an apology credible—and restored relations possible. But Netanyahu dismissed the report, the public discourse faded, and a key opportunity was missed, the effects of which are still being felt by Israel—and by Turkey.
Upon the grand coalition’s forming, analysts offered various explanations for the surprise Netanyahu-Mofaz partnership. Many observers—including Jeffrey Goldberg, Amir Oren of Ha’aretz, and Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin—viewed the deal as increasing the likelihood of an Iran strike. David Horovitz argued optimistically that Netanyahu could use the coalition to advance talks with the Palestinians. Here at O&Z, Michael saw the deal as motivated by domestic issues, specifically the unconstitutional Tal Law.
Frozen relations with Turkey were an afterthought. The most recent attempt to broker a deal between the recalcitrant sides had dissolved the previous summer. The Lindenstrauss Report created an opening. Netanyahu was still motivated to protect his expanded coalition, and Likud-Kadima unity on an apology could marginalize radical coalition opponents.
Yet, Mofaz exerted no pressure to reengage Turkey. Turkey had spent the previous six months going out of its way to needle Israel, reminding it that the freeze had costs. In February, Turkey demanded that Israel not receive data from the NATO missile defense system housed by Turkey. In late April, Turkey rejected Israel’s participation in NATO’s May summit in Chicago. Unquestionably, rapprochement with Turkey would eliminate a considerable—and unnecessary—headache for Israel.
If Mofaz had pressured Netanyahu to resume negotiations with Turkey, the outlines of a deal were clear. Netanyahu’s government would have said that in light of its own internal report, Israel regretted the poor planning and lack of preparation that contributed to the loss of life, and it recognizes that the circumstances could have—and should have—been prevented. Turkey could then have returned its ambassador and pledged aid ships to Gaza—ships that would conveniently dock in Ashqelon, tacitly reaffirming Israel’s security interest in managing the flow of aid into the Strip.
Of course, that deal never materialized. Not three months after entering the coalition, Mofaz led Kadima out ashen-faced. Netanyahu balked at confronting the religious parties over the Tal Law, refusing to implement Yohanan Plesner’s recommendations for haredi national service. Mofaz—having cried wolf one too many times—had no appealing options.
While analysis of the collapse focused on the domestic political implications, it overlooked lost international opportunities. Undoubtedly, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu will seek—and relish—further opportunities to poke Israel in the eye. Israel wisely refrains from comment, but that hardly means it doesn’t smart from the blows. Turkey is still a NATO member, and it can create problems for Israel indefinitely.
However, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu err if they believe the standoff has not detrimentally affected Turkey. If the Netanyahu-Mofaz coalition and Turkey had hammered out a deal, the downed Turkish F-4 jet may never have flown. As friend of O&Z Aaron Stein noted in an incisive piece in World Politics Review, Turkey’s intelligence capabilities are decidedly limited. Israel’s are significantly less so. Israel maintains a fleet of satellites with broad intelligence-gathering capabilities. The Mossad is active in Syria, and the IDF has experience flying aircraft in and out unscathed.
The theory prevails that Turkey’s jet was testing Syria’s air defenses. One need not theorize that Turkey was out of its depth. If Israel and Turkey had ended their superficial feud, Turkey’s pilots might never have been asked to broach Syrian airspace.
Israel has suffered publicly from the downgraded relationship; however, Turkey has lost out as well, albeit less obviously. Because trade relations between the countries remain strong, neither has felt pressure to alter the status quo. Nevertheless, the sides continue missing opportunities to collaborate to mutual benefit. This alternate history merely illustrates that the full extent of the shared loss may be continually underestimated.
August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment
Suat Kiniklioğlu wrote a clear headed column in Today’s Zaman on Wednesday in which he argued that Turkey is effectively at war with Syria and that the only solution to ending the Syrian problem is a military one. Given that Turkey is supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army and Kiniklioğlu contends that Syria is responding with increased support for the PKK, he wrote that Turkey has two basic options before it. Option one is to engage in direct war with Syria and set up a no-fly zone or buffer zone, and option two is to continue Turkey’s indirect war through supporting the opposition. After laying out the inherent problems with both approaches, Kiniklioğlu implied that he favors the first option of a more direct war:
The Syrian crisis and the concomitant rise in PKK terror have bitterly reminded us of the need for a professional fighting force. It is inconceivable that after three decades of fighting against the PKK we are still fighting with non-professional forces. Whether we like it or not the Syrian crisis has turned into a regional imbroglio. We must bring an end to the Syrian crisis — that can only be done through military means. Our government has the responsibility of holding to account those responsible for bombing our cities on a Ramadan holiday evening in Gaziantep.
This sentiment is an understandable one. The longer the mess in Syria drags on, the more it brings Turkey’s foreign policy credibility down with it. Things have become so bad that there are now calls for Ahmet Davutoğlu, who many assumed would replace Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister, to step down from his post as foreign minister. Turkey’s demands on Assad have fallen on deaf ears, Syrian provocations such as the downing of the Turkish reconnaissance jet have gone unanswered, and in the midst of all this the PKK has ramped up its attacks and made this the bloodiest summer for Turkey in decades. Arming the opposition has not gotten Turkey anywhere, and as Kiniklioğlu writes, the problem with a more direct military approach is that the Obama administration and NATO have shown close to zero willingness to intervene, which makes a unilateral Turkish intervention a far more difficult task. Turkey is in such a bad position at the moment that it almost seems as if there is no other choice but direct military confrontation with Syria, if for no other reason than to take the fight to the PKK. To paraphrase one of President George W. Bush’s more memorable lines, it’s better for Turkey to fight the PKK over there so it doesn’t have to fight the PKK over here.
The problem with this approach is that Turkey is having an enormous amount of trouble handling the PKK on its own territory, and I shudder to think about what will happen should the Turkish military chase the PKK over unfamiliar ground while adding the Syrian army into the mix. Nobody has any idea what is really going on in Hakkari, and just yesterday another six soldiers were killed in PKK bombings and assaults. As many PKK terrorists as the Turkish army is taking out, the military is suffering significant casualties of its own, and this despite sealing off an entire swath of southeastern Turkey and having the benefit of fighting on its own turf. Let’s say that Turkey decides to invade Syria with the dual purpose of eradicating as much of the PKK as possible and hastening the end of the Assad regime. How well would such an operation possibly go? Turkey has already sadly been on the wrong end of Syrian air defenses and would be fighting on foreign soil against the PKK, the PYD, some part of the Syrian army, and one cannot discount Iran at that point entering the mix. I get the bind that Turkey is in and the frustration at feeling impotent to control events despite having the second largest army in NATO, but stepping up overt military operations against Syria is a bad idea at this point. Turkey is in a terrible mess at the moment – albeit one partially of its own making given its years of supporting Assad and its complete lack of any Kurdish policy – but an invasion of Syria would only make things worse. There aren’t really any good options, which is what Kiniklioğlu’s column is getting at, but I think that the only real course Turkey has for now is to keep fighting the PKK at home, hope that Assad falls soon, and pray that whatever replaces him will be able to contain the fallout from migrating across Turkey’s borders. Intervening in Syria alone will not lead to a positive outcome, and in fact would have a high chance of creating even more headaches and security problems for Ankara than it already has.
August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.
All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.
It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.
In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.
July 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
In what appears to be a new strategy to restore ties with Turkey, the Israeli government this week invited a group of Turkish journalists to Israel, where they first met with Avigdor Lieberman and then with Bibi Netanyahu. The thinking behind this is pretty straightforward; there has been little apparent progress so far in mending ties with Ankara, and so going past the Turkish government to Turkish journalists, who in turn will hopefully write about Israel in a favorable light, will create some momentum for a reconciliation.
This gambit, however, has initially had mixed results. First, there were conflicting reports in the Turkish press following the meeting with Lieberman over whether Israel was prepared to offer an apology for the Mavi Marmara. According to Hürriyet, Lieberman said that Israel is ready to talk to Turkey about any and all issues but is categorically unwilling to apologize, while Today’s Zaman report of the very same meeting quoted Lieberman as saying that Israel is willing to discuss an apology provided that it be included in discussions on a host of other issues. The confusion certainly did not help matters, and the Turkish Foreign Ministry reiterated its stance that it requires an apology and reparations from Israel and dismissed Israeli public diplomacy efforts as a failed end-run around the conditions laid out by Ankara for normalization of relations. Netanyahu’s meeting with the group of journalists seemed to go better, which is no surprise given that Lieberman is a particularly undiplomatic diplomat. Netanyahu met them in his national security council conference room and placed a Turkish flag next to the Israeli one, and expressed how important the relationship is with Turkey while reassuring his visitors that improved Israeli ties with Greece are not related to the deterioration in relations with Turkey.
In the meantime, none of this seems to be having the desired effect on the Turkish government. The AKP hosted an iftar dinner for the foreign diplomatic corps in Turkey, but the two countries not invited were Israel and Syria. That Israel is being lumped in with Syria, a regime that shot at and downed a Turkish fighter jet and that is busy massacring its citizens, is perhaps the biggest slap in the face that Ankara could give to Jerusalem. Then, Erdoğan held a smaller iftar dinner with Ahmet Davutoğlu and Hakan Fidan where he hosted Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Inviting Meshaal to a private meeting at the prime minister’s home with the prime minister and Turkey’s top foreign policy and intelligence officials is also not going to make Israel feel any more comfortable about where its relationship with Turkey is heading.
It is also unlikely that the PR offensive will move the Turkish public into clamoring for a restoration of full ties with Israel. Turks don’t see how the spat with Israel has cost them anything and are of the firm view that Israel needs Turkey far more than Turkey needs Israel. Writing in Hürriyet, Mehmet Ali Birand warned that the fallout from the flotilla has cost not only Israel influence in the region but Turkey as well and that no holistic Middle East policy can be undertaken while shutting Israel out, but I’m not sure that either average Turks or the Turkish government believe this to be the case. Turkey does not seem to think that the freeze with Israel is particularly costly, and the government has maintained its strategy of keeping pressure on Israel while Israel vainly tries to restore ties without meeting Ankara’s demands. The effort to woo journalists is nice in theory, but it is not going to accomplish much. Israel and Turkey were on the verge of patching things up last summer and then the agreement got scuttled when – depending on which reports are to be believed – either Netanyahu or Lieberman got cold feet at the last moment. The only way the situation will be resolved is on a government to government level, and whether the barrier is Lieberman’s inclusion in the coalition or Davutoğlu’s absolute refusal to even talk to his Israeli counterpart, Turkey needs to be convinced that its reputation and strategic interests are being damaged by this cold war while Israel needs to be convinced that it will have to take some genuine moves to restore ties and that the whole thing will not just blow over with time.
July 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
There has been a fair amount of maneuvering by Turkey’s political parties in the last couple of weeks, suggesting that the AKP is trying to determine how best to extend its dominance – or perhaps more accurately, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s dominance – while the CHP senses an opportunity to cut into AKP gains for the first time in a decade. First, there was Erdoğan’s invitation to the HAS Party (Voice of the People) to merge with the AKP. HAS was founded by Numan Kurtulmuş, who, unlike Erdoğan, stuck with former PM Necmettin Erbakan following the ban on the Fazilet Party and then eventually broke with Erbakan to form HAS. Erdoğan and Kurtulmuş both grew up within Turkish political Islam, but they had very different styles. Whereas Erdoğan was, and is, more bombastic and a lot savvier politically, seeing the opportunity in breaking with his mentor and forming the AKP as a more moderate and reformist version of an Islamic-inspired party, Kurtulmuş stuck with Erbakan a lot longer and only founded HAS in 2010 after being forced out of Saadet by more conservative elements.
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.
The other development is with regard to the CHP, which appears to be asserting itself more and more as it sees some crucial openings with which to challenge the ruling AKP. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has announced that the CHP will intensify its efforts to become a true social democratic party which not coincidentally coincides with a growing chorus of criticism over the AKP’s sometimes authoritarian impulses and actions. More interestingly, Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech to the CHP convention today hammered the government on foreign policy as well, suggesting that the CHP sees Turkey’s approach to the world (and more specifically, its policy on Syria) as becoming a political albatross. Given the way in which Turkey’s international status has grown amidst a nearly universal glowing reputation for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the manner in which Erdoğan has all but accused the CHP of treason for criticizing government policy on Syria, this is a bold strike on Kılıçdaroğlu’s part. It remains to be seen if it will work, but the CHP is clearly banking its chips on the notion that Turks are beginning to get fed up with the AKP on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Should the more direct confrontation with Erdoğan and the clearer contrast between the two leading parties goad Erdoğan into some more intemperate statements, he might make the CHP’s point that it is time for a change all by himself. No matter what happens, we are in for some interesting months ahead on the Turkish political front.
July 10, 2012 § 2 Comments
Remember the enormous optimism in Turkey when François Hollande was elected? Predictions abounded that Turkey’s path to EU membership was going to be far easier than it had been under Sarkozy, and it appeared that the kerfuffle over the Armenian genocide denial bill in France was a thing of the past. At the time, I thought this enthusiasm was misplaced, and wrote the following:
France sees much of North Africa as being in its domain given its colonial history there, and it is threatened by another outside power establishing deep economic ties as Turkey has been doing. The Armenian issue is also not one that was first initiated by Sarkozy; the French parliament voted in 2001 to declare the events in Armenia a genocide and the Assembly voted in 2006 to criminalize its denial (it did not pass the Senate at that time). Turkey-bashing is a popular electoral sport in France no matter who is running, and the emotions that it stirs up are not so easily suppressed once the votes are counted. At the end of the day, a Hollande victory is likely to herald a positive reset in France’s relations with Turkey - although Hollande is considered to be one of the Socialist Party’s most pro-Israel politicians so the continued shenanigans over Israel in NATO forums won’t help matters – but it is not going to be the panacea that permanently puts the Armenian issue to rest in France or mean a fast track victory for Turkey’s EU bid.
Now, as it turns out, the Armenian issue cannot be put to bed so easily. Exactly as he promised he would do during his campaign, Hollande has announced plans to reintroduce a bill criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide. His reason for doing this is pretty simple: there is a large Armenian community in France, and Hollande wants to ensure that he has their votes in the next election. In fact, Hollande is so committed to this issue, it has been reported that he has been exploring means other than legislation, such as an official degree that would penalize Armenian genocide denial, given the fact that a previous iteration of the law was ruled unconstitutional. It is worth remembering that Prime Minister Erdoğan had restored full ties with France following Sarkozy’s defeat on the assumption that this issue was over, and if Hollande indeed pushes for another Armenian genocide bill, I expect that ties will be downgraded once again. On top of the fact that Turkey has suspended formal political ties with the EU during Cyprus’s presidency, it does not appear that Turkey’s EU bid is any better off now than it was when Sarkozy was in office.
This should be a useful reminder of two things. First, domestic politics trumps everything. Hollande cares a lot more about being reelected and pleasing various domestic constituencies than he does keeping Ankara happy. He is more than happy to risk Erdoğan’s wrath on this issue if it means another term down the road in the Élysée Palace. Second, and more importantly for our purposes, it indicates that there is a perception gap between France and the rest of the EU on one side and Turkey on the other over Turkey’s value to the EU. There is a view that has taken hold in Turkey over the past few years, as Turkey’s economy has exploded while Europe’s has tanked and as Turkey has become a more influential global player, that Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. I myself think that Europe stands to benefit greatly from Turkish accession to the EU, but the fact that Hollande is willing to risk another rupture in ties over what seems to be a comparably small domestic political issue suggests that many in Europe do not share this view. Ankara would do well to take heed of this, since bad relations with France and endless fighting over Cyprus only benefit Turkey if Europe as a whole believes that there is something to lose by alienating Turkey. Were I advising Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, I would suggest that they ignore this latest provocation, keep tensions low over the latest Armenian genocide news, and wait to see how things play out. Blowing up at Hollande and France will not accomplish anything in this case, and will demonstrate that Turkey is willing to be more pliable and puts joining the EU at the top of its list of priorities.
June 25, 2012 § 2 Comments
Turkey is in an uproar over its jet that was shot down by Syria on Friday, and between talking with the opposition on Sunday and a cabinet meeting on Monday, not to mention briefings and consultations with allies over the weekend and the upcoming NATO Article 4 meeting, it is not yet clear what steps Ankara will take in retaliation. Whatever happens though, I remain confident that this is not going to lead to Turkey taking any unilateral steps toward attacking Syria, despite the reports that Syria knew it was shooting at a Turkish jet. Turkey does not want to get bogged down in a war with Syria, despite the fact that it has an enormous military advantage. It has been dragging its feet for months – remember all that ridiculous speculation about Turkey establishing buffer zones inside of Syria? – and trying to get the international community involved to no avail, and the downing of its jet will only magnify this tendency.
To be clear, I am not contending that Turkey does not want to see Assad gone; I have no doubt that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu want him out of Damascus in the worst way possible. They do not, however, want to do it themselves, and for very good reason. This is a smart pair and they know the many pitfalls of going to war, and despite the fact Syria is causing them all sorts of headaches, they do not rise to the level of serious threat that would require Turkish military intervention. Ankara threatened to invoke Article 5 when Syrian forces shot across the border in April, but it was clear that was an empty threat and ultimately did not good. This time around, the government is being much smarter, and not threatening to invoke Article 5 but actually invoking Article 4, which calls for NATO consultations rather than automatic NATO action. The intention is not to actually invade Syria, but to ratchet up the political pressure as much as possible so as to force a diplomatic solution in which Assad’s Russian backers desert him and he has to leave. The strategy is the same as it has always been – internationalize the conflict as much as possible so that Turkey is not left to do the dirty work all by itself – only now Turkey has a big trump card in its hand, which is the credible threat of force since shooting down a jet is a pretty big deal. Will this strategy work? I think it depends on how determined Assad is to stay put at all costs. My read of the situation is that the only way he ever agrees to leave his perch in Damascus is by gunpoint, but Ankara might have a different (and much better informed) view that mine. Here’s to hoping that Turkey is able to turn this incident into a positive and force a resolution to the mess in Syria that leaves Syria better off and Turkey in a stronger and less uncertain position.
The more interesting question to me though is why Turkey has shown so much restraint, which is both admirable and puzzling at the same time. To understand why, it is useful to do a quick thought experiment. Let’s say that Syria had downed an Israeli jet on Friday; is there any doubt at all that Israel would have spent the weekend absolutely pummeling Syrian military targets? There wouldn’t have been a Syrian air defense battery left standing. It also can’t escape notice that in 2007 Israeli inserted commandos into Syria after which Israeli planes crossed into Syrian airspace, took out a Syrian radar installation, completely obliterated a Syrian nuclear reactor, extracted the commandos (who had painted the target with lasers), and landed safely back in Israel with literally zero consequences. Yet Syria had absolutely no compunction about shooting down a Turkish plane that ever so briefly crossing a couple of miles into Syria. When it comes to Israel, Syria is scared of its own shadow, but it has no problem bringing down a Turkish plane or shooting across the Turkish border. It’s not as if Syria shouldn’t think twice about messing with Turkey – the Turkish military is large, well trained, well equipped, and generally fearsome.
I think the answer to Turkish restraint here lies in the various international institutions in which it is enmeshed, a situation that is different to that of Israel’s. Turkey is a member of NATO and a prospective member of the EU, and this affords it both a measure of security while also acting as an involuntary restraint. Turkey has the luxury of involving NATO and bringing a lot of global pressure to bear on Syria with the possibility of a genuinely international response to Syrian action against Turkey. Attacking Turkey is enormously risky in this regard, which is why Syria immediately went out of its way to emphasize that this had been a mistake and that it was working to recover the two missing pilots and the wreckage of the jet. By the same token, however, the very thing that increases Turkey’s power and clout also holds it back. Because an attack on Turkey is an attack on every other NATO country, Turkey cannot just dash into an armed conflict with Syria, as NATO Article 5 then gets invoked and that is pretty serious business. By testing the waters with Turkey, Damascus is gambling that the other NATO states do not want to get involved in what has turned into a Syrian civil war and that Ankara knows this. The days of deliberations on the heels of Friday’s disaster confirm this, since Turkey has not yet responded, has not revealed what its plans are, and has not brought up Article 5, and the more time that passes, the more difficult it will be for Ankara to respond militarily. It seems to me that the Turkish government is going out of its way not to inflame public expectations for a forceful armed response, and the NATO factor is a large part of why that is. To some extent, Turkey is handcuffed when it comes to these borderline situations in a way that a state like Israel is not, and Assad understands this full well.
This is a really useful example of the way in which international institutions can both empower and restrain simultaneously, illustrating that they confer serious benefits but also come with serious drawbacks. Turkish restraint here is not just about Turkey or what Erdoğan wants to do, but is bound up in NATO politics. Were Turkey in Israel’s position and felt in a variety of ways more isolated, leading to a more go it alone mentality, I think Assad would be sleeping far more fitfully tonight.
June 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Turkey’s rise is attributable to a bunch of factors, but one of the primary ones is the image of Turkey as a democracy. When the AKP took over, they did a good job of making Turkey more democratic in a number of important ways as part of the EU accession process, and the world noticed. For a decade, Turkey has been heralded as a model of Muslim democracy and been held up as a successful example of how a state can transition from a military-dominated polity to one where the elected civilian government is the ultimate accountable body. Turkey has played up its democratic status at every opportunity, and is has been taken as a given that Turkey is a democracy, one that has its own issues to overcome but certainly not a state that is in danger of authoritarian backsliding.
Two columns this weekend make me wonder if we are coming to a tipping point where outside observers are no longer going to give Turkey’s democratic status the benefit of the doubt. In the New York Times, Tom Friedman (who probably represents conventional elite opinion better than anyone aside from Fareed Zakaria) had a rambling column that managed to work its way to Turkey by the end, and what he had to say about Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP was not kind. He concluded his column with this:
The A.K.P.’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not only been effective at building bridges but also in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so that there are no more checks and balances here. With the economic decline of the European Union, the aborting of Turkey’s efforts to become an E.U. member and the need for America to have Turkey as an ally in managing Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are also no external checks on the A.K.P.’s rising authoritarianism. (Erdogan announced out of the blue last week that he intended to pass a law severely restricting abortions.)
So many conversations I had with Turks here ended with me being told: “Just don’t quote me. He can be very vindictive.” It’s like China.
This isn’t good. If Erdogan’s “Sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy. It will also be bad for the region because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the E.U. in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: Give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.
In the Guardian, Mehdi Hasan unloaded on the Erdoğan government, describing Istanbul as gripped by a “climate of fear” and noting government pressure on the media and prosecution of ordinary citizens for criticizing state education policy and insulting Islam. He recounted how the authorities detained some of his colleagues and read through his tv program’s scripts to find anything that might be objectionable, and conveyed the opinion of some that Erdoğan is “Putinesque.” Hasan summed up with the following:
Those of us who have long argued that elected Islamist parties should not be denied the opportunity to govern invested great hope in Erdogan and the AKP. But what I discovered in Istanbul is that there is still a long way to go. The truth is that Turkey cannot be the model, the template, for post-revolutionary, Muslim-majority countries like Tunisia and Egypt until it first gets its own house in order. To inspire freedom abroad, the Turkish government must first guarantee freedom at home.
It comes as no surprise to veteran Turkey watchers that the government’s authoritarian tendencies are increasingly bubbling to the surface. Plenty of folks have been sounding the alarm for awhile, but Turkey’s image has remained as a democracy that is successfully struggling to shed a legacy of military coups and acrimonious ideologically charged politics. That people like Friedman and Hasan are starting to sit up and take notice of some of the more egregious problems signals to me that Turkey is entering a dangerous place. Once Turkey and Erdoğan start to get lumped together with Russia and Putin – a comparison that I would note is completely inappropriate at this point – it will present a whole set of challenges for Turkey’s foreign policy and severely set back relations with the U.S. and Europe. I get the sense that Turkish economic growth has led Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to think that Turkey is indispensable, and that the rest of the world needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the rest of the world. This is pretty clearly an overreach, and Ankara should be more mindful of the fact that Turkey’s democratic status is massively important to its new preeminent position. Taking this lightly or underestimating how vital it is that Turkey continue to be perceived as solidly democratic is a bad misstep, and the AKP government needs a serious course correction before it’s too late. David Ignatius can write as many glowing paeans to the Obama-Erdoğan relationship as he likes, but the fact remains that the U.S. holds all non-democracies (aside from the oil producing ones) at arm’s length, and Turkey will be no different should it continue to crack down on basic freedom of expression and harass political opponents. Reputational costs are important, and if the narrative takes hold that Erdoğan is consolidating power and turning Turkey into a one-party state, he will find that his power inside of Turkey is unchallenged but that his power on the world stage is diminished.