August 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.
It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.
The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.
Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:
The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.
Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.
He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.
There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.
I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.
June 17, 2014 § 12 Comments
For a few years now, Turkey has been engaged in a delicate balance between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Ankara has not wanted to anger Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki by implying support for an independent – rather than autonomous – Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey has never been interested in such an outcome anyway because of the incentives it would create for Turkish Kurds to push harder for their own independent state. Turkey has been happy to deal with the KRG and Massoud Barzani outside of its relationship with Maliki, supporting Erbil’s claims to independent oil revenues, and in fact has supported and promoted Barzani in an effort to marginalize the PKK and its Syrian PYD offshoot by making Barzani and the KRG the most influential Kurds in the region. As Turkey’s relationship with Maliki has deteriorated and as Turkey and Iraq have feuded over Iraq’s treatment of its Sunni minority, this dynamic between Turkey and the KRG has increased, and for the most part Barzani has played his part by not speaking out as a champion of Turkish Kurds. Throughout all of this, however, Turkey has stopped short of overtly supporting a de jure independent Iraqi Kurdistan, realizing that to do so will mean the end of any relationship that still remains with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
The ISIS takeover of Mosul and the possibility that it will eventually overrun the Maliki government alters this equation. F0r decades, Turkey’s biggest security problem has been the PKK. Now, the biggest threat facing Turkey is ISIS, which has demonstrated its ability to take and hold territory and which views the Turkish government with hostility. Turkey already received an unpleasant wakeup call a week ago when ISIS captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took the diplomats working there hostage. At this point, Turkey has a hostile and capable fighting force sitting right across its border, and the spillover from northern Iraq has the potential to be far worse than the refugee crisis that Turkey has already been managing as a result of the Syrian civil war, since it will involve armed hostilities rather than just absorbing fleeing refugees.
The best way to neutralize ISIS as a threat is to strengthen the KRG, whose peshmerga already took Kirkuk in response to the ISIS takeover of Mosul, and can keep the conflict with ISIS in Iraq rather than having it cross the border into southeastern Turkey. In the past, even considering supporting the KRG as an independent state was not an option, but the circumstances have changed now that it is clear just how weak and ineffectual the Maliki government is. Ankara should be getting in front of this issue, recognizing that even if the Maliki government survives it will be only through the intervention and support of outside powers such as the U.S. and Iran (which is not a phrase I ever envisioned writing) and that the consequences of angering the Maliki government pales in comparison to the consequences of an actual radical jihadi state bordering Turkey.
Furthermore, if Turkey still subscribes to the theory that strengthening Barzani and the KRG sends the message to Turkish Kurds that Kurdistan already exists without them and thus they need to drop any hopes of separation or independence for themselves, then now is the time to test out whether this theory is actually correct. Things are quiet with the PKK, Erdoğan has been slowly negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, and ramping up the peace process with the PKK while simultaneously supporting Kurdish independence could potentially be a massive victory for Erdoğan and the AKP. If Turkish Kurds support a deal that gives them language rights and some sort of autonomous citizenship and create pressure on the PKK to accept, Erdoğan will easily sail through to a presidential victory while solidifying his coalition for another decade. Erdoğan could thus create a new status quo for his own Kurdish population that ends any legitimate hopes of an independent Turkish Kurdistan while securing Turkey’s borders from ISIS in creating an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is without even considering the windfall potential of Turkey becoming an energy hub as a result of transporting Kurdish oil, which will always be in doubt so long as the central government in Baghdad still has a claim on it.
There are certainly downsides to this scenario, chief among them the enmity it will cause between Ankara and Baghdad, not to mention the possibility of fighting in northern Iraq between KRG peshmerga and Iraqi troops that will send even more refugees into Turkey. It is also in some sense playing with fire to actively attempt to rewrite state borders in the Middle East, since there is no way of knowing what it will unleash elsewhere. Despite these problems, Turkey has been dancing around this idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan for awhile, and the time is right to be forward thinking and actually implement a real policy. The ISIS threat is real and it is scary, and Turkey’s best strategy should be to empower the only fighting force in Iraq capable of countering ISIS and making sure that northern Iraq does not turn into a jihadi wasteland.
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.
July 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
Dov Friedman – who is depriving the world of his prodigious knowledge by not starting his own regular blog – is resuming his spot today as O&Z guest poster par excellence to write about whether or not the Gezi protests necessitate a political shift from Prime Minister Erdoğan. In particular, Dov thinks that Erdoğan is not thinking strategically when it comes to the Kurdish peace process, which is in many ways the most important issue facing Turkey in both the short and long term.
We’re one month past the outbreak of spontaneous protests connected to the redevelopment of Gezi Park, and by now, the events have been analyzed pretty robustly. There are essentially two narratives—one forwarded by protesters, their supporters, and most journalists, and another advanced by the government and its supporters. Respectively excellent examples of those narratives may be found here and here.
But as the protests have subsided, observers are beginning to ask what comes next. Their answers can vary considerably based on their own political preferences. However, what happens next still depends overwhelmingly on the actions of Prime Minister Erdoğan.
Which leads me to make two different, seemingly oppositional claims. First, that politically speaking, Erdoğan need not diverge from the playbook he was following before the Taksim protests. Second, that based on some very early indicators, Erdoğan himself seems to believe otherwise. Allow me to explain.
It may be hard to remember now, but even before Gezi, the prospects for a new constitution establishing a strong presidential system were diminished. Erdoğan had already begun to intimate this publicly, deploying the soft sell and professing satisfaction with whatever the outcome might be. Not two weeks before Gezi Park became international news, Erdoğan deputized Sabah—a newspaper with close ties to the government—to explain how AK Party would proceed if a strong presidential system were rejected.
These subtle moves stemmed less from magnanimity toward the opposition than from Erdoğan’s finely calibrated response to shifting political dynamics. The Kurdish gambit—which Erdoğan hoped would alter the Grand National Assembly’s legislative math in favor of constitutional overhaul—only partially delivered. The BDP—which gives political voice to Turkey’s ethnic Kurds—stated its desire to work toward a new constitution, but declined to support a presidency with increased authority. Despite an obvious setback to Erdoğan’s expressed preferences, it seemed the Prime Minister might content himself with being the figure to transform Turkey’s Kurdish Issue while enabling the ancillary benefits to accrue to AK Party.
Erdoğan still had options, which Sabah did an excellent job of laying out. He could rewrite party rules to allow him another term as prime minister. He could accept a simple constitutional change allowing the president to sit as the head of a political party as well. In Erdoğan’s best-case scenario, the president could assume executive control, appointing both the prime minister and the cabinet members as well.
The Taksim protests mostly enlivened an essential conversation about authoritarianism in Turkey; however, they also gave rise to the false narrative that now the prime minister’s plans were really dead. Perhaps Erdoğan bought into the coverage. As the AK Party has unveiled its post-Gezi political strategy, the early indicators dishearten. In a speech addressing the Wise Persons commission on June 27th, Erdoğan said that AK Party had plans neither to support a lowering of the election threshold nor to prepare for native language education. Perhaps thinking he had not done enough to upset Kurds, Erdoğan also opined that only 15 percent of the PKK fighters in Turkey had crossed the border with Iraq—subtly suggesting that the government need not take any action at present to advance the precarious opening.
These distressing moves typify a party seeking to burnish its nationalist credentials more than advance a tenuous peace process. Is that Erdoğan’s intent and goal? There is no definitive answer. What we do know is that the Prime Minister has embarked on a monumental speaking tour to galvanize the base. He has used divisive language—even by his estimable standards—and deployed increasingly religiously tinged talking points. We know that to an unprecedented degree, AK Party scrutinizes poll numbers. We also know that before Erdoğan was the overnight champion of a historic deal with Turkey’s Kurds, he had been just as vociferous in his nationalist message and tone. Is AK Party’s analytics team gleaning information about skepticism to the Kurdish opening within the party faithful? Is this merely Erdoğan’s shopworn political crisis management strategy of hunkering down, playing to the base, and using divisive issues to divert attention? Again, we do not know. But we should never forget that Erdoğan’s political juggling puts Franklin Roosevelt to shame.
Erdoğan’s crisis management skills are proven, but it’s not clear to me why he has signified another directional shift. The nationalist strategy is inherently a defensive one. It appeals to the most conservative, reactionary elements in Turkish society. In response to protests centered on Erdoğan’s—and the AK Party’s—high-handed politics, how is retrograde divisiveness the smartest play? The point becomes all the more salient when we consider nationalist party MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli’s pointed critique of the Prime Minister post-Gezi:
“He rebuked the teachers. He scolded the students. He tried to become a Twitter police. This is the final stage of hubris. It’s been revealed that our country being an example is a lie. The party that does not accept democracy has nothing more to offer.”
Does that sound like someone who sees profit in joining forces politically? For Erdoğan, the nationalist strategy is regressive. For Bahçeli, partnership with Erdoğan—at least for the foreseeable future—is politically toxic. At the risk of repetitiveness, what led Erdoğan to believe this was his dominant strategy?
What made the Kurdish opening so surprising was its daring—it sought to rejigger Turkey politics in search of a new, more robust coalition and vision. Post-Gezi, Erdoğan could have modeled consistency by expressing acceptance of modest tweaks to the political system and continuing his full-throated advocacy for a Kurdish peace. This would not have satisfied the protestors—I leave discussions about the wisdom of Erdoğan’s response to that conflict aside—but at least it would have revealed a gritty, principled leader maintaining his vision in a political storm.
Instead, in addition to the ongoing low intensity conflict with the protest movement and the fragile economy, Erdoğan adds tension with political forces representing Kurdish interests. The fissures have already begun to show: the BDP has organized rallies in the southeast to pressure the government to take the next step in the peace process, and Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş is agitating for the government to take action in response to soldiers killing one protestor, and injuring 10, who demonstrated against the rebuilding of a gendarmerie facility.
It is too early to say the peace process is broken. But anyone who tells you everyone has come too far should be met with skepticism. Erdoğan has borne intense criticism for his handling of the Taksim protests. His political signaling in the protests’ aftermath is more dangerous still.
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.