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.
January 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011′s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.
Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.
The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.
While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well. As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.
January 21, 2013 § 3 Comments
The always excellent Dov Friedman needs no further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and to point out that we have seen a similar dynamic before under the AKP.
On Wednesday, Michael discussed the underlying political reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sudden about-face on the Kurdish Issue. In short, Erdoğan can count votes. Both the nationalist MHP and some members of Erdoğan’s own AK Party oppose his desired expansion of presidential power in a new constitution. A settlement of the Kurdish Issue that rewrites the constitution’s definition of citizenship and codifies primary language education rights would likely draw support from the heavily Kurdish BDP. The same revised constitution could also include provisions for a stronger presidency—or such is the Prime Minister’s hope. It may be a long shot, but it may also be Erdoğan’s only shot.
Though domestic politics may have spurred Erdoğan to act, we should not overlook the foreign policy impetus for a new Kurdish Opening. It will affect Turkey’s relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Maliki’s Baghdad regime. It may also have deep implications for Turkey’s regional stature.
After years of hostility between Turkey and the KRG, Turkey wisely corrected course and fostered closer relations with the self-governing enclave. Meanwhile, Maliki’s government and the KRG have become increasingly oppositional, with the rich oil deposits in the disputed Mosul and Kirkuk regions a key point of contention. Despite stipulations that oil revenues are a national issue under Baghdad’s purview, Turkey has facilitated the KRG’s nascent efforts to open an independent revenue stream from fossil fuels. Naturally, Baghdad is livid, and tensions between Turkey and Maliki’s government have understandably risen. The Ankara-Baghdad divergence on the Syrian conflict certainly has not helped matters.
Turkey assists the KRG because it stands to gain tremendously from the development of Kurdish Iraq into an energy power. The KRG is landlocked; Turkey presents its most natural geostrategic outlet to world markets. The infrastructure already exists in the form of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. In 2012, the KRG inched toward energy—and some would argue political—independence by signing independent exploration contracts with some of the world’s largest oil companies. By transporting KRG oil and gas from its port in Ceyhan, Turkey would transform itself into a major energy hub—with huge economic ramifications for Turkey’s underdeveloped southeast and political implications for the country as a whole.
That the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is a tremendous political asset doubles as the reason it has become a particularly appealing target for Turkey’s militant Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. In 2010, despite relative calm, PKK operatives bombed the pipeline. The same thing happened in July of last year. In October 2012, rebels bombed a pipeline bringing natural gas from Iran. In absence of a government initiative to solve the Kurdish Issue, these periodic attacks would likely persist. Turkey knows—as does anyone engaged in commerce—that volatility and uncertainty are bad for business.
In light of the dual domestic and foreign policy ramifications, Erdoğan’s abrupt shift toward finding a solution to the Kurdish Issue makes sense. The question becomes: will Erdoğan strike a deal with the Kurdish opposition?
Remarkably, the opening of EU accession talks in AK Party’s early years bears similarities to the present Kurdish Opening. After AK Party took power in 2002, it still faced a secular establishment suspicious of its intentions and a military that had unseated the previous Islamist government in 1997 and banned it from politics. AK Party made opening EU accession talks its first major policy initiative, and Turkey earned a December 2004 date to formally commence the process. At the time, the foreign policy ramifications were massive. Turkey had kept one foot in Europe for decades without being permitted all the way in. This was Turkey’s opportunity to permanently reinforce its unique geopolitical identity.
However, benefits to foreign policy were not Turkey’s only—or even primary—concern. First, the AK Party’s EU stance was a political winner. Kemalists, Kurds, and liberals all supported the process, each for different reasons. Second, in order to open accession talks, the EU required Turkey to implement political reforms that weakened the military’s role in politics. The National Security Council transitioned from foreign policy arbiter into an advisory role.
In 2002, Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy of EU accession that doubled as stealth domestic policy. AK Party shored up its liberal credentials while the military zealously agreed to its own subtly diminished power.
Perhaps 2013’s Kurdish Opening is the mirror image. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan wants to be president with vastly increased power. That is the obvious way to read his sudden shift on the Kurdish Issue. Focusing merely on the constitutional implications yields pessimism—who can trust progress hinging on Erdoğan’s cynical calculus about how to retain power.
That is why ignoring the potential foreign policy benefits of the Kurdish Opening would be a major mistake. In 2002, Erdoğan demonstrated that policies with tangible potential gains in both the foreign and domestic spheres intrigued him and garnered his strong support. It is far too soon to predict whether the Kurdish Issue will be solved; however, early AK Party history may provide reason for a small measure of hope.
January 16, 2013 § 9 Comments
The worst kept secret in all of Turkish politics is that Prime Minister Erdoğan wants to revamp Turkey’s political system in order to create a strong presidency and make himself the first newly empowered president. Turkey’s constitutional commission had been meeting for the greater part of 2012, and it was expected to recommend that Turkey adopt a presidential system. The idea was for all four of the parties in the Grand National Assembly – AKP, CHP, MHP, and BDP – to come to a consensus, but because this was always going to be extremely unlikely, Erdoğan had plotted out an alternate path toward achieving his goal. He repeatedly warned that if there was no unanimous agreement on what the next constitution should look like, he would drop the consensus requirement and simply advance a draft constitution written by the AKP. In order to do this though, he was going to have to band together with another party, as the AKP is three seats short of the number it needs to have an automatic referendum on the constitution. The assumption that many people – myself very much included – made was that Erdoğan had cut a deal with the nationalist MHP, in which it would provide the votes to give Erdoğan his presidential system and in return Erdoğan would sell out the Kurds and not make any real moves toward recognizing Kurdish rights or Kurdish identity.
For awhile, this appeared to be exactly what was transpiring. Arrests of lawyers, journalists, and politicians sympathetic to the Kurdish cause were up, the government was not making any moves to revive its Kurdish Opening of a few years ago, and the AKP in collaboration with the MHP was refusing to even hold a parliamentary debate on the military operation against the PKK in the southeast of the country. All signs pointed to a new constitution rammed through with MHP votes that would maintain the fiction of one overarching Turkish identity as a reward to the MHP for supporting Erdoğan’s invigorated presidency.
Yet, the constitutional commission’s December 31 deadline came and went, and there has been no move on Erdoğan’s part to follow through on his public threats of abandoning the process and imposing his own vision of what the new constitution should look like. Instead, there has been little talk of what comes next, and haggling over the AKP’s proposed presidential system is delaying agreement on other proposed constitutional articles. More interestingly, the government has begun negotiating with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which has infuriated the MHP to no end. This is not quite a renewed Kurdish Opening, but in some ways it is even more surprising and remarkable given the view of many Turks that Ocalan is an unrepentant terrorist who should not be lent any credibility through negotiations with the government.
Reading between the lines of all this, it is fairly obvious that Erdoğan’s plan to remake Turkey’s political system and give himself more power in the process has so far failed. I speculated in September that Erdoğan was facing some internal AKP discontent for the first time in his decade as PM, and my strong hunch now is that he does not have the support within his own party that he needs in order to create a strong presidency and force out Abdullah Gül so that he can take over the position. He also clearly does not have the MHP on board, since if he did he would never risk alienating them in the way that he has through the Ocalan negotiations. His dream of creating an imperial presidency is on the ropes, and it might even be entirely gone for good at this point. The only chance he has of rescuing it is trading MHP support for BDP support, and hence the out of the blue approach to Ocalan and the PKK. The AKP has always attempted to compete for Kurdish votes, and in this way it has a more natural partner in the BDP than the MHP since its approach to Kurdish issues is not the hardline one expressed by Turkish nationalists. Faced with the defeat of his ultimate political ambition, Erdoğan has done a complete 180 turnaround and decided that the road to a new Turkish constitution and presidential system is one that embraces Kurdish rights and identity rather than one that flouts them.
This is a good outcome for two reasons. First, any productive move on resolving Kurdish rights and recognizing Kurdish identity is one in which everyone wins and Turkey becomes internally stronger and more cohesive, rather than less so. The Kurdish issue has been dragging Turkey down for decades, and Turkish Kurds have a fundamental right to be able to speak their language and promote their rich cultural heritage free of restriction and discrimination. Second, it shows that Erdoğan is not quite as powerful as we though, which is a victory for Turkish democracy. As his prime ministry has progressed, Erdoğan has demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian side and has not been faced with any real challenges to his power. That he cannot just ram through a new presidential system at will is hopefully a harbinger of things to come and a sign of some greater checks on his power, and this too will ultimately make for a stronger, more prosperous, and more successful Turkey.
December 28, 2012 § 3 Comments
As 2012 comes to a close, I want to take a look back at the big things I got wrong this year. Crowing about what I got right is a lot more fun – and I don’t waste many opportunities to remind everyone that I was correct about an Iran strike – but it is also far less useful for me and for my readers, since it doesn’t allow me to recalibrate my thinking or give all of you a sense of when and why you should be ignoring me. I started this blog on March 13 of this year and this is my 276th post so I don’t have the time to comprehensively go through every single one, but after trying to go through the bulk of them, here are some of my biggest misfires from 2012.
Migron’s evacuation: On March 26, I wrote, “Yet, I’ll bet almost anything that Migron is not evacuated and demolished by August 1, and that Likud’s younger rightwing vanguard does everything in its power to make sure that the Migron decision is consigned to nothingness. The Knesset’s current coalition politics will not allow anything less, and Israel will continue to fight a losing battle to convince the world that it is blameless for the situation with the Palestinians and that it will be able to withdraw from part of the West Bank whenever the Palestinian leadership is interested in returning to the negotiating table.”
While this was technically correct since Migron was still standing and fully populated on August 1, the idea behind it was wrong as Migron was evacuated by the first week in September. In this case, I did not give enough credit to the Israeli government and its willingness to carry out an unambiguous High Court decision.
Palestinian civil war: This one was a big misfire. On April 3, I wrote that Hamas and Fatah were on the brink of open armed conflict. My logic was that the Palestinian Authority moves to quash dissent in the West Bank were aimed at limiting Hamas’s ability to operate in Fatah’s stronghold, and that Hamas would do the same in Gaza in response and that eventually the entire tinder box would blow up. This has of course not happened, and I think I was too glib about just how drastic things would have to get for a civil war to take place.
Ehud Barak and Atzmaut: On May 3 I wrote that Barak and his party were going to make the threshold for getting into the next Knesset once elections happened. While this has not actually been proven wrong yet, Barak has decided not to run and Atzmaut is going to fold, so this prediction will be wrong quite soon. Let’s just all pretend that I did not write the following: “So despite the polls, remember that you read this prediction here first: Atzmaut is going to have seats in the next Knesset, will serve in the governing coalition, and Ehud Barak will continue as defense minister.”
Kadima staying in the coalition: On July 3, I predicted that the Likud-Kadima unity government was going to hold together despite the Plesner Committee – which was tasked with figuring out a solution to Haredi and Arab military exemptions – being disbanded. When my prediction was proven incorrect, I wrote a long post taking stock of where I went wrong, so no need to rehash that again.
Turkey’s response to Operation Pillar of Cloud: On November 14, I wrote in The Atlantic that Turkey and Prime Minister Erdoğan were going to maintain a muted response to Israel’s Gaza operation because of the hypocrisy entailed in a more vocal response given Turkey’s tactics against the PKK. Here’s the relevant part:
But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.
Much like Israel’s fight against Hamas, Turkey’s fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.
Turkey’s problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel’s actions against Hamas and Turkey’s actions against the PKK.
Of everything that I’ve written this year, this is the prediction that was perhaps the one that was most off-base, as Erdoğan later blasted Israel repeatedly for days. My error here is pretty easy to identify, which is that I for whatever reason convinced myself that a desire to not look like a hypocrite was going to override the strong political incentives that existed for Erdoğan to continue foaming at the mouth any time Israel comes up, and to tie himself to the Palestinian cause at every opportunity. Rest assured my naiveté on this issue is done with.
So there you go. I am sure I’ve missed things, and if anyone knows what those are, please let me know in the comments. Happy New Year, and see you all back here in 2013.