May 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A year ago I wrote about the way in which Israeli domestic politics was coloring its foreign policy toward Russia on account of Israel’s large Russian population – over 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union now live in Israel, making up somewhere between 10-15% of the total population – and noted that the government was doing its best to cozy up to Putin on account of the domestic political benefits despite the fact that there were obvious foreign policy pitfalls for Israel in pursuing such a strategy. In light of the violence in Syria, it is time to revisit this issue. The topic has taken on greater urgency now that Bashar al-Assad has claimed that Russia has already sent a shipment of S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syria. Earlier this week, Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon had warned Russia not to arm the Assad regime with these missiles, considered to be a significant upgrade to existing Syrian air defense capabilities, and said that if the shipment of weapons left for Syria, Israel would “know how to act.” While Russia had postponed the initial shipment of missiles at Israel’s request, all signs point to further Israeli requests to delay delivering the SAM batteries being likely to fall on deaf ears. Russia’s interest in propping up the Assad regime has only grown, and the increasing calls for Western intervention and hints of U.S. plans for a no-fly zone in Syria have only seemed to strengthen Russian resolve as it turns the fight in Syria into a proxy battle against the West.
As Jordan Hirsch and Sam Kleiner smartly argued a couple of weeks ago, the chaos in Syria is in some ways restoring a Cold War dynamic between the U.S. and Israel that is focused on Israel as a proxy and strategic ally against a larger adversary, which in this case is Iran. However, the past couple of weeks have added a twist to this observation, which is that in some ways we are actually returning to the original Cold War dynamic of the U.S. against Russia and Israel caught in the middle. While the relationship between Israel and Russia has been strong, full of state visits and Israeli officials fawning over their Russian counterparts, the situation in Syria has put the brakes on what was in many ways a friendship built on a mirage. Israeli politicians have wanted to reap the low-hanging political fruit of being seen as having close ties with Russia, but Russia never gave Israel any indication of being willing to budge on its support for Iran or its backing of Assad. In fact, fostering a close relationship with Russia might have actually backfired, as when Israel hit Syrian military sites in Damascus earlier in May, it infuriated the Russian government, which was taken by surprise by the Israeli raid. Close ties between Jerusalem and Moscow may have created an expectation in Russia’s mind of notification by Israel, or perhaps some level of leeway on Russian priorities that Israel is unwilling to give.
The entire situation demonstrates the strategic quandary in which Israel finds itself due to its relatively small stature. Israel is not enough of a heavyweight to do much of anything to change the direction of Russian foreign policy, and its threats are not credible when dealing with a country the size and strength of Russia. Israel has spent years cultivating Putin and other Russian leaders, and Avigdor Lieberman played up his Russian connection while serving as foreign minister to an unprecedented degree, but when push comes to shove, all of this falls by the wayside in the face of larger Russian geostrategic priorities. Keeping Assad as an ally and maintaining the Russian naval base in Tartus, and in the big picture frustrating Western efforts to get Assad to exit power, is just worth much more to Moscow than anything Israel can offer and any benefits that accrue to Russia as a result of closer ties with Israel. Furthermore, Russia even has good cause to start intimidating Israel if it believes that Israeli natural gas exports - if they ever happen, which is a big if – might in any way cut into Russian market share in Europe. Israel just does not measure up when it comes to ordering Russian priorities, and Israel is learning this the hard way in the context of the Syrian morass.
There is another element at play here, which is how Israeli domestic politics require Israel to tread carefully in its dealings with Russia. As I noted a year ago, the Russian population in Israel feels a strong pull and sense of nostalgia toward its previous home even as its connection there wanes, much like American Jews feel strongly about Israel and Irish-Americans feel strongly about Ireland. Were the U.S. ever to have tense relations with Ireland, it would actually raise a serious problem in Congress and make for an extremely tricky political environment. Domestic politics affects every move the Israeli government makes, and if the connection between the large population of Russian origin and Israel’s foreign policy maneuvering has not already been taken into account by the more insightful politicians, I’d be surprised. Note that Israel has not yet directly threatened Russia, but has instead made veiled threats toward Syria on the issue of missile shipments, which is a counterintuitive move when you consider the supply chain here and that the party that needs to be prevented from moving is Moscow rather than Damascus. Part of that is, as I noted above, that Israel just does not have the heft to make any credible threats against Russia, but I think part of it is also the domestic political angle of trying not to pick a public fight with the Russian government any more than is absolutely necessary. Whatever the outcomes of the spat over the S-300 missile batteries, it will be very difficult going forward for Israel to pretend that its relationship with Russia is as cozy as it has portrayed in the past.
December 5, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a meeting of foreign ministers yesterday, NATO gave its ok to deploy Patriot missile batteries to Turkey in order to guard against a missile attack emanating from Syria. While this is welcome news in Ankara, it is a move that Russia has been complaining about and trying to sandbag ever since Turkey made its initial request for Patriots last month. Russia’s concerns over deploying Patriots to the border with Syria are twofold and both fairly obvious. First, as Syria’s external patron, Russia wants to avoid intervention by any outside actors, and it has been afraid that sending Patriot missiles to Turkey is a precursor to wider action on the part of outside powers. Second, the fact that the Patriots are coming from NATO adds to Russian paranoia. NATO is and always has been a sore spot for Moscow, and understandably so. The organization that was formed during the Cold War as a way of containing the Soviet Union did not disband once the USSR broke apart and its raison d’être no longer existed, but actually expanded and in the process encircled Russia even more. Despite repeated American and Western assurances that this was not aimed at tamping down Russian power, Russia has never quite believed this version of events, and so it reflexively opposes any increased NATO presence in its backyard or in any situations in which it is intimately involved.
Nevertheless, following NATO’s decision to send Patriots to Turkey, Russia actually downplayed its criticism. At a press conference in Brussels after a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia did not object to the Patriot deployment but that it did not want the situation with Syria to escalate any further. Lavrov was clear that Russia differs with NATO on issues of missile defense, but Moscow has apparently decided not to take a hard stand in this particular instance. The reason for this is partly because NATO has made it abundantly clear that placing Patriots on the Syrian border is not in any way a harbinger of an eventual NATO intervention, but is rather a measure designed to placate and reassure a skittish Turkey. The Patriots have been programmed so that they can only intercept missiles crossing over into Turkish airspace and cannot cross over into Syrian territory preemptively. If it had not already been clear enough, the NATO foreign ministers issued a statement emphasizing that the Patriots would not be used offensively in any way and will not be linked to any theoretical no-fly zone. While Russia is still not thrilled with the development, the effort to reassure the Russians that the Patriot missiles do not herald Western states actively intervening on behalf of the rebels in the Syrian civil war seems to have paid off.
There is, however, another reason that Russia is all of a sudden displaying a more pliant side, and it has to do with Turkish energy demands. As sanctions have kicked in on Iranian oil, Turkey has been meeting its vast and ever growing energy needs with Iranian natural gas, and it has been buying that gas with gold in an effort to evade the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. In response to Turkey’s end around, the Senate is considering a new sanctions bill that would cover the sale of precious metals to Iran, and while Turkey insists that it will continue buying up to 90% of Iran’s natural gas exports, at some point the White House is going to be forced to take a tougher line with Turkey given the pressure from Congress over the issue. As I wrote back in April when looking at Turkey’s energy trade with Iran, Turkey’s biggest oil supplier is not Iran but Russia, and if Turkey is forced to look elsewhere for its natural gas needs, Russia is the logical partner. There are signs that Turkey is preparing for this very eventuality, as it has asked Russia to increase its natural gas sales to Turkey by 3 billion cubic meters per year, which does not entirely replace the 10 billion cubic meters per year that Turkey gets from Iran but significantly cuts into it. Russia wants Turkey to buy more of its gas at Iran’s expense, and this may partially explain Russia’s backing down from its strident stance on NATO deploying Patriot missiles in Turkey. Russia wants to keep Turkey as a happy client, and if placing some defensive missile batteries along the border with Syria are the price of doing business, Russia has concluded that the pros outweigh the cons.
August 16, 2012 § 3 Comments
The bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics has been whittled down to three cities – Tokyo, Madrid, and Istanbul – and Turkey has been lobbying particularly hard to be named as the host country. Writing in the National Review, Michael Rubin argues that Istanbul should not be selected to host the Olympics, punctuating his point with the remarkable statement that “awarding Istanbul the games could do more to undercut the Olympic spirit than any choice since Berlin in 1936.” The reason that Rubin thinks that holding the Olympics in Istanbul would be such an affront to the Olympic spirit is because he believes Turkey’s bid is contingent upon its status as a Muslim majority country and is hence an appeal to religious parochialism. Rubin contends that Prime Minister Erdoğan views the potential Istanbul games as the “Muslim Olympics” and states that what he terms “religious affirmative action” should not trump other problems with the Istanbul bid such as Turkey’s lack of press freedom, its occupation of Cyprus, and security problems due to the PKK.
Rubin is a serious scholar, but this is a laughable argument built upon a host of misleading and shoddy evidence. Rubin’s central claim is that Turkey views hosting the Olympics as a religious statement, and his evidence for this is a remark Erdoğan made while in London for the recent summer games complaining that no Muslim majority country has ever hosted the Olympics and that the Istanbul 2020 logo features religious symbols by incorporating mosques and minarets. These two facts lead Rubin to conclude that awarding the Olympics to Istanbul would be to “assign the Olympics on the basis of religion.” Looking at Erdoğan’s remarks, however, and inferring that he is making a religious argument, rather than pointing out the possibility of bias, is a stretch. The full quote from Erdoğan, which Rubin truncates, is, “No country with a majority of Muslim population has ever hosted the Olympics. People will ask ‘Why? What is missing?’” He also said during the same interview, “This is the third time for London, Madrid was the host twice. Tokyo has hosted three games. Istanbul has bid to host the Olympics five times but has never been handed the rights. This is not a fair approach, and I shared this situation with Rogge.” People can infer whatever they like from this, but it seems pretty clear to me that Erdoğan is not rooting Turkey’s bid in religion, but rather bringing up issues of unfairness in past bid decisions, one of which is the fact that Muslim countries have always been passed over. Rubin also dredges up an 18 year old quote from Erdoğan about his being a “servant of shari’a” which I suppose means that the U.S. should never have been awarded the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City since President Bush reportedly said that God speaks through him and that God wanted him to run for president, so those games must have been an explicit affirmation of Christianity in Rubin’s view.
Rubin’s argument about Istanbul’s logo is problematic as well. Anyone who has ever been to Istanbul will immediately recognize the 2020 logo as an attempt to approximate the iconic Istanbul skyline. Are there lots of minarets in Istanbul? There sure are, but that hardly means that a drawing of some of Istanbul’s most famous features is an overtly religious symbol. You will also notice the Galata Tower prominently featured in the logo, which was built by Genoese traders who named it the Tower of Christ and has never had any Muslim religious significance or been used as a mosque, but you wouldn’t know that from Rubin’s characterization. The logo is an attempt to capitalize on the fact that Istanbul’s historic structures make it instantly recognizable, and is no different than the previous London Olympics logo that featured Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. This is all the more evident in light of the fact that Istanbul’s bid organizers have purposely structured their bid around incorporating Istanbul’s historic landmarks into the Olympic venues, so the logo is just an extension of that strategy. The fact that Istanbul’s logo has minarets is incidental, not any type of coded religious message.
Rubin’s other primary argument is that Turkey is a bad choice for the Olympics because of its various issues with democracy and human rights. Certainly nobody can accuse me of being unaware of the many problems with Turkish democracy, but considering that the 2008 Summer Games were in China and that the 2014 Winter Games are in Russia, this line of reasoning rings hollow. If you are going to make an argument that the Olympics should only ever be held in liberal democracies, go right ahead, but Rubin does not make that argument. Instead, he is holding Turkey to a standard that does not exist for Olympic bids, and the credibility of this line of reasoning really breaks down in light of the fact that he unfavorably compares Turkey to Russia and China, both of which are unquestionably less democratic than Turkey. The assertion that Turkey should be disqualified because “for the Olympics to be a showcase, journalists must be allowed to ply their trade freely” with the unspoken implication that reporters from foreign countries will be jailed should they write unfavorably about the Istanbul Olympics is too silly to even deserve a comment. Additionally, the war against the PKK in southeastern Turkey is no reason to disqualify Istanbul (in Turkey’s northwest corner) on security grounds, and this is particularly so given London just pulling off an incident-free games despite serious worries about jihadist threats. The one place where Rubin is on solid ground is his concern over corruption in the construction industry, but eight years seems like plenty of time to ensure that Turkey’s Olympic venues and tourist lodgings are up to code.
In short, it is difficult to take Rubin’s argument about the Olympics at face value. Turkey has plenty of problems, but as the issues Rubin brings up have never disqualified any other country, including places like China and Russia that are far worse serial abusers of political and civil liberties, I fail to see why Turkey should be a special exception. The comparison to Berlin in 1936 is also outrageously inappropriate, and if Rubin really thinks that awarding the Olympics to Istanbul would undercut the Olympic spirit more than any other venue since then, I would love to read a more detailed exploration of how Moscow in 1980 or Beijing in 2008 better exemplified Olympic values than Istanbul today.
June 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
David Ignatius’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post argued that the heart of the U.S.-Turkey relationship is the one between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Ignatius detailed the way in which Obama has asked Erdoğan for a number of favors, such as reopening the Halki seminary and installing the X-Band radar system in Turkey, with the implication being that such moves would never have occurred had Obama not assiduously worked to develop a close friendship with his Turkish counterpart. Ignatius concludes with the following: “It seems fair to say that no world leader has a greater stake in Obama’s reelection than the Turkish prime minister.”
It’s tough to argue with the notion that the Obama-Erdoğan relationship has paid dividends for both countries. By all accounts, the two men like and trust each other, and this mutual respect and friendship definitely makes things easier. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Obama relies on Erdoğan to convey messages to Iran. I think that Ignatius takes things a bit too far though, and is ignoring important structural factors to instead tell a good story that chalks everything up to a personal relationship. The clues to what is really going on lie in Ignatius’s piece itself, where he notes that since the AKP has come to power Turkey’s annual average growth rate is 5.3% and its GDP and foreign reserves have tripled, and refers to Turkey’s regional ascendancy and the darkening of the Arab Spring. Turkey is a country that is unmistakably on the rise, and the U.S. heavily relies on it now and will continue to do so in the future because Turkey is a NATO member and has credibility in the Arab world, a vibrant economy with a large merchant class, a large and modernly equipped military, and most importantly a democratic political system. No matter who the president is come January 20, the U.S. is going to be leaning on Turkey to advance its interests in the Middle East, and Turkey has embraced its bridging role wholeheartedly.
Let’s take the two foreign policy examples Ignatius mentions, the X-Band radar and Turkey’s reversal on Libya. He says that Obama persuaded Erdoğan on both of these issues, but Turkey’s coming around on both of them likely would have happened anyway. The radar system was a NATO priority, and when push comes to shove, Turkey is not going to piss off its NATO allies or weaken its own defense umbrella by letting Iran dictate what security measures it takes. On Libya, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu quickly realized that Turkey had misread things and stumbled early on, and given that Ankara lagged behind on Syria, they aren’t going to make that same mistake again. Where the relationship between the two leaders factors in is that Obama might have convinced Erdoğan to install the NATO radar in a quicker fashion, which is certainly useful and important but also ancillary to the main point, which is that it was firmly in Turkey’s interests to do so no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. The same goes for prying Turkey away from Iran. I have noted in the past that Turkey is looking to disentangle from Iran for economic reasons, and while Obama is certainly able to speed this process along by appealing to Erdoğan personally, it would be slowly taking place anyway. Turkey does not want to play the part with Iran that Russia is now playing with Syria of being its international patron and defender, and Erdoğan does not need Obama to convince him of that.
This is not to minimize the value of personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy. I have heard multiple people who have served in high government positions stress that the one thing that surprised them most about their job was how much personalities and relationships matter, and I am certainly in no position to argue with this given my absence of firsthand knowledge. Yet, the fact remains that states are going to generally act within their own interests, broadly defined, and Ignatius does not point to anything that has specifically happened from a foreign policy standpoint that would have been different were Obama and Erdoğan not good buddies. No doubt Erdoğan treasures and benefits from his relationship with Obama and wants to see him reelected, but if Mitt Romney is our next president, I don’t think that Erdoğan needs to be too worried about anything.