February 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
Halil Karaveli has an op-ed in today’s New York Times with the title “Turkey, The Unhelpful Ally” and in it he argues that Turkey is acting at cross purposes to American goals in Syria by exacerbating civil strife in backing Sunni groups to the exclusion of others. Karaveli actually takes the argument even further and maintains that in not reining Turkey in, the U.S. risks having sectarian tensions blow up into a regional war. He thinks that the U.S. has empowered Turkey and encouraged it to behave as a Sunni power in order to confront Iranian interests, and that doing so is creating incentives for unhelpful behavior on Turkey’s part.
Karaveli is correct that Turkey’s actions are contributing to sectarian strife and he is accurately describing the effects of Turkey’s policy choices, but I don’t think Turkey’s intentions are quite so nefarious. It is true that Turkey’s foreign policy has tended toward boosting Sunni power, and I am sure that Tayyip Erdoğan and Ahmet Davutoğlu harbor ambitions of being the great leader of the Sunni world, but what’s taking place in the Syrian context is something different. Other than Syrians themselves, Ankara wants Assad gone more than anyone, and it will do whatever it can to make that happen. In fact, the Turkish government so desperately wants to see Assad go that who or what replaces him has become a second order concern following the primary objective of just making sure that he is removed from power. To this end, Turkey did not back the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition primarily because these groups are Sunni or Sunni-dominated, but because it was clear early on that they represented the best chance to remove Assad due to their strength, resources, organization and outside backing. That they are Sunni groups likely to act more favorably toward Turkey rather than Iran should they ultimately replace Assad is beneficial and part of the calculus, but it is not the only thing going on here.
Turkey is looking to back the group or groups best suited to overthrow the Syrian regime, and concern for a harmonious patchwork of Sunni and minority groups is not a priority at the moment because it is putting the cart before the horse. Karaveli writes that “the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.” The minority groups in Syria are right to be concerned, but if this means that Turkey should drop its desire to see Assad go, it is simply not a reasonable suggestion given all of Turkey’s other interests. The aftermath of Assad’s fall, should it ever happen, is bound to be messy and it will be part of Turkey’s job as a responsible actor to exert its influence over Sunni groups to make sure that sectarian violence and retributions do not break out. None of that can happen though until Assad goes, and there does not seem to be a good way to get to that eventuality without backing the large Sunni opposition parties. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be negative externalities to Turkey’s policy, but I think Karaveli is downplaying the challenges Ankara is facing.
There is also the issue of Karaveli’s assertion that Turkey is behaving this way because of a rift with Iran. Yes, relations between Turkey and Iran are strained, but the idea that Turkey has decided to confront Iran in the same manner as the U.S. or the Gulf monarchies is not supported by the available evidence. Karaveli cites Turkey’s consent to deploying the NATO X-Band radar system on its territory, but Turkey ultimately had little choice in that matter if it wanted to remain in good standing with its fellow NATO countries, not to mention that the Turkish government went out of its way to assure that the radar would not be used as a way to protect Israel from any Iranian nuclear threat. Furthermore, Turkey has been helping Iran evade sanctions for months by using gold to buy Iranian natural gas and thereby get around the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. New sanctions aimed at just this activity have ground the creative evasion to a halt rather than a desire to confront Iran, and it is a curious assertion that the U.S. desire to pressure Iran has translated to Turkey and transformed its behavior in a negative way given Turkey’s cautious but non-hostile posture when it comes to Iran.
There are plenty of reasons to criticize Turkish behavior in the Syrian and Iranian spheres, but Karaveli should give Turkey a bit more breathing room than he does. Ankara’s motives are complex in this case, but there is no reason to believe that it does not genuinely want Assad gone for humanitarian, security, and stability reasons, rather than simply out of a desire to promote Sunni hegemony within Syria and the greater region.
July 24, 2012 § 3 Comments
Today’s post is going to be a departure from my usual fare, but it’s an issue I have been thinking about lately so I figured I’d muse about it. There is a debate currently taking place among policymakers and security analysts over whether to arm the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in an effort to bring down the Assad government. While there have been reports that Turkey and Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been doing so, the United States has so far been resistant despite criticism from John McCain – who yesterday, in response to a question asking if we should be arming the rebels, flippantly said, “Sure, why not?” – and others. The U.S. is reluctant to do so primarily because we don’t know precisely who the rebels are and there are reports that the rebels are being supported by al-Qaida, which makes arming them a dangerous proposition. The decision not to arm the rebels is being driven by the specifics of the situation in Syria, but I think there is a bigger picture question that should precede it, which is whether arming rebels is ever a good idea in any situation.
Looking at the U.S. history of arming rebel groups reveals some major long term strategic blunders. The most prominent one was the effort to arm the Afghani mujahideen in the 1980s in a bid to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. This policy seemed like a smart one at the time, at it was undoubtedly successful in carrying out its immediate objective, as the Soviet Union suffered enormous losses in Afghanistan and ultimately pulled out, which was one of many contributing factors to its ultimate demise and the end of the Cold War. In hindsight, however, arming the mujahideen caused enormous blowback for the U.S., since the weapons supplied by the U.S. were ultimately turned on U.S. and NATO troops years later and the arms and training indirectly benefited al-Qaida and the Taliban down the road. All you have to do is read the very first chapter of Steve Coll’s excellent book Ghost Wars, in which the CIA is running around desperately trying to buy back all the Stinger missiles that it handed out in Afghanistan 15 years earlier so that they aren’t turned on American planes, so see why the policy was highly problematic. In other examples, arming and training rebels in South and Central America ultimately led to death squads or brutal military dictatorships in places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile, and did not create stability or end the bloodshed but rather extended it.
I asked the question on Twitter yesterday whether there is an instance in which arming rebels did not lead to terrible unintended consequences down the road, and the two answers people collectively came up with were the French supplying weapons to the colonists during the American Revolution and the arming of the French Resistance and other partisan groups in Nazi-occupied Europe. A few people suggested Libya as a positive example, but it is way too soon to tell what the long term consequences there will be. Neither of the two historical examples is particularly encouraging given that one happened 250 years ago and involved no weapons more powerful than muskets, and the other was a much smaller scale and less organized effort to arm rebels who were also engaged in many other resistance activities other than fighting. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the Syrian rebels should under no circumstances be armed or provided with support. More importantly, I am absolutely not suggesting that the world should just sit back and watch Assad massacre more Syrians in an effort to stabilize the country and end the bloodshed as quickly as possible, since that is not a viable or ethical solution. What I am suggesting is that before people rush to arm the Syrian rebels, there should be a real conversation about what happens the day after the immediate goals are achieved. Where do those arms go next and what will they be used for? What can we learn from previous historical examples that will help us manage the unintended consequences that accrue from arming rebel groups? Given what we know happens when a country in the midst of a civil war is flooded with more weapons, is there a better option and should active outside intervention be rethought? I would like to hear more discussion that focuses on what happens once the conflict ends in addition to the current discussion about the easiest and least short term costly way to remove Assad from power.
July 19, 2012 § 3 Comments
With the killing yesterday of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle of defense officials, most experts appear to agree that this marks the beginning of the endgame phase for the Assad regime, although how long this phase will last is anyone’s guess. Assad is not going to go quietly and there is bound to be a lot of violence and bloodshed ahead, but given yesterday’s blow to the regime’s top leadership and the fighting in Damascus, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which Assad ultimately quells the opposition and rules a unitary Syria again. This has left the most interested outside parties struggling with how to respond, and the new situation is a good illustration of why, as I wrote a month ago, Syria was never going to be the issue that forced a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement (despite the fact that it would be helpful if the two coordinated on their response).
At the moment, both countries have very different concerns. Israel’s most pressing worry is that Assad will use chemical weapons against Israel in a last gasp effort to rally Syrians around Syrian nationalism and distract from the massacres of his people that he has been carrying out, or alternatively that chemical weapons will be passed to Hizballah. The problem is that Israel is not in a position to do anything about it because attacking chemical weapons plants and storage depots will provide Assad an opportunity to marshal public opinion behind him against the Israeli enemy or the pretext to then retaliate by launching missiles at Israeli cities. Consequently, Israel is left to choose between a bevy of bad and worse options, and is thus in the awkward position of being somewhat wary about Assad’s departure. If it can be done in a controlled way, then Israel can sleep a lot more quietly at night, but that is unlikely to happen. While there is no doubt that Jerusalem does not want to keep watching Assad massacre Syrians, its involvement in pushing him out the door has to be minimal and the consequences of his downfall, direct and indirect, pose numerous security problems.
Turkey, on the other hand, is not exposed to the same risks as Israel, and thus its policy preferences are different. Ankara has a good relationship with the Syrian opposition and has been indirectly supporting them, and has placed itself in an optimal position for when Assad is finally removed. Turkey has zero ambivalence about Assad at this point and wants him gone at all costs, but unlike Israel, Turkey does not face the same dangers that might accrue from Assad leaving. Turkey will not be a target of Syrian chemical weapons, nor will it be facing down Hizballah, and so it has little to fear from the messy consequences of Assad’s downfall (the PKK is not in the chemical weapons market). Turkey wants to see as much pressure on Assad as can be brought to bear, whether it is from outside forces or an Islamist opposition, and it needs the Syrian civil war to end as quickly as possible so as to staunch the flow of refugees over the Turkish border.
You can see then how Syria might actually end up dividing Israel and Turkey even further rather than bringing them closer together. Let’s say Israel ultimately decides that it cannot live with the possibility of chemical weapons being out there and it destroys the Syrian facilities, which in turn allows Assad to get his officers and people to rally around the flag. In this scenario, Turkey will be apoplectic since this hypothetical Israeli action would have strengthened Assad and undermined the opposition, and prolonged the conflict in Syria. Israel, on the other hand, will have justifiably acted to neutralize a very real threat, and will not be amenable to listening to Turkish arguments on the issue. Relatedly, if Turkey actively steps in to broker a solution or steps up its efforts to arm the Syrian opposition rebel groups, and Assad or Hizballah attack Israel as a consequence, Israel will be unsparing in its criticism of Turkey. The bottom line here is that Israel and Turkey both do not like what they see going down in Syria, but that does not mean that their interests perfectly coincide and it certainly does not mean that they see eye to eye on Syria in such a way as to force their reconciliation. Yesterday’s events only make these differences more stark rather than less so.
June 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Michael Herzog and Soner Cagaptay have an op-ed in today’s New York Times on Israel-Turkey relations in which they argue that the situation in Syria can provide the impetus for the two countries to reconcile. I was reluctant to comment on it since I have an op-ed of my own coming out soon on steps that need to be taken for Israel and Turkey to make up, but I think their piece has some flaws that I can’t help but point out. I am no stranger to the Syria argument, having pointed out before that it would be to both states’ benefit to cooperate on Syria. Herzog and Cagaptay take this idea a few steps too far, however, by essentially arguing that the mess in Syria can be the primary force that will move Jerusalem and Ankara back together.
The first problem with this is that while Israeli and Turkish cooperation would be nice, Syria presents a very different set of problems for each. Turkey is facing a serious refugee crisis with Syrians fleeing across the Turkish border, the prospect of revitalized PKK terrorism if Assad provides the PKK with a safe haven inside Syria, and reputational and credibility problems following early Turkish threats to establish buffer zones inside of Syria that are clearly nowhere close to materializing. In contrast, Israel is facing the possibility of Assad and the Syrian army stirring up trouble with Israel in an effort to distract from the massacres being carried out by Assad’s forces, Hizballah shooting volleys of missiles into northern Israel in response to alleged “Israeli meddling” in the conflict, and the inclusion of Islamist elements dangerously hostile to Israel in the Syrian opposition. So yes, in a wider sense, both Israel and Turkey are facing problems because of the brewing Syrian civil war, but that does not mean that cooperation between the two is such a no-brainer that it will get them to reconcile. For instance, would Israel help install the Syrian National Council in Damascus in order to stem the flow of refugees into Turkey if it means that it now faces Islamist governments on its southern and northern borders? Does Israel have anywhere near the level of interest in driving the PKK out of Syria as Turkey does? Yes, both countries want a resolution of some sort, but it is entirely unclear that they would agree on what that should be.
Second, Herzog and Cagaptay argue that any Israeli involvement in Syria has to be secret:
Any Israeli contribution would, of course, have to be invisible in order not to create a sense that Israel was behind the Syrian uprising. This makes Turkish-Israeli cooperation against Mr. Assad even more valuable, for it would allow Israel to provide untraceable assets to support Turkey’s efforts to undermine the Assad government.
Well, doesn’t that contradict the premise of the entire argument? Israel and Turkey are very publicly at odds, and any reconciliation is going to have to be a public one as a result. Much of the benefit of reconciling, and this is particularly true for Israel, is a public relations one, so some sort of secret rapprochement that nobody knows about outside of the respective countries’ militaries and intelligence services does not do much good. The notion that Israel would agree to help out Turkey but do so in an untraceable way is not a point that bolsters the argument that cooperation on Syria is going to lead to a reconciliation. It might be an important confidence building measure, but if you are claiming that the Syria mess is going to push Israel and Turkey to repair their relationship, you had better come up with something more than covert intelligence assistance.
Then there are a bunch of smaller problems in the piece. The authors assert that “A Turkish-Israeli dialogue on Syria could bolster Israel’s interest in regime change and enlist Israel to generate American support,” but I hardly think that Israel voicing its approval of a Turkish plan to get the U.S. involved is going to sway the administration’s impulse to stay out of things. They also argue that Shaul Mofaz’s inclusion in the cabinet dampens the influence of Avigdor Lieberman and his strident criticisms of Turkey, but Lieberman is hardly the only politician to have a hard line on a flotilla apology and there is no evidence that Mofaz is itching to pursue normalized ties. There is no discussion in the piece of the larger structural incentives that might push Israel and Turkey to reconcile, since the Syria issue has not been enough up until this point. In sum, I don’t think that Herzog and Cagaptay are wrong to identify Syria as a problem for both Israel and Turkey, but the overall argument flies right over so many important details that to me their op-ed fails to convince.