August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
May 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Paul Alster had a column yesterday in the Times of Israel predicting a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. Seems like a reasonable enough proposition, particularly in light of the news that Israel has repaired and returned four Heron drones belonging to Turkey after agreeing to fix them over a year ago. Sure, there are other factors to weigh, such as the Turkish warning to Israel just last week not to violate Northern Cyprus’s airspace or the reports of Turkey vetoing Israel’s participation in this weekend’s NATO summit, but let’s assume that Paul Alster is a glass half full kind of guy. Reasonable people can differ on this issue, and for every sign that the freeze between the two countries is only getting deeper, there are signs of thawing in the relationship.
On the other hand, the specific arguments made by Alster in support of the proposition that Turkey and Israel are going to mend their relationship border on the patently ridiculous, and his command of the facts is, to put it charitably, a bit suspect. Let’s look at some representative examples.
Erdogan (who went out of his way to antagonize and inflame relations with Israel at every possible opportunity) seems to have realized what a grave misjudgement he made in allying himself to two of the most despotic leaders on the planet, and by association being tarnished with the very dirty brush that has seen them gain pariah status across the globe.
I hardly think that Turkey has been tarnished with any brush that puts it at risk of becoming a pariah. At the moment, Turkey is being touted as a model by all sorts of Islamist political parties across the Arab world, is increasingly relied upon by the United States as a vital ally in the Middle East, has the second largest military of all NATO members, is once again making some progress on its EU bid, and is universally viewed as one of the most important actors of the coming decades. Does this sound to you like Turkey’s international status has been put at risk in any way? Undoubtedly Turkey waited too long to give up on Assad, but after that initial stumble Turkey’s reputation does not seem very much worse for the wear.
Exactly what was truly behind Erdogan’s posturing is hard to figure, as he had long been pushing for membership in the EU, and his cozying up to Iran and Syria was hardly likely to endear him to Turkey‘s potential European partners. This ill-conceived strategic gamble has clearly backfired and quickly blown up in Erdogan’s face. The prospect of the EU admitting a new member-state that is joined at the hip with two of the world’s most corrupt and authoritarian regimes was never going to prove a vote winner in Brussels; the tactic seeming to reveal a significant flaw in the political maneuvering of a man who has gradually been losing his way, only three years after he appeared to be a major player with growing influence on the international scene.
Hard as it may be to figure out for Alster, let’s see if we can come up with some reason for Erdoğan’s “posturing” in which he tried to develop closer ties with his neighbors. Might it be Turkey’s stated policy of zero problems with neighbors? Guess it wasn’t that hard to figure out after all.
As for this argument with regard to the EU, Turkey was not exactly sailing effortlessly toward EU membership before it consciously improved its relations with Syria and Iran. More saliently, there are a number of reasons why Turkey is having problems with its accession bid, from European cultural bias to worrying government suppression of the press to discredited witch hunts of military officers. Being “joined at the hip” with Iran and Syria is so far down the list of things that EU member states are worried about that to mention it betrays a staggering lack of knowledge about the real issues surrounding Turkey’s EU bid.
A PLAY IN ONE ACT
Herman van Rompuy: Nice to see you again Tayyip. I must say, you have made amazing progress in your efforts to join the EU. Who would have thought that just months after Sarkozy was out of office you would have made your peace with Cyprus and successfully negotiated all 35 chapters needed to gain accession to our club? We have never before seen such singleminded devotion by an EU applicant.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Thank you Herman. My fellow countrymen and I are most excited to take our spots in the European Commission, the European Council, the Council of Europe, and your various other bodies that have such wonderfully differentiated names. So when do I get my official EU membership badge?
Herman van Rompuy: Unfortunately, you made the grave mistake of being joined at the hip with Syria and Iran, which is the single greatest flaw we have ever encountered from a prospective EU member and is the subject of the double secret 36th chapter which you have now violated. As such, you are no longer considered to be a “major player with growing influence” – after all, your credibility with Iran, Pakistan, and Sunni Arab states is worthless to us, as is your rapidly expanding economy and military strength. Please confine yourself to Kadıköy and all points east from now on, as we have voted in Brussels to revoke your Europe visitation privileges.
In recent months, with Iran becoming increasingly isolated by the international community as a result of its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the Syrian government continuing to massacre large numbers of its own people while driving many more to seek refuge in Turkey — causing a growing humanitarian crisis within Turkey’s own borders — Erdogan’s government, amid rumors that Ankara is keen to re-establish relations with Jerusalem, has been noticeably short on its previously stinging anti-Israel rhetoric.
Right, I forgot about how popular Israel is among the international community. That BBC poll released just last week revealing Israel to be ranked above only Iran and Pakistan in favorability, and in which majorities in Spain, France, Germany, and Britain viewed Israel negatively, didn’t accurately capture the public relations value in Europe for Turkey of cozying up to Israel following Iran’s isolation and Syria’s horrific massacre of civilians (both of which everyone knows are Turkey’s fault, of course). That is precisely why Turkey’s top officials have in the past six months ceased berating reporters for not focusing on Israel’s nuclear weapons or accusing Israel of not wanting peace with the Palestinians or bragging about isolating Israel and bringing it to its knees. Isn’t it great how that previously stinging rhetoric has just disappeared?
This easing of the tensions in the eastern Mediterranean is surely more down to necessity on the part of the Turks than to a sea change in the attitude of their leader. With the door to Europe slammed in their face, Syria and Iran remaining on the international blacklist, no improvement in their relationship with Greece, and problems on their eastern front with Syrian refugees and Kurdish separatists, Turkey is surely keen to find friends in the region.
Yes, Turkey’s isolation is really terrible. Granted, the P5+1 talks were held in Istanbul last month, and Turkey is fresh off the NATO summit in Chicago, and Turkey’s approval rating in the Arab world is 78%, but Turkey is still desperate for a friend, and that is why it is going to make up with Israel. Not because the world’s superpower is pushing for it, not because it benefits Turkey’s tourism industry and export markets, not because the two countries have a long history of military cooperation, but because Turkey is feeling terribly isolated and lonely. I mean, everyone knows that Turkey is just another term for Iranian/Syrian province, right? And oh, let’s not forget about Alster’s reference to Turkey’s “majority secular population” in which 83% of Turks identify themselves as religious and 55% self-identify as either “extremely” or “highly” religious.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. I do not know what your expertise is, Mr. Alster, but it is clearly not this. Israel and Turkey may very well reconcile, but just as a broken clock showing the right time twice a day is not evidence that it is working, an Israeli-Turkish rapprochement will not be a testament to your analytical skills in the realm of foreign affairs.
April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments
Ahmet Davutoğlu gave a remarkable speech before the Turkish parliament yesterday in which he completely smashed any remaining vestiges of his own zero problems with neighbors policy and embraced his full neo-Ottoman side. Davutoğlu declared that Turkey will be the “owner, pioneer, and servant” of the new Middle East which he says Turkey has led the way in creating, and that Turkey will continue to lead and “guide the winds of change” in the region. On Syria specifically, Davutoğlu claimed that Turkey had been urging Assad to reform well before the Arab Spring and said that he could not understand those who embrace autocratic leaders at the expense of the people, and stated that the AKP’s motto is “cry out against oppression.” Most remarkably and in what must be seen as an enormous policy shift, Davutoğlu said that Turkey will no longer wait to let the big powers set the agenda in Syria before acting and that Turkey will not follow any policies that do not originate with its own government. In making it apparent that Turkey is a force to be reckoned with, Davutoğlu said, “Even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Whew! Anyone else think that Ahmet Bey has been reading too many glowing testaments to his own brilliance in Time and Foreign Policy?
Despite the snark, I actually think this is a good thing because it means that Turkey’s rhetoric is starting to catch up to current realities. In instituting zero problems with neighbors, Davutoğlu’s aim was to rebuild Turkish power by cutting out unnecessary foreign policy distractions and using Turkey’s growing economic clout to expand its influence. By any measure, the policy has been enormously successful as Turkey has transformed itself into a regional power with ambitions of becoming a top geopolitical actor. While this has occurred, Turkey has insisted throughout that it can still maintain positive relationships with all countries in the region and work out any problems through dialogue and mutual understanding. As I have pointed out previously, this is silly naivete. Last week I wrote the following:
Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region.
The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
Turkey, and Davutoğlu particularly, has continued to spout the zero problems with neighbors line, but it does not fit with what Turkey is trying to do. Davutoğlu has finally come out and said what everyone knows, which is that Turkey views itself not as a first among equals but as a regional leader, and that it expects to be out front in setting policy for the region in a bid for hegemony. It took the opposition parties accusing the government of interfering in Syria at the expense of ignoring domestic problems for Davutoğlu to reveal his true thoughts and ambitions, but now that they are out in the open, there is no point in trying to cram them back into the box. Turkey should embrace its new role and its newfound power rather than trying to hide the ball, and the empty slogans about zero problems and humility in foreign policy now need to stop for good.
P.S. By the way, if you want to do a fun little exercise, compare the news stories on Davutoğlu’s speech in Hürriyet and in Zaman. Before you do so, try to guess which paper frames the speech as dealing with Syria and which frames the speech as outlining Turkey’s ambitions to lead the Middle East, and if both report Davutoğlu’s declarations about policies that originate in Ankara and Turkey’s epic power.
April 17, 2012 § 1 Comment
Laura Rozen has a fun behind the scenes recap of the P5+1 Istanbul talks, but the best nugget is the reporting that Davutoğlu tried to set up a number of bilateral meetings between Iran and other states, and that Iran rebuffed him because it does not want to give Davutoğlu and Turkey a diplomatic victory in light of the newfound tension between Turkey and Iran. If this is indeed the reason why Iran would not agree to any bilateral meetings aside from one with China, then it suggests a high degree of Iranian naivete and miscalculation. Recall that as of only a couple of weeks ago, Erdoğan was describing Iran’s nuclear program as peaceful and as a purely civilian project, and criticizing reporters for focusing on Iranian nuclear efforts but not calling out Israel on its nuclear arsenal. Since then, Iran has angered Turkey by waffling on holding the talks in Istanbul which prompted Erdoğan to question Iran’s sincerity and truthfulness, and then after seemingly smoothing things over, has now decided to put playing childish games ahead of securing Turkish support. For a country that is increasingly isolated and facing devastating oil sanctions from the EU in a few months, this is a puzzling move in the extreme. It either means that Iran is very confident that it has managed to avoid a strike on its nuclear facilities, or that Iran is the little boy in a room full of grown men. There is no good reason to annoy the Turks, who will be critical in convincing the U.S. to sit tight and give negotiations a chance, or who will be valuable from a logistics and supply chain perspective should the U.S. decide to attack. Making Davutoğlu look impotent in front of a powerful international audience is only going to backfire, and it is a strange move for a state with few powerful friends left to purposely offend an influential potential supporter.
This incident also underscores the changing environment that Ankara will have to navigate going forward as it rethinks its global role and adjusts accordingly. Turkey has made a big deal under its current government of being a valuable bridge between the West and its own neighbors farther east. Part of the zero problems with neighbors strategy was to establish Turkish credibility in the region so that it could serve as a go-between and become more influential with the U.S. and Europe. That Davutoğlu would be running around trying to set up bilateral meetings is completely in character with this strategy, and the fact that he was not able to deliver is not a knock on him but an indicator of how Turkey needs to shift course. Becoming a regional power means less neutrality and more forcefulness. Turkey is now demonstrating that with regard to Syria, as it has over the past months moved away from trying to gently influence Assad to organizing efforts with an eye toward forcing him to leave. It might mean a loss of credibility as an arbiter or mediator, but the flip side is a more muscular role for Turkish power in the region. The same thing is true with Iran. Turkey may now find it more difficult to act as the middle man that brings Iran and the West together, but having a stronger independent voice and taking sides will bring with it a different array of benefits. Just as Turkey shifted course with Syria, I expect the same thing to eventually happen with Iran, since Davutoğlu is too smart to stick with an outdated policy that no longer matches Turkey’s reach or its geopolitical circumstances. The fiction that Turkey could somehow remain neutral on all issues and be friends with everybody has been exposed by the Arab Spring, the chaos in Syria, and now by Iran. It’s time for Ankara to drop the charade, acknowledge that it is not going to be able to rewrite the rules of international politics all by itself, and come up with a new grand strategy and slogan that recognizes that being a regional power means having to act like a bully sometimes.
April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment
Hugh Pope has a long and excellent roundup in the Cairo Review of Erdoğan’s first decade at Turkey’s helm, and it is a useful summary of the important trends that have taken place, particular in the foreign policy realm. Something that jumped out at me is Pope’s analysis of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, to which he does not devote an entire section but which pops up in a few places. He describes Erdoğan’s rushing to placate the U.S. following his embarrassment at the parliamentary vote denying help with the Iraq War, and that Turkish granting of overflight rights and supply routes and the subsequent deal for U.S. intelligence on the PKK helped usher in what Ankara has described at a golden age in relations with Washington. Pope also points to the return of a Cold War dynamic in which the U.S. looks the other way in ignoring Turkish authoritarian behavior at home in return for a reliable ally that secures American interests.
Certainly, Turkish government officials like to play up the relationship with Washington and what they see as a vital partnership, and they like to point out similarities in the two countries’ political development. I heard Davutoğlu speak at Georgetown in 2010 in a talk titled ”Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkish-U.S. Partnership in the 21st Century” in which he embraced Obama’s term of a”model partnership” and then talked about Turkey’s four “political restorations” (the Tanzimat reforms, establishment of the republic, multiparty democracy, and what is going on now with AKP constitutional reforms) and cleverly made a comparison to the U.S. by asserting that it too went through four political restorations. Especially as Turkey has drifted farther away from Europe, first as European countries openly snubbed its EU membership bid and then as Turkey determined that it did not need Europe as much as it had originally thought, it has moved even closer to the U.S. Even though this should not be a point that ever bears repeating, casual observers tend to forget that Turkey is a member of NATO and that it is a valuable strategic ally in numerous ways.
The upshot of this is that in thinking about Erdoğan’s comments over the past week regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and how no state has the right to threaten Iran over what he deems to be an entirely peaceful pursuit of nuclear power, and how the NATO X-Band radar is not directed at thwarting or containing Iran, ultimately it’s not going to make a lick of difference. The growing chasm between Turkey and Europe along with its loss of Syria as its primary Arab ally mean that the relationship with the U.S. is even more inviolate than ever. Erdoğan did everything he could to repair ties with Washington following the Iraq War, and despite the perception of a Turkish turn to the east, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu are too savvy to go back to the dark days of spring 2003 when it comes to the U.S., even if it eventually means tossing Iran overboard and not looking back. The announcement on Friday that Turkey would be cutting back its imports of Iranian oil is the most recent datapoint in this regard, and no doubt if the U.S. decides to go even further and eventually take military action, Turkey will quietly follow along. I still stand by my musings from last week about Erdoğan’s perplexing move of jetting straight to Tehran from Seoul, and it makes sense in this context since Turkey has perhaps the most to lose from a U.S.-Iranian confrontation and will do anything it can to prevent it from happening. Turkey benefits from its relationship with Iran and does not want to lose it, but now that it has lost Syria and Europe, it simply cannot lose the U.S. as well.
The implications for U.S. pressure on Turkey to maintain its liberalizing reforms and not roll back any progress that was made between 2002 and 2009 are that no such pressure will be forthcoming any time soon. The U.S.-Turkey relationship has moved firmly into the realm of realpolitik, and anyone expecting Washington to speak out on press intimidation or harassing of political opponents will be waiting a long time. The U.S. needs Turkey more than ever in the wake of the Arab Spring and Turkey equally needs the U.S., and so the golden age/model partnership is going to be maintained no matter the hardships on either side. If it means Ankara sacrificing its relationship with Iran or the U.S. appearing to cynically give an ally a free pass, so be it.
March 28, 2012 § 5 Comments
This is a good example of where trying to make everybody happy is going to leave nobody happy. Erdoğan is in Iran today for meetings with Ahmadinejad and other Iranian government officials on the Iranian nuclear program and what to do about Syria. To begin with, the optics of this are just silly given that any knowledgeable Iran observer insists that the nuclear program and any real decisions pertaining to it are controlled by Khamenei and not by Ahmadinejad, so these meetings are likely a waste of Erdoğan’s time. More importantly, Erdoğan arrived in Tehran straight from South Korea, where he attended President Obama’s conference on nuclear security. It is possible that he is conveying a message from Obama to the Iranians, but if not it can’t be terribly reassuring to the U.S. that Erdoğan is running straight to Iran to brief them on whatever went on behind closed doors in Seoul. On the Syria issue, it also appears to be bad timing with the Friends of Syria conference beginning on Sunday in Istanbul in light of Iran’s support and bankrolling of Assad. I don’t think that anyone is under any illusions as to whether Iran is going to dump Assad over the side of the boat, and I guarantee you that Erdoğan and Ahmadinejad are not discussing the best way to set up a buffer zone, so why have these meetings now? I am all for diplomacy and think it will have a big place in resolving the Iran nuclear issue, but the timing of this feels very off to me. Why not wait until after the Friends of Syria conference, which might provide some more impetus to exert pressure on Iran? I understand that Turkey feels a vital need to maintain good relations with almost every state in the region, and it is part of what makes Turkey a valuable U.S. ally, but this is one time where trying to get everyone to like you is not going to yield any tangible benefits.
March 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
Dimitar Bechev argues that after a two decade lull, Turkey is resuming its post-WWII trajectory of Americanization both in how it conducts its foreign policy and in the shape of its political culture and domestic institutions. In some ways he is right and in others I think he is wrong – AKP majoritarianism does not look like what Arend Lijphart called the consensus model of European social democracies but it also does not look like the system in the U.S. Congress, and Turkey’s culture wars are more a mirror image of France’s than a carbon copy of American ones – but he glides over the way in which I think Turkey’s foreign policy does most resemble an American one, which is the strategy of expanding and utilizing soft power.
America’s rise as a global superpower was of course predicated on its victory in WWII and its military might, but its far reaching influence is just as attributable to its dominant soft power, which was increased by the spread of American culture and consumer goods. A constructivist take on the end of the Cold War is that the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union in the realm of ideas, and American culture was just as responsible for the downfall of the Soviet Union as was increased military spending. Certainly the obsession with all things American (a trend that has been on the decline for at least a decade and probably more) helped turn American companies into global behemoths.
Turkey has made a conscious effort to do the same thing, first in the Middle East and now in more far flung places. Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” strategy was an effort to increase Turkish influence, and Turkish soap operas are wildly popular in Arab countries, as is Turkey’s advocacy of the Palestinian cause. Posters of Erdoğan lining the streets of Cairo during his visit last September and his position atop Arab public opinion polls are the direct result of Turkish soft power and cultural/political influence. Turkey has also rapidly been moving into Africa, increasing their diplomatic presence and flooding markets with Turkish consumer goods that are viewed as being of higher quality than cheaper Chinese imports. This is all reminiscent of the push to increase American influence around the world during the second half of the 20th century amid the recognition that military power was not going to be enough. In looking at ways in which Turkey is consciously or unconsciously mimicking the U.S., the move to increase its soft power as a major component of its foreign policy seems to me to be a big one.