August 12, 2016 § 3 Comments
This piece was published in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with my friend and colleague Steven Cook.
The meeting this week between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and their vow to expand bilateral relations is the latest sign of deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations since Turkey’s failed coup last month.
The U.S. and Turkey have faced difficult days before, such as after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, yet American and Turkish leaders managed to find their way back. This time will be different.
Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the U.S. and Turkey have contributed to each other’s security and interests, and ties were cemented based on shared values as Turkey became more democratic. U.S. forces and tactical nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik air base represented the American commitment to Turkish security and Ankara’s support to a Washington-led global order.
These days, however, the U.S. and Turkey see eye to eye on very little. The two countries are at odds over Syria and the urgency of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad; over support for Syrian Kurds who, in contrast to the Turks, have proved to be reliable U.S. partners in the fight against Islamic State; over the territorial sovereignty of Iraq; and over continuing sanctions on Iran.
Though American officials privately acknowledge that Mr. Erdogan is “erratic,” they have given the Turkish leader extraordinary leverage over U.S. policy. The U.S. fear is that public pressure will result in even less cooperation from Ankara—especially on Syria.
July 21, 2016 § 2 Comments
As Turkish tanks and F-16s filled the streets and skies of Turkish cities on Friday night in an effort to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government from power, Israeli officials had cause for anxiety. The newly announced reconciliation deal has been highly touted by both governments, and while the military coup in Egypt that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in 2013 has been a boon for Israeli-Egyptian relations, there is no way of knowing what a military government in Turkey would bring. Ultimately, Israel’s initial radio silence and subsequent endorsement of “the democratic process in Turkey” was geared toward sending a message that it hopes reconciliation will continue apace and that is indeed the likely scenario. Nevertheless, the failed Turkish coup is going to affect Israel in other ways, some obvious and some less so.
The reconciliation agreement is still on track according to Turkish officials, and given that the government that negotiated it is still in place, there is no compelling reason to think otherwise. If anything, Turkey will be even more desperate now for Israeli intelligence and military cooperation given that the general who oversaw the army command responsible for securing Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq has been arrested as a coup plotter. The same rationales that existed for reconciling with Israel last month still exist today, and while reconciliation may easily get fouled up by other outside events, the Turkish government’s near-miss is not one of them.
In some ways, the events of last weekend actually may make the political relationship between Israel and Turkey stronger. Erdoğan is now laying the groundwork to be stronger domestically than he has been at any point during his tenure at the top of Turkish politics. He is using the coup attempt as an excuse to completely eviscerate all opposition wherever he suspects it lurks, from the military to the judiciary to the primary and higher education systems. His supporters, many of whom already saw him as a demigod above reproach, are now fired up and mobilized to back anything he does, and anyone who stands in the way will immediately be tarred as a Gülen movement terrorist or worse. The chances of Erdoğan now getting the constitution for which he has been pushing that will formally transform Turkey into a presidential system are nearly assured. The upshot of all this is that historically Erdoğan has used Israel as a punching bag when he has felt challenged domestically, or when he has not had a more convenient group on which to pin Turkey’s ills. The all-out war against the Gülenists combined with the fact that Erdoğan is on the verge of truly making himself into a modern day sultan mean that using Israel for nationalist or populist purposes is not going to be the crutch to which he immediately turns. That is not to say that a Turkey going through a period of nationalist-tinged anger is not going to have its share of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, but Erdoğan has other more pressing targets for now. In the context of Israel being used as an instrument of scorn in the Turkish political arena, a strong Erdoğan is better for Israel than a weak Erdoğan.
On the other hand, the military side of things will be much thornier for reasons that are apparent. The heyday of Israeli-Turkish ties in the 1990s was driven by the countries’ respective militaries, and in some respects Israel may be lucky that the freeze of the past six years means that few in Turkey will have any cause to insinuate Israeli military involvement in a Turkish military coup, despite the fact that one of the ringleaders was a former military attaché to Israel. The purges of the Turkish armed forces began immediately and will be ongoing on a scale that is unprecedented in Turkish history, and any robust relationships between IDF officers and their Turkish counterparts may now all be erased. In addition, the coup attempt was centered around the Turkish air force, which historically had the closest connection to the IDF as a result of quarterly Israeli air force training exercises in Turkey, and so any existing institutional relationship is bound to suffer as the air force is gutted in the wake of the coup plot.
One wildcard for Israel going forward is the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Turkey relationship, as Turkey demands that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom the government accuses of being behind the coup, and some Turkish cabinet ministers go so far as to blame the U.S. for the coup itself by dint of Gülen’s permanent residence here. Inflammatory Turkish rhetoric against the U.S. is hardening and the Obama administration’s response has been to warn Turkey about maintaining democratic norms and tacitly threatening its NATO status, so this is likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. was actively involved in encouraging Israeli-Turkish reconciliation out of a desire to see two of its closest regional allies not be at loggerheads, but a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey will not necessarily win any points with the U.S. should there be a serious falling out between the two NATO allies. While it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration actively suggest that Israel cool things down with Turkey, there are certainly calculations to be made by Jerusalem as to how much it benefits from moving closer to Turkey just as the U.S. moves in the other direction.
Finally, the upheaval and reprisals in Turkey provide a sobering lesson and a warning sign to both the political and military establishments in Israel. On the one hand, the Turkish chaos presents a clear contrast to Israel, which has a strong army that has always been intimately – albeit informally – involved in politics and a robust military culture but has never suffered a military coup or even been close. The IDF often acts as a brake on politicians, as was the case during the years-long debate over whether to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, but it is never as a result of coercion and there is no question of the primacy of civilian oversight. Israel is, however, right now going through a rocky period in civil-military relations, and it is something that did not develop overnight. The failed coup attempt in Turkey is the result of myriad factors, but a significant one is the buildup of years of resentment from officers who feel that the government has hounded them unfairly, used them as a political tool, and treated them as pawns in larger battles. Israel would be wise to absorb what is going and use it to reinforce the longstanding Israeli ethos of harmonious and mutually beneficial civil-military relations and the necessitude of having a military that is above politics.
July 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
I tried to tackle the question for Foreign Affairs of what happens next in the wake of last weekend’s tumult in Turkey. You can find the article here.
It is hard to overstate the extent to which fears of a military coup have animated Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions as a politician. Conservative and religious Turks have lived for decades under the shadow of the 1960 coup that deposed and executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, whom Erdogan frequently refers to as a martyred hero and a cautionary tale. The 1997 “postmodern” coup that deposed Erdogan’s political mentor, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and led to Erdogan’s subsequent imprisonment and suspension from politics for religious incitement only reinforced the notion among non-elite Turks that the old secular establishment, of which the army was the cornerstone, would never fully cede power.
It was only when Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founder Abdullah Gül won their 2007 stare-down with the military over Gül’s candidacy for president (which the army opposed because Gül’s wife wore a headscarf), that Erdogan seemed to gain the upper hand and be in position to alter the balance of power with the army for good.
This is the context for the recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which the government accused Turkish officers of plotting a series of coups and false-flag attacks designed to overthrow the AKP regime—trials that decimated Turkey’s military ranks and that were also subsequently overturned when some of the convictions were found to be based on fabricated evidence.
It is also the context for Erdogan’s fetishization of elections and his majoritarian theory of governance. Both as prime minister and as president, Erdogan repeatedly expressed that elections confer ultimate power and allow the government to take any actions that it likes. Although such attitudes were partly a way of dismissing Turkey’s largely feckless opposition parties, they were also the ultimate line of defense against the military. Erdogan never felt safe from the long arm of the military and always saw the next coup right around the corner. He thus classified every challenge as a plot, whether it came from the military, his former Gülen movement allies, or even from unarmed protestors in Gezi Park.
Erdogan believed that he could get away with such characterizations as long as he could point to high margins of victory on election day and mobilize his supporters in impressive shows of popular strength. These would make it difficult for the military to continue its tradition of intervening in Turkish politics; to overthrow Erdogan and the AKP would be to take on a leader with unprecedented popularity and a party that had been extraordinarily successful.
So it was a surprise on Friday, when tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul, F-16s flew low over Ankara, and a new entity calling itself the Peace at Home Council announced on Turkish state television that it had taken over the country. Suddenly, it seemed that Erdogan’s worst fears had been realized and that his efforts to coup-proof Turkey had provoked exactly what he was guarding against.
Please head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.
June 29, 2016 § 2 Comments
I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs on the Israel-Turkey normalization pact, and why I think, despite the interests of both sides to maintain good ties, that it will be unsustainable.
On Tuesday, three machine gun-wielding suicide bombers attacked Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, killing 41 and injuring hundreds. News of the attack quickly overshadowed the week’s other major development in the country: a deal to normalize relations between Turkey and Israel after a six-year falling out. Although the two events might seem unrelated, they are connected in that one of the major factors driving reconciliation was cooperation on intelligence and counter-terrorism. Whether the deal will survive long enough for such benefits to be realized is a question that only becomes more urgent after the horrific terrorist attack.
Israel and Turkey’s announcement that they had agreed on the terms of their reconciliation came after years of false starts. Under the deal, Israel will pay Turkey $20 million in compensation for the nine Turkish citizens killed during the raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010, allow Turkey to send humanitarian supplies to Gaza via the Israeli port city of Ashdod, and permit Turkey to support building projects in Gaza, including a hospital, power plant, and desalination plant. In return, Turkey has promised to end the lawsuits still pending in its courts against four high-ranking Israeli military officials involved in the flotilla raid, stop Hamas from launching or financing terrorist operations against Israel from Turkish territory, and intercede with Hamas on Israel’s behalf to secure the return to Israel of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held in Gaza. Both sides have also agreed to return their ambassadors to the other country and to drop any remaining sanctions against each other.
On paper, this all sounds great, and there is no question that reconciliation can theoretically help both sides. The drivers of past aborted attempts at normalization, namely potential energy cooperation and coordination on Syria and counter-terrorism, are still at work, and there are benefits for both sides to be realized. Nonetheless, the celebrations in Jerusalem and Ankara are more likely than not to be short-lived for two reasons: the parameters of the deal may be more difficult to abide by than appears at first glance, and the entire structure could well fall apart at the first sign of the inevitable next round of fighting in Gaza.
To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.
May 6, 2016 § 4 Comments
And just like that, he’s gone. After leading the AKP to victory in November and regaining the parliamentary majority that the party had failed to win a few months earlier, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is being replaced upon the decree of President Erdoğan. A prime minister being ousted by the president outside of an election is a normal occurrence in many countries, but not in countries that have parliamentary systems or in countries where the prime minister is the leader of the ruling political party. In this case, Davutoğlu is simply the latest victim of Erdoğan’s fiat and his determination to do whatever he likes whenever he likes, rules and regulations be damned.
The truth is that Davutoğlu never had a chance. As all Turkey observers know, Erdoğan has been on a multiyear mission to transform Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. While he has done his utmost best to accomplish this under the current strictures – chairing cabinet meetings despite the complete absence of the national emergency or special circumstances that are required by the Turkish constitution, setting up his own shadow government outside of the prime minister’s office, building a literal palace that was intended for the prime minister but then taking it for himself once he was elected president – to do so ultimately requires a new constitution and a prime minister who is willing to radically reduce his own powers and back such a plan. To Erdoğan’s great rage, Davutoğlu has not proven to be such a prime minister to Erdoğan’s complete satisfaction, and like anyone else who has stood in Erdoğan’s way (MPs, reporters, children who are found to have insulted him), Davutoğlu has now been dealt with. Whether, like my good friend and colleague Steven Cook, you describe the situation in Turkey under Erdoğan as patrimonial sultanism or, like me, you describe it as a presidential takeover, the upshot is that Davutoğlu’s only chance for political longevity was in backing Uzun Adam, and he quite clearly did not go far enough for the Tall Man’s liking. This is not to suggest that Davutoğlu has been some courageous and independent politician, since I think he has been far from it. But when you expect total acquiescence and you only get mostly acquiescence, heads roll.
It is important to clearly understand why this episode is particularly outrageous. When Erdoğan ascended to the presidency, the Turkish constitution required him to officially resign from the AKP and to have no involvement in the party’s political affairs, as the Turkish president is supposed to be non-partisan and above politics. Erdoğan then proceeded to blatantly campaign for the AKP on multiple occasions with appeals to voters that only a vote for the AKP would ensure stability and a new constitution. He was heavily involved in choosing the AKP’s candidates for the Grand National Assembly, a task that is supposed to be done by the party leader, who in this case was not Erdoğan but Davutoğlu. The makeup of the current cabinet ostensibly selected by Davutoğlu following the November election, and which is supposed to have nothing at all to do with the president, has Erdoğan’s fingerprints all over it and includes numerous Erdoğan loyalists and his son-in-law. Now comes the most egregious interference of all, which is that Erdoğan, who supposedly has no involvement with the AKP whatsoever by law, has managed to depose the head of the AKP and force a party with which he is supposed to have no affiliation to choose a new leader and new prime minister. You can call this whatever you like (and many are referring to it as a palace coup, which is a particularly wonderful and literal turn of phrase in this case since Erdoğan actually does live in a palace), but a sign of healthy democracy it is not. I feel like simultaneously laughing and crying while watching the various Erdoğan sycophants in the press and on Twitter rush to do their best Winston Smith imitations by banishing all positive mentions of Davutoğlu down the memory hole now that he has become an enemy of Oceania rather than an ally.
I do not mean to convey the impression that Davutoğlu should be seen as a principled martyr for the greater good. My thoughts on his role in fomenting an ugly nationalism in Turkey have not changed, and he is complicit in Turkey’s authoritarian slide by giving cover to Erdoğan for years in allowing him to roll back democratic gains. I do not think that history will treat him terribly kindly, despite the mid-2000s fawning over him as a leading global thinker, given that much of his reputation for strategic brilliance was exposed as naïve and arrogant blustering – can anyone still utter the phrase “zero problems with neighbors” without snickering? – and he more than anyone else is responsible for Turkey’s past half decade of disastrous foreign policy and geopolitical weakening. But the fact that Davutoğlu is a flawed prime minister is ultimately only for Turkish voters and his own party to judge in deciding whether to remove him, and it is decidedly not under the purview of Turkey’s president, who is supposed to have no role in party politics at all, to sack him. The absolute loser in all of this is not one newly unemployed individual, but the institutions and political culture of the Turkish state.
Aside from the damage to Turkey itself, there is a high likelihood of a series of unintended consequences that will unfurl as a result of Davutoğlu’s removal. Davutoğlu has been the point man in negotiating the refugee deal and the related visa waiver deal with the EU. With him out of the picture, both of these developments are in danger. It is difficult to imagine smooth sailing ahead between Turkey and the EU with Erdoğan or an Erdoğan flunky at the helm of the relationship on the Turkish side (and make no mistake about what level of independence the next Turkish prime minister will enjoy). This also in my view increases the likelihood that the group of AKP heavyweights who have fallen out of the palace’s favor, most saliently Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç, finally decide to challenge their erstwhile political partner and co-AKP founder and form their own conservative political party that will directly compete with the AKP. It will be poetic should Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power ultimately result in the opposite.
Should this happen, Davutoğlu himself will not be at the forefront. The primary reason that he was so easily disposed of is that he has no political base of his own, and in fact was not even an MP until the AKP’s third election victory in 2011. His rise was entirely dependent on Erdoğan, who elevated him from relative academic obscurity to be his chief foreign policy adviser and then eventually foreign minister. When you are a courtier whose position and influence hinge upon the king’s good graces, your only real option when you fall out of favor is to quietly slink away. The Davutoğlu era is over, and he will stand as a cautionary tale for those who do not bend entirely to Erdoğan’s will and as an enormous pulsating warning beacon for what lies ahead for Turkey and its imminent imperial presidency.
December 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day. In March 2013, I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile, and here I am again nearly three years later explaining the timing behind Israel and Turkey agreeing to reconcile. That the two countries have had a number of false starts is instructive and provides the first lesson of the day, which is that despite yesterday’s announcement, expectations should be tempered until there is an actual signed agreement. That is not to say that this is a feint, but that there are still a lot of obstacles ahead, including President Erdoğan’s desire to use this as a domestic political win bumping against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire not to be used for Erdoğan’s political gain; a recent history of extremely difficult relations between the two governments that cannot be papered over at the drop of a hat; the Gaza blockade remaining as an extra large sticking point; and the big elephant – or more accurately, bear – in the room that is looming over this entire thing and that I’ll get to in a minute. In other words, this won’t be entirely easy so no champagne corks should be popping yet.
But assuming that this does indeed go through, it’s not terribly difficult to see why. What I wrote in March 2013 was that the two sides were being pushed together by energy needs and Syria, and that remains true today but even more acutely. Dan Arbell on Monday (exhibiting impeccable timing!) wrote about thawing relations between Turkey and Israel focusing on Turkey’s ongoing quest for energy security and Israel’s complementary ongoing quest to find an export destination for its natural gas, with the Syria situation being a factor as well. Turkey is in a serious bind now that its relationship with Russia has deteriorated in such a big way, and Israeli gas provides a way out. If Russia cancels the Turkish Stream project or even takes things one step further and halts natural gas shipments to Turkey entirely, Israeli gas won’t solve things in the short term but will provide a long term hedge against relying on Russia as a primary energy supplier. On the Israeli side, the simple truth is that no energy company is going to invest the resources to develop the Leviathan field without a viable export destination, and the two best large market options were always Egypt and Turkey. The first one is far less attractive now due to the recent Egyptian gas discoveries mitigating how much Israeli gas Egypt will want to buy over the long haul, leaving Turkey as the best destination remaining. There are still political hurdles to be overcome on both sides, and the technical hurdle of constructing a deepwater pipeline is nothing to sneeze at either, but the formal approval granted yesterday to Noble to develop Leviathan likely resulted directly from the reconciliation agreement with Turkey.
On Syria, Turkey is always desperate for more intelligence and coordination given how much it has been affected by the civil war, and Israel can benefit as well since it does not want spillover across its northern border. The Russian intervention has made this more stark for both sides, since where Israeli opinion has been divided from the start on whether it is better for Assad to stay or go, there has emerged a slightly dominant view that it is better for Assad to be deposed given his role as the linchpin of the Iran-Hizbollah axis, and Russian intervention now makes that harder (if you’re interested in the subject, I participated on a Wilson Center panel yesterday with Tamara Wittes and Yoram Peri on the subject of the Syrian crisis and Israeli security, and you can watch it here). For Turkey, which has set Assad’s downfall as its top foreign policy priority for over four years, Russia’s involvement in Syria is a disaster and so to the extent that Israeli priorities are slowly lining up on the same side, any joint cooperation is a net positive.
All of this is why the timing of rapprochement makes sense, maybe even urgently so on the Turkish side. So why do I think that in some ways it is odd? The same way that the Russia variable is driving Turkey to find alternative solutions to some of its problems and reestablish close links with its Western allies – and certainly making up with Israel is a factor in pulling the U.S. closer – the mirror image is true for Israel. Whereas in the past Israel could reconcile with Turkey and it would be cost-free in the larger geopolitical context, now it’s not quite so simple. Israel and Russia have gotten along remarkably well despite Israeli and Russian military planes both flying along the same corridor in southern Syria, and up until now Russia has respected and tolerated Israeli freedom of action to attack weapons convoys on their way to Hizballah in Lebanon. This shouldn’t be taken for granted, however, and a closer Israeli relationship with Turkey has the potential to alter this equation. Russia is undoubtedly annoyed by yesterday’s news as it has been trying to isolate Turkey as best it can, and that in itself may lead to frostier relations with Israel. But even if you take Russian pettiness out of the equation, closer coordination between the Israeli and Turkish militaries has real potential to encroach on Russian priorities in Syria, which mainly consist of ensuring Assad’s rule over at least part of the country. Should Israel be drawn into Turkey’s fight and end up striking Syrian army positions that do not directly impact Hizballah advanced weaponry, Israeli leeway in Syria will be quickly narrowed by Russia.
Furthermore, Israel has now dramatically reduced Russian leverage over Turkey by mitigating Russia’s energy blackmail strategy. This is not only a matter of economics but geopolitics as well, since Russia uses Gazprom and its energy policy as a tool for foreign policy outcomes, and in the case of Turkey, that has now been significantly undermined. I’m no Russia expert, and I don’t know that there is a Russia expert alive who can predict what Putin will or won’t do, but my casual observation of Russian behavior leads me to believe that it is not outlandish to assume that Putin won’t retaliate against Israel in some manner or another for throwing Turkey a gas lifeline. With relations with Russia as terrible as they are for Turkey, it makes sense for Ankara to risk even more Russian wrath if it means solving the energy security problem. What mystifies me a bit is why Israel, which has so far gotten along with Russia remarkably well despite working somewhat at cross purposes against Russia in Syria, would risk a downturn in relations with Russia in order to make up with Turkey, a country that cannot threaten Israel in any real way and upon whose favor Israel does not depend in order to keep on going after Hizballah in Syria. Helping Turkey out of its morass in order to realize some economic benefits while risking the chance of limiting your range of action in Syria and provoking a much stronger power is penny wise and pound foolish. On top of this, there is also the lesser but not irrelevant factor that Israel has been frantically trying to establish better ties with the “moderate” Sunni bloc that includes Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and there is no love lost for Turkey in that group of countries. When you look at the regional chess board, partnering in a closer way with Turkey brings with it some significant potential downside for Israel.
I’ll reiterate that nothing is done until it’s done, and so this post may prove to be as irrelevant as my last deep dive into this subject. From where I am sitting, this deal is a no-brainer for Turkey, but I don’t think the same can be definitively said for Israel. It will be fascinating to see where all of this leads and whether the benefits of reconciliation that both sides fantasize about end up fully materializing.