Monday, November 30, 2009

"Triumph of the Turks"

The new issue of Newsweek has an interesting article looking at how Turkey is filling the vacuum created by the United State's misadventure in Iraq. " terms of regional influence, Turkey has no rival," in the post-war environment, the magazine says. "The country's stern-faced prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is working to consolidate that strength as he asserts Turkey's independence in a part of the world long dominated by America." (You can read the full article here.)

The article also includes an interview with Turkey's influential foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu (read it here) and a slightly hagiographic backgrounder about him (here) taken from the Turkish-language version of Newsweek, which recently ran a long profile of the FM.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Kurds, Syria Bucking the Trend

Human Rights Watch has just issued an interesting and thorough report about the repression of Kurdish political and cultural life in Syria (Kurds make up about 10 percent of the population there). While Iraq's Kurds are getting closer and closer to something approaching statehood and Turkey is discussing significant changes in how to approach its Kurdish minority, Syria appears to be heading in the other direction. From the report, entitled "Group Denial":
In March 2004, Syria’s Kurds held large-scale demonstrations, some violent, in a number of towns and villages throughout northern Syria, to protest their treatment by the Syrian authorities—the first time they had held such massive demonstrations in the country. While the protests occurred as an immediate response to the shooting by security forces of Kurdish soccer fans engaged in a fight with Arab supporters of a rival team, they were driven by long-simmering Kurdish grievances about discrimination against their community and repression of their political and cultural rights. The scale of the mobilization alarmed the Syrian authorities, who reacted with lethal force to quell the protests. In the final tally, at least 36 people were killed, most of them Kurds, and over 160 people were injured. The security services detained more than 2,000 Kurds (many were later amnestied), with widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment of the detainees.

The March 2004 events constituted a major turning point in relations between Syria’s Kurds and the authorities. Long marginalized and discriminated against by successive Syrian governments that promoted Arab nationalism, Syria’s Kurds have traditionally been a divided and relatively quiescent group (especially compared to Kurds in Iraq and Turkey). Syria’s Kurds make up an estimated 10 percent of the population and live primarily in the northern and eastern regions of the country.

The protests in 2004, which many Syrian Kurds refer to as their intifada (uprising), as well as developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, gave them increased confidence to push for greater enjoyment of rights and greater autonomy in Syria. This newfound assertiveness worried Syria’s leadership, already nervous about Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and increasingly isolated internationally. The authorities responded by announcing that they would no longer tolerate any Kurdish gathering or political activity. Kurds nevertheless continued to assert themselves by organizing events celebrating their Kurdish identity and protesting anti-Kurdish policies of the government.

In the more than five years since March 2004, Syria has maintained a harsh policy of increased repression against its Kurdish minority. This repression is part of the Syrian government’s broader suppression of any form of political dissent by any of the country’s citizens, but it also presents certain distinguishing features such as the repression of cultural gatherings because the government perceives Kurdish identity as a threat, as well as the sheer number of Kurdish arrests. A September 2008 presidential decree that places stricter state regulation on selling and buying property in certain border areas mostly impacts Kurds and is perceived as directed against them.
(You can read the full report here.)

The situation of the Kurds in Syria (which I imagine is reflective of how political opposition in the country is treated in general) certainly has implications for Turkey. The success of Turkey's new "Kurdish Opening" -- a series of democratic reforms which could ultimately lead the disbanding of the PKK, which includes Syrian Kurds among its members -- depends, to a certain extent, on the other countries in the region with large Kurdish populations (Iraq, Iran and Syria) also taking conciliatory steps on the issue. The question for Ankara, it appears, is can it use its rapidly improving ties with Damascus to push the Syrian regime to start taking those steps?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turkey & Israel: Trouble Behind, Trouble Ahead?

Israel's Trade and Labor Minister, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, just finished a three-day trip to Turkey, the first visit by a top Israeli politician since the downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations that followed the war in Gaza earlier this year. On the most basic level, Ben-Eliezer's visit was a success. He met with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Libya during Ben-Eliezer's visit) and managed to avoid the fate of Israel's ambassador to Turkey, who on a recent tour of the country's Black Sea region was pelted with eggs and upbraided by every second-rate elected official he met with.

Following his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, FM Davutoglu said "the crisis is behind us," while the Israeli minister told reporters that his visit helped stop the "snowballing" deterioration in the two countries' relations. Still, I think further problems loom on the horizon for Ankara and Jerusalem. To a large extent, Turkey is now pegging its relations with Israel to the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which might not bode well, at least in the short- (or even medium-) term. Milliyet columnist Sami Kohen took a look at this development in his column (in Turkish) yesterday, writing:
Turkey does not have any direct mutual problems with Israel.

At the same time though, the whole Palestinian situation with Gaza at the forefront is beginning to become a defining aspect of Turkish-Israeli relations. It seems that Ankara is starting to form this strong correlation when it comes to relations with Israel. It could be asked just how much of an effect this policy is really going to have on the Netanyahu administration’s rigid stance when it comes to Gaza and Palestinian matters in general. It appears that “Bibi” has absolutely no intent (despite pressure from Barack Obama) to change his stance on these matters. If re-activating Turkish-Israeli relations is now tied literally to developments on the Palestinian front, this will help neither bilateral relations nor the disputes between the Arabs and the Israelis.
(An interview in the Nov. 25 edition of Today's Zaman with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, gives more background on how Turkey is approaching Israel and the Palestinian issue. You can read it here.)

During his meeting with Ben-Eliezer, president Gul politely rebuffed an invitation to visit Israel, reportedly indicating that he wouldn't be able to do so until the situation with Palestinians improves. It seems that for now Ankara is pursuing a kind of "tough love" policy with Israel, telling Jerusalem that a certain amount of frost will cover relations as long as there is little movement on the Palestinian front. The corollary to this, of course, is that if the (already poor) state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians starts to further deteriorate, Turkish-Israeli relations will find themselves once again being taken down with it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Syria & Israel: Two Rivals In Search of a Mediator

Lots of chatter these days revolving around the issue of reviving negotiations between Syria and Israel. In recent weeks, Syrian President Bashar Assad has repeated his desire to return to the negotiating table with Israel and even asking for European and American help to make this happen (although insisting that the negotiations be indirect and use Turkish mediation.) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has stated that he's ready to start talking with the Syrians (although insisting that the negotiations be direct and ruling out Turkey as a mediator, since he no longer considers it "fair.")

Hard to know where this might go. Both countries, in the past, have turned to negotiating with each other for a mix of reasons (some more sincere than others). For Israel, the Syrian track has always been a good one to fall back on -- even if it goes nowhere -- when things start falling apart on the Palestinian front. On the other hand, there are also Israeli decision makers who believe that making peace with Syria is essential for helping neutralize the Iranian threat. For the Syrians, getting back the Golan Heights has long been a priority. But negotiating with Israel (or even just talking about it) is also looked at as a way of repairing Damascus's strained ties with the west. In the mean time, both countries seem to be setting things up so that it appears like it's the other one that's not interested in getting the talks back on track.

The two countries, of course, held a round of secret indirect talks under the auspices of Turkey during 2007 and 2008. Although Ankara claims these talks were scuttled by Israel's invasion of Gaza earlier this year, there are observers who believe that the negotiations were already stalled before that (for some background on this, take a look at this previous post, which has links to related articles). Since Gaza, Turkish-Israeli relations have grown increasingly strained and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of Israel increasingly harsh, and it is very difficult for me to envision the current Israeli administration turning to Ankara as a mediator in talks with Damascus.

Meanwhile, in the absence of Turkish mediation, other countries have suggested their services as matchmakers for Syria and Israel. France has indicated it could bring the two together (Judah Grunstein offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that perhaps "France might mediate between Israel and Turkey, so that Turkey can mediate between Israel and Syria."). Even tiny Croatia and distant Brazil -- perhaps feeling flush after winning their Rio Olympics bid -- have recently volunteered their services as possible mediators. Who's next?

Where does all of this leave Turkey? Is there any future role for Ankara on the Syria-Israel front following the nose dive that relations between Ankara and Jerusalem have taken? Hard to see it, at least from the Israeli perspective. Turkish officials have said they will support any efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, but I also get the sense that there are some in Turkey who aren't quite ready to accept that it might not be Ankara that will be bringing Syria and Israel together. Following up on Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to set France up as a possible mediator, the English-language Today's Zaman (part of the pro-government Zaman group) reported on Nov. 17, in an article headlined "Sarkozy tried in vain to replace Turkey as peacemaker," that:
The Syrian president was in Paris on Friday, two days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the city and said he was ready to meet the Syrian president anywhere, at any time, without pre-established conditions, to re-launch talks over the Israeli-Syrian dimension of the broader Mideast peace process.

Sarkozy, who apparently wanted to steal the show in the Middle East process, tried to arrange the two leaders’ visits to Paris at the same time. This way, even if he could not succeed in gathering Assad and Netanyahu together, he would be able to introduce their simultaneous presence in Paris as “France’s great role in peace efforts.” However, Assad said he would not land in Paris until Netanyahu’s plane departed the city, spoiling Sarkozy’s plans.
Take that, Sarko! An article in the Turkish-language Zaman was even more explicit, (misleadingly) reporting that Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had "warned" the French not to get involved. Considering the value that reviving Syrian-Israeli talks would have for the region, portraying any other country's efforts to mediate between the two enemies as "stealing" Turkey's show strikes me as profoundly unconstructive.

[UPDATE -- Erdogan has now spoken on the mediation issue, admitting that Israel no longer trusts Turkey to play the mediator role. From Reuters:
"Former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert trusted Turkey, but Netanyahu doesn't trust us. That's his choice," he said in remarks which were televised in Turkey.

Relations between Turkey and Israel have soured since the latter launched an incursion into the Gaza Strip in December.

Erdogan, whose ruling party traces its roots to a banned Islamist movement, has repeatedly criticised the incursion, even having a public shouting match with Israeli President Shimon Peres in January.

Netanyahu and Assad met French President Nicolas Sarkozy separately last week, and Israel said it is ready for talks.

"Now France is trying to take up the role we had," Erdogan said. "I'm not sure what kind of stance Bashar Assad will take, but from what I've heard from him, they're not going to accept something like this."]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Iran's Nukes: The Turkish Option

Via the World Politics Review blog, comes an interesting post from the blog Arms Control Wonk that dissects the recent talk about the possibility of a deal to send Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey. The basic idea would be to send the uranium to Turkey in a kind of "escrow" account, to be held until Iran receives its shipment of nuclear fuel from Russia.

The option of bringing in a trusted third country into the mix is an interesting one. Turkey and Iran certainly have been improving their relations in recent years and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently returned from a very successful trip to Iran, where he met with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and even the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The question is, though, if Iran truly "trusts" Turkey, in the sense that both are, at the end of the day, regional rivals and Tehran might be hesitant to enter into an agreement that gives Ankara an added amount of leverage over it (for more background on this, take a look at this previous post). From Ankara's perspective, if the Turkish option is accepted, then it would certainly validate Turkey's recent push to reach out to Iran and improve relations, despite some of the criticism that has led to.

[UPDATE -- Reports from Iran say Tehran has rejected the proposal of sending its uranium out of the country.]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Turkey & Armenia: Don't Hold Your Breath

Over at Eurasianet, Marianna Grigoryan gives a good update on how the recently-signed (though yet-to-be ratified) protocols to renew diplomatic relations between Ankara and Yerevan are progressing in Armenia. The bottom line? Very little progress is being made in getting the protocols even close to being ratified. From her piece:
Armenia’s stormy debate over reconciliation with Turkey has died down in the last two weeks as Armenian politicians circle their wagons, size up their opponents and wait for the Turkish parliament’s own decision on ratification of the October 10 protocols to reestablish diplomatic ties between the two states.

Armenia has not yet taken the first step for ratifying the documents - a review by the country’s Constitutional Court to ensure compliance with constitutional law. A Constitutional Court spokesperson told the news service on November 9 that President Serzh Sargsyan has not yet submitted the protocols to the court for review. No reason was given for the delay.

One political scientist cautions that observers should not expect rapid, daily progress on reconciliation with Turkey. "This [current] temporary silence anticipates an intensive [development of] events," Alexander Iskandarian, director of Yerevan’s Caucasus Institute, commented to reporters on November 11.

One opposition member who supports reconciliation with Turkey believes that the prevailing political calm on the issue is linked to parties attempting to consolidate their positions on the documents.

"I don’t think we have silence now," commented Suren Surenyants, a senior member of the Republic Party. "At this stage, each party is trying to reinforce its position before the next stormy cycle, each country is trying to demonstrate its superiority. This is a process that will intensify soon."

Part of that process includes watching Turkey’s own decision on ratification. As in Armenia, Turkish opposition parties have expressed strong misgivings about the reconciliation deal.

"Now everybody in Armenia is waiting for the decision of the Turkish parliament," said Tatul Hakobian, an analyst at the Civilitas Foundation. "This already shows that Armenia has almost no [unilateral] influence on the [future development of] Armenian-Turkish relations. It is waiting for Turkey’s steps."
(You can read the full article here.)

The problem with "everybody in Armenia" waiting for the decision of the Turkish parliament -- which must also first ratify the protocols for them to take effect -- is that it also has made very little progress on the issue. The protocols have yet to be introduced to the parliament in Ankara, and it seems unlikely that the body, which is currently locked in a heated debate over the government's plans to deal with the Kurdish issue, will tackle the Armenia issue any time soon, particularly since there seems to be little movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

The October signing of the protocols in Zurich was certainly a historic event and the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation train has definitely left the station. But it seems that, for the time being, it's stuck on the tracks and making little progress, with domestic politics in both Turkey and Armenia making it difficult for a foreign policy breakthrough to be achieved.