Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ready for Prime Time?

Along with the ever-insightful Hugh Pope, I was recently a guest on the Australian Radio program "RearVision," talking about the "new" Turkey and its role in the Middle East. The show (audio and a transcript) can be found here.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Eastern Mediterranean's Bermuda Triangle

Turkey now finds itself managing rapidly escalating crises with three Eastern Mediterranean neighbors: Israel, Cyprus and Syria. The reasons for each crisis are different, but Milliyet's ever-sharp foreign affairs analyst Semih Idiz, finds a thread that connects them all and that leaves Ankara with some significant foreign policy challenges. From a recent column (in the Hurriyet Daily News):
Turkey is facing a difficult time in the eastern Mediterranean. It is almost as if we are heading for a hot confrontation in the region. It is not clear, however, how much international support Ankara has against Greek Cyprus and Israel. What is certain is that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s popularity on the Arab street will not be of much use here.

The irony is that any confrontation between Turkey and Greek Cyprus over offshore drilling rights, or between Turkey and Israel due to Ankara’s pledge to maintain safe passage in the eastern Mediterranean, will serve the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at this present juncture.

It is clear, especially since Prime Minister Erdoğan is not mincing his words about the regime in Damascus anymore, that Syria and Turkey are adversaries at this stage. That is why any development that draws Turkey’s attention away from Syria at the present time will be much appreciated by Assad who is fighting for his political survival....

....To sum up, it is clear that the waters of the eastern Mediterranean are heating up and that Turkey is facing a multi-problem environment in this region. This is quite a change from the days when Ankara was aiming for “zero problems” in its regional ties.
The rest of the column can be found here. Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank that's considered to have good connections to the White House, has just published a brief that suggests that Ankara's increasingly sharp rhetoric, particularly regarding Israel, could become self-defeating. From the brief, written by Michael Werz and Ken Sofer:
The confrontation between Turkey and Israel, two of America’s closest allies in the region, is threatening to reverse substantial gains in U.S. foreign policy. In addition, the AKP is trying to coerce the United States into a position closer to its own when it comes to the recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

Of course, Turkey’s strategy is not smart vis-à-vis the White House or the Department of State, because they’ve broken the rules of democratic engagement. The current escalation creates unnecessary tensions; is based on unmediated, unilateral interests instead of searching for viable compromise; and has no longer-term perspective. And it goes beyond the question of whether or not Turkey’s government has a legitimate point in its criticism of Israel. The present oratory also undermines Turkey’s economic and security interests. This type of posture provides space for destabilizing actors in the region, ultimately endangering the country’s newly established political recognition in regions other than Europe.

Further, Turkey’s political and economic capital is largely dependent on its new role as pivot between the West and the Middle East. Besides its important geographic position between the two regions, it is the only country that has considerable leverage in both regions. This is what makes Turkey such an invaluable American ally and such an important voice for Middle Eastern nations. But if Turkey continues down its recent path and establishes a strong anti-Israeli posture, many in the United States and Europe will begin to review the level of trust and recognition that Turkey earned in the past year.

For the time being, the repercussions of these attacks won’t be as visible because of the Turkish prime minister’s wildly successful populism with its suggestive and simple interpretation of the world. But as a middle power in one of the most challenging political environments on the globe, Turkey has a limited amount of time to get away with this type of discourse....

....The current escalation has taken the Turkey-Israel relationship back four years. It needs to be rebuilt over time, accompanied by a more pragmatic and less selective Turkish foreign policy. But after picking up the pieces of a “zero problem policy” in shambles, Turkey has the option to develop a real neighborhood policy worthy of a democratic emerging power.

The U.S. administration needs to flank that process or risk losing a valuable ally in the Middle East to the type of shortsighted, populist foreign policy that limits the prospects for peace in the region. Turkey’s growth into a critical player on the international stage benefits not only Ankara, but Washington, Tel Aviv, and many capitals throughout Europe and the Middle East. The United States should continue to recognize and promote Turkish leadership but also make it clear that the current over-the-top rhetoric against a neighbor will diminish Turkey’s credibility in diplomatic circles.

In the short run, a breakdown in the Turkish-Israeli relationship may be politically beneficial for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among their hawkish constituents. But poking holes in the relationship will only lead to a sinking ship and will ultimately hurt Turkey, Israel, and the United States.
You can find the full piece here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reviving the "Kurdish Opening"

The International Crisis Group today released a superb report that examines Turkey's lingering Kurdish issue and the failure of recent efforts to solve, and that also offers some very clear and practical advice for how to move the issue forward. From the summary of the report, entitled "Turkey: Ending the PKK Insurgency":
A surge in violence has dashed plans for a negotiated end to the 27-year-old Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Kar­ke­rên Kurdistan, PKK) insurgency. Since Turkey’s elections in mid-June, clashes have killed more than 110 people, country-wide ethnic friction has hardened opinion, and the government has started bombing PKK bases and talking about an imminent ground offensive in northern Iraq. The PKK must immediately end its new wave of terrorist and insurgent attacks, and the Turkish authorities must control the escalation with the aim to halt all violence. A hot war and militaristic tactics did not solve the Kurdish problem in the 1990s and will not now. A solution can only lie in advancing the constitutional, language and legal reforms of the past decade that have gone part way to giving Tur­kish Kurds equal rights. Given the recent violence, returning to a positive dynamic requires a substantial strategic leap of imagination from both sides. Neither should allow itself to be swept away by armed conflict that has already killed more than 30,000 since 1984.

The Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must firmly commit to a legal, non-violent struggle within Turkey, and its elected representatives must take up their seats in parliament, the only place to shape the country-wide reforms that can give Turkish Kurds long-denied universal rights. The Turkish authorities must implement radical judicial, social and political measures that persuade all Turkish Kurds they are fully respected citizens. They should reach out to non-violent nationalists and not abandon long-standing negotiations on disarmament with the PKK, including its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Although justified in acting resolutely to block the PKK’s recent attacks, the authorities must avoid falling into the trap of tit-for-tat escalation. Many big Turkish strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq solved nothing in the past. As the more powerful party, the authorities should instead take the lead in creating opportunities to end the fighting.

For all its gaps, flaws, and unravelling since late 2009, the promises of the Democratic Opening developed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) remain the best way forward. That initiative counts as Turkey’s most credible attempt to heal the open wounds of conflict between the state and its estimated 15-20 per cent Kurdish-speaking population. This report details more than a dozen concrete steps it has involved so far, including broadening access to Kurdish-language television, legislating the right to make political speeches in Kurdish and overseeing an end to almost all torture in Turkish jails. Others have led to a new sense of freedom in Kurdish cities, high-level talks with Öcalan and a greater readiness by mainstream commentators to discuss previously forbidden ideas, like a change in Öcalan’s jail conditions after a full peace deal or a federal disposition for the Kurdish-majority south east.

The outline of a deal to end the insurgency that was also under negotiation – an end to the fighting, major legal reforms, an amnesty and Turkish Kurd acceptance to work within the legal Turkish system – remains the best long-term outcome for both sides. But while making these reforms, the authorities have arrested hundreds of Turkish Kurd nationalists, including many elected municipal officials and other nationalist party members. More than 3,000 nationalist activists are behind bars, many punished as “terrorists” for the non-violent expression of opinions under laws for which the AKP is responsible. On the other hand, what should have been the centrepiece of the Democratic Opening – a ground-breaking PKK amnesty in October 2009 – foundered when Turkish Kurd nationalists exploited it for propaganda purposes.

AKP’s relatively open-minded approach has won it half the Turkish Kurds’ votes, but the government has to go further and fully engage the other half and its representatives, who are the decision-makers in the Kurdish nationalist movement. It should offer educational options that respect Kur­dish languages and culture and rewrite laws that unfairly jail nationalists as terrorists. It must also ensure its policies are fully implemented by all military, judicial and state bodies. Otherwise, as developments since the June 2011 elections show, the nationalists will feel unconvinced and threatened and be unready to reach a compromise deal.

AKP leaders must also speak out to convince mainstream Turkish public opinion that reform is essential to resolve the Kurdish problem; granting universal rights is not a concession; Turkish is not being undermined as the country’s official language; and almost all Turkish Kurds wish to continue living in a united Turkey. The government must order the security forces to try whenever possible to capture rather than kill PKK insurgents, and should engage the legal Kurdish nationalist party to the maximum extent.
The full report can be found here. Previous posts about the "Kurdish Opening" are here.

ICG's report comes out only a few days after the leaking to the Turkish press of a recording a previously secret meeting (held either in Europe or Northern Iraq) between Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence agency, and senior members of the PKK. Although opposition figures have criticized the government for meeting with the PKK, there are also suggestions that now that the fact that these meetings took place is out in the open it will help normalize the idea of the Turkish state and the PKK actually sitting down to negotiate. More on this development here (Hurriyet Daily News) and here (The National).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Out of Balance

I have a new piece in the Forward looking at the breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations and the two countries' failure to find a new balance for their relationship after its initial security-heavy focus and Israel's continuing failure to correctly read the changes taking place in Turkey and how to best manage them. From the piece:
When Israel and Turkey first forged their now shattered alliance in the late 1990s, there was much to bring together the two countries. The odd men out in the Middle East, both were non-Arab military powers who had either strained or outright hostile relations with their neighbors, a domestic terrorism problem and a strategic vision that looked westward, particularly toward Washington. It was a marriage that its architects, particularly in Israel, believed was going to last.
It turns out, breaking up is actually easy to do.
With the almost complete deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations following last year’s tragic Gaza flotilla incident in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish activists, it’s clear that the alliance was built on a less-than-solid foundation.
Despite the closeness the two countries once enjoyed, the relationship between Turkey and Israel was never balanced, skewing heavily toward military and security relations and a sense of shared threat in a hostile region.
Turkey’s efforts over the past few years to alter the relationship, particularly by de-emphasizing its security and strategic components, and to reintegrate itself into the Middle East — and Israel’s failure to properly read those moves and other political and social changes in Turkey — has now left relations between the two countries woefully out of balance once again. For Israel, which now must rebuild its ties with Turkey from the ground up, this imbalance and a continuing misreading of its causes will likely only lead to more problems down the road.
You can find the full article here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dead in the Water

I plan to post a bit more about the complete and troubling breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations, but for now I'm posting a bit from an article I recently wrote about the subject for Foreign Policy's website. From the article:
The world owes a debt of thanks to that anonymous diplomat who leaked the long-delayed U.N. report on the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident -- the ill-fated Israeli commando raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla that resulted in the deaths of nine Turks -- to the New York Times, thus single-handedly ending months of endless speculation and finally putting the floundering Turkey-Israel relationship out of its misery.

The report was issued by a panel headed by Geoffrey Palmer, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who was aided by Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia, along with one Turkish and one Israeli representative. While concluding that Israel's military takeover of the Mavi Marmara was "excessive and unreasonable," the report also decided that Israel's naval blockade of Gaza was legal and based on legitimate security concerns.

With the report's leak and Israel's continuing refusal to meet Turkey's demand for an apology, Ankara deployed its long-threatened "Plan B" on Friday, Sept. 2 -- expelling the Israeli ambassador and downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending military agreements, and promising to help the families of flotilla victims pursue Israel in international courts. In a Friday news conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned, somewhat ominously, that Turkey would "take whatever measures it deems necessary in order to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean."

Turkey's moves against Israel cap off what has been a steady deterioration between the two former allies -- one that started not with the Mavi Marmara affair but with Israel's attack on Gaza, which began in December 2008. The most recent steps taken by Ankara are therefore not a blip in Turkey-Israel relations, but represent what is likely to be a long-term freeze, one that could very well lead to further problems between the two countries in the near future.

At the heart of Friday's breakdown of Turkey-Israel relations -- and what makes any rapprochement between the two countries extremely unlikely at present -- is an increasingly divergent view of the Middle East and each country's role in the region. For Turkey, Israel's continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories (particularly Gaza) stand as the primary roadblock toward creating the kind of more harmonious regional order that Ankara envisions. For Israel, Turkey's outreach to Hamas in Gaza, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria (at least before his recent crackdown), and the Iranian regime are all proof that the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is quickly on its way to joining the regional "axis of resistance" against it.

The U.N. report on the Gaza-bound flotilla incident is just the latest example of how Turkey and Israel now fail to see eye to eye on the region's most important questions. While Israel holds that it is enforcing a legal naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, Turkey sees a country that treats the Mediterranean as "a lake of its own," as the Turkish ambassador to Washington tweeted on Friday. Where Turkey sees the Mavi Marmara as a ship rushing desperately needed aid to Gaza, Israel sees a craft filled with violent Hamas supporters.

The response to the report continued along these lines. "The report is a professional, serious, and extensive document," a senior source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office told the Israeli media. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, on the other hand, declared, "That report is actually null and void for Turkey."
The full article can be found here. Lots of previous posts tracking the failing of the Turkey-Israel relationship can be found here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Event: A Year after the First Gaza Flotilla

I will be part of a panel discussion this Friday in Washington that take a look at last year's Gaza flotilla and its impact on the region. Here are the details:
The SETA Foundation at Washington D.C. presents

The New Middle East:
A Year after the First Flotilla

Friday, June 24, 2011
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Noura Erakat
Human Rights Attorney and Activist

Yigal Schleifer
Independent Journalist

Nuh Yilmaz
Director, The SETA Foundation

Moderator: Kilic Kanat, Syracuse University

More than a year after the first flotilla, a second humanitarian aid flotilla is scheduled to set sail for Gaza on June 25, 2011. As civilian initiatives, flotillas had political and diplomatic repercussions for the regional dynamics. What kind of an impact did the first flotilla have on the region as a whole? Given the new regional dynamics after the Arab Spring, in what ways is the second flotilla different? Does the limited opening of the Rafah border by Egypt have a bearing on the rationale of the second flotilla? What are the implications for the Palestinian problem? Our panelists will seek answers these questions and discuss the New Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring a year after the first flotilla.

For more details, click here. [UPDATE: You can find a video and photos of the event here.]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Democracy Agenda

I have a new policy briefing out for the Project on Middle East Democracy that looks at Turkey's recent elections and what the results mean for the country's ongoing democratization project. From the briefing:
Turkey’s free and fair parliamentary elections on June 12 were yet another important achievement for a country that over the decades has seen four military coups and various other interventions in its democratic process. The poll was also a historic milestone for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won its third straight election and which again managed to increase its share of the national vote, this time reaching close to 50 percent.
But the AKP may have little time to celebrate its victory. While the party has broken significant political and economic ground over its nine years in power, the upcoming period might prove to be the most difficult yet. In the coming weeks and months, the AKP will have to address an overheating economy, turmoil in next-door Syria, escalating tension over the Kurdish issue, as well as questions about how it intends to push ahead on its plans to introduce a new constitution and to revive the stalled European Union (EU) membership process. At the same time, the AKP and, in particular, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are likely to continue facing charges both at home and abroad that Erdogan’s leadership style has become increasingly autocratic and that some of the democratic gains made in Turkey—particularly regarding freedom of the press and freedom of expression—are under threat.
How Erdogan and the AKP respond to these issues will have profound implications for the continuing development of Turkey’s democracy and will also require close monitoring by the United States. While policymakers and pundits alike have focused almost exclusively on Turkey’s possible “drift away from the West,” it is the internal drift from the path of domestic reform that should be the major cause for concern. Washington should coordinate closely with Ankara on the international front—particularly regarding events in the Middle East—but it must also keep a close eye on domestic developments in Turkey and be prepared to put Ankara on notice for any backsliding on the democracy front.
You can read the full piece here.