Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Talking Heads

If you have a half-hour to spend, take a look at the latest installment of Bloggingheads.tv, where Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell and I try to start making sense of the Turkey-related Wikileaks, Turkey-US relations and the last eight years of Turkish foreign policy. The video is embedded below for your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Deal in Review

Now that the next round of talks between Iran and the "P5+1" group of countries -- China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. -- will be convening in Istanbul early next year, it seems like a good time to take another look at the nuclear swap deal brokered between Turkey, Brazil and Iran last May. Although the deal was dismissed by the United States and others at the time as being insufficient, the venue of the upcoming talks does raise the question of where that deal might fit into the new round of discussions and what role the "Turkish approach" (less confrontation, more engagement) to Iran might play in how these new talks unfold.

To get a better sense of what some of the answers to these questions might be, I recently had an email interview with Aaron Stein, a a research fellow at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation in Istanbul, where he works on Turkey’s security policy and how Turkey perceives the Iranian nuclear program. Here's our exchange:

1. What is your assessment of the swap agreement worked out between Turkey, Brazil and Iran?

In my opinion, the Joint Declaration signed and negotiated by Iran, Turkey and Brazil has little nonproliferation value and does little to slow Iran’s controversial nuclear program. I am convinced that Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Taip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had the best of intentions when negotiating the Declaration. Despite their best intentions, the document does not address, or limit Iran’s enrichment program. The Declaration fails to take into account Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent. The Declaration resulted from months of diplomatic negotiations, which were preceded by similar negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran. The length of negotiations prompted prominent Arms Control and Nuclear Weapons Expert Jeffrey Lewis to call the Declaration the, “Zombie fuel swap” because it the initiative never seems to die.

The first iteration of the fuel swap appeared during negotiations in October 2009 between the P5 +1 and Iran. During these negotiations Iran agreed in principle to send 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for fuel rod fabrication. The Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) – a small 5 MWt research reactor supplied by the United States to Iran in 1967 - is expected to run out of 19.7 percent enriched LEU fuel in 2010. Tehran’s dwindling supply of LEU fuel prompted the Iranian government to seek foreign suppliers, and signal its readiness to negotiate a fuel swap arrangement. Faced with the prospect of the TRR’s impending shutdown, Iranian ministers tentatively agreed with representatives of the P5+1 to this fuel swap arrangement at a meeting in October 2009. Despite the apparent diplomatic breakthrough, Iran backed off of its original agreement, proposing to ship out its LEU in 400 kg increments, and demanded that the transfer take place on the Iranian Gulf Island of Kish. The IAEA, the United States, and other members of the P5+1 rejected Iran’s counter proposal, claiming that it violated the spirit of the initial agreement, which called for the shipment of all 1,200 kg in one batch. The Obama administration and other members of the P5+1 were demanding that Iran ship all 1,200 kg LEU to France and Russia because, at the time, this would have left Iran without enough LEU for a nuclear weapon, should Iran choose to further enrich its LEU stockpile to weapons grade highly enriched uranium (HEU). At the time, the IAEA had reported that Iran had stockpiled 1,500 kg of LEU. If Iran were to have shipped all 1,200 kg of LEU, it would have taken Iran many months to replenish its LEU reserves, thus limiting its weapons break out capability.

The diplomatic impasse prompted Mohammed El-Baradei, the former director General Director of the IAEA, to step in and suggest Turkey as an alternative site for the fuel swap. El-Baradei believed that Turkey’s long standing participation in the NATO alliance and its close relations with the Islamic Republic made it an ideal place for the fuel swap to take place. Following the proposal, Ahmet Davutoglu indicated his country’s willingness to hold Iranian LEU. Thus, setting in motion Turkey’s participation in the Iran fuel swap negotiations.

Beginning in November, Ahmet Davutoglu and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehe Mottaki met a number of times to discuss the fuel swap arrangement. This culminated with the release of the Joint Declaration (for a full text of the Declaration please visit, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/julian-borger-global-security-blog/2010/may/17/iran-brazil-turkey-nuclear) indicating Iran’s willingness to ship 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey within a month, if the Vienna Group (The United States, France, Russia and the United Nations) endorsed the declaration and specifically agreed to deliver LEU fuel rods to Iran for use at the TRR.

In its current form, the current Declaration has little non-proliferation value and does not address Iran’s nuclear breakout capability. Experts estimate that a country like Iran would need 1,200 kg of LEU to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon, should Iran decide to enrich its LEU to 90 percent. When the Declaration was concluded, the IAEA had reported that Iran had accumulated 2,300 kg of LEU. The removal of 1,200 kg of LEU would allow Iran to replenish its LEU stockpile quickly, thus negating the non-proliferation benefits of the fuel swap arrangement.

In addition, the Declaration does not address other issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Since the Iranian rejection of the original fuel swap proposal in October 2009, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) decided to further enrich its stockpiled LEU to 19.7 percent for use in the TRR. In May 2010, the IAEA released its comprehensive Safeguard Report, which detailed Iran’s stockpile of 19.75 enriched uranium. As of November 2010, Iran has produced 21 kg of 19.75 percent enriched uranium. Perhaps the most glaring weakness of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil declaration is that Iranian enrichment issue is not addressed. The process to further enrich uranium is very complicated. It requires the disassembly and reassemble of centrifuge cascades, while ensuring that the machines will still function correctly. These recent developments, combined with Iran’s growing knowledge about centrifuge technology, has demonstrated Tehran’s ability to produce weapons grade uranium, should it choose to enrich its LEU.

2. Does the agreement bring anything new to the table?

The first iteration of the agreement had a lot of positive aspects and would have delayed Iran’s ability to further enrich LEU for a nuclear weapon, should it choose to do so. The original intention of the fuel swap was to limit Iran’s break out capability. The P5+1 believed that the removal of 1,200 kg of Iranian LEU would give the P5+1 and Iran time to negotiate a diplomatic settlement. The Obama administration’s original intention was to use this “window” to move negotiations along quickly and eventually conclude some sort of nuclear agreement with Iran.

The Declaration does not ascribe to the spirit of original agreement and most importantly, does not deal with any of the major issues that I outlined above – namely Iran’s decision to enrich uranium to twenty percent.

3. Turkey is arguing that the swap deal is useful as a confidence building measure with Iran, which could lay the groundwork for further deals with the country? Do you see any value in that argument?

Despite the tepid response from the P5+1, AK Party officials maintain that the fuel swap arrangement is an important confidence building measure. They argue that the Agreement is nearly identical to the October P5+1 proposal that Iran rejected in October. Despite Iran’s questionable LEU accounting, Iran’s willingness to ship 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey, all at once and before receiving the reactor fuel from France and Russia, is a step in the right direction. In my opinion, there is some validity to Turkey’s argument.

For Iran-Turkey relations, the Agreement reaffirms the AK Party’s commitment to pursuing a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear issue, despite heavy U.S. pressure to support the latest UN Sanction’s package. Turkey has proven that it is committed to strengthening its relations with Iran, despite pressure from its traditional allies. By doing so, Ankara may have proven itself to be a valuable intermediary between Iran and the West. It also reaffirms Ankara’s new independent minded foreign policy, and may signal to leaders in Tehran that Turkey acts in good faith when discussing its nuclear program.

In my opinion, any agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is a “diplomatic win” and should be pursued whole-heartedly. In the complex world of international relations, agreements and iterated interaction between two parties increases trust and cooperation. It breaks the cycle of negative reciprocity, and may lead to each side making concessions. In short, any effort to break the persistence and perseverance of “zero-sum” thinking can help move diplomatic processes forward and help contribute to an eventual agreement. Thus, the confidence building argument has some validity and I do not think critics of the Agreement shouldn’t dismiss Turkey’s diplomatic efforts.

However, non-one should believe that this Agreement, even if it were to be implemented, wasn’t politically motivated and served the interests of all of the parties involved, especially Iran.

4. What's your take on the role Turkey has been playing in helping resolve the Iran nuclear issue?

Since the election of the AK Party in 2003, Turkey has set about changing the basic tenets of its foreign policy in the Middle East. AK Party’s foreign policy has been based on what Turkey’s current Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutogolu, calls “strategic depth”- a foreign policy seeking to balance Turkey’s relations with the West and its former Ottoman provinces in the South and East. Davutoglu promotes Turkish “soft power,” believing that friendly relations with all of Turkey’s neighbors will benefit Turkish economic and political interests in the region. The AK Party is opposed to further sanctions against Iran, arguing that they hurt Turkish economic interests, and that they serve as the first step towards the legitimization of war.

The statistics and evidence back Davutoglu’s arguments and Ankara’s Iran policy makes perfect sense. Iran is Turkey’s second largest provider of natural gas and bilateral trade between the countries topped 10 billion dollars in 2008. Thus, from an economic standpoint Turkey’s hesitation to support any new UNSC sanctions is perfectly logical. In addition, Turkey and Iran share a common threat from Kurdish separatist groups operating based in Northern Iraq. Since the formation of the Party for Freedom in Kurdistan (PJAK), a sister terrorist organization of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey and Iran have increased counter-terrorism and military cooperation.

Furthermore, Turkey’s determination to conclude some sort of nuclear agreement with Iran reflects the AK Party’s thinking about foreign policy. Turkey’s negotiations with Iran can simply be seen as a manifestation of what Davutoglu and the AK Party have been saying all along. Namely, that while in power they would pursue an interest led foreign policy, promoting regional peace, while balancing Turkey’s relations with the East and West. Turkey’s recent actions smack of Realpolitique, a term and concept that should not be foreign to leaders in Washington, Paris and London.

5. There seems to be less concern in Turkey about a nuclear Iran than in Europe and the US. Why do you think that is?

Since the election of AK Party, one cannot go one week without reading a headline in some major American/European newspaper that asks “Is Turkey Turning East?” Reporters, security analysts, and foreign policy bloggers often point to Turkey’s religious government and its balanced foreign policy as proof of Ankara’s creeping “Islamization.” Frequently, these article are precipitated by a comment or speech made by Prime Minister Erdogan, where he says something about his country’s Iran policy. These fears are exacerbated by Turkey’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue and by its recent decision to vote “no” on the latest UNSC sanctions.

I believe that the difference between the West and Turkey’s position on the dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program is driven by each country’s immediate and long-term security threats. The West views Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon as a threat because they believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon will upset regional stability and prompt the Sunni Arab states to build their own nuclear weapons. Needless to say, a nuclear arms race in the world’s oil producing nations would harm American and European security and economic interests.

Secondly, I don’t think that one can ignore the West’s discomfort with Islam and its immediate association with terrorism. Thus, there is a persuasive and pervasive discourse in American and European communities that believe Iran’s religious beliefs will exempt them from believing in the traditional concepts of deterrence.

Turkey and Iran, on the other hand, have a shared sense of national identity that stems from a common history of powerful empires that were usurped by imperialism. Both countries are home to historic Middle Eastern Empires that controlled large swaths of territory in the Middle East and Central Asia. The two former empires share a number of cultural and religious similarities and they have shared a common and un-changing border since the signing the Kasr-i Şırın Treaty in 1639. I believe that the long history of cordial relations has lessened Turkish threat perceptions.

Despite the similarities, there are differing perceptions within Turkey about the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran. In my opinion, Turkish thinking about the potential dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program appear to correlate with an individuals interpretation of Turkey’s secularist principles – those that argue that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to tend to favor a rigid and strict interpretation of secularism, while those that favor a more loose interpretation of Ataturk’s secularist principles are generally less threatened by Iran’s nuclear program.

Thus, like all of Turkish politics there is an internal struggle over the direction of the country’s foreign policy. I think these divergent opinions can be traced back to the words of Ataturk who said “Peace at home, peace in the region.” Thus far, the AK party has flipped the meaning of these words and has come to believe that “peace in the region leads to peace at home.” The AK Party’s primary fear is an American or Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. The resulting chaos, they believe, will upset Turkey’s economic growth and could contribute to terrorist activity in the Southeast. The specter of a nuclear Iran takes a back seat to Turkey’s immediate security interests, meaning that in the short term the prospect of an American/Israeli attack is more of a threat to Turkey’s security than a nuclear armed Iran. In the West, the opposite is true; officials argue that a nuclear-armed Iran will be the catalyst for regional upheaval and instability.

Thus, it seems that the two sides will continue to not see eye-to-eye on this important issue.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Leak in Review

It's been three days since the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release and it's hard to imagine things going back to the way they were before. How could they now that we know that diplomats say one thing in public and different, much blunter things, in private; that the Arab states, from Egypt to the Gulf, are itching for the United States to take out Iran's nuclear program; that Israeli officials believe Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan "hates" their country; and that the Turkish leader may have eight secret bank accounts in Switzerland (OK, on that count, maybe there is something to these leaks after all).

On the Turkey front, at least, despite the advance hype, there was little earth shattering material in the leaked cables. After taking a look at what was released so far, the Hurriyet Daily News was able to come up with this vapid observation: "U.S. diplomats in Turkey have been deeply interested in the politics of the country, according to United States State Department cables made public by whistleblower site WikiLeaks." As analyst Semih Idiz wrote in the same paper:
The documents now may provide interesting and entertaining reading on Turkey, and may be very upsetting for some people in the government, but they are not of “historic” caliber.

As for the frank and direct language in the cables, this may be something of a novelty for the layman, but the language in the diplomatic dispatches from Turkish embassies abroad – or any embassy for that matter - is probably not much different.

What these leaked cables have done, on the other hand, is confirm what has been talked about or speculated about on the basis of factual information or “educated guessing” among diplomats and diplomatic observers in Ankara for some time.
Still, digging through the Turkey-related cables does yield some illuminating and instructive material. One thing they make clear is the difficulty Washington initially had in understanding Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Former Ambassador Eric Edelman's cables from the AKP's early years, in particular, while getting some things right also seriously misread Erdogan and rely on dubious sources for their information, such as a conspiracy-theory loving pollster who predicts the AKP's imminent demise.

Things seem to improve as time goes by, though. Most recent Ambassador to Ankara James Jeffrey's early 2010 cable about the "new" Turkish foreign policy was sharp, perceptive and more attuned to the nuances of Turkish politics, offering up some very interesting criticisms of Turkey's current foreign policy. From the cable, which is worth reading in full:
Despite their success and relative power, the Turks really can't compete on equal terms with either the US or regional "leaders" (EU in the Balkans, Russia in the Caucasus/Black Sea, Saudis, Egyptians and even Iranians in the ME). With Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources, to cut themselves in on the action the Turks have to "cheat" by finding an underdog (this also plays to Erdogan's own worldview), a Siladjcic, Mish'al, or Ahmadinejad, who will be happy to have the Turks take up his cause. The Turks then attempt to ram through revisions to at least the reigning "Western" position to the favor of their guy. Given, again, the questioning of Western policy and motives by much of the Turkish public and the AKP, such an approach provides a relatively low cost and popular tool to demonstrate influence, power, and the "we're back" slogan.
There are also some interesting items dealing with the Turkey-Israel relationship, which give an indication of how Erdogan might be looking at Israel as a political (and possibly strategic) liability and how he is recalibrating Turkey's regional strategic posture vis-a-vis the country. In another cable by Jeffrey, from October of 2009, the ambassador writes about the cancellation of the Anatolian Eagle military exercises after Erdogan barred Israel's participation only "hours" before the exercises were to start. Although Erdogan's action has previously been described as the result of his not wanting to take the domestic political risk of being seen as having played host to the same air force that bombed Gaza only a few months before, Jeffrey provides a different explanation:
With an Israeli strike - across Turkish airspace - against targets in Iran a possibility, Erdogan decided he could not afford the political risk of being accused of training the forces which would carry out such a raid.
In another cable, this one from early 2010, the ambassador lays out some of Turkey's worries about getting involved with Washington's new missile defense plan (which eventually became the one approved at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon). Something similar plays out here:
Erdogan is concerned that Turkey's participation might later give Israel protection from an Iranian counter-strike.
In fact, as the years go by, Iran starts to increasingly dominate the material in the cables leaked so far. Along with the material coming out of the rest of the Middle East, the leaks show how profoundly out of step Turkey is with most of its allies and neighbors regarding the urgency of forcefully dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and in terms of being concerned about what others see as Tehran's "destabilizing" regional actions. At the same time, they also seem to highlight one of the built-in tensions in the Turkey-Iran relationship, which is Ankara's belief that its engagement with Tehran is moderating the Iranian regime and "isolating" it regionally, something which could eventually lead to tension between the two countries.

For example, in a cable from late 2009 that describes a somewhat testy meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Gordon accuses the Turks of not being tough enough on the Iranian. The Turkish FM counters that Ankara is providing an alternative vision for the region and, as a result, the Turks "limit Iranian influence in the region." In another cable, from an early 2010 meeting between the State Department's Nicholas Burns and the Turkish MFA's Feridun Siniroglu, the issue of Syria comes up. In this case the cable reports:
Sinirlioglu contended Turkey's diplomatic efforts are beginning to pull Syria out of Iran's orbit. He said a shared hatred for Saddam had been the original impetus for their unlikely alliance. "Now, their interests are diverging." Once again pitching Israel-Syria proximity talks, Sinirlioglu contended Israel's acceptance of Turkey as a mediator could break Syria free of Tehran's influence and further isolate Iran.
For now, it doesn't seem like it's the leaks themselves that will do any harm to Turkey's relations with some of the countries involved. In the case of the US, the leaked cables won't create bad chemistry -- they only confirm and help us further understand the bad chemistry that existed before the leaks. But the leaks' domestic ramifications in Turkey -- particularly the material charging Erdogan and other AKP members with corruption, something the opposition has already started using against the government -- could ultimately prove damaging to Turkish-US relations.

With general elections coming up, it's likely that Erdogan and the AKP will try to stir up an anti-American backlash to the leaks as a way of diverting attention away from the damaging material inside them. In fact, that might have already started: in a strongly-worded speech he gave today, Erdogan undiplomatically suggested his lawyers might sue some of the American diplomats responsible for writing the leaked cables. “This is the United States’ problem, not ours... Those who have slandered us will be crushed under these claims, will be finished and will disappear,” the HDN reported the Turkish PM as saying at an Ankara municipal ceremony. Other AKP officials, meanwhile, are portraying the leaks as part of an Israeli plot to weaken and corner Turkey.

So much for Wikileaks heralding the arrival of a new day.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Boycott for Mr. Naipaul

What is it about Turks and winners of the Nobel prize for literature? Their own home-grown one, Orhan Pamuk, has more-or-less been hounded out of the country for alleged insults against the nation. And now V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born 2001 winner of the prize, has been forced to cancel a speech he was to make in Turkey because of an uproar over alleged insults he made against Islam.

The story's background, via the Wall Street Journal:
Nobel Prize-winning author Sir V.S. Naipaul has pulled out of a writers' conference in Istanbul that starts Thursday, pressured by religious conservative media in Turkey that objected to statements he has made on Islam.
The move sparked two Turkish authors to pull out of the event, its organizers said Wednesday.
Mr. Naipaul, author of some 30 books, had been due to give the opening speech at the European Parliament of Writers, a literary event organized here to mark Istanbul's status as a European Capital of Culture this year.
For the past week, however, religious conservative Turkish newspapers, including Yeni Safak and Zaman, have been campaigning against the decision to honor Mr. Naipaul, a 78-year-old Trinidadian of Indian origin. While some Turkish authors supported his right to attend the conference, defending him on grounds of free speech, others said they would boycott the event if he attended.
"How can our writers bear to sit by the same table with Naipaul, who has seen Muslims worthy of so many insults?" wrote poet and Zaman columnist Hilmi Yavuz, who initiated the planned boycott last week and described Mr. Naipaul as "an enemy of Islam" and "a colonialist."
Is it me, or is there an ill wind of intolerance blowing through Turkey these days? From television stations being fined for what guests said during debates, to ministers suing columnists for perceived insults and armed gangs attacking art gallery openings, there seems to be a worrying trend developing here.

The great irony regarding the scratched Naipaul visit was that the cantankerous author was actually in Istanbul this past July and not a peep was heard. At that time, he came as a key speaker in something called "Istancool," an arts and culture festival sponsored by Turkish Airlines and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism. Four months later, Istanbul doesn't seem so cool, at least not on the cultural front.

Turkey is trying to position Istanbul as a global capital of, among other things, culture. The Naipaul affair is a sign that, at least for now, the internal forces and contradictions that continue to tug at the Turkish sense of self-identity will prevent the city from playing that role. Indeed, as Sameer Rahim, the Daily Telegraph's assistant books editor, wrote in a column about the affair, Naipaul's writing probably has a lot to offer Turkey:
Naipaul, like Turkey, contains unfathomable contradictions. (He does, after all, have a Pakistani wife.) Those Turks who opposed his entry might do well to ignore his provocations and read his powerful novels of inbetweeness.
A very interesting 2005 New York Times profile of Naipaul, meanwhile, sheds more light on his complicated and sometimes problematic approach to Islam, but also shows that the author and the two books about his travels in parts of the Muslim world, which have been the source for some of the criticism leveled against Naipaul, might also have something to say for today's Turkey. From the article:
The books raise but don't necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one's individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West? Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual freedom?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cat Fight

In the end, Ankara decided to use the recent NATO summit in Lisbon not as an opportunity to make a De Gaulle-style break with the alliance, but rather as a chance to reaffirm Turkey's commitment to the concept of collective security and to fend off those who were looking for another piece of evidence to prove the alleged Turkish drift eastward.

The Turkish government was able to bring home the goods on the issue it fought hardest on, which was to not name any country (i.e. Iran) as the reason behind the new NATO missile defense shield program that was agreed upon at the summit. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reported, "Most of a series of other demands Turkey had made in the weeks leading up to the meeting were either dropped or, as in the case of a demand for the control center to be located in Turkey, pushed into the future. Turkish President Abdullah Gul didn't press these issues on Friday, say people attending the summit."

Without any drama or showdowns at the summit itself, things got more interesting once it ended. As Burak Bekdil writes in a typically acerbic column in Today's Hurriyet Daily News:
“In France, we call a cat a cat. We all know we are talking about Iran,” President Nicholas Sarkozy said after the NATO summit in Lisbon. Apparently, the French president dislikes verbal contortions surrounding the proposed missile defense architecture. “We, too, call a cat a cat,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan replied in Turkey, while vigorously avoiding calling a cat a cat.

Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül was proud because Turkey’s efforts to not call a cat a cat had succeeded at the Lisbon summit. Now we have a cat at our east door, but neither we nor our NATO allies would call it a cat. All the same, Mssrs. Sarkozy and Erdoğan claim that they would call a cat a cat.

In September, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had also called a cat a cat. The missile shield system, Mr. Rasmussen said, would be against possible attacks from rogue states. It was apparent that his definition of rogue states did not imply Singapore or New Zealand. The secretary general named Iran’s nuclear program as one of the reasons justifying the missile shield. The cat?!
I think the question is not so much Turkey refusing to "call a cat a cat," but rather how it perceives the feline. To some of Ankara's allies (most crucially, the U.S.), the cat is a growling one that often tries to claw those reaching out to stroke it. To Turkey, on the other hand, the cat is a potentially cuddly stray that simply needs to be brought in from the cold (perhaps, as Semih Idiz points out in a recent column, that's why one of the first things Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu did after the summit was call his Iranian counterpart to update him on developments).

At the end of the day, though, by joining the missile shield agreement, it appears that Ankara is not taking any chances one way or another. In a good analysis of what the Lisbon summit means for Turkey and transtlantic relations, the German Marshall Fund's Ian Lesser points out that:
....the approach to ballistic missile defense architecture, agreed in principle in Lisbon, suits Turkish security interests to a surprising degree. Turkey’s close political and commercial relations with Tehran, and Ankara’s “no” vote on UN Security Council sanctions, contributed to an atmo- sphere of friction with Western partners on Iran policy. Yet, beneath the differences on Iran diplomacy, Turkey shares — or should share — some concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. In a technical sense, Turkey is the most exposed member of the alliance when it comes to the growing reach of ballistic missile systems deployed or under development in the Middle East. Ankara may wish to keep an open line with Tehran, but the defense of Turkish territory, including key population centers, still matters.
Lesser's analysis paints a fairly positive picture of the post-summit Turkey-NATO/western alliance dynamic, writing:
....the Lisbon experience suggests that some aspects of Turkish foreign policy remain cautious and traditional, and the NATO connection still matters when it comes to working with Ankara.
On the other hand, in his conclusion, Lesser looks ahead, offering this thought:
The dynamics in Lisbon do not reverse recent trends in Turkish strategy, nor are they irrelevant to future prospects. For the United States and Europe, the Lisbon summit underscores the reality that Turkey’s foreign and security policy is increasingly diverse, in character as well as direction.
Clearly, many more opportunities to see who calls a cat a cat await Turkey and NATO down the road.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sticks and Stones....

The case of Oktay Eksi -- the long-time Hurriyet columnist who resigned this past week in the face of government and "public" pressure -- has been staying with me. The background: in what was to be one of his final columns, Eksi, a fixture in his newspaper's pages for some 40 years, railed against the Prime Minister and other government officials for their plan to build a series of controversial dams in a scenic part of northeastern Turkey. In an intemperate flight of rhetorical (and metaphorical) fancy, the columnist accused Erdogan and the others of being willing to "sell their own mothers."

Following strong criticism from Erdogan and the government and facing angry protesters in front of Hurriyet, Eksi quickly resigned. As Andrew Finkel makes clear in a very good Today's Zaman column (found here), Eksi is a difficult character to defend and it's obvious that many of his colleagues were probably happy to see him and his antiquated take on Turkish politics go.

Still, there's something disturbing about his departure. As Finkel writes: "Mr. Ekşi was in effect forced to resign by a newspaper that is not eager to insult the government at a time when it is trying to wiggle free of a punitive tax bill of some TL 2 billion." Even more disturbing is what has happened since the former columnist's resignation. Not satisfied with only having Eksi's scalp, Erdogan and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz are suing him for "insulting" their honor and reputation. This is the latest in a string of similar cases initiated by Erdogan, who is asking for $71,000 in damages.

Should public officials be suing columnists for their rhetorical missteps? (The European Court of Human Rights says "no.") It would appear that the message that's being sent out in the Eksi case has more to it than simply the defense of honor.

(On a related note, Jennifer Hattam of the TreeHugger blog has a great post up about just what is happening with the dam project that Eksi wrote about and why people are getting so fired up about the government's actions on the issue.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Criminalizing Protest

Human Rights Watch has an excellent new report out that looks at the troubling use of anti-terror laws to imprison Kurdish protestors and stifle dissent in southeast Turkey.

According to Turkish law, protestors (even non-violent ones) can be accused of being members of a terrorist organization (read, the PKK) if they go to a demonstration that was deemed to have been organized by that organization. That had led to numerous cases of people who have been given fairly severe sentences for basically showing up at a protest. Some of examples covered in HRW's report include the case of an illiterate mother of six who was sentenced to seven years in jail for joining a protest where she held up a banner that said "The approach to peace lies through Ocalan" and that of a university student who was given six years in jail after being filmed flashing a victory sign at the Diyarbakir funeral procession of a slain PKK fighter and then later seen clapping his hands at a protest at his university.

From a release about the report:
....Over the past three years, courts have relied on broadly drafted terrorism laws introduced as provisions of the 2005 Turkish Penal Code, plus case law, to prosecute demonstrators. The courts have ruled that merely being present at a demonstration that the PKK encouraged people to attend amounts to acting under PKK orders. Demonstrators have been punished severely for acts of terrorism even if their offense was making a victory sign, clapping, shouting a PKK slogan, throwing a stone, or burning a tire....

...."When it comes to the Kurdish question, the courts in Turkey are all too quick to label political opposition as terrorism," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "When you close off the space for free speech and association, it has the counterproductive effect of making armed opposition more attractive."
The report can be found here.

(photo: a group of Kurdish women at a 2007 rally in Diyarbakir. By Yigal Schleifer)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Transatlantic Drift

Simon Tisdall has an interesting piece up on the Guardian website look at how Washington's effort to create a NATO-led missile defense program in Europe is, "bringing longstanding tensions over European security into the open, to the potential advantage of Russia and Turkey, the maverick guardians of the EU's eastern flank." The full column can be found here.

Also of interest is a new study by the European Council on Foreign Relations that Tisdall links to, titled "The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe." From the report's summary:

The findings:

  • The post-Cold War order is unravelling. Rather than uniting under a single system, Europe’s big powers are moving apart. Tensions between them have made security systems dysfunctional: they failed to prevent war in Kosovo and Georgia, instability in Kyrgyzstan, disruption to Europe’s gas supplies, and solve frozen conflicts.
  • The EU has spent much of the last decade defending a European order that no longer functions. Russia and Turkey may complain more, but the EU has the most to lose from the current peaceful disorder.
  • A frustrated Turkey still wants to join the EU, but it is increasingly pursuing an independent foreign policy and looking for a larger role as a regional power. In the words of foreign minister Davutoglu, Turkey is now an ‘actor not an issue’. Its accession negotiations to the EU should be speeded up, and it must also be engaged as an important regional power.
  • Russia never accepted the post-Cold War order. Moscow is now strong enough to openly challenge it, but its Westpolitik strategy also means that it is open to engagement – that is why Dmitri Medvedev suggested a new European security treaty a couple of years ago.
  • Obama’s non-appearance at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was the latest sign that the US is no longer focused on Europe’s internal security. Washington has its hands full dealing with Afghanistan, Iran and China and is no longer a European power.

The Recommendations:

  • An informal ‘trialogue’ involving the EU, Turkey and Russia should be established, allowing cooperation over security to build from the ground up.
  • In order to strengthen Turkey’s European identity, Ankara should be given a top-table seat at the trialogue, in parallel with enhanced EU accession negotiations. New chapters should be opened on CSDP and energy.
  • The EU should be represented by the foreign affairs high representative, Catherine Ashton, institutionalising the EU as a security actor.
  • A European security identity should be fostered by encouraging the involvement of Russia in projects like missile defence that focus on external threats to Europe.
  • Russian resolve should be tested by a commitment to dealing with frozen conflicts and instability in the wider European area.
The Full report can be found here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Unguided Missiles

As James Traub points out in his most recent Foreign Policy column, Turkey currently aspires to be many things, some of which may ultimately contradict each other. Can one have rapidly warming political and trade ties with Iran while at the same time playing host to a new NATO-sponsored missile defense system that is squarely aimed at countering an Iranian threat? That appears to be the fix Ankara is currently in.

With NATO and Washington pushing for a new missile defense system, one that would make extensive use of Turkey's strategic geographic location, Ankara is now looking for ways to neither offend its neighbor to the east nor its allies in the West. In a column in Today's Zaman, analyst Lale Kemal takes a look at what appears to be Turkey's solution to the conundrum it is facing, which is to only agree to join the missile defense program if it doesn't name any specific targets. Is Tehran assuaged that easily? Perhaps.

Not joining the missile shield program is, of course, also an option for Turkey, but it would certainly only give only more ammunition to those making the case that the country is "drifting east," with more articles like this one certain to come. All in all, the missile defense decision appears to be one that crystalizes the difficult balancing act Turkey is trying to maintain while both hanging on to its traditional role as a reliable NATO member and developing its new role as a more independent and unconventional regional player.

More background on the missile defense debate in Turkey can be found in previous posts, here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On "Public Opinion"

In the previous post, I wrote about the tricky nature of "public opinion" in Turkey. In a new piece for the German Marshall Fund, Bilgi University's Ilter Turan tackles the same issue, looking at a the results of a few recent public opinion polls taken in Turkey and trying to figure out what they say. His interesting analysis can be found here(pdf).

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Zero Problems, Maximum Trade": Chinese Edition

In July of 2009, after dozens of Uighurs were killed or went missing in the wake of ethnic riots in western China's Xinjiang province, Turkish merchants were setting fire to Chinese-made products, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a "genocide" had been committed and a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Beijing appeared to be brewing. (For more details, take a look at these previous posts.)

Cut to today, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao coming to Turkey on an official visit and announcing with Erdogan that the two countries are establishing a "strategic partnership" and plan to triple their trade in the next five years. This comes on the heels of reports that Turkish and Chinese military jets trained together, as part of the annual Anatolian Eagle exercises that Ankara last year controversially banned Israel from participating in (on the grounds that the Turkish public wouldn't accept the presence of the same military that attacked Gaza on Turkish soil). Uighurs? "Genocide?" Let bygones be bygones. Clearly Turkey and China have bigger fish to fry these days.

It's fairly obvious to say that when it wants to be, the Erdogan government can be exceedingly pragmatic, especially when the issue is expanding trade. But I think the interaction with China also says a lot about "public opinion" in Turkey and how it can be shaped by official attitudes. Since the "genocide" remark in July of 2009, Erdogan and other officials have said very little about the situation in Xinjiang and have refrained from criticizing China. The result? Where one would expect at least some reaction on the behalf of the Turkish public on behalf of their Uighur kin during the Chinese leader's visit, there has been silence.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sowing the Seeds of Paranoia

The start of the academic year is always a good time to instill some wisdom and knowledge in the minds of young and impressionable students, which is just what Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, head of Turkey's Higher Board of Education (YOK), tried to do in a recent talk in front of students at Central Turkey's Nevsehir University.

The subject of the talk given by Ozcan (pictured above) -- Turkey's highest-level academic, essentially -- was the importance of Turkey's universities ramping up their own research capabilities. To support his argument, Ozcan brought up the subject of tomato seeds, most of which he claimed are being imported from the United States and Israel, with dire consequences for Turkish eaters.

Here's a translation of what he had to say on the subject:
The seeds of the tomatoes and wheat we grow in Turkey mostly come from abroad, because we don't have enough seeds of our own. They come from the US and Israel. As a Turkish intellectual, sometimes I feel very little.

I mean, can't we produce our tomato seeds here in our country?.... And we don't know the consequences either. You're buying these tomato seeds. There is something called 'genetic programming.' They can implant a genetic mechanism into the tomatoes and we can eat it without even knowing. We can be infected with some diseases that we don't know anything about. In the meantime, you can destroy a whole nation. They can implant such things that people who eat these seeds die in the meantime. There are things like that and it is very dangerous. Therefore our universities need to help us in that matter.
More details (in Turkish) here.

Beyond the disturbing thought of the head of Turkey's highest academic body selling a group of students a conspiracy theory built on bad science, it turns out that Ozcan's basic data is also wrong. Forced to respond to Ozcan's allegations, Turkey's Minister of Agriculture said that the country, in fact, imports only about 6 percent of its seeds from Israel. More here.

More than tomato seeds imported from Israel, perhaps the greatest challenge facing Turkey is the quality of its educational system, from the primary level all the way to the top (for a very interesting take on that issue, read this great blog post by Aengus Collins). Ozcan's Nevsehir talk may be an indication of how far Turkey has to go in dealing with that challenge.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Zero Problems, Maximum Trade"

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the political motivations behind Turkey's ambitious foreign policy moves, but what about the economic angle? The evolution of the mantra governing Ankara's new foreign policy from "Zero Problems With Neighbors" to "Zero Problems, Maximum Trade" seems to say quite a bit about what role economics and the pursuit of economic growth have to do with Turkey's changing approach to many of its neighbors.

I took a look at the economic underpinnings of Turkey's foreign policy in a recent article for Institutional Investor magazine. A pdf version of the article can be read here.

Today's Zaman, meanwhile, report today about another Turkish initiative that brings together Ankara's economic and political ambitions meet: the creation of a free-trade zone with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The article can be found here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mass Politics

I have an article and photo essay up on the Eurasianet website about yesterday's historic mass at the Akdamar island Armenian church in eastern Turkey's Lake Van. It was the first time a mass had been held in the church in 95 years and the event saw the largest number of Armenians in the Van area since 1915, when they were either driven or wiped out by the Ottoman authorities.

Although the event was seen by some as an elaborate public relations effort on behalf of the Turkish government and there was some controversy over the Turkish authorities failure to place a cross on the church's roof (its name in Armenian is, after all, "Church of the Holy Cross"), I still think the event was a significant one, in terms of getting Turks to come to terms with the fact that their country actually has an Armenian history and that Armenians can stake a claim (in historical and cultural terms) to parts of Turkey.

From my article:
As an Armenian growing up in Basra, Iraq, Vanuhi Ohannesian was always hearing about eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region, her grandparents’ birthplace and the place after which she is named.

Ohannesian’s grandparents were forced to leave the lakeside city of Van in 1915, when the Ottoman authorities drove out the region’s ethnic Armenians; her father was born during the family’s trek from Van to safety in Iraq.

“My father died two years ago and was always telling me to come to Van. He said this was our motherland,” said 68-year-old Ohannesian, who today lives in Los Angeles.

Some 95 years after her grandparents’ flight from Turkey, Ohannesian finds herself standing beside one of the Armenians’ most sacred sites, the 1,089-year-old church on Lake Van’s Akdamar Island. Closed since 1915, the island church was restored by the Turkish authorities between 2005 and 2007 and reopened as a museum.

On September 19, the authorities allowed a historic mass to be held on Akdamar, an event that drew several thousand visitors to the island throughout the day, including many Armenians from abroad, such as Ohannesian, who had never been to Turkey before.

“I never believed I would be coming here,” said Ohannesian, standing on a small hill that overlooks the church and holding a small bottle filled with lake water which she plans to bring back to Los Angeles and place at her father’s grave. “We believed people didn’t change, that if they did something once, they would do it again....”

....Cengiz Aktar, director of the European Studies Department at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, says the event may have been symbolic, but it also represents a deeper, more encouraging dynamic.

“It’s part of a slow but steady process of normalization regarding the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey and the glorious past of coexistence of religions in this land that was shattered by the emergence of the nation state,” said Aktar, who is active in civil society Turkish-Armenian reconciliation efforts.

“At the end of the day, there is a reality that is unearthed,” he continued. “This is what should prevail. At the end of the day, we are rediscovering the Armenian past in this region.”
You can find the full article here, and the accompanying photoessay here.

(photo: view of the Akdamar church in Lake Van, Turkey, taken in 2006. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Referendum Talk

I was on Chicago Public Radio's "Worldview" program talking about the Sept. 12 referendum in Turkey and the constitutional reform package that Turkish voters passed today. You can hear the interview, which also covers a number of other related issues, here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

From Tehran to Jerusalem

In recent months, the two most glaring trouble spots for Turkish foreign policy have been relations with Israel and Iran. In the case of Israel, it's been the deterioration in relations that has caused trouble for Turkey, while in the case of Iran it's been the improvement in relations that has proved problematic (at least in terms of relations with western allies). The International Crisis Group has a new report out that takes a clear-eyed look at Ankara's relations with Israel and Iran and how the changes in those relations are fueling questions about in which direction Ankara is heading. Like other ICG reports, it also offers some very practical suggestions for everyone concerned about how to take things forward. From the report:
Damage to Turkey’s relations with Israel and suspicions in Western capitals about its relationship with Iran have dealt setbacks to Ankara’s “zero-problem” foreign policy. At the same time, there have been many misconceptions about Turkey’s new engagement in the Middle East, which aims to build regional peace and prosperity. From a Turkish perspective, Israel and Iran issues have separate dynamics and involve more collaboration and shared goals with Western partners than is usually acknowledged. Ankara’s share of the blame for the falling out with Western friends and Israel has been exaggerated, but there are problems in the government’s formulation and presentation of its foreign policy. These include short-sightedness, heated rhetoric, over-reach and distraction from Turkey’s core conflict-resolution challenges in its immediate neigh bourhood, including a Cyprus settlement, normalisation with Armenia, resolution of new Kurdish tensions and commitment to EU convergence....

....Turkey has changed greatly over the past two decades, becoming richer and more self-confident, no longer dependent on Washington or Brussels alone. While Ankara should not exaggerate its own importance or capacities, its Western partners should recognise its genuine significance in its region and beyond and spend more time talking to it quietly, constructively and at high-levels. To this end, Washington and Ankara in particular might usefully consider establishing new mechanisms for regular dialogue and better coordination on the full range of their shared foreign policy interests, including in the Middle East. Moreover, while Turkey remains committed to its EU path, France and Germany must keep its membership perspectives credible, if all are to take maximum advantage of their shared Middle East goals. These commonalities remain a strong basis for cooperating to increase stability and diminish conflicts in the region.
You can find a link to the full report here.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Kurdish Kurdish Opening

I've been on the road lately, so I'm just now catching up on current developments. One article that jumped out at me is Henri Barkey's Aug. 31 piece on the Foreign Policy website, "Turkey's Silent Crisis." In the article, Barkey -- who just returned from a trip to Southeast Turkey -- takes a look at the resurgent Kurdish problem in Turkey and at some of the trouble brewing under the surface. One of the interesting developments he looks at is how Kurdish politicians in Turkey are increasingly organizing an effort to move towards some form of local self government (trying to nip this movement in the bud, the Turkish state is currently prosecuting dozens of Kurdish mayors in the southeast). From his article:

The end of the Kurdish opening has also served to consolidate Kurdish attitudes toward the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the primary legal Kurdish political organization. The BDP has close ties to the PKK and increasingly sees itself as the Turkish equivalent of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

In the absence of political progress with the government, the BDP and Kurds in general are also beginning to put together the rudimentary institutional structures of self-governance in the southeastern provinces. The prosecution's 7,500-page indictment against members of the BDP, largely resting on conjecture and unsubstantiated allegations, nevertheless manages to sketch the contours of a parallel self-governance structure the Kurds have been attempting to put into place -- independent of Ankara.

For most activist Kurds, the PKK's armed insurrection is of secondary importance. The PKK, and especially its imprisoned leader Ocalan, is a symbolic force that they admire for raising the Kurdish issue to the forefront of Turkish politics. "Without the PKK, no one would be talking of Kurdish rights today," goes the refrain. At least in the southeastern provinces, Kurds now have an important advantage: control of the municipalities. This provides them with organizational capabilities to deepen their political struggle for recognition. Psychologically, the Turkish state may have already lost these provinces.

You can read the full article here. To get a better sense of what the BDP's leadership is thinking, take a look at this interesting interview with its co-chair, Gultan Kisanak, where she talks about the party's demands for decentralizing the Turkish state.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A (not so) Simple Yes or No Will Do

Constitutional reform is tricky business. Fortunately for the average Turk, who is being asked to vote on a constitutional reform package in a national referendum on Sept. 12, Turkey's political parties are making things simple. Rather than talking about what's in the package, they have turned the referendum into a vote of confidence on the ruling AKP government and boiled down the whole thing into a simple matter of "yes" versus "no." Like the government? vote "evet." Don't like the government? Vote "hayir."

Or maybe things are not so simple. Writes Andrew Finkel in Today's Zaman:
In a nation already susceptible to polarization, who, one might ask, was the bright spark who came up with the idea of a political mechanism where the issues could only be decided with a nod or a shake of the head. It has already got to the point, the press reports, where brides and groom are falling out even before they leave the registry office over whether to take their vows with a government-leaning “yes” or the more contrary “I do.”
So what's in the reform package (which was passed in parliament a few months ago, but not with enough votes to avoid going to referendum)? Like many other AKP initiatives, it's a strange confection, layers of sweet-tasting and sensible-sounding enticements wrapped around a core of harder to swallow and clumsily disguised political self-interest.

What's causing the most debate in the package are the amendments that would change the way judges are appointed to Turkey's top court and to the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European parliament, takes a look at some of the criticism that's being leveled at that part of the reform package in a recent Hurriyet Daily News column.

Turkey, of course, is in dire need of constitutional reform, currently burdened with a constitution that was drafted by the military after the 1980 coup. The current document is designed to protect the state, rather than individual citizens -- a mindset that still permeates much of Turkish law. The AKP had actually campaigned in 2007 with the promise of a new civil constitution, but backed off on that promise once it got into office, using the political capital of its 47 percent victory and large parliamentary majority to pass a single constitutional amendment, one which would allow for headscarves to be worn at universities (and which was promptly annulled by Turkey's Constitutional Court).

The current package, which has some 20 articles, is again being delivered with a promise that this is only a prelude to further amendments, if not the long-awaited complete overhaul of the problematic current constitution. But there is good reason to worry about if more constitutional reforms will be coming any time soon, if at all, especially after all the effort that will be spent on passing (or killing) the current reform package. Hard to imagine anyone in the government having the appetite to go through the process again. One group of liberal intellectuals, who are supporting the package, are running a campaign called "Not enough, but 'yes'" -- not quite a ringing endorsement and one that struck as carrying a whiff of resignation to it.

For those interested in the actual details of the package, SETA, a government-leaning think tank based in Ankara has a rundown of the reform package, which can be found here (pdf).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Turkey and Israel, By the Numbers

The New York Times' Dan Bilefsky has a piece out looking at how on the commercial front its been business as usual between Israel and Turkey, despite the post-Mavi Marmara incident tensions. The article paints a fairly rosy picture of trade-driven pragmatism trumping nationalist sentiment.

I recently had a chance to speak with a major Turkish businessman who has been active in trade with Israel and got a less positive sense of things. Private sector dealings are perhaps not as affected right now, but he said that many Israeli companies he spoke with were deeply worried about being shut out of government tenders in Turkey and losing access to local financing for projects. Tourism figures, meanwhile, tell a very troubling story: this past June, only 2,605 Israelis visited Turkey, compared to 27,289 the year before (a figure which was already lower than previous years, since Israeli tourism to Turkey started dropping after the early 2009 Gaza war and the subsequent harsh Turkish response). There was a 44 percent drop in Israeli tourism to Turkey between 2008 and 2009 and one can only imagine how low 2010's figures will be.

On the other hand, Turkey and Israel appear to be making furtive moves towards restoring some semblance of normalcy in their relationship. The three Turkish ships involved in the flotilla incident, including the Mavi Marmara, have been released by the Israeli government and are currently being towed back to a port on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Israel has also agreed to participate in a United Nations inquiry into the flotilla incident, although the committee seems designed less to get to the bottom of the affair and more as a way of offering both Turkey and Israel a chance to step back from the maximalist positions they have taken on the issue.

In general, I get the sense that Ankara is still searching for a workable game in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. Threats and harsh rhetoric against Israel have not worked, and the whole affair (combined with Turkey's "no" vote in the Security Council on Iran sanctions) has worked to strain relations with Washington. In many ways, Turkey makes me think of a stylishly-playing soccer/football team whose game falls apart upon encountering a rival with a hard-nosed and rough-playing defense.

Analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at this in today's Hurriyet Daily News, in a column entitled "Govt's Mavi Marmara Frustration Deepens." The column can be found here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Turkey Flying High

The Wall Street Journal's Turkey correspondent, Marc Champion, has another great article out, this time taking a look at the spectacular recent growth of Turkish Airlines (THY) and how that is both mirroring and working hand-in-hand with Turkey's rising political and economic ambitions.

Though no longer fully state-owned, THY is very much being used as a tool of state policy, with flights to strategic new destinations (mostly in economic terms) all over the world being added almost at the same time as the government makes diplomatic and trade overtures in those same places.

I was especially struck by how some of the industry concerns and criticisms of the airline's rapid growth mirrored some of the concerns being aired about Turkey's rapidly evolving foreign policy. From Champion's piece:
Meanwhile, there's some discreet grumbling among THY's Star Alliance partners about the airline's expansion and pricing strategy.

"Turkish seems to be the new Emirates—no-one wants to be in an alliance with Emirates because there is no room for a partner, the aim is to connect everything via Dubai," said an aviation official, who declined to be named. That could mean trouble for the future, the official said….

….There are concerns, too, about the speed of Turkish Airlines' growth. The crash of a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 as it approached Amsterdam airport last year, killing nine, revived memories of the airline's historically spotty safety record before it bought one of the world's newest fleets. Meanwhile, when fog blocked Ataturk Airport in November, the airport's systems crumbled. Just a few transit-desk computer terminals were available to change the flights of thousands of stranded passengers after passenger-information screens froze. At one point, passengers stormed over the transit desk and began pounding on the door of the office where frightened ground staff had retreated.
Indeed, much of the criticism being aimed at Turkish foreign policy these days -- particularly by Ankara's traditional Western allies -- is that it is less consultative and increasingly self-centered. Inside Turkey, meanwhile, there are concerns that Ankara has too many balls up in the air on the foreign policy front without sufficient resources to keep those balls from crashing to the ground. Launching initiatives and opening up embassies and consulates all over the world (just like adding flight destinations) is a great idea, but not if you don't have sufficiently trained personnel to follow through on those initiatives or meaningfully staff those postings (or properly fly the airplanes).

Those interested in charting the course of Turkish foreign policy in the coming years, then, might also want to start keeping their eye on how Turkish Airlines does and where it goes. It could tell a lot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Kurdish Problem, Again

The signals coming out of Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast region and from along the border with Iraq are not comforting. In recent weeks, Turkish soldiers are being on an almost daily basis in attacks by the resurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey's state-run news agency happily reports that 46 PKK members have been killed in the past month, failing to mention that most of them are also young Turkish citizens whose bodies will be returned home to be buried and mourned. Turkish jets have been bombing targets in Northern Iraq with increasing regularity, while Today's Zaman reports that military checkpoints have now been reintroduced in the southeast and that a previously-abandoned ban on herders taking their flocks up to the region's high plateaus has also been reinstated.

It seems like the hope and good will created by the Turkish government's "democratic opening," a reform initiative announced last summer that's mostly designed to deal with the decades-old Kurdish problem, has very quickly evaporated. Cengiz Candar, an astute analyst whose warnings are worth listening to, writes in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
The democratic initiative is not going anywhere. It has come to a halt, deviated even. We have an endless number of signs showing that we are back to the square one....
....The pre-1990 conditions settle in the Southeast again. We are going back to a state in which people are fed up with check points and barricades.
The full column (worth reading, though poorly translated) is here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixing One Leak, Springing Another

While reporting for my recent Eurasianet story about the current strained state of Turkey-U.S. relations, one Washington analyst told me he believes that the tension between Turkey and Israel has now seeped into the relationship between Ankara and Washington.

Well, now it appears that the Turkish-Israeli tensions has also seeped into Israel's internal politics. The first attempt at holding a high-level gathering between Turkish and Israeli officials since last month's Gaza flotilla raid -- a (no longer) secret meeting in Brussels yesterday between the Turkish Foreign Minister and Israel's Minister of Trade -- has led to controversy in Israel, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman loudly complaining that he was cut out of the loop. More on the details here and here, plus some good analysis by Judah Grunstein here.

A few thoughts about this latest development on the Turkey-Israel front. One is that, among the many other things that it has brought into sharp relief, the Mavi Marmara incident has also made clear what a rickety contraption the Netanyahu government is. At a time of deep crisis with what used to be one of its most important allies, Israel not only can't utilize its Foreign Minister for problem solving, but actually has to keep him and his ministry in the dark about what it's doing to fix the problem. Officials in Ankara have previously said that they don't believe they can work with this current Israeli administration, and it's hard to see how this latest development will give them more confidence in Bibi and company.

Two, although the meeting in Brussels was a positive step, the fact remains that there is no serious high-level contact between Turkey and Israel. This was already true before the flotilla incident (and was likely one of the main factors that contributed to the tragedy that ensued) and has only gotten worse since. Before the incident, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who serves as a stand-in foreign minister in situations where Lieberman is persona non grata, had a good rapport with the Turks. Post incident, the Turkey portfolio is now in the hands of Minister of Trade Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who also has a good rapport with Ankara but is not the diplomatic heavyweight that the current crisis requires.

Finally, the "secret" meeting in Brussels is an indication of really just how fragile the Turkish-Israeli relationship is right now. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the other day again offered up Turkey as a mediator between Syria and Israel, but the truth is that it's looking more and more like it's Turkey and Israel that could use some mediation help. We've gone from Turkey holding secret talks between Israel and Syria to Turkey and Israel being reduced to holding secret talks between themselves. Not good.

The road forward, meanwhile, looks problematic. Turkey had previously pegged any improvement in its relations with Israel to an improvement in the Gaza situation. Post flotilla, Turkey is now conditioning any normalization in the relations on Israel also making an official apology, compensating the families of the victims and allowing for an international inquiry. As one friend put it here, it's gone from Gaza to Gaza "plus on your knees." Hard to see Israel meeting all of those conditions.

A Turkish official told me that Ankara has made clear to Israel that there's a defined "road map" for normalizing relations. Considering the success that other recent "road maps" have had in the region, improving Turkish-Israeli relations could be a lengthy process.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"An Undeclared Crisis"

I have a piece up on the Eurasianet website that takes a look at the ongoing evolution (devolution?) of the Turkish-American relationship, from "strategic alliance" to "model partnership" to the next, yet-to-be named stage. From the article:
Analysts are warning that relations between Turkey and the United States may be heading for a period of volatility, particularly in the wake of the botched May 31 Israeli commando raid on a Gaza aid flotilla, along with Ankara’s recent decision to vote “no” in the United Nations Security Council on sanctions against Iran.

“There is a ceiling above which Turkish-American relations cannot improve, and there’s a floor which it can’t go below. But we are getting pretty close to the floor and the ability of the two countries to improve their relations really has a huge question mark over it. We are now talking about an undeclared crisis in the relations,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Indeed, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, Philip Gordon, the State Department’s top official for European and Eurasian affairs seemed to echo that assessment. Gordon suggested that Turkey needed to take demonstrable action to affirm its commitment to both the United States and the Atlantic Alliance.

Ankara, in recent years, has been plotting an increasingly independent and ambitious foreign policy course, one that sees an increased role for itself in regional and even global affairs. But observers say Turkey’s role in the Gaza flotilla incident and its subsequent harsh rhetoric against Israel, as well as its decision regarding the Iran sanctions vote, have brought into sharper relief some of the differences between Ankara’s and Washington’s approach on some key issues. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

“I think the administration realizes it has a problem with Turkey, but it’s not a major rift. It’s subtler than that. I think what they will do is start looking at Turkey at a more transactional level for a while, meaning ‘What are you doing for me?’ and ‘This is what I can do for you,’” said Henri Barkey, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “In the past we would have jumped through hoops for the Turks, but the Turks need to start being more sensitive to our concerns,” Barkey added.

On the other hand, things may be less subtle in Congress, Barkey warned. “The fact that the Hamas and Iran issues coincided within a week of each other have created a combustible situation on the Hill,” he said. “The Turks have a problem on the Hill.”

Speaking at a recent news conference, Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana considered to be a Congressional supporter of Turkey, told reporters: “There will be a cost, if Turkey stays on its present heading of growing closer to Iran and more antagonistic to the state of Israel. It will bear upon my view and I believe the view of many members of Congress on the state of the relationship with Turkey.”

Sensing trouble, the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) dispatched in mid-June a team of legislators and party members to Washington in order to engage in damage control. But the mission met with limited success. “The atmosphere in Washington was not the most cordial one,” says Suat Kiniklioglu, the AKP’s Deputy Chairman of External Affairs.

“Especially in the House, the atmosphere was fully demonstrating that American legislators have been convinced that the flotilla incident and the [Security Council sanctions] vote on Iran are part and parcel of the same thing,” Kiniklioglu said. “Turkey and the United States don’t disagree on the objectives when it comes to Iran. We disagree about how to get there. This is a point we tried to make clear.”

Kiniklioglu suggested that Turkey and the United States should “compartmentalize” its relations. “Just because we can’t agree on how to prevent a nuclear Iran, that does not mean a rupture in the whole relationship,” Kiniklioglu said. “There has to be some sanity about how the relationship is discussed.”

To a certain extent, tension between Ankara and Washington is nothing new. What is different now, noted Carnegie’s Barkey, is that Ankara’s independent foreign policy course creates more opportunities for Turkey and the United States to have policy disagreements.

“The Turkish-American relationship was always difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. But on the other hand, the difference between then and now is that Turkish foreign policy used to be more self centered. Now, to their credit, they are playing a more global role, but that has meant that the points of friction have increased as a result,” he said.

You can read the full piece here.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heavy Mossad

Tomorrow marks the start of Sonisphere, a three-day metalfest in Istanbul that will bring together for the first time the "big four:" Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax. The powerpacked bill also includes German shock rockers Rammstein and a host of other big names. Needless to say, music lovers from across the region are rejoicing, with Iranian metalheads already arriving in Istanbul.

Another example of Turkey's ability to straddle different worlds? Not for the folks over at the Islamist Vakit newspaper, who are having none of this musical bridge between east and west business. In an article published yesterday (here -- in Turkish and with a graphic photo from a Rammstein concert), the paper exposed Sonisphere for what it really is: a Mossad plot to mock Turkey.

From the Hurriyet Daily News's account of the story:
Turkish daily Vakit yesterday harshly criticized the festival and called for officials to cancel it. Defining the festival as “disgrace,” Vakit reported that Akbank, affiliated with Sabancı Holding, sponsored the festival, which is being organized by an Israeli company and will host Europe’s most scandalous music band, Rammstein.

According to Murat Alan’s story, while many festivals are cancelled in the country in order to mourn martyrs who died because of terrorist events, the Sonisphere Festival will poison young Turkish people for three days.

“The most striking name of the festival is a band named Rammstein, whose pornographic music videos are banned in many countries. The videos of the band air after midnight in European Union countries since they encourage violence, masochism, homosexuality and other perversities. The band will be on stage Friday at the İnönü Stadium. Also, there is no age limit for concerts and a ban on alcohol.”

The festival was organized by Israeli company Purple Concerts and the security will be provided by ICTS company, established by Israeli Mossad agents, according to the story. “This means to make fun of our citizens who lost their lives at the hands of the Israeli government as they carried humanitarian supplies to Gaza on the Mavi Marmara ship.”
Full article here.

The "Israeli company" in question is Purple Concerts, a big concert promoter based in Germany and run by two Israelis. The company recently brought to Turkey unwitting Mossad stooges such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and the members of the "WrestleMania Revenge Tour."

(Photo: Metallica's James Hetfield. By Flowkey, Wikipedia Commons)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"More Like Erdogan"

Reporter Thannasis Cambanis has a very interesting "Letter from Gaza" in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, which looks at Hamas's clever strategy for surviving -- both economically and diplomatically. The piece also gives some more insight into the Hamas-Turkey relationship and the role Hamas would like Ankara to play in its efforts to earn diplomatic legitimacy.

"We want the West to understand it can do business with us," one top Hamas official told Cambanis. "They want to know if we are more like the Taliban or like [Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. They will see that we are closer to Erdogan. We are flexible."

The full piece is here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Open and Shut

More troubling news for the Turkish government's initially promising "democratic opening," a reform initiative announced last summer that's mostly designed to deal with the decades-old Kurdish problem.

As the Turkish press reports today, ten members of a group 34 Kurds who returned to Turkey last October after several years in exile in northern Iraq have been arrested after being charged with supporting the PKK. The group's return (several of them were former PKK members) was one of the first visible signs -- and tests -- of the government's new initiative (sometimes referred to as the "Kurdish opening"). More groups of exiled Kurds were supposed to come after the first one, but the heros' welcome given to the initial group and the fact that jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan said they returned at his command, turned the whole thing into something very costly for the government, and plans for further returns were put on hold.

Since then, everyone in the group of returnees (save for four minors) has been charged with making statements on behalf of the PKK and are currently standing trial for "supporting a terrorist organization." So much for amnesty and reconciliation.

Take a look at this Eurasianet article of mine for more background on the "Kurdish opening."

These arrests, when put together with the recent increase in clashes between the military and the PKK in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast and an ongoing court case against a large number of Kurdish politicians who are also accused of supporting the PKK, paint a troubling picture. For now, Ankara appears to be struggling to find a way of pushing forward its much needed Kurdish initiative while at the same time keeping Ocalan and the PKK -- who still hold a considerable amount of influence -- out of the process.