Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Slow Train Coming

It took some 18 hours for it to cover 500 kilometers (310 miles), but the first train in decades to run between Iraq and Turkey ended its maiden voyage today, starting in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and arriving in southern Turkey's Gaziantep (with a short leg through Syria).

The train, which carried 13 passengers, runs along a line built a century ago by German engineers who helped create a rail link that stretches from Berlin to Baghdad (the Haydarpasa station on Istanbul's Asian side was constructed as part of the same project). From the BBC's report about the renewed rail service:
The revived rail link symbolises the increasingly close ties between the three countries [Turkey, Syria and Iraq].

Having overcome its fear of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey now does about $10bn of trade with Iraq's Kurdish regional government every year - about 80% of goods sold there are Turkish.

Relations between Iraq and Syria are more fragile - in the past Syria has been accused of backing the insurgents behind several big bomb attacks in Iraq.

But trade between them - and between Syria and Turkey - is growing rapidly.
Turkey is gradually upgrading its railway network with high-speed routes and Iraq also plans big investments in its railways.

The Turkish government is now talking of a fast rail link running all the way to Pakistan.
You can read the full story here. An AFP report is here.

The railway desk at Ankara's "zero problems with neighbors" policy department certainly seems to be very active these days. Along with the Mosul line, Turkey is building a fast train link between Gaziantep and Aleppo in Syria and is part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project, which conceivably could end up being linked up to a rail network that stretches all the way to China.

[UPDATE -- I forgot to originally also mention Turkey's ongoing Marmaray tunnel project, which will create an underwater rail link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Currently, trains heading from Europe to Asia (or the other way around), need to be put onto ferries that take them across the Bosphorus. Once Marmaray is complete, there will be an uninterrupted rail line between the two continents.]

Despite its lack of speed, it would seem that the slow train from Mosul might be a harbinger of important things to come. Turkish foreign policy watchers might now need to add trainspotting to their list of activities.

(graphic from the BBC)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Neo-Ottomanism" Unveiled

Turkish foreign policy officials don't like it, but the term "Neo-Ottomanism" -- often used to describe Ankara's active regional diplomacy these days -- seems to be sticking around. In a new article up on the World Politics Review website, I take a look at why Ankara dislikes the term so and what the proper definition of "Neo-Ottomanism" might be. You can read it here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Turkey's Iranian Gambit

It's fairly clear that the question of Iran and its nuclear program is going to be one of the major foreign policy issues facing Turkey in the coming months, posing a serious challenge both to Ankara's "zero problems with neighbors" policy and to its relations with its western allies.

Milliyet's Semih Idiz takes a look at this question in a column (translated into English in today's Hurriyet Daily News). From his column:
Iran, it seems, is going to turn into one of the main litmus tests of exactly how influential Turkey has become in the region.

Ankara is in an uncomfortable position in this respect. If it does not manage to bring Tehran around to a reasonable position on the uranium-enrichment issue, it runs the risk of being isolated among its allies.

On the other hand, if Iran decides to listen to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu when he visits Tehran to discuss this matter over the next days, it will be a major coup for him and his “proactive foreign policy.” Few, however, are expecting a major breakthrough.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement that he has ordered 20 percent uranium enrichment does not provide a good sign in this respect. There is some evidence that Tehran may not have the capacity to do this at the moment, if one is to go by some Western press reports. The point is not this, however.

The point is that Iran insists on playing a dangerously defiant game. And this is happening regardless of the extremely friendly exhortations from Turkey, which today acts more like an advocate of that country against the West than a neutral nation trying to broker an understanding between the two sides.

It is this attitude of Turkey’s that has complicated the country’s own position. Put simply, by cozying up to the increasingly despotic Ahmadinejad regime – and many argue this is due to feelings of Islamic solidarity – the Turkish government has undermined its chances for mediation with regard to this topic.....

....Foreign Minister Davuto─člu’s mission to Tehran will be critical and represent a litmus test for his own foreign-policy administration. After all, he is the principal author of the argument about Turkey’s rising influence in the Middle East.

So far, however, this influence has brought few results, whether these be between Israel and Syria, Hamas and the PLO or otherwise. So if he can not produce any results on Iran, this will not be a surprise for the majority of Western diplomats this writer knows in Ankara.

It is clear, however, that this outcome will also tarnish Turkey’s image as a rising regional power that can play a key role between the West and Islamic countries. The stakes, therefore, are higher for Ankara in this gambit than first meets the eye.
You can read the full column here. For more on the Turkey-Iran relationship, take a look at previous posts here.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Further Divining Davutoglu, Pt. II

I have an in-depth profile of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu up on the World Politics Review website. The piece is part of a package looking at the foreign ministers of Turkey, Brazil and Japan. You can find the profile here (although to read the whole piece you need to sign up for a 30-day trial subscription to WPR).