Thursday, April 22, 2010

Protocols on the Rocks

The Armenian ruling coalition's announcement today that is putting a halt to the ratification process of the normalization protocols signed last year with Turkey was perhaps only an official confirmation of what has been obvious for some time now: that the accords are frozen in place.

Since their signing last October, the protocols -- designed to open up the borders and restore diplomatic relations -- have been languishing in parliament in both Ankara and Yerevan, with each side accusing the other one of adding conditions that were not initially agreed upon. The Armenians say the problem lies with Turkey, which has made clear that progress on the accords depends on progress surrounding the also frozen Nagorno-Karabakh issue. The Turks, meanwhile, say the problem is with a decision made by the Armenian constitutional court, which gave the accords a green light while making some stipulations that Ankara finds objectionable (particularly regarding the genocide issue).

In many ways, it appears that the process that started as roadmap to reconciliation is now turning into a game of diplomatic chicken, especially considering that April 24, the day the genocide is commemorated, is just around the corner. From a Reuters analysis:
Analysts said the peace process was far from over, and the suspension, rather than a full withdrawal, was designed to shift the pressure onto Turkey.

"This was a lot weaker than feared," said Yerevan-based U.S. analyst Richard Giragosian. "This is a political tactic rather than a shift in strategic policy."

Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, who also faces resistance to the rapprochement from opponents at home and the huge Armenian diaspora abroad, was due to make a statement on national television later on Thursday.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Armenia and Turkey to "make every effort" to advance normalisation, which would boost stability in the volatile south Caucasus, a region criss-crossed by pipelines carrying oil and gas to the West.

Obama will make a speech on the mass killings of Armenians on April 24, the 95th anniversary of the events, and was expected to address progress on the accords.

Turkey has demanded that ethnic Armenian forces pull back from the frontlines of Nagorno-Karabakh as a condition for ratifying the peace deal. Armenia says Nagorno-Karabakh is a strictly separate issue.

The Turkish condition is aimed at placating close Muslim ally Azerbaijan, an oil and gas exporter which lost control over Nagorno-Karabakh when ethnic Armenians backed by Christian Armenia broke away as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist for Turkey's Milliyet newspaper, told CNN Turk the Armenian decision was meant to put pressure on Erdogan ahead of April 24, when Armenians will again press Obama to fulfil a campaign pledge to label the killings as genocide.

"There's nothing to upset Ankara too much. This does not mean the process is over...This is a personal call to Erdogan, since he made the Nagorno-Karabakh precondition," Idiz said.
You can read the full piece here. Previous post on Turkey and Armenia here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nuclear Posturing

I have an article up on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website that takes a look at what's driving Turkey's contrarian approach to the Iranian nuclear issue (a mix of commercial, political and ideological reasons). You can read the article here.

The piece also takes a look at Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly frequent calls, as part of his stated desire to see the Middle East as a nuclear-free region, for Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal to also be examined by those who criticize Iran. An interesting aspect to this, which I didn't have the space to get into in my article, is how Erdogan's approach might impact the question of the American nuclear weapons that Turkey hosts at Incirlik airbase in the country's south.

Turkey is one of five European countries that is home to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, with an estimated 90 bombs at Incirlik. Today's Zaman's Lale Kemal took a look at this issue in a column today. From her piece:
While the issue of Iran has continued to be a matter of serious disagreement between Turkey and the US in particular, Erdoğan will soon face a dilemma over nuclear arms the US deployed during the Cold War years at İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. This displays an inconsistency between Erdoğan's call for a nuclear-free zone in the region while hosting US nuclear weapons on its soil. Will Erdoğan be ready to agree on the withdrawal of those weapons at İncirlik?....

....While there has been a debate over whether those nuclear weapons are enough of a deterrent to meet today's threats, the US is believed to keep the nukes at İncirlik as a means of deterring Iran from any possible nuclear strike.

According to one opinion, it may be good to keep the guns on the table because in taking the guns off the table, one can lose tremendous leverage over the other.

When asked for his opinion on the nukes at İncirlik whilst on board the plane taking him to Washington on Sunday, Erdoğan refrained from talking about this specific issue. He only said there have been changes at İncirlik under his government, but he fell short of elaborating.

Though his remarks over this issue were unclear, it is known that the US has expanded its operations at İncirlik in the last 10 years. The US has been using İncirlik as an air bridge for flights to Afghanistan and as a cargo hub for neighboring Iraq, and as a consequence Turkey has become more agreeable to İncirlik being used for other purposes.

In the meantime, despite Erdoğan's call for a nuclear free zone in the region, it will be interesting to see what his stance will be when the possibility of withdrawing nuclear bombs from İncirlik begins to be debated as part of START. Will Erdoğan agree or disagree over their withdrawal, placed at the time as part of a NATO requirement? Turkey will be at a crossroads on its overall nuclear arms policy.
You can read the full column here.

The issue of the U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey was also the subject of an interesting analysis a few months back in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. From that piece, which takes a look at some of the obstacles to removing the U.S. nukes from Turkey (one of them, according to the authors, being Ankara's concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions):
Then there is the issue of Tehran's nuclear program, which seriously complicates any discussion of the United States removing its tactical nuclear weapons from Turkey. An Iranian nuclear capability could spark an arms race in the Middle East and bring about a "proliferation cascade," which could cause Turkey to reconsider its nuclear options--especially if the United States pulls its nuclear weapons from Incirlik. When asked directly about its response to an Iranian nuclear weapon, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said that Turkey would immediately arm itself with a bomb. This isn't Ankara's official policy, but it seems to indicate a general feeling among its leaders. Whether Turkey is primarily concerned about security or prestige, the bottom line is that it would not sit idly by as Iran established a regional hegemony.
This seems to be one legacy of Turkey's Cold War relationship with the U.S. that Ankara has held off on revisiting. The full piece is here.

[UPDATE: More on the subject of the nukes in Turkey in this analysis by Richard Weitz.]

It's hard to criticize some of the sentiment and logic behind Erdogan's calls for greater scrutiny of Israel's nuclear program, as part of a wider effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Who doesn't want a region (or a world, for that matter) free of nukes? But it seems like the PM's current approach -- soft on Iran, hard on Israel -- is not creating the kind of environment that would either keep Tehran from moving ahead with its historic quest to obtain nuclear weapons or would convince Jerusalem it's safe enough to give up its long-held policy of maintaining an ambiguous nuclear deterrent. If anything, Erdogan's increasingly belligerent criticism of Israel has only worked to make the country feel more isolated in the region, which can only work to make it hold to its nukes even tighter.

Really moving the Middle East in a direction that would end up with the region being a nuclear free one requires visionary statesmanship and the presence of actors who can transcend the region's tribal battles and deep-seated enmity. Turkey is (or was, one could argue) perhaps the only country with the potential to play that role, but, for now, it seems that Erdogan is mostly offering populist posturing on a subject that is, to say the least, explosive.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A New Look at the Armenian Genocide Issue

Der Spiegel's English-language website has a very interesting article about a new German documentary that looks into the Armenian genocide issue. You can read the article here.

The website also has a new interview with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, who talks about the stalled reconciliation process with Turkey and about the role the genocide issue plays in Armenian politics and society. You can read it here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Turkey and the Middle East: Beyond the Hype

The International Crisis Group has just released a clear-eyed and in-depth report that takes a look at Turkey's recent reengagement with the Middle East. The report covers this much-debated subject from a number of angles (the trade factor, the "Islam" factor, etc.) and is well worth reading. The bottom line? From the report's executive summary:
Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) leaders’ rhetoric, and their new regional activism extending from Persian Gulf states to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), have given rise to perceptions that they have changed Turkey’s fundamental Westward direction to become part of an Islamist bloc, are attempting to revive the Ottoman Empire or have “turned to the East”. These are incorrect. The basic trends in the country’s regional activism seen today were well established before AKP came to power, and NATO membership and the relationship with the U.S. remain pillars of Turkish policy.

While Turkey is bitter over attacks by France, Germany and others on its EU negotiation process between 2005 and 2008, half of its trade is still with the EU, and less than one quarter of its exports go to Middle East states – a proportion typical for the past twenty years. The global nature of Turkey’s realignment is underlined by the fact that Russia and Greece have been among the biggest beneficiaries of its regional trade boom.

Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has been shifting its foreign policy priority from hard security concerns to soft power and commercial interests and moving away from being a kind of NATO-backed regional gendarme to a more independent player determined to use a plethora of regional integration tools in order to be taken seriously on its own account. Turkey’s U.S. and EU partners should support these efforts towards stabilisation through integration.

Ankara has many balls in the air and sometimes promises more than it can deliver, over-sells what it has achieved and seeks a role far away when critical problems remain unsolved at home. Turkey’s new prominence is partly attributable to confusion in the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a situation that is not necessarily permanent. Some Middle Eastern governments are also wary of the impact on their own publics of emotional Turkish rhetoric against Israel or about implicit claims to represent the whole Muslim world.

Turkey should sustain the positive dynamics of its balanced relationships with all actors in the neighbourhood and its efforts to apply innovatively the tactics of early EU-style integration with Middle East neighbours. While doing so, however, it should pay attention to messaging, both internationally, to ensure that gains with Middle Eastern public opinion are not undercut by loss of trust among traditional allies, and domestically, to ensure that all Turkish constituencies are included, informed and committed to new regional projects over the long term. Also, it will gain credibility and sustainability for its ambitions if it can solve disputes close to home first, like Cyprus and Armenia.

Middle Eastern elites worry about any sign of Ankara turning its back on its EU accession process. Much of their recent fascination with Turkey’s achievements derives from the higher standards, greater prosperity, broader democracy, legitimacy of civilian rulers, advances towards real secularism and successful reforms that have resulted from negotiating for membership of the EU. At the same time, Turkey and its leaders enjoy unprecedented popularity and prestige in Middle Eastern public opinion, notably thanks to their readiness to stand up to Israel. Turkey’s new strength, its experience in building a strong modern economy and its ambition to trade and integrate with its neighbours offer a better chance than most to bring more stability and reduce the conflicts that have plagued the Middle East for so long.
You can find a link to the full report here.

Also, via Kamil Pasha, here's a link to some reactions in the Arab media to another Turkish initiative to significantly raise its profile in the Middle East: the newly-launched Arabic-language satellite television network TRT 7 (run by Turkey's state broadcaster). More on the subject in this column in The National and in this Hurriyet Daily News article.

(photo: Turkish PM Erdogan at the launching of Turkey's new state-run Arabic satellite television network)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Neo-Ottomanism and Iran's Nuclear Program

Andrew Finkel has a good column in Sunday's Today's Zaman, looking at the much debated term "Neo Ottomanism," often used to describe Turkey's assertive new foreign policy, and how it relates to some of the thornier issues facing Ankara -- particularly relations with Armenia and Iran's nuclear program. From Finkel's piece:
....The notion of a more expansive, internationalist and problem-solving Turkey is an attractive one, as is that of a Turkey unfettered by nationalist-inspired tendency to isolationism. However, it is forced to confront a certain amount of skepticism. If Turkey is to adopt a neo-Ottoman posture, it has to contend with issues still unresolved from that imperial past. If it is to be a player in the great issues of the day, it cannot remain fettered by the great issues of a century ago. This is why the overture to Armenia that began with Abdullah Gül’s football diplomacy in 2008 had an importance even beyond the immediate issue of reducing tension on a troubled border.

The seeming collapse of that initiative has equally important consequences. The vote of a committee of the US House of Representatives to endorse a resolution recognizing genocide has sent Ankara into a tailspin or at least into a position which it struggles to sustain. Turkey withdrew its ambassador to demonstrate its displeasure, and the government has put pressure on civil institutions, such as the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TÜSIAD), to cancel a US-bound delegation. Now the Turkish ambassador will go scurrying back to Massachusetts Avenue because, rightly enough, the prime minister realizes that not to take his seat at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in a week’s time would be a display of diplomatic pique that would do Turkey harm.

That summit will be attended by some 40 leaders, including Chinese President Hu Jintao. Barack Obama is far more aggressive in trying to curtail nuclear proliferation and in reducing America’s own stockpile. During the summit, the subject of Iran’s race to develop a nuclear capability is bound to come up. Turkey, counter-intuitively, maintains that Tehran’s nuclear program is not intended to produce an offensive payload and is in no mood to impose sanctions come what may. Instead, it advertises its ability to play the role of an honest broker as the best means of coaxing Iran into abandoning its efforts to develop a bomb. Yet it does so, having painted itself into something of an absurd corner. Ankara now fumbles to impose some sort of sanction not against Iran but against the United States. And it does so because of the wording of a proposed text commemorating a tragedy that occurred 95 years ago.
You can read the full column here. More on neo-Ottomanism in these previous posts.

Speaking of Iran's nuclear program, it appears that there is a (unspoken) disagreement between Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about what Teheran is actually up to. Erdogan has consistently defended Iran's nuclear program and has said he does not believe the Iranians are working towards building nuclear weapons (instead suggesting that other countries in the region (guess who) that already have such weapons and are criticizing Iran get rid of them first).

This more or less has been the position of the AKP government on the Iranian issue. A recent column in Forbes by foreign affairs writer Claudia Rosett finds President Gul speaking a bit more frankly on the issue. From her column:
Gul says he has no doubts that Iran wants the nuclear bomb: "This is an Iranian aspiration dating back to the previous regime, the days of the Shah." For Iran's current regime, says Gul, "I do believe it is their final aspiration to have a nuclear weapon in the end," as a matter of " 'national pride.' "

He says Turkey is against an Iranian bomb. He believes it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East: "A major competition will start in the region."
You can read her full column (critical of Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" approach) here. Rosett visited Turkey as part of a group that was brought over by a Turkish think tank. Gul's office has not denied the substance of what Rosett quotes the President as saying, only saying he did not give an interview to Forbes. In this column, Milliyet's Semih Idiz follows up on Rosett's piece and the significance of what Gul said.

More on Turkey's struggle regarding the Iranian nuclear issue in these previous posts.