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.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shift vs. Drift

I have a briefing up today on the Christian Science Monitor's website that looks at the development of the new role Turkey has been carving out for itself both regionally and globally. From the briefing:
Turkey is motivated by a mix of political, economic, and ideological factors. The government feels that Turkey has punched below its weight for too long and has missed important opportunities.

Turkey has the world's 16th-largest economy – its growth between 2002 and 2007 averaged an impressive 6 percent – and believes that continued economic growth depends on actively developing its political and trade relations on a global scale.

But Turkey's leaders also believe that, as heirs of the Ottoman Empire, their country should have a greater say in regional – even global – affairs and play a leading role in the Muslim world. Turkey is less interested in tying itself down to the "West" or the "East"; it wants to be a center of power.

"I believe the thinking now in government circles is that Turkey itself can now be an axis," says Sami Kohen, a foreign-affairs analyst.
The full briefing is here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Forecast: Hot Summer, Increasing Showers of Rhetoric

Two interesting pieces in Turkey's English-language press today looking at how the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla raid will play out in terms of Turkey's domestic politics.

Today's Zaman's Lale Kemal believes that the flotilla incident and the resulting tension with Israel is helping the Turkish government turn attention away from other problems and believes it will turn the rhetoric up higher as next year's elections approach. From her piece:
Both Turkey’s domestic and external political environment at the time of the incident are worth elaborating on to shed some light in particular on the strength of the criticism Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leveled at Israel. This is not to say that Israel did not deserve such severe criticism.

Externally, the AK Party government, successfully pursuing a policy of zero problems with neighbors, has, however, failed to put into force protocols with Armenia on its northwest aimed at normalizing its relations with Yerevan. The Cyprus problem has been at a standstill, creating a serious roadblock to any move over continuing accession talks between Turkey and the European Union. The EU has to take its share of the blame over the stalled talks with Turkey by even declining to open the food chapter, a non-political issue.

Internally, the democratic initiative aimed to find a peaceful solution to the decades-old Kurdish problem. The hope of reducing an almost 30-year-old threat posed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has failed to work at the desired level partly due to the government’s timidity in taking bold reformist steps on the issue. The opposition parties, meanwhile, are partly to blame for the initiative’s partial failure for declining to lend support to the government over this problem -- Turkey’s biggest -- and one that has external dimensions. The PKK’s increased violence is a matter of extreme concern.

The Constitutional Court’s pending decision over whether to cancel the constitutional reform package upon the initiative of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) remains a serious issue, the result of which will either help stability or lead to instability. If the court cancels the reforms passed by Parliament, thus preventing it from being taken to referendum on Sept. 12, it is highly likely that elections may be held in a couple of months rather than in July next year as planned.

Against this background, and in the absence of an opposition playing a constructive role in helping Turkish stability, the government, in frustration both internally and externally, appears to have increased the strength of its criticism of Israel. As the general elections, earlier or as planned, get closer, the government has inclined towards using the crisis with Israel for domestic purposes.
The full column is here.

Milliyet's Semih Idiz, writing in the Hurriyet Daily News, paints a similar picture, suggesting that a populist (actually, he suggests "demagogic") tone could come to dominate the governments rhetoric in the coming months. From his column:
....Erdogan is set to raise the volume of his bellicosity in coming weeks and months, given that Turkey will, for all intents and purposes, be moving into “election mode.” We had an opportunity to talk to Hikmet Cetin, a highly respected veteran politician and former Foreign Minister, the other day.

He too expressed serious concerns that Erdogan and the AKP would make anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric the centerpiece of his political campaign in the lead-up to the elections in 2011. Mr. Cetin is right to be concerned of course.

Erdogan is, after all, utilizing the least sophisticated of political tools to increase support for the AKP at home, and totally disregarding what harm he may be doing to Turkey’s well established links with the West in general and the U.S. in particular – regardless of the periodic turbulence in these ties over specific issues.

There are those who say that he is in fact doing all of this intentionally, because he is trying to turn Turkey’s direction from the West to the Islamic East. We personally believe that whatever his ultimate aim and intentions may be in this respect, Mr. Erdogan will find that it is much harder to turn Turkey’s direction than he thinks.

But it can not be denied that he and his government are providing material for those in the West who feel Turkey is in fact “drifting away.” There is truth, of course, in the contention being also put forward by some in the West today that certain countries and leaders in Europe have made it easier for the AKP to hit at the West. This is highly apparent from Erdogan’s lambasting Europe while also pursuing his populist line of demagoguery.

Some in Europe have been clinging to Mr. Erdogan and his party as the only viable reformist force in Turkey and providing him with a benefit of the doubt way beyond what is justified (even as he feeds the anti-western undercurrents in this country.) Less admiration and more attention on their part to what he is actually saying and doing at this stage should provide a wake-up call, as his latest actions and remarks appear to have done in Washington.

The bottom line is that while some may be worrying that Mr. Erdogan and the AKP are changing Turkey’s course, the truth is that it is not clear what they are trying to do, or if they even have a viable master plan for a modern Westward looking Turkey at this stage. As matters stand it appears that Mr. Erdogan is simply riding the crest of a populist conservative and Islamist wave – with nationalist overtones - which enables him to fog some seminal questions about where he is taking the country.
Full piece here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Turkish Gaullism

Omer Taspinar, an astute Turkey analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington and a columnist with Today's Zaman, has a great piece today about what he is calling "Turkish Gaullism." Taspinar suggests a different approach to looking at Turkey's recent moves on the world stage, which goes beyond simply asking whether Turkey is "drifting east" or if its foreign policy is becoming more "Islamic." From his column:
I believe one of the major mistakes in analyzing Turkish foreign policy is done when analysts speak of a “secular” versus “Islamic” divide in Ankara’s strategic choices. While the growing importance of religion in Turkey should not be dismissed, the real threat to Turkey’s Western orientation today is not so much Islamization but growing nationalism and frustration with the United States, Europe and Israel.

Long before the recent turn of events, I argued that if current trends continue, what we will see emerging in Turkey is not an Islamist foreign policy but a much more nationalist, defiant, independent, self-confident and self-centered strategic orientation in Ankara. Because of similarities between the French and Turkish political tradition, I think it helps to think of this new Turkish sense of self-confidence, nationalism, grandeur and frustration with traditional partners such as America, Europe and Israel as “Turkish Gaullism.” One should not underestimate the emergence of such a new Turkey that transcends the Islamic-secular divide because both the Kemalist neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) foreign policy and the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) neo-Ottomanism -- the ideal of regional influence -- share the traits of Turkish Gaullism.

If you scratch the surface of what seems to be a secular versus Islamist divide in Turkish attitudes toward the West, you will quickly see that both the so-called Islamist and secular camps embrace the same narrative vis-à-vis Europe and America: nationalist frustration. New obstacles to EU accession, perceived injustice in Cyprus, growing global recognition of the Armenian genocide and Western sympathy for Kurdish national aspirations are all major factors forcing Turks to question the value of their long-standing pro-Western geostrategic commitments. Until a couple of years ago, I used to argue that Western-oriented Kemalist elites had traded places with the once eastward-leaning Islamists on the grounds that it was the AK Party that seemed more interested in maintaining close ties with Europe and the United States. The AK Party, in my eyes, needed the West more than Turkey’s Kemalist establishment for a simple reason: It needed to prove to the Turkish military, to secularist segment of society at home and to Western partners in the international community that it was not an Islamist party.

Now, however, I increasingly believe that the AK Party, too, has decided to jump on the bandwagon of nationalist frustration with the West. After all, this is the most powerful societal undercurrent in Turkey, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs to win elections. As the events of the last couple of weeks have shown, America and Europe should pay attention to Turkey’s Gaullist inclinations. In the past, Americans and Europeans would often ask whether Turkey had any realistic geopolitical alternatives and complacently reassure themselves that it did not. But today such alternatives are starting to look more realistic to many Turks. The rise of Turkish Gaullism need not come fully at the expense of America and Europe. But Turks are already looking for economic and strategic opportunities in Russia, India, China and, of course, the Middle East and Africa. It is high time for American analysts to stop overplaying the Islamic-secular divide in Turkish foreign policy and pay more attention to what unites both camps: Turkish nationalism.
The full piece is here.

Taspinar's view dovetails with my own take, which is that rather than looking east or west, Turkey sees itself as an emerging axis, a regional power that others will "drift" towards. Still, I think the question of how the religious sentiments of Turkey's top leaders -- particularly the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister -- will help shape this "Turkish Gaullism" remains an open one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Information Blockade

I am taking a break from flotilla-related writing to report about the latest developments in the ongoing case of Turkey v. Google. As recounted here previously, a ban on Google's YouTube ha been in place in Turkey since 2008 after a court ruled that certain videos that were up on the site violated the law against insulting Ataturk. The ban was made possible by new Turkish legislation that critics have called too broad and too arbitrary. You can read about it here.

In recent days, strange things have been happening with several other Google sites. They aren't quite blocked, but access to them has been slowed down to point of them not being usable. Google Maps, for example, is one of the victims. Turkish officials haven't really explained what's going on, but Turkey's transportation minister, also responsible for internet matters, hinted that there was some kind of tax dispute between Ankara and Google.

What's disturbing about the Google slowdown is that rather than by court order (like in the case of YouTube) this action is being done by Telecommunications Directorate, the government agency that monitors the Internet and which is allowed to shut down sites without a court order. A lawsuit in the matter has already been filed by a group of "media freedom activists" who want the Turkish government to lift its Google blockade. Today's Zaman columnist Beril Dedeoglu writes in Friday's paper about the cost of the slowdown to Turkey's e-commerce and tourism sector. Column here.

Obviously, there will be those wags out there who will somehow try to use the Google affair as further evidence that Turkey is "drifting east." This blog will not join them, except to say that liberally interpreting the rule of law and arbitrarily applying it, as well as thuggishly depriving a country's population access to important knowledge-based services to prove a point in a tax dispute, does certainly smack of some kind of drift, eastward or other.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

I have a briefing up on the World Politics Review website looking at the domestic component of the tragic Gaza flotilla incident -- both before and after the Israeli commando raid on the Turkish-led aid convoy. From the piece:
With a general election coming up in about a year's time, the AKP now faces a resurgent Islamist right that has gained renewed political clout because of the flotilla incident. Meanwhile, a reformed secularist opposition with new leadership is promising to go after the government where it is most vulnerable: over issues such as unemployment and corruption. As a result, the AKP could find it expedient to continue turning the heat up on the Israel front, taking an increasingly more populist line on the issue.

"This is now going to be part and parcel in the internal tug of war between the AKP and the other political parties in Turkey," says Gencer Ozcan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. "In this case, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is not going to defuse the tension."

Speaking on Sunday, Erdogan already went after Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the Republican People's Party, the main secularist opposition party, for his approach to the flotilla incident. "Some people speak in the name of Tel Aviv, advocate for Tel Aviv," Erdogan said. "They question our way of diplomacy."

But beyond electioneering, increased tension with Israel could also help the AKP make further gains in its ongoing effort to reduce the Turkish military's control over the state. As Israeli researcher and Turkey expert Anat Lapidot-Firilla recently put it, such an approach would emphasize "the support of the defense establishment and the Kemalist bureaucracy to immoral Israel and the lack of interest in the fate of their Muslim brethren in Palestine."
You can read the full briefing here.

In a Today's Zaman column from the other day, Yavuz Baydar also touches on the domestic aspect of the AKP government's response to the flotilla incident. Meanwhile, Milliyet foreign affairs columnist Semih Idiz has a good piece in today's Hurriyet Daily News where he looks at some of the domestic questions that the recent events raise for Turkey, particularly regarding how a group like the IHH (a "Governmental Non-Governmental Organization" as he puts it) came to commandeer Turkish foreign and domestic policy over the last few days. From his column:
As for the Turkish side, there are equally – if not more – serious questions to be asked and we are happy to see that they are slowly but surely surfacing now. The most important of these questions must of course be this: How can such a large country as Turkey with interests in four continents, and with an export and investment driven economy requiring extra caution all around the globe be dragged to the brink of war by a nongovernmental organization?

To many in and outside Turkey, the answer seems to be simple. This happened because the NGO in question is what a friend humorously referred to as a “GNGO,” in other words a “governmental-non-governmental-organization.” While there may not be any evidence of a direct link here, there can be no mistake that the Erdoğan government is morally and politically behind this group – the İHH – that has now gained international fame according to some, and notoriety according to others.

Neither is this the first instance of this group putting Turkey in a difficult situation diplomatically after it was aided and abetted by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. It will be recalled that the same group tried to force its way through the sealed off Rafah gate between Egypt and Gaza some months ago, only to end up clashing with Egyptian forces and straining ties between Ankara and Cairo.

It was telling then that one of the leading “activists” on the Turkish side in that event was Murat Mercan, a key AKP figure, a parliamentary deputy and the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. Turkish-Egyptian ties are still recovering from what happened at that time. But it is clear that the latest events in the Eastern Mediterranean were watched closely in Cairo too, where there must have been further displeasure among the leadership over Prime Minister Erdoğan’s agitation of Arab streets.

As for the images from Turkey that were reflected across the globe following last week’s incident, it was a purely Islamic one, with headscarved and turbaned protestors chanting Islamic slogans under Islamic banners, and invoking the name of Allah for days on end in front of Israeli missions in this country. Certain remarks by Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, only went to reinforce this impression, especially when he told a visibly Islamic crowd in Konya a few days ago that Hamas was not a terrorist organization.

It was inevitable then that all of this should have started to turn the tide in the Western media against Turkey, as is apparent from a number of commentaries that have appeared over the past few days. If one considers that there is still an Iran crisis that has to be played out between Turkey and the West and particularly between Turkey and the U.S., it is clear that this impression is only going to crystallize further in the coming days and weeks in ways that Foreign Minister Davutoglu would obviously not want to see.

Put in a nutshell, the sympathy that Turkey initially garnered as a result of the lethal way that Israel conducted this operation is set to evaporate in the West if the AKP government does not begin to chart a more balanced course on Iran and Hamas, a course which is more in keeping with the country’s international commitments as a NATO ally.

It’s all very well for Turkish officials to shower Israel and the Netanyahu government with negative adjectives, no doubt most of them deserved in this case. But Turkey has to tread cautiously in such matters because of a host of reasons to do with its own long term interests. It also goes without saying that Israel cannot afford to squander its longstanding ties with Turkey, no matter what the anger in that country may be toward the Erdoğan government.
Full column here.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A New (Old) Front in the Turkey-Israel Fight

As if more fuel was needed to be poured on the fire burning in the wake of last week's tragically botched Israeli flotilla raid, a new campaign is being mounted in Turkey to link Israel with increased activity by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The main impetus for this is the fact that around the same time that Israeli commandos were sliding down their ropes onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish cruise ship turned naval embargo buster, PKK guerillas attacked a naval base on the southern Turkish coast, killing six sailors. The implication is that Israel was using the PKK attack as a kind of virtual smoke screen against the Turkish-led flotilla and sending out a warning shot to Turkey to not push things too far.

Turkish officials have certainly been hinting at that being the case. “We do not think the two attacks are a coincidence,” Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said. Turkey's interior minister, Besir Atalay, also expressed his concern that the two events were somehow connected and said any links will be investigated. In an article in Sunday's edition, Today's Zaman runs a fairly long piece entitled, "Suspicion growing about possible link between PKK and Israel," quoting a host of analysts who make some fairly inflammatory accusations (Israeli agents training PKK terrorists in how to "penetrate" cities and that captured PKK guerillas have confessed that they were trained by Israel, for example) without offering much evidence.

In a column in the same paper, Andrew Finkel -- one of the few voices of caution in the overheated Turkish media -- sees the attempt to link Israel with the PKK as part of a worrying trend. From his column:
....It is this sense of events slipping out of control which is among the most worrying aspects of Turkey’s current standoff with Israel. As if the nation did not have enough issues to deal with, it has now taken on responsibility for the Middle East. If the government appears to be taking a hard line on Israel, public opinion is shouting that it should take a harder line still. A recent public opinion survey undertaken by the MetroPOLL organization reports that 60 percent of the population believe the government has under-reacted to events. If pressure continues to build then Turkey will continue to back into uncharted waters.

There must be suspicion among the cynical few that the government is not displeased with the current crisis with Israel. Its total command of the headlines and the uniformity of the popular outrage has usefully overshadowed debates over constitutional reform, unemployment and the resurgence of the PKK. However, such cynicism would be misplaced; a more realistic view is that the government is genuinely concerned that those of its citizens trying to run the blockade in Gaza are now wagging the dog of Turkish foreign policy. One can only assume there is debate among the highest echelons between those who believe that the last week has served to redefine Turkey’s new soft power in a positive way and those who worry this exercise is getting out of hand; the contrast between a Turkey which enjoys more prestige and one which risks dismantling its carefully nurtured image of an ambassador between different regions. Distaste for the policies of the Netanyahu government aside, a Turkey able to speak to Israel presents a very different picture to the world than a Turkey which might adopt the anti-Zionist discourse of the Middle East.
Full piece here.

Making a link between Israel and the PKK/Kurds is not a new trope in Turkey. It was raised a few years ago during the American war in Iraq, when Turks were particularly worried about how the war might empower the Iraqi Kurds and the PKK and threaten Turkey. At the time, the rumors didn't only involve suggestions that Israel was training Kurdish peshmergas and helping the PKK, but also included the mother of all rumors -- that Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani is in fact Jewish (there was a line of rabbis in Kurdistan, which until recent decades had a large and thriving Jewish community, named Barzani). His being "Jewish," of course, would explain everything very neatly. Follow this link to an article I wrote at the time about this particular "who's a Jew" campaign.

A full-scale diplomatic war is clearly going on between Israel and Turkey right now. But there are clearly also efforts being made to drive a further wedge between the two countries, something both sides should be very vigilant about.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hoca Speaks

You know you've been covering Turkey for too long when you breathlessly tell an editor in the U.S. about something significant that Fethullah Gulen just said and the editor says, "Fethullah who?"

Still, an interview with the U.S.-based Gulen in today's Wall Street Journal does seem very significant, at least in the Turkish domestic context. No matter how you look at it, Gulen is among the most powerful figures in Turkey, even without living in the country. Which makes his criticism in the interview of the recent Gaza flotilla fiasco, an event that has brought Turkish-Israel relations to brink and unleashed a wave of fury in Turkey, very interesting. From the WSJ article:
Speaking in his first interview with a U.S. news organization, Mr. Gülen spoke of watching news coverage of Monday's deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and Turkish aid group members as its flotilla approached Israel's sea blockade of Gaza. "What I saw was not pretty," he said. "It was ugly."

Mr. Gülen said organizers' failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid "is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters."

Mr. Gülen's views and influence within Turkey are under growing scrutiny now, as factions within the country battle to remold a democracy that is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The struggle, as many observers characterize it, pits the country's old-guard secularist and military establishment against Islamist-leaning government workers and ruling politicians who say they seek a more democratic and religiously tolerant Turkey. Mr. Gülen inspires a swath of the latter camp, though the extent of his reach remains hotly disputed.

His words of restraint come as many in Turkey gave flotilla members a hero's welcome after two days of detention in Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party condemned Israel's moves as "bullying" and a "historic mistake."

Mr. Gülen said he had only recently heard of IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamic charity active in more than 100 countries that was a lead flotilla organizer. "It is not easy to say if they are politicized or not," he said. He said that when a charity organization linked with his movement wanted to help Gazans, he insisted they get Israel's permission. He added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations.
The full article is here.

My own read on this is that Gulen and his (wide) circle of supporters, who represent a more moderate approach, must be alarmed by the legitimacy the flotilla incident is giving to the Islamic far-right in Turkey and are intervening before things go any further.

I have a piece up now on the Christian Science Monitor's website that looks at the rise of the IHH, the Turkish NGO behind the flotilla and how it reflects a kind of mainstreaming of the Turkish Islamic far right, particularly regarding the discourse on Israel/Palestine. From my article:
At the heart of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla' lies the rise of the previously obscure IHH. The Turkish Islamic NGO bought and manned the Mavi Mamara, by far the largest boat in the flotilla and the one that saw a fatal skirmish between rod-wielding activists and Israeli commandos who killed nine activists after resorting to gunfire.

It was the financial heft of the IHH that set this flotilla apart – even before the Israeli raid – from previous convoys that had bobbed toward the blockaded Gaza Strip with little effect. But Israel is troubled that its ally Turkey has in effect paved the way for such a group to rise to a position of such strength and influence.

Indeed, some very profound changes, both promising and troubling, have reshaped the landscape of Turkish society. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was driven a wide-reaching effort at democratization and liberalization since coming to power in 2002. This has allowed civil society organizations to flourish – a phenomenon that has been especially pronounced for Islamic groups, which had previously been targeted by secularist state institutions.

“They have more room to operate in Turkey now,” says Soli Ozel, a political analyst and columnist for the Haberturk newspaper. “The more room comes from the fact that we do have a party in government that doesn’t see them as alien creatures.”

So far from seeing the IHH, which had been targeted by the government in 1997, as alien, Turkish authorities helped make the flotilla possible by selling the Mavi Mamara, a decommissioned 1,000-passenger cruise ship formerly owned by the Istanbul municipality, for a mere $800,000.

The blessing Ankara gave IHH's lead role in the Gaza aid convoy is also reflective of a potentially troubling move of groups from Turkey’s Islamist far right into the mainstream, particularly regarding the volatile Israeli-Palestinian issue, says anthropologist Jenny White of Boston University.

“What it says to me is that the far-right Islamists have captured the political issue of Gaza and the government is using this for their purposes,” says Prof. White, who is currently working on a book about Islam and Turkish nationalism. “It doesn’t mean that society is becoming more radicalized but the radical segment of society has captured the issue of Gaza and the anti-Israel sentiment, which has a lot of political capital behind it.”

The question now, she adds, is to what extent the government will feel a need to pay back those radical groups and leaders.
Full article here.

Is the fallout from Israel's flotilla attack going to lead to an internal struggle between Turkey's perhaps now rival Islamic camps? The blowback from the flotilla incident may end being more unpredictable for Turkey than previously expected.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


In a very thought-provoking piece in Foreign Policy, the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook suggests that along with the Turkish-Israeli relationship, another victim from Monday's Gaza flotilla fiasco might be the long-standing Turkish-American alliance. From Cook's piece:
It is hard to admit, but after six decades of strategic cooperation, Turkey and the United States are becoming strategic competitors -- especially in the Middle East. This is the logical result of profound shifts in Turkish foreign and domestic politics and changes in the international system.

This reality has been driven home by Turkey's angry response to Israel's interdiction of the Istanbul-organized flotilla of ships that tried Monday to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. After Israel's attempts to halt the vessels resulted in the deaths of at least nine activists, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referred to Israel's actions as "murder conducted by a state." The Turkish government also spearheaded efforts at the U.N. Security Council to issue a harsh rebuke of Israel.

Monday's events might prove a wake-up call for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Among the small group of Turkey watchers inside the Beltway, nostalgia rules the day. U.S. officialdom yearns to return to a brief moment in history when Washington and Ankara's security interests were aligned, due to the shared threat posed by the Soviet Union. Returning to the halcyon days of the U.S.-Turkish relationship, however, is increasingly untenable.

This revelation comes despite the hopes of U.S. President Barack Obama, whose inauguration was greeted with a sigh of relief along both the Potomac and the Bosphorus. Officials in both countries hoped that the Obama administration's international approach, which emphasized diplomatic engagement, multilateralism, and regional stability, would mesh nicely with that of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party. The White House made it clear from the beginning that Turkey was a priority for Obama, who raised the idea of a "model partnership" between the two countries. Turkey, the theory went, had a set of attributes and assets that it could bring to bear to help the United States achieve its interests in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Naturally, as a longtime U.S. ally, Turkey was thought to share America's interests in these regions. That was the thinking, anyway.

A little more than a year after Obama addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Washington seems caught between its attempts to advance this model partnership, and recognition of the reality that Ankara has moved on. This desire to restore close relations with Turkey is partially based on a rose-tinted view of the alliance's glory days; even then, the relationship was often quite difficult, buffeted by Turkey's troubled relations with Greece, Ankara's invasion of Cyprus, and the Armenian-American community's calls for recognition of the 1915 massacres as genocide. Back then, Turkey was a fractious junior partner in the global chess game with the Soviets. Today, Turkey is all grown up, sporting the 16th largest economy in the world, and is coming into its own diplomatically.

Nowhere is Turkey asserting itself more than in the Middle East, where it has gone from a tepid observer to an influential player in eight short years. In the abstract, Washington and Ankara do share the same goals: peace between Israel and the Palestinians; a stable, unified Iraq; an Iran without nuclear weapons; stability in Afghanistan; and a Western-oriented Syria. When you get down to details, however, Washington and Ankara are on the opposite ends of virtually all these issues.
You can read the full article here.

Seeing Through the Storm Clouds

A friend forwarded an interesting post from a Lebanese political blog called Qifa Nakbi. The post takes a look at how the Gaza flotilla debacle fits into Turkey's regional and global ambitions. You can read it here.

Also worth reading is a column by Israeli researcher Anat Lapidot-Firilla, which also takes a smart look at how this all fits into Turkey's regional and global aspirations, particularly its efforts to carve out for itself a leadership role in the Muslim world. You can find it here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lost at Sea, Pt. II

I have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor's website looking at the fallout from Monday's Gaza flotilla incident and what it says about the future of Turkish-Israeli relations and of Turkish foreign policy. From my article:
Ankara’s harsh response to Israel’s action is the strongest signal yet that Turkey may be abandoning its efforts to become a regional mediator between Israel and its Muslim neighbors, favoring instead a more pointed foreign policy. The shift will allow it to capitalize on Muslim frustration with Israel, giving an added boost to its already rising profile in the Middle East.

“This mediation thing is over. Turkey now is one of the sides in the Middle East conflict. It is quite clearly opposed to Israel,” says Sami Kohen, a veteran Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the Milliyet daily. “This event is almost a climax in this shift.”

“Turkey’s hand in the region is strengthened now,” Mr. Kohen adds. “There is now more reason for Turkey to take a more active part in the events of the Middle East, since it has suffered personally from this attack. Now it can justify its anti-Israeli positions, which get a good deal of sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world.”

Ankara's shift complicates a historic alliance between Turkey and the US, which has become more important in recent years. An air base in southern Turkey is one of the most important transit bases for ferrying troops and supplies to Afghanistan. Turkish mediation, meanwhile, had gotten Israel and Syria back to the peace table until that effort was aborted when the Gaza war broke out.

Increased tension between Turkey and Israel clouds one of the few sunny spots the US had previously enjoyed in the region.

The deterioration in the once-close relationship between Turkey and Israel has been mirrored by an equally precipitous rise in Turkey’s visibility and involvement in the Middle East, an area that it had kept at arm’s length for decades because of historical enmity and mutual suspicion.

After coming to power in 2002, the government of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) worked to forge close relations with neighbors such as Syria and Iran.

“It’s [an AKP] project whose goal is to set up Turkey as an international player, on the one hand, and to get recognition of Turkey as a moderate, market-friendly leader in the Muslim world and be treated as such in international bodies,” says Anat Lapidot-Firilla, senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

“The significance of this is that we are going to see more and more Turkish pressure to be involved in regional affairs and global affairs. They are raising the level of their requests and their global aspirations.”

Until recently, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Middle East included a desire to parlay its good relations with both Israel and the Arab states into a role as a regional mediator. Ankara, for example, hosted Israel and Syria for a round of (ultimately failed) secret peace talks in 2008.

But for now, analysts say, Turkey appears to have abandoned its mediation efforts in the region in return for a more pronounced leadership role in the Middle East.

“For the time being, I don’t see any kind of opening for the peace process. So if there isn’t any peace process, there isn’t any need for the good offices of a mediator,” says Gencer Ozcan, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
You can read the full article here.

Clearly, this rupture between Turkey and Israel has been long coming. As I've written before, Turkey has, for the last few years, pegged its relations with Israel to what happens on the Palestinian front (or, more specifically, on the Gaza front). Although technically not a bilateral issue between the two countries, the situation in Gaza has, in many ways, become the issue that defines the current relations between Israel and Turkey.

In that sense, although the Gaza aid flotilla was organized by a Turkish NGO (the Islamist IHH) and was not sponsored by the Turkish government, it acted as a proxy for Turkish policy. Also, because the Turkish government had elevated the cause of the Gazans to a level of such political importance, there was little room for it to work out a diplomatic solution to the impending flotilla crisis, lest it be accused by its opposition (particularly on the Islamic right) of giving up on the Gazans.

The tragic blunders committed by Israel in this incident are too numerous to count. On the other hand, for a country that has been an increasingly vocal proponent of the power of diplomacy in defusing regional tensions, Turkey, in this case, seemed more than willing to let the tensions rise higher.

Lost at Sea

I will be posting more in a while about the latest -- and most troubling -- downturn in Turkish-Israeli relations. In the meantime, you can track the downward spiral of the two countries' relations by following this trail of previous posts.