Day: June 28, 2012

Schizophrenic Turkey

The closing panel yesterday at the Middle East Institute’s Third Annual Conference on Turkey, on “Turkey’s Leadership Role in an Uncertain Middle East,” found plenty of uncertainty in Turkey’s role as well. Al-Jazeera Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara opened the discussion with a look at the “schizophrenic” face of Turkey’s ascendancy in the Middle East. While many Arabs look to Turkey as a leader as well as a model of successful moderate political Islam, others see its rising profile in the region as a threat. This tension in Turkey’s regional role is evident in its relationships with Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Israel.

International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann covered Turkey’s relations with Iraq, which appeared to be the most schizophrenic case. Turkey’s worsening relations with Baghdad and ever-growing partnership with Irbil are contributing to the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart, counter to Turkey’s stated objectives. Hiltermann’s recent trip to Ankara left him still confused about what Turkey hopes to achieve in Iraq, but he sees the current dynamic as negative.

Turkey wants a stable and unified Iraq as a way to provide regional stability, regional economic integration, a buffer against Iran, access to Iraqi oil and gas, and tempering of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. On the last point, Ankara hopes to harness the Kurdish Regional Government as a counterweight to the PKK, but its other main interests depend upon Iraqi unity and amicable ties with Baghdad. The current strain in relations stems from tension with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s overt opposition to al-Maliki’s party in the 2010 elections backfired when he won the day. Ankara-Baghdad relations have broken down further with suspicion in Iraq that a Sunni (Turkey-Gulf) alliance is gunning for the Syrian regime and will come after the regime in Baghdad next. The best way forward would be a rapprochement between Ankara and Baghdad, particularly an exchange of envoys, in order to prevent mutual suspicions from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Freelance journalist Yigal Shleifer had the simplest diagnosis: Turkish-Israeli relations are anywhere from “dead and frozen” to “completely dead and deeply frozen.”  The Gaza flotilla incident was simply the nail of the coffin, and since then the two sides have painted themselves into a corner. Turkey wants nothing less than a full apology, restitution, and the lifting of the blockade, while Israel is only willing to apologize for operational mistakes and cover some damages. In dealing with the crisis Israel was looking to “make up after the breakup,” while Turkey was negotiating “the terms of an amicable divorce.” Indicators for the near future are discouraging, particularly as both publics have become deeply skeptical of the other. Strategic partnership with Israel simply does not fit into Turkey’s evolving sense of purpose in the region, one piece of which is to be more outspoken in support of the Palestinian cause.

The lack of high-level communication is a recipe for disaster; the flotilla incident would likely not have gone so sour if relations had not already been strained to the point of stymying communication. Shleifer’s recommendation is a concerted diplomatic push, which will have to be American. Restoring relations to a level of trust is imperative for both. For Israel, it’s a question of security, but for Turkey it’s necessary for the development of its role as regional mediator as well as political, economic, and religious crossroads.

Robin Wright of the Woodrow Wilson Center characterized Syria and Iran as representing some of the profoundest achievements and toughest challenges of Turkish politics in the last few years. The AKP has been fond of talking about 360-degree strategic depth, but Iran and Syria have called this approach into question. Iran has become an important energy source and trading partner for Turkey under the AKP. It has also provided an opportunity for Turkey to flex its diplomatic muscle, as the biggest player in nuclear negotiations outside the P5+1. But Iran’s recalcitrance has proven increasingly frustrating for Turkey, and Turkey may find itself having to choose between closer relations with Iran or with the emerging bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Syria is an even starker challenge. Erdogan and Asad used to call each other personal friends, and the countries even engaged in joint military exercises. The rebellion has flipped the situation, with Turkey becoming the base for the opposition Syrian National Council and Erdogan calling Asad’s tactics savage and his regime a clear and imminent threat. Wright does not see the possibility of normalized relations anytime soon, especially under the current leaders.

The conflicts over Iran and Syria have pushed Turkey ever more toward the West, undermining its 360-degree diplomacy. What Turkey does in the next year in terms of its alliances in the East and the West will do a lot to determine the direction of its development as a regional and international player.

The overall impression was one of Turkey at a historical crossroads paralleling its traditional role as geographic and cultural crossroads. Turkey now has issues with most of its neighbors, yet its potential for political and economic growth is huge. It has successfully cast itself as the indispensible mediator. The political role it envisions is both regional strongman and regional middleman. It will also play an important role in helping the Arab world define a new order in the wake of the Arab Spring, as a model and as a political partner.

Turkey has been steadily strengthening its economic ties with its European and Middle Eastern neighbors, but the political realm will require more tradeoffs: between Europe and Asia, Iran and the Sunni powers of the Gulf, Israel and Arab states. Yigal Shleifer’s recollection of a Turkish airline ad touting Istanbul as a connection to both Tel Aviv and Tehran was illustrative.

The consensus on the panel was that even with these ambiguities of strategic direction, Turkey has carved an independent place for itself on the regional and international scene. Turkey’s clout will almost certainly increase with the rise of moderate Islamist governments in Arab Spring countries, but to navigate the new environment it will have to make tough choices about its alliances and its guiding foreign policy principles.

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A milestone, again

Today is Vidovdan, Saint Vitus’ Day for Serbs.  It is the 623rd anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje, commemorated as a religio-national holiday by Serbs worldwide.  It is also the date on which Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, precipitating World War I, as well as other major events in Serbian history.

Today there is one more:  newly elected nationalist Tomislav Nikolic asked nationalist Ivica Dacic, leader of Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist party, to form a new government, with the support of Nikolic’s own Progressive party as well as several smaller parties in the governing coalition.

There is nothing socialist about Dacic or progressive about Nikolic.  Both are nationalists and pragmatists who draw support from an electorate disappointed in the performance of the more moderate nationalist Boris Tadic, who lost this month’s presidential election after more than seven years at the helm.  All claim to be pro-European, but Tadic more loudly, definitively and effectively than Nikolic and Dacic.

Alternation in power is a vital part of democratic governance.  Dacic participated as Interior Minister in Tadic’s last government, but Nikolic and his “progressives” are new to governing responsibility. It is a sign of the maturity of Serb’s still young democracy that the international community is taking Nikolic’s accession to power in stride, even if many might have preferred that Tadic win.

Both Nikolic and Dacic have already gone out of their way to consult with Moscow during the government formation process.  That gives more than a hint of where they plan to steer Serbia, which even under Tadic has flirted with Russia and vaunted itself as non-aligned (whatever that means in the post-Cold War world).

What does this augur for Washington and Brussels?  For Brussels, it likely means a deceleration in Serbia’s technical preparations for European Union membership, which proceeded apace under Tadic.  A slow-down won’t cause any handwringing in Brussels, where the prospect of any new members before 2020 is unwelcome.  The EU will want to keep Serbia on track for eventual membership, but it likely will feel far less pressure to offer a date to begin accession negotiations with a Dacic-led government.

That’s a good thing from Washington’s perspective.  Serbia continued under Tadic to monkey in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo in unhelpful ways.  Washington was hesitant to ask too much of Tadic, who argued that would strengthen his more nationalist competitors.  A tougher EU stance is vital to moderating Serbia’s efforts to maintain strictly separate governing structures in both Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and northern Kosovo.

The day also saw the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia throw out one charge of genocide against Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic.  I hope this is seen in Bosnia and Serbia as evidence that he is getting a fair trial.

More important was the decision on Tuesday in a Serbian court finding 14 people guilty of killing civilians in late 1991, during Serb efforts to seize parts of Croatian territory and cleanse it of Croats.  As I argued at the OSCE earlier this week, acknowledgement of responsibility for wrongdoing is a key step in reconciliation.  If the new nationalist leadership in Belgrade plays it right, the Serbian courts have given them an opening to acknowledge the past and by doing so improve relations between Serbia and its neighbors in the future.

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A lot depends on your priorities

I did a quick writeup of Senator McCain’s appearance yesterday at the Middle East Institute Turkey Conference, which is posted on their website this morning (thank a spam filter for the delay):

Senator John McCain was uncharacteristically subdued in a key note address yesterday to the Middle East Institute/Institute of Turkish Studies conference on Turkey. He prodded President Obama to be more outspoken in denouncing the Assad regime and advocated a “safe zone” inside Syria along the Turkish border, but only in response to a question. He discounted the likelihood of NATO action, which the Europeans oppose, and suggested that the U.S. and Turkey should form the core of a coalition of the willing to support the Syrian opposition with arms and training.

The Senator opened with a denunciation of the Syrian downing of a Turkish jet, calling it an unnecessary and unacceptable act of aggression. But then he turned quickly to focus on Turkey’s positive evolution into a more inclusive and representative democracy experiencing strong economic growth. He also noted troubling developments:  Turkey’s jailing of journalists, its prosecutions of army officers and the deterioration of its relations with Israel.

The U.S., McCain said, should give wholehearted military and intelligence support to Turkey in its fight against Kurdish terrorists (the PKK). But the bilateral relationship should broaden its focus to free trade, military modernization, missile defense and strategic cooperation in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and other contexts where democracy, human rights and rule of law are at stake. Turkey, he said, sets a standard for democracy in Muslim countries and is an attractive example to many throughout the Muslim world.

McCain appealed for stronger U.S. leadership in speaking up for the people of Syria and countering Russian and Iranian support to the Assad regime, which includes both arms and personnel. A “safe zone” on the Turkish/Syrian border would provide the fragmented and unreliable opposition with a place where it could coalesce. This would require intervention from the air (as in Bosnia and Kosovo) but not, he thought, boots on the ground (forgetting of course that on the “day after” U.S. troops were needed in both Bosnia and Kosovo). Asked about the Annan peace plan that provides for a peaceful transition, McCain reacted with disdain, saying that Bashar al Assad would have to be forced out.

The current situation, McCain emphasized, is not acceptable. Sectarian violence is on the increase, as is exploitation of the situation by extremists. It will only get worse if the U.S. fails to lead. It is not even leading from behind at this point. It is not enough for the White House to say that Bashar al Assad’s fall is inevitable. We have to make it happen.

McCain acknowledged American war weariness but underlined the moral imperative to speak out and to act. Absent from his remarks was consideration of the impact of American and Turkish air attacks to create a “safe zone” on Russian support for the P5+1 negotiations with Iranian on its nuclear program and on the Northern Distribution Network that supplies NATO troops in Afghanistan. Those who think Afghanistan and Iran should have priority in American foreign policy won’t go along with the Senator, almost no matter what Bashar al Assad does to his own people. A lot of what people think should be done in Syria depends on what your priorities are.

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