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Turkish foreign policy: Dormant power revival 5 novembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Economist (UK) no. 950

Nov 5th 2011, Ankara and Hatay

Tests mount up for Turkey’s newly assertive foreign policy

On a clear day in 2006 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, took a leisurely drive along the Turkish-Syrian border with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, at the wheel. Ahmet Davutoglu, then Mr Erdogan’s foreign-policy adviser, cheerfully translated from the back seat. With 700km (450 miles) of shared border, Syria is central to Mr Davutoglu’s « zero problems with neighbours » policy. Syria, it was hoped, might make a transition from authoritarian dictatorship to Turkish-style democracy in which secularism, piety and the free market happily co-exist. Turkish experts were sent to Damascus to plot this bright future, just as Turkey was trying to mend fences between Syria and Israel.

Nowadays, Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu hint at military intervention against Mr Assad if he doesn’t stop murdering his own people. The same goes for Israel if it doesn’t stop drilling for gas with the Greek-Cypriots in the east Mediterranean. Friendship with Iran has soured after Turkey agreed to let NATO deploy parts of its missile shield on Turkish soil.

Membership talks with the European Union are in effect frozen. So is a set of protocols Turkey signed with Armenia last year to establish diplomatic relations and reopen the border. And the Turks are carrying out air strikes against separatist Kurdish PKK rebels based in northern Iraq, complicating relations with America. Turkey remains busy in many different areas–including in its old Balkan stamping-ground (see « Turkey in the Balkans: The good old days? ») and, this week, hosting a summit with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet Soli Ozel, a political scientist, concludes that « the zero [problems with] neighbours policy has come unstuck. »

This state of affairs is not entirely of Turkey’s making. Like the rest of the world, it was caught unprepared by the Arab spring. To his credit, Mr Erdogan was the first Muslim leader to tell Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down. After initially rejecting NATO intervention in Libya, Turkey backed its operations. And after months of patiently pressing Mr Assad for reform, Turkey opened its doors to the Syrian opposition.

The meltdown with Israel came after it attacked Gaza in December 2008 (just as Turkey was about to cement a deal between Israel and Syria). The final blow came when Israeli commandos raided a Turkish-led aid convoy bound for Gaza last year, killing nine civilians. Turkey kicked out Israel’s ambassador, and still rules out reconciliation unless Israel apologises for the deaths and pays compensation to the victims’ families. Mr Erdogan has escalated his anti-Israeli rhetoric, insisting that Israel lift its blockade on Gaza. Such talk has boosted his popularity on the Arab street and among pious Turks. Some of Mr Erdogan’s advisers say America is secretly pleased because, as one says, « only pro-Western moderate Muslim Turkey can burnish America’s battered image, not Israel. »

This is naive. Not only does the breach with Israel put America in an awkward position (especially close to the next presidential election); but also it reduces Turkish influence. This is particularly apparent in Syria. It was Turkey’s military alliance with Israel that helped to prompt an intimidated Syria to kick out the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1998. Nowadays the Syrians are unfazed by the presence of Colonel Riad al-Asaad, a Syrian army defector in the southern border province of Hatay. Waving a cell phone, Colonel Asaad excitedly claims that he is running an armed insurgency from a camp in Turkey and that the regime’s overthrow is nigh. His claims seem hardly credible since Turkey is neither arming nor training his men. Yet they might not ring so hollow had Turkey maintained its military ties with Israel.

And the bloodshed in Syria continues. NATO says it will not intervene. A war-weary America is not about to wade into what might be an even stickier conflict than the one in Iraq. Pressure is building on Turkey to take the lead. Talk of a buffer zone along the Turkish border is growing louder. Yet Turkey has enough trouble coping with the PKK, let alone getting embroiled in regime change. Syria is said to have resumed support for the Kurdish rebels, who kill Turkish soldiers almost daily.

America has agreed to give Turkey three Cobra attack helicopters to be used against the PKK, but the sale may run into congressional opposition because of the enmity between Turkey and Israel. One might expect American lawmakers also to worry about the arrests of activists, including this week a veteran human-rights defender and a law professor. Turkey’s Human Rights Association is investigating claims that the army has used chemical weapons against the PKK. These are probably overblown, but the refusal to hand over the bodies of 19 rebels killed in a recent clash in the south-eastern province of Hakkari has not helped. Luckily for Mr Erdogan, America has rarely made much fuss about Turkey’s human rights.


1. Turkish foreign policy: Ottoman dreamer « ACTURCA - 7 novembre 2011

[…] Even if broad-brush criticisms of Turkey’s foreign policy are overdone, some narrower ones are closer to the mark. It is no use professing to want zero problems with the neighbours without making a much broader effort to resolve such ancient quarrels as those with Armenia or over Cyprus. Turkey’s newly strong support for the Syrian opposition may be both brave and admirable, but the Turks should have urged reform and some dialogue between the opposition and the regime at an earlier stage (see « Turkish foreign policy: Dormant power revival« ). […]

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