Posts Tagged 'davutoglu'

Gas deposits fuel old and new rivalries

By Harry van Versendaal

Things have never been too tranquil in this corner of the Mediterranean, and the recent discovery of large deposits of gas beneath the waters off Israel and Cyprus hasn’t made things any easier.

You can almost hear the tectonic plates of regional politics shifting — and Nicosia’s recent decision to drill for hydrocarbons off the divided island’s southern coast has only accelerated the process.

Ankara’s once-hyped “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors these days sounds more like a bad joke as Turkey’s warnings for retaliation against Cyprus and Greece keep coming thick and fast. The dispute has meanwhile deepened Turkey’s rift with Israel, once a close economic and military partner.

Turkey, which does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus in the island’s south, opposes any drilling, insisting the profits from any discoveries must be distributed between the two communities on the island. But Ankara — which alone recognizes the breakaway state established in the north following the Turkish invasion of 1974 in response a Greek-backed military coup — will hardly find any support for its argument away from home.

“If we are talking from a strictly UN legal point of view, the arguments of an occupying country should not count much,” Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Cyprus has signed an agreement with Egypt and Israel to delineate exclusive economic zones so that the neighboring states can exploit any hydrocarbon deposits within their boundaries. Block 12, the area said to contain the reserves, lies within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

“Even according to Turkey’s logic, there is absolutely no legal basis [for opposing the drilling],” political analyst Stavros Lygeros said.

Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, launched the drilling work this week. Turkey responded with a warning that unless Cyprus halted the project, it would send warships to protect its claims to undersea resources in the area. This was the latest in a series of rough-edged statements that have gone as far as to suggest that Turkey will resort to military action to defend its cause.

Most analysts have downplayed the Turkish warnings as formulaic chest-thumping designed to scare off potential foreign investors (in a not-so-well-disguised attempt at blackmail, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to blacklist any international oil and gas firms that chose to work on the new Cypriot project) and prop up its image as top dog in the region.

“Turkey will try more to maintain an assertive posture for domestic consumption rather than really try to block the drilling. Physically, harassment may be possible, but intervention with the aim of prevention is not,” Bekdil said.

“I would rather expect a lot of retaliatory moves from Ankara which, in a way, would be a sign of its inability to block the Cypriot drilling,” he added.

After signing a continental shelf pact with the breakaway state so as to conduct drills of its own earlier this week, Turkey on Thursday announced that Piri Reis, a research ship, would leave for gas exploration off Cyprus on Friday. But a senior US official who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini that Erdogan assured US President Barack Obama that Ankara has no intention of escalating the situation further.

Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, also doubts that the tiff will escalate into an actual clash.

“You will observe that Turkey is making its point with military support for its activities in what are effectively Turkish-Cypriot waters — that is, a place where the Turkish armed forces have worked unimpeded for 37 years,” he said.

Turkey is pretty much on its own as the EU (keen to minimize dependence on Russian gas), the US and Russia have all given Nicosia the go-ahead with the drilling. But it may still take action to defend its status as nascent hegemon in the Muslim world — especially since Israel, its newfound antagonist, is part of the equation.

Israel’s relations with Turkey — once its sixth-largest trading partner — have soured as Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted administration has opted to sacrifice the longstanding alliance with the Jewish state for the sake of brandishing Turkey’s image as the primus inter pares in the Arab world. (Much to Washington’s dismay, the Arab Spring seems to have taken a toll on another strategic partnership — that between Israel and Egypt.)

Earlier this month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Tel Aviv refused to apologize for last year’s Gaza flotilla incident that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. Ankara said it would send naval vessels to escort any future aid envoy.

“The ‘zero-problems’ policy has officially collapsed after tension with Syria, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Now the Egypt link will flourish for some time, like the Syrian link did once, and it too will collapse,” Bekdil said.

“This volatile region has not spent the last two millennia waiting for [Ahmet] Davutoglu to bring peace. He is a dreamer,” Bekdil said of Turkey’s ambitious foreign minister who likes to see Turkey as the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once united the Arab world.

Bekdil nevertheless thinks Ankara will maintain its assertive stance for two reasons: “There is Turkish and Arab demand for that; and Erdogan and Davutoglu see Turkey in a self-aggrandizing mirror,” he said.

Tel Aviv turnabout

Athens has sought to capitalize on the Turkish turnabout and, in a sign of shifting loyalties — and in stark contrast to the late Andreas Papandreou’s pro-Arab legacy — it prevented a fresh group of Gaza activists from sailing from the Greek coast earlier this year.

Greece, says Lygeros, is naturally adapting to geopolitical developments — and to Cyprus’s interests — meaning that support for Palestine is now on the back burner. “After all, no matter how hard it tries, Greece could never be a match for Turkey in the Arab world,” Lygeros said.

Israel has its own reasons to go Greek. From a geopolitical perspective, the Athens-Nicosia route is now the only politically safe and culturally friendly passage to the West. Greece and Cyprus are secular democracies and members of the European Union at a time when reluctance among Europeans to take Turkey on board is soaring.

A closer relationship with the Jewish state comes with an economic reward. For natural gas to be shipped to the West in a cost-effective manner, it has to be condensed to a liquid. Cyprus seems a safe alternative to the Israeli coast, which lies within range of Hamas rockets. An Israeli energy company has reportedly offered Nicosia a deal to build a facility on the island for processing and exporting natural gas.

Greek Cypriots, who recently saw an explosion knock out the island’s main power station, are naturally tempted by the idea of becoming a regional hub for exporting natural gas.

“At the same time, a closer alliance with Israel will allow Cyprus to avoid some of Turkey’s bullying,” Lygeros said.

‘Nail in the coffin’

Recent developments will unavoidably impact on peace negotiations on the island which the UN would — rather optimistically — like to wrap up by mid-2012, when Cyprus takes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.

“It is a near nail in the coffin for reunification talks,” Bekdli said of the energy-related squabble, although he admits realpolitik may dictate new parameters next year.

Turning the argument on its head, Pope says the drilling episodes show how the gradual seizing up of the talks is leading to deeper tendencies of divergence between the two communities.

“If the two sides do not choose to work for reunification, the alternative will be a slide towards partition, and while both sides can live with this trend, the long-term costs could be greater than any riches from the seabed,” Pope said.

A fuming Erdogan on Wednesday slammed the drilling as a “sabotage” of the negotiating process.

Bekdil choses to remain cynical. “I never believed Erdogan et al genuinely wanted reunification. They faked, knowing they could deceive a willing chorus of Greeks and EU optimists,” he said.

Smokescreen

Photo by Yaşar Kadıoğlu

 

By Harry van Versendaal

The administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the military as a smokescreen for its own policies in the region, says Ankara-based analyst Burak Bekdil, ahead of a visit here by the Turkish prime minister. Bekdil, a journalist for the Turkish Daily News, however says western governments are finding it hard to believe that the political administration is manipulated by the deep state.

Asked about Turkey’s expected removal of Greece from the list of national security threats, Bekdil sees a bid to keep up with the newly-launched zero-problems-with-neighbors strategy – although he admits Ankara does not really anymore view Greece as a potential military threat. If there’s one thing to raise eyebrows among Turkish officials, he points out, that is Greece’s warming ties with their newfound enemy, Israel.

Speaking to Skai television on Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Turkish airforce overflights in the Aegean have not been instigated by his government, instead putting the blame on the Turkish military. Is this an attempt by Erdogan to duck the issue or is there really a split between his government and the military?

The split between Erdogan’s government and the military does not include the military’s operational manoeuvres like air raids into northern Iraq, or overflights in the Aegean. This is part of his strategy: When he feels squeezed – especially by the West – he tends to put the blame on either the military or the judiciary. As for the overflights, the case is simple: The prime minister can give orders to the General Staff to give orders to the Air Force to stop! Smart westerners no longer buy the cliche argument that Erdogan’s government is helplessly under pressure from the deep state. Perhaps that was the case eight years ago. It no longer is, and Erdogan’s propaganda machinery has been abusing it excessively. Please note that all defense procurement decisions, including the purchase and upgrade of frigates, corvettes and submarines, carry Erdogan’s signature. Remember what happened in February 2008: There was immense public pressure for a cross-border military operation into northern Iraq, and Erdogan was mute, hoping the military would act on its own so that he could put the blame on the military – both at home and abroad – if things went wrong there. The military HQ did a wise thing and said it would act only on orders from the government. That killed the ‘abuse plan’ at that time. But you cannot expect the military to announce that it is awaiting Erdogan’s orders to stop overflights in the Aegean.

Ankara recently suggested it would change its national security policy to remove Greece from its threat list (dropping the “casus belli” clause) but it quickly backpedalled, saying Greece would in return have to give up its claims in the Aegean (extension of its territorial waters to 12 miles). Was Ankara’s move genuine or just a public relations stunt?

Don’t confuse two things here. Removing Greece (and others) from the security threat list (officially called as the National Security Policy Document) is different from dropping the ‘casus belli’ clause. The first one, now in draft form, awaits Erdogan’s endorsement, and I am pretty sure it will come. The second issue requires a parliamentary decision, and I don’t think Erdogan is keen on that. It looks tricky that Ankara both maintains the casus belli clause and removes Greece from foreign threats list. More tricky is multibillion dollars weapons programs that exclusively (or almost exclusively) target Greece, especially naval systems. I therefore assume your question (was Ankara’s move genuine or a PR stunt) involves the decision to drop out Greece from the threat whitepaper. And my answer is, it’s both genuine and PR-related. Genuine because the government does not really view EU-member Greece as a potential country with which Turkey could in the foreseeable future have a military confrontation. But it is also a PR stunt because it fits FM Ahmet Davutoglu’s zero-problems with neighbors doctrine. Davutoglu could not have hoisted the peace flag with Iran, Syria and Iraq while keeping Greece on the list. The same goes for Russia. The revised document will be used as a PR tool to promote Davutoglu’s doctrine.

In the Skai interview Erdogan said that he does not want to talk with his Israeli counterpart and he will boycott a climate change conference in Athens on Friday if Benjamin Netanyahu attends. How does the rift between Turkey and Israel affect Greece’s relationship with Ankara and Tel Aviv, bearing in mind Athens has been pursuing closer relations with the Israelis over the past few months?

It’s true. This [Tuesday] evening Erdogan said that he will go to Athens for the conference “because Netanyahu is not going there.” The Isreali-Greek rapproachement has already raised eyebrows in Ankara, although many analysts tend to downplay it. Erdogan’s men don’t like it because it goes contrary to their plans to isolate/punish Israel. At the moment the Greek-Israeli warm-up is not a parameter on the Ankara-Athens axis. But if it evolves into phases which Ankara could perceive as threathening, then it may become one. I think [Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris] Droutsas was doing the right thing when he assured everyone that the Greek-Israeli ties do not target any third country.

Facing the frenemy

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Tehran is probably the most emblematic sign of Turkey’s newfound assertiveness in the Middle East, but experts agree that the true motivations behind this tectonic foreign policy shift are not easy to fathom.

“Turkey’s love affair with Iran cannot be explained with single-parameter equations. It’s a mixture of several factors at work with different weights that cannot be measured,” Burak Bekdil, an Ankara-based analyst, told Athens Plus. Bekdil singles out a number of factors, including natural gas, ideology, domestic politics, regional foreign policy ambitions and bilateral trade – “some selective deals that must be benefiting companies friendly to Erdogan and the AKP,” he said in a reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party.

It’s certainly a tough equation. But Stephen Kinzer, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, prefers to stick with the more obvious constants. “They are the two major non-Arab states in the Muslim Middle East,” he told Athens Plus in an interview. “Both are big and powerful, their history has been intertwined, and each needs much of what the other has,” said Kinzer, who has just authored a book called “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.”

Turkey, along with Brazil, in May signed a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran meant to help end Tehran’s standoff with the West over its atomic program. Compounding Washington’s dismay, Ankara went on to vote against UN sanctions on Iran the month after. Turkey, which gets a third of its natural gas from Iran, recently also defied a US ban on gasoline sales to Tehran and is expected to remove Iran from a watch list of nations it considers a specific threat to national security.

Turkey’s engagement with Iran reflects a broader Turkish repositioning on the Mideast chessboard allegedly masterminded by its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Ankara has sought to re-brand itself as a soft power broker in formerly Ottoman territories by using its economic, diplomatic and cultural power. But although its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” saw a drastic improvement in ties with Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s relations with Israel, Washington’s other principal ally in the region, have deteriorated rapidly since Israel’s Gaza offensive in early 2009, hitting a low following the raid on a flotilla of humanitarian aid in late May that left nine Turkish citizens dead.

Confusion

The approval this week in a public referendum of a controversial package of constitutional reforms to reshape the judiciary and curb military power – traditionally under the influence of the secular establishment – will no doubt strengthen Erdogan’s hand also in foreign policy. But more confidence has not always come with more clarity. Turkey’s eastward realignment is perplexing friends and foes alike. Some analysts say that the increasing diplomatic activism of his administration is welcome in Washington and Brussels provided it does not run against the core interests of the Western alliance.

“Anything that promotes the Turkish example of capitalist democracy also promotes stability and weakens radicalism,” Kinzer said, warning however that too much dancing to the Western tune does not go down well with the man on the Arab street. “If Turkey is seen as not always following Washington’s policies reflexively, that could even help Turkey project its influence.”

That unique role could weaken if Turkey were to lose America’s trust. Americans want to believe, Kinzer says, that after all the daily bickering is over, the Turks remain fundamentally pro-NATO and sympathetic to US security goals. Should that fade, the relationship will inevitably weaken.

Israel is the obvious litmus test. Ties to the Jewish state have traditionally been seen as a counterweight to Islamic extremism, allowing Turkey to focus on NATO and its EU ambitions. The AKP obviously deems it can get away with some Israel-bashing now and then, much of it for domestic consumption, but some analysts warn Israel and Iran will put this notion to the test.

“Pushing Israel into a corner and isolating and punishing it may redeem understandable emotions, but it does not serve the cause of peace. After making your point, it is often good to extend the hand of reconciliation,” Kinzer said. Recent reports said the US warned Ankara it will shun joint air drills next month if Israel is not invited.

Bekdil too fears Turkey may be overplaying its hand. “The AKP thinks they can play both camps. Pro-eastern on the public front but pro-Western when the AKP messengers meet with US and EU officials,” he said, pointing out that so far the policy has worked without any major damage to the AKP. “No punishment from the West. No cost. So why not follow a popular route that is also economically beneficial?”

Some beg to differ. Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, thinks that fears of “losing Turkey” are overrated and does not hesitate to hail Turkey’s overtures eastward. Speaking to Athens Plus, Pope welcomes Ankara’s efforts to head off sanctions and other potential disruption in the region, which would be very costly to Turkey, and to solve the problem by diplomatic means, if possible. “Turkey has different tactics and priorities to its Western allies, and firmly believes in engaging Iran, but it shares with the West the goal of ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Pope, one of the authors of the just-published ICG report “Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran,” is keen to note that tension with the West is not necessarily of Turkey’s making alone. “The EU and the US also share the blame for alienating Turkey over the past years, notably because of Germany and France’s public hostility to Turkey’s EU ambitions and the US invasion of Iraq,” he said.

Same ends, different means

But there is another element to the geopolitical game. Some observers hold that the shift of Sunni Turkey, worried about Shiite Iran’s influence over Iraq following the American pullout, is actually driven by an attempt to contain Iran, it’s most serious rival in the race to lead the Islamic world. Skeptical about the effectiveness of UN sanctions, the theory goes, Ankara is trying to appease its “friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, out of his nuclear ambitions.

It’s a stance the West should encourage, suggests Iranian-born analyst Meir Javedanfar, as a rapprochement between the two states could be the safest way to ensure a nuclear-free Iran. Renewed tension, on the other hand, will only fuel Iran’s temptation to become a nuclear power.

“When it comes to economic power, when it comes to military power, when it comes to diplomatic position, Iran is inferior to Turkey,” Javedanfar recently told Radio Free Europe. “So they are going to look at areas where they are superior and the only other one where they can gain an edge over the Turks, one of the very few areas, is the nuclear program.”

Turkey veers into the East, clumsily

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara is increasingly asserting itself in the Middle East but a series of clumsy moves threaten to damage its relationship with the West, the cornerstone of Turkey’s security policy over the past 90 years, analysts warn.

The dramatic deterioration in ties with Israel, a long-time economic and military ally, is seen as emblematic of this trend. Last month Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks died in the operation. Ankara has threatened to sever diplomatic ties altogether unless Israel offers a public apology and agrees to a UN-led investigation into the incident.

Although Israel has taken most of the flack for the carnage, many analysts agree that Turkey did not do enough to prevent the disaster. “There are indications that the Turkish government rather than stopping the flotilla, had actually – and privately – encouraged it,” Burak Bekdil, an Istanbul-based commentator, told Athens Plus.

“The Turkish government saw in the flotilla a convenient tool to embarrass the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and bring international attention to the embargo on Gaza,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish Milliyet daily, adding that neither side predicted the magnitude and violence of events.

Can Turkey-Israel ties recover from the latest shock? “Not in the foreseeable future,” said Bekdil, who expects even more tension and confrontation in the near future. “As long as either or both governments stay in power, things can only further deteriorate,” he said.

Muscle flexing

Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 was a major blow to ties with Turkey but, at the same time, it presented Ankara with an opportunity to flex its muscle in the Mideast region. Propelled by its visionary Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has sought to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker in the lands of the one-time Ottoman empire. It has mended ties with Iraq and Syria ending years of tension over water management in the Tigris-Euphrates river system and over alleged protection of Kurdish militia. Diplomatic fervor has come with impressive economic overtures. Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe.

Critics however have slammed Ankara’s alleged cynicism, knowing that slapping Israel is the safest way to make friends in the Arab world. It is in this light that Bekdil sees the flotilla incident as a sign of Ankara’s determination “to go forward with neo-Ottoman ambitions,” a common reference to Davutoglu’s strategic vision.

On top of distancing itself from Israel, Turkey has been cozying up with the Jewish state’s nemesis in the region, Iran. Earlier this month Ankara, which depends on Iran for a big chunk of its energy, voted against UN sanctions on Tehran, raising eyebrows among its western allies who are wary of Iran’s nuclear program.

“There is nothing wrong with Turkey being more active in the Arab world, delving into frozen conflicts there or boosting trade and other ties with our Arab neighbors,” Aydintasbas said. “But there is everything wrong with re-entering the Middle East hand in hand with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hamas. On that we need to do some fine tuning and, yes, we are deviating from the West,” she added.

Some say Turkey, a NATO member, is already paying a price for it. Military analysts have warned that Turkey’s shift undermines its fight on PKK rebels. Turkey has depended on US intelligence and Israeli drones to track down Kurdish guerrillas. As nine Turkish soldiers died in an attack on a military outpost last weekend, speculation grew whether the US withheld intelligence.

Lost cause?

Meanwhile, Turkey will find it hard to convince European leaders about its loyalty to the EU cause. Breaking ranks with the western powers in the Security Council and escalating tension with Israel “does not make Turkey more European,” Aydintasbas explained. “It makes us look like we are trying to be the leader of another camp – not the EU.”

But is Turkey’s Mideast activism really compatible with its European ambitions? Aydintasbas believes there is no necessary connection between the two. “It should not technically jeopardize our EU status. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place in the EU either,” she said, rejecting the view that Turkey should try to impress the West, as it were, by becoming a big player in the Middle East.

EU membership, she says, is about fulfilling EU criteria, raising democratic standards and internalizing core European values. “We cannot enter the EU just by being able to mediate between troubled Arab states. That is a fantasy,” she said.

Turkey’s nascent engagement in the Middle East is not troubling the West alone. Turkish flags can be seen waving in the Arab cities (a recent survey found that 43 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank see Turkey as the strongest champion of their cause) and Erdogan, a devout Sunni, is even drawing comparisons to the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. But despite Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab streets, it is also true that certain Arab elites are watching the emergence of an unofficial Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Turkey axis with great concern, said Aydintasbas.

But it is not all grim. A positive side-effect of Turkey’s growing influence is that leaders in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some Gulf states is that it challenges their authoritarian style of government. “Arab leaders are not quite happy with the emergence of public movements be they in favor of Erdogan or any other political cause,” Bekdil said. “Any public movement is usually viewed by leaders as a potential uprising and risk to their autocratic rule.”

Turkey rediscovers the Middle East, but at what cost?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Driven by growing self-confidence and a yen to impress the West, Turkey is increasingly engaging itself with the Arab world but analysts warn that too much Middle East activism could backfire.

Under the stewardship of its mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its mold-breaking foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has over the past several years sought a more prominent role in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes and – somewhat paradoxically – taking a more assertive posture toward one-time ally Israel.

The true motives behind Turkey’s shift are not always easy to pin down. EU coldness over the prospect of full membership has certainly pushed the predominantly Muslim nation eastward, but analysts are not sure whether the reorientation signifies contempt about the snub or rather a desire to render itself more significant in Western eyes.

“The activism is both partly a reaction to the EU cold shower and partly an attempt to make itself more important,” said Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent think tank that recently published a report on Turkey and the Middle East.

“Turkey has always been opportunistic in search of greater exports at times of high buying power in the Middle East, and Turkey has always been less outgoing to Israel when the Arab-Israel peace process has been stalled,” he said.

‘Zero problems’

Inspired by Davutoglu, Erdogan’s longtime foreign policy guru often dubbed the “Turkish Kissinger,” Ankara has pursued a soft-power policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe. According to the ICG report, while Turkey’s total exports rose fourfold between 1996-2009, exports to the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) increased by seven times, reaching 28 percent of total exports in 2009.

In a major diplomatic turnaround, Turkey has made stunning improvement in ties with Syria and Iraq, long strained over water management of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the alleged backing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.

The realignment has come at a price. Relations with Israel have deteriorated. Following decades of close military and intelligence cooperation, Turkey’s public language is now more in tune with pro-Palestinian man-on-the-street sentiment. Israel’s raid on Gaza last year drew the ire of Turkish officials – most infamously Erdogan’s broadside against Israel President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During a recent visit to Paris, Erdogan branded Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

There’s more that Western powers have found hard to swallow. In a gesture prompted more by dogged pragmatism than Islamic solidarity, Turkish officials have resisted US-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Turkey, a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council buys a third of is gas exports from Iran and seeks to further reduce imports from Russia, currently at 65 percent. Recently Erdogan dismissed allegations that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons as “mere rumors.”

In one of his most controversial gestures up until now, the Turkish premier defended Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, on the grounds that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”

Loyalty

Is Turkey drifting away from the West? Analysts are reassuring of Ankara’s loyalty.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Turkey is turning its back on the West,” said RAND global policy think tank analyst Stephen Larrabee. He said the switch is all about change in the post cold-war security environment as the Middle East has replaced the Soviet Union as the Number One hot spot.

“What you’re seeing is a process of diversification and broadening of Turkey’s foreign policy, which, during the cold war period, was oriented almost solely toward the West. It still wants strong ties with the West but it’s not solely reliant on those ties,” Larrabee said.

Pope agrees that Ankara’s realignment does not signify any chill toward the West. “The twin pillars of Turkey’s foreign policy remain the same: its EU convergence process and the political/military alliance with the USA,” he said. “There has been a tendency by some in Turkey to overstate the ability of its Middle East policy to take the place of these fundamental pillars. This is unrealistic. Good relations with the world’s superpower are obviously vital,” Pope said, adding that it is precisely Turkey’s ties to the West that make the county attractive to the Arab world.

The same goes for Europe. The Middle East has never taken more than a quarter of Turkey’s exports and supplies only 10 percent of its tourists, while Turkey does half its trade with Europe and gets 90 percent of its foreign investment from EU states, said the ICG expert.

Too big for its boots?

However, experts warn that an overstretched Turkey risks losing sight of its priorities, spending precious diplomatic energy and capital in the Mideast when it should be working to solve problems closer to home.

“It is certainly a risk. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is badly overstretched in terms of its capabilities, plus the record is clear: limited progress on thorny issues such as Cyprus and Armenia,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert based in London.

A settlement on the Cyprus issue, made less likely following the victory of hardliner Dervis Eroglu in leadership elections in the Turkish-occupied north on Sunday, is a prerequisite if Turkey wishes to keep EU convergence on track. Meanwhile, smoothing relations with Washington means that Ankara must find a way to implement the recently signed protocols with Yerevan, long at loggerheads with Turkey over the killing of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Ankara has scrambled to prevent the full US House of Representatives from passing a resolution approved by a US congressional committee that has called the 1915 massacres of Armenians genocide.

EU unimpressed

Experts disagree over the extent to which Turkey’s Middle East activism could bolster its chances of joining the EU. For Piccoli, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, there is “a basic misunderstanding from the Turkish side: the belief that the EU can appreciate Turkey’s growing importance in the region and thus decide that it is an indispensable partner,” he said.

The problem is the EU has no coherent foreign policy and is not a credible actor in the international arena, especially in the Middle East. “The risk for Ankara is that those EU countries that are opposing Turkey’s bid for membership will exploit the issue to strengthen their anti-Turkey positions,” Piccoli said. EU heavyweights Germany and France have both grown allergic to the idea of full Turkish membership, offering vague talk of a “special partnership” instead.

Pope too sees a threat from skeptical European politicians playing to popular fears. “Some are exaggerating Turkey’s improved relations with the Middle East as a sign that Turkey is somehow not European. The reality is quite the other way round,” he said drawing parallels between Turkey’s policies in the Middle East – like visa-free travel and free trade – and postwar European peace-building measures.

“Turkey is trying to introduce EU-style ideas into the region like those that brought peace to Europe after the Second World War,” he said.

Sledgehammer tactics

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Long the self-proclaimed guardian of Kemal Ataturk’s secular legacy, Turkey’s once-powerful military is now fighting for its own survival.

In an unlikely role-reversal for a country used to the generals’ interference in the political system, the Islamic-rooted administration of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has detained some 70 military officers, retired as well as serving, for their involvement in an alleged coup to overthrow his elected AKP government one year after it came to power in 2003.

“Operation Sledgehammer,” laid out in some 5,000 pages of documents leaked in January to Taraf, a small Turkish daily, involved planting bombs in mosques during prayers and downing Turkish fighter jets in a bid to sow chaos and prepare the ground for intervention from the country’s ever-meddling generals.

Cetin Dogan, a retired four-star general and alleged mastermind of the plot, has denied the accusations saying that the whole thing was no more than a “simulation exercise” drawn up for an army seminar.

Many generals feel they have been framed by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher and leader of the Gulen brotherhood that is supposedly seeking to make Turkey an Islamic state. Although moderate in its stated goals, the powerful and very organized Gulen movement has certainly made a priority of placing its adherents high in the Turkish system, according to Hugh Pope, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank, who spoke to Athens Plus.

“There is however nothing proven about the involvement of the Gulen movement or any other group,” Pope added.

The dramatic pre-dawn raids targeting prime suspects, leaks of colorful details and charges in pro-government media before they reach the prosecutor’s office have raised eyebrows among the Turkish public, some media, and independent observers who see at least some degree of political motivation behind the probe.

“The idea that 162 officers discussed a coup plot in 2003 and then nobody said anything about it for seven years is absurd. Such a thing would not have been done like this, in a seminar,” Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, told Athens Plus.

“The details do not make sense. There are simply too many absurdities and contradictions; it’s hard to take all this seriously,” Jenkins said.

Deniz Baykal, leader of the main opposition party, has rebuffed the operation as a “political showdown.” “Why did you wait for seven years?” he asked recently. “These are commanders who now wear pajamas and slippers.”

An ongoing trial concerning a separate anti-government plot by a shadowy ultranationalist network known as “Ergenekon” has also been criticized as an act of political vendetta. Some question whether the group even exists.

For most analysts, Jenkins included, developments mirror a tug of war between the established elite and an emerging pious Islamic segment of society.

“These arrests are the latest act in a struggle for power between two groups: the urban, highly secular but rather authoritarian establishment and military, who founded the republic of Turkey in 1923, and the more religious but pragmatic people from the Turkish countryside who have flooded into the cities since the 1960s, and whose political representative is the AKP,” said Pope, who has however expressed doubts that this is just a “witch hunt” against the army.

The army has staged three coups since 1960, but the Turkish public has grown sensitive to army interference in civic life. The latest bid, the so-called “e-coup” of 2007 when the military’s website criticized the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, backfired. Erdogan called a snap poll and won a resounding 47 percent of the vote. AKP again won 39 percent in the 2009 election and polls still give the party about one third of the vote, ahead of any other party.

The once-untouchable generals are against the ropes, but the chances of another coup, analysts say, are remote. “The events of this week signal another step toward full control of Turkey by civilian authorities. The country has come far from the military coups in 1960, 1971 or 1980 and is now far too complex and integrated into the global system to face another one,” said Pope.

The generals may be down but they are definitely not out. Despite its declining power, mostly thanks to AKP’s EU-minded reforms, as well as its dwindling popularity, the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. “If the civilian government should lose its way and lose popular support in a few years’ time, it is possible that the military will once again be tempted to act in the name of what it sees as the silent majority,” Pope said.

The standoff however seems to have galvanized the army which has in the past been divided on whether the chief of staff should be more assertive in safeguarding secularism. The chief of staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who has in the past stressed that the era of military coups is over, has lashed out at what he calls an “asymmetrical psychological war on the army.”

“Developments have had a demoralizing but also unifying effect,” Jenkins said. “They have united the core of the military rather than dividing it,” he added.

Greek commentators have expressed concern that the coup probe could harden Ankara’s policy on Greece as the Turkish premier would not want to give the impression of being a softy on a traditional rival, particularly during a standoff with the hawkish generals.

But foreign analysts beg to differ. “Turkey is becoming more introverted, more obsessed with internal affairs,” Jenkins said, suggesting that Greece was not a real priority at the moment.

Under the influence of its energetic Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu Turkey has pursued a “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors. Erdogan this week said that Ankara will pull its troops out from divided Cyprus should the two sides reach a peace deal.

However, Pope warned, the spat is certainly sapping time and energy from other priorities such as electoral and constitutional reform – a flashpoint of potential friction between the government and the pro-secularist judiciary – as well as tilting Turkey away from the perennial goal of EU membership, a Cyprus peace deal and normalization of ties with Armenia.

When swinging a sledgehammer, you always risk breaking more than you intended.


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