Posts Tagged 'syria'

Thessaloniki Doc Fest opens with moving feature about little boy’s journey to get a new heart

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By Harry van Versendaal

Nastia Tarasova’s “Linar,” a documentary about a Russian boy who travels to Italy to receive a heart transplant, will be the curtain raiser at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) which gets under way on March 14.

In her first full-length film, the Moscow-based director observes 5-year-old Linar as he spends his time at a Moscow clinic, his small body connected to a big machine on wheels that pumps blood into his failing heart. Tarasova follows the boy as bureaucratic obstacles mean that he has to travel to a small Italian town to receive a heart transplant.

Now in its 16th year, the festival has gone from strength to strength. Last year, a record 45,000 viewers flocked to the TDF theaters, which include the Olympion and Pavlos Zannas cinemas on central Aristotelous Square and the redbrick port complex. Notwithstanding budget woes, with the help of European Union funds organizers have managed to bring together about 112 films, including 60 homemade productions for this year’s event.

Alongside “Linar,” festival highlights include Rithy Panh’s “The Missing Picture,” a haunting documentary about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime that received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, a first for a Cambodian feature. An adaptation of Panh’s memoir “The Elimination,” the film uses dozens of impressive clay figurines and powerful archival footage to chronicle the fate of his family before and during Pol Pot’s genocidal rule – and the demons that continue to haunt him.

Directed by veteran filmmaker Larry Weinstein and debuting director Drew Taylor, “Our Man in Tehran” is a factual account of the events that inspired Ben Affleck’s blockbuster “Argo.” Based on several interviews with the Western protagonists of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the documentary provides a great deal of interesting background while taking a fair share of the drama out of Affleck’s rendition of the life-or-death secret operation to rescue six American diplomats hiding in the residence of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor – including a heart-stopping chase after a Swissair plane down the tarmac of Tehran’s airport.

Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war is the background for Talal Derki’s harrowing, behind-the-barricades footage brought to the big screen in “The Return to Homs.” The movie, which received the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for a documentary at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year, follows Basset, a 19-year-old goalkeeper who evolves into a local icon of the resistance movement and militia leader in the struggle against the Assad regime, as well as his close friend, 24-year-old citizen journalist Ossama.

Double tribute

TDF organizers have also prepared a tribute to Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick, who died last year of a rare form of liver cancer. Best known for his 1992 box-office hit “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,” a near-three-hour expose of the US media industry which he co-directed by Mark Achbar, Wintonick, sometimes dubbed Canada’s documentary ambassador to the world, had dedicated most of his life to working as a director, producer, editor and reporter – and was a permanent fixture at TDF. A new audience award named after him will be presented to the festival’s best foreign feature.

Award-winning French documentarist Nicolas Philibert will also be honored by the festival, which plans to screen nine of his films, including what many consider his finest moment: “To Be and to Have.” Shot in 2002, this touching portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France became an instant critical and commercial success. Its fame has persisted despite a fair amount of controversy following its release, after the main character in the movie, veteran teacher George Lopez, sued the 63-year-old director for a healthy share of the profits, claiming that he had been exploited. The court rejected the claim, which was seen by some as raising some interesting ethical questions about the nature of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking.

Approximately 500 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, a digital library that caters to television networks and industry professionals from around the world. Some 60 buyers are expected to attend from Europe, the United States and Canada.

As usual, organizers have planned a number of workshops, discussions and side events, including an exhibition by Albanian photojournalist Enri Canaj. Taking place with the support of the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, the show, titled “In a Sharp Frame,” will be inaugurated on March 15 at the Thessaloniki Center of Contemporary Art.

Pressed by human rights activists, Greece pledges to stop deportations of Syrian refugees

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By Harry van Versendaal

Greece on Wednesday pledged to halt deportations of Syrian refugees, as human rights activists called for measures to ensure that asylum seekers from the war-torn Middle Eastern state have access to Greek territory and safety.

“No Syrian refugees will be detained or returned,” Manolis Katriadakis, who is responsible for migration issues at the Ministry of Public Order, told a conference organized in Athens by the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“Deportation decisions on Syrians will be suspended and reviewed every six months,” he said, adding that authorities were trying to improve access to asylum services for them.

Two years since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it is estimated that more than 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died while tens of thousands of political prisoners remain unaccounted for. The UNHCR reckons that over 1.3 million refugees, 71 percent of whom are women and children, have fled Syria and a further 2 million have been displaced within the country as the Arab Spring-inspired protest movement degenerated into an increasingly sectarian conflict.

“The Syria situation is one of the most complex and dangerous in the world and the largest and most quickly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the planet,” UNHCR regional refugee coordinator for Syria Panos Moumtzis said.

“The situation is desperate and is becoming explosive,” he said.

Greece, a key transit point for Asian and African immigrants seeking to sneak into the European Union, has been relatively unaffected by the Syria crisis, figures suggest.

Last year, about 8,000 Syrians were detected entering or residing in Greece illegally. A total 1,623 Syrian nationals were arrested in the first quarter of 2013. There is no official number of the Syrians living in Greece at the moment.

“Greece must remain on standby, but it is by no means faced with a [humanitarian] crisis, said Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece, adding that the brunt of the refugee exodus has been borne by Syria’s neighbors.

Lebanon has received an estimated 417,827 refugees while 432,263 have fled into Jordan. An estimated 400,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Iraq has provided refuge for 130,379 people.

Strengthened security in the Evros region, including a 10.5-kilometer barbed-wire fence along the Turkish frontier, has led to a spike in arrivals on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands only a few kilometers from the Turkish coast. Would-be immigrants pay smugglers thousands of dollars for space on a packed rubber dinghy. Dozens drown in the sea every year. Those who manage to get a foot on the ground have to deal with messy asylum and immigration systems and the growing menace of far-right thugs.

Like all other immigrants, Syrians are subject to arrest, detention, rejection of asylum, pushbacks and deportations, activists say.

In 2012, the number of Syrians granted asylum in the first instance was just two. Because of Greece’s bad reputation, most don’t even bother to apply for protection status – only 152 applications were submitted last year. Meanwhile, at least 55 have been deported since last year according to Human Rights Watch, although Greek authorities deny the allegations, saying these concerned voluntary repatriations.

“Detention is problematic and conditions are inappropriate,” Tsarbopoulos said of the overcrowded and underserviced migrant camps across the country while stressing the problems caused by the lack of interpreters and qualified interviewers to even establish if the asylum seekers are Syrians or not.

“Clearly, they are not treated the way they should be by the authorities,” he said.

Greece’s much-criticized asylum system is finally set for a revamp. In 2011 the country, which has often complained of unfair burden-sharing to its peers in the 27-member bloc, was found in breach of the Convention on Human Rights over detention conditions at immigrant camps. The new asylum system, which will not involve the police, is to go into effect on June 1, Katriadakis said.

“That will hopefully solve most of the problems,” he added.

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.”

The end of the affair?

By Harry van Versendaal

After the “golden era” of the 1990s, a number of incidents in the past few years have left Turkish-Israeli ties seriously impaired, but these appear to be the symptoms of a deeper geopolitical trend rather than the cause.

Driven by a yen to consolidate its place in the Western camp in a cold war security environment and its poor relations with Arab states like Iran and Syria, Turkey became one of the first states to recognize the state of Israel in the late 1940s. Bilateral relations peaked in the 1990s with the signing of a number of business, intelligence and military agreements. Ankara gave Israeli fighter jets permission to use Turkish air space as training ground and, in turn, gained access to Israeli military technology – including unmanned drones that could be used in the fight against Kurdish militia in the southeast. Meanwhile, Turkish resorts were packed with Israeli tourists.

However, relations have deteriorated rapidly over the past decade. Israel’s 2008 raid on Gaza sparked a fuming reaction from the Islamic-rooted administration of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After dressing down Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Turkish premier went as far as to brand the Jewish state as “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

Relations reached a new low in late May after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish civilians. The two sides, both close American allies, have sought to repair at least some of the damage and Israel earlier this month agreed to cooperate with a UN investigation into the fatal operation. But, though Israel has taken most of the flack for the bloodshed, there are ample signs that the Turkish Justice and Development (AKP) government, which is reportedly close to the NGO that sponsored the flotilla, could have done more to prevent the disaster.

Both incidents however seem to fit into the pattern of Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy realignment. Propelled by growing self-confidence and frustration with EU stonewalling over Turkish membership in the 27-member club, Ankara is increasingly pulling its weight in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, expanding trade and assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes. It has impressively fixed most of the damage in its ties with Iraq and Syria, but this diplomatic turnaround has not always sat well with Ankara’s friends in the West. A report in the Financial Times this week said that Washington has warned Ankara that its veto of UN sanctions against Iran, a nuclear wannabe power but also a chief energy provider for Turkey, could cost it its chance to obtain US-made drone aircraft to quell Kurdish guerrillas after the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of next year.

Erdogan’s Israel-bashing may find a sympathetic ear on the Arab street, but he should know that turning his back on Israel and the West is a non-starter. If Turkey is putting on a regional show to impress the US and the EU, it is certainly using the wrong tricks. Breaking ranks with the West over Iran and escalating tensions with Israel will not make Turkey more European.

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.”


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