Foreign Policy Blogs

On Turkish Foreign Policy and the Middle East (Interview)

Dear followers of FPA’s Middle East blog,

News.Az, a leading online news source of the Caucasus recently conducted an online interview with me – here you can find the full version of the interview:

Turkey is a new leader of the Muslim world in the Middle East. Are you satisfied with the Turkish policy in the region in this regard?

I think we have to define what we really mean by ‘leadership’. If we are talking about Turkey becoming the primary foreign policy anchor, according to which the countries of the Middle East shape their domestic and/or foreign policies, it is difficult to talk about a Turkish leadership in that regard. A waning United States, an ambivalent Europe; China and Russia – who are recently entering to the Middle Eastern system of affairs – still have no less weight over these affairs than a rising Turkey. There is certainly more Turkish influence, but I don’t think this implies leadership.

I believe the Western media likes to sensationalize world affairs and definitely the affairs of the Middle East, which is why ‘the return of the Ottoman Empire’ or ‘neo-Ottomanism in the Middle East’ themed analyses receive so much attention. Although Turkey’s current government, Justice and Development Party (AKP) strongly refutes such ‘Ottomanist’ claims, they nonetheless benefit from such advertising as it gives them political capital domestically and internationally.
In many ways, I see that Turkey’s ‘leadership’ in the Middle East a bit of a hype created by the global media. Countries of the Middle East may see Turkey as an inspiration as long as it manages to balance its Muslim identity with a secular state structure and a progressive-modernist political goal, but few – if any – of these countries actually desire Turkish leadership. Memories of the late-Ottoman Empire and the 1916 Arab Revolt are still not forgotten.

Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East is exhibits characteristics of a Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT – an international relations theory introduced by the British School), which stipulates that in the ”post-post-Cold War” international system in which the United States is losing its hegemony in world affairs and is challenged by newly emerging global powers, security and economic cooperation in regions like the Middle East will be determined by cultural, historical ties and identity politics.

Illustration by Peter Schrank (Economist)

(Illustration by Peter Schrank (Economist))

In that regard, as the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East following two unsuccessful wars, a financial crisis of great proportions and an Arab Spring that shakes Western influence in the region, politics of the Middle East will be determined by cultural-religious ties and historical roots. In that sense, Turkey filled the vacuum being left by the United States and Europe very well, by emphasizing its historical ties in the region and arguably handling an uncertain Arab Spring and riding its volatile waves better than any other global power; at least certainly better than the United States or Europe.

What may Turkey do in regard of situation in Syria?

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) invested a lot of political capital in legitimizing the Assad regime. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was friends with Bashar Assad at the family level and Turkish-Syrian relations have long been the shining example of the AKP’s ‘zero-problems policy’. Western critics of Turkey’s relations with Syria would get a response from Turkish diplomats who indicated that Turkey was trying to bring Syria to cooperate with the international community of states. Since 2003, Turkey has been Syria’s bridge to the western world and certainly to Washington DC. However, Assad’s response to the spread of the Arab Spring ideals to Syria shook its relations with Turkey from its foundations. Assad’s suppression methods created a refugee problem in northern Syria and many of these refugees were offered asylum in Turkey. However, Turkey made it clear to Damascus that a similar refugee crisis will be unacceptable and that the Assad regime should immediately stop attacks against his own people. Both Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu conveyed this message to Assad repeatedly, but as time went on with continued attacks against the civilians, Turkey changed its tone against Syria. Last month Foreign Minister Davutoglu implied a possibility of armed conflict and Prime Minister Erdogan officially told the press that Turkey’s patience was waning. In early October, Turkey carried out a military exercise on the Syrian border and shortly afterwards Bashar Assad threatened Turkey that if NATO attacked Syria, he would launch rockets to Tel Aviv and Iran would target American and European interests in the Gulf. Turkey wishes to end all hostilities in Syria even if this implies military intervention, but such intervention must be carried out by NATO, instead of a unilateral Turkish action. With a limited military success in Libya, NATO involvement seems more desirable at this point, but we also have to understand that such an intervention will be costlier and longer than the Libyan case. At a time when Europe is dealing with military budget cuts because of the financial crisis, (British RAF recently announced that it is planning to cut 17,000 jobs by 2015 and the French Armed Forces announced that it would cut 4.8 billion US dollars in the next 3 years) whether NATO is financially capable of carrying out a difficult military operation against the Assad regime, with a possible spill-over involving Iran is questionable.

On Turkish Foreign Policy and the Middle East (Interview)
(Daily Telegraph's MATT: Future of RAF's no-fly zone 
in Libya following budget cuts) 


If the NATO decides to intervene in Syria despite these budget cuts, then Turkey is likely to join with limited air support and base allocation. However such action needs to be very quick and properly planned; Assad, knowing that he will eventually lose against NATO will do everything he can to slow down NATO progress and stretch NATO presence there with the aim of running its finances low. Iran would most certainly join the fight in the background, using its intelligence and secret services to slow down Assad’s fall and fight a war of attrition that will wear NATO’s capabilities down and force an early withdrawal from Syria. Looking at how long it took to topple Qaddafi in Libya, I am not too optimistic about NATO’s chances of a quick victory in Syria – at least not without committing ground troops.

And what about situation in Iran? May Turkey somehow reduce tension around Iranian nuclear program and prevent Western military invasion to this country?

At a time when we are debating whether NATO can succeed in Syria, I am not sure if a military intervention can do anything in Iran. U.S. Secratary of Defense, Leon Panetta himself said that an air strike against Iran would only delay Iran’s nuclear process. Turkey repeatedly declared its opposition against Iranian nuclear program, but also indicated that Iran has the right to pursue a nuclear path in energy production. I think after the most recent IAEA report, there is little doubt in Ankara regarding what Iran intends to do. In the Uranium enrichment scale, up to 3-5% enriched Uranium can be used in energy production, while up to 20% enriched Uranium is used for research purposes. While Iran can produce energy with up to 20% enriched Uranium, according to IAEA findings, its current Uranium enrichment levels went way beyond 60%, which is approaching weapons-grade mark. More worrisome perhaps, is that Iran recently moved large batches or Uranium Hexaflouride Gas (UF6) to the new reactor in the Holy city of Qom in preparation for launching enrichment work here.

I believe Iran will use the facility in Qom for higher enrichment work, while allocating lower-level enrichment to other facilities. In that way, Iran will be burying its weapons-grade Uranium under the holiest city for the Shias. In case of an aerial attack, you can’t destroy the Qom reactor without damaging the holy city and predictably, damaging the holy city will be a declaration of war against all the Shias – it is not much different than bombing Mecca.

On Turkish Foreign Policy and the Middle East (Interview)

Therefore Iranian nuclear program remains a huge problem for the west, and that includes Turkey. It is very difficult to launch an air raid against all Iranian nuclear targets without starting an all-out Middle Eastern war and thus, the focus should instead be on sophisticated cyber warfare, which can disrupt the computer network which controls each nuclear facility.

However, Turkey’s relationship with Tehran has another dimension: Kurdish separatist PKK. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Bush government restricted Turkey’s access to northern Iraq and thus, to the PKK positions there, as a response to Turkey’s refusal to allow US troops to station in Turkey. Under the protection of American radar jammers, the PKK managed to resurrect itself from the interregnum caused by the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Turkey’s repeated warnings to the Bush government that it was involuntarily protecting a terrorist organization while trying to punish Turkey fell on deaf ears until 2007.

Between 2003 and 2007 Iran realized that the Bush government had left a massive political vacuum that it could fill and began shelling PKK positions in Iraq from its artillery positions east of the Qandil mountain. Thus, Iran replaced the United States as the main ally ff Turkey in its war against the PKK, while Turkey’s main ally United States put up radar jammers that restricted Turkish war planes’ access to northern Iraqi PKK bases. Even today, Iran periodically attacks PKK positions in Qandil, which blunts Turkey’s rhetoric against the Iranian nuclear programme.

Yet, Turkey did and still does try to play as an intermediary between NATO and Iran. The most important step in this direction came in May 2010 when Iran and Turkey signed a nuclear fuel swap deal which Tehran agreed to send about 1200kg low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for fuel for a research reactor. By this, Turkey wanted to make sure that Iran got only the amount of uranium, enriched to a level that can only be used as fuel and not in weapons. Yet, as I mentioned, the reactor in Qom changes this entire picture and it is not certain what Turkey (or the west) can do at a time when Iran already has a reactor which is practically untouchable to bombers, an escalating conflict in Syria and Assad’s subsequent threat to Tel Aviv.

Iran managed to lock itself into an immovable position and remains as a massive problem not just to Turkey, but to all NATO countries. I believe the Obama administration is doing the best possible thing by significantly decreasing warning against Iran and discursively de-securitizing the Iranian threat. As long as you have a President like G. W. Bush who makes clear that Iran is an enemy and constantly advertises this position as publicly as possible, Iranian people will rally behind the nuclear program as a deterrent and defense. In Obama’s case, as the hostile American rhetoric against Iran diminishes and U.S. officials don’t talk about Iran publicly, then the Iranian people will start asking why the majority of their taxes are supporting a very costly nuclear program. The U.S. has to play down and better yet, not mention Iran for a long time so that the nuclear program can lose its public appeal gradually.

How deep is a crisis between Turkey and Israel and do you believe in soon normalization of bilateral relations?

It is no secret that some leading figures of the AKP come from an Islamist background and some of those do subscribe to an anti-Semitic thought. Yet on the other hand there is no secret that many leading figures of the Likud coalition come from a Jewish fundamentalist background and some of those do subscribe to an anti-Islamic thought.

I think both Israeli and some US decision-makers misinterpret AKP being monolithically anti-Semitic and think that Turkish foreign policy is becoming ideologically anti-Israeli. One must understand that although a number of the leading party figures sympathize with varying degrees of anti-Semitism, Turkish foreign policy-making goes through a complex network of processes that also include secular, pro-Western bureaucrats who also served in the 1990s and supported Turkish-Israeli cooperation.

While the AKP indeed is partly responsible for the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, we can’t get the whole picture without looking at how Olmert and Netenyahu governments also contributed to the deterioration in relations. It was during Olmert’s tenure that Turkey headed the Israeli-Palestinian-Syrian peace talks and Turkish secular diplomats are still furious with the Olmert government because of his decision to invade Gaza in 2008 two days after he agreed to sign the final version of the peace treaty. Israel’s biggest complaint regarding Arafat’s stance in the peace negotiations of 2000 Camp David was that he was ”planning an intifada while negotiating peace terms”. And quite understandably, Turkish intermediaries got infuriated when they discovered that Olmert was planning an invasion of Gaza while negotiating the peace agreement terms brokered by Ankara. That is when Israel lost Turkey’s secular diplomats and their secular support in the Foreign Ministry. And of course the killing of 9 Turkish activists in the flotilla incident marked the lowest point in relations, as a result of which Israel lost its traditional allies in Turkey as well; the secular-nationalist wing. My personal opinion is that some responsibility of the flotilla incident belongs to Turkey simply because it allowed civilian vessels into waters blockaded by a navy. I see this as a problematic statecraft; if a government cares about the lives of its civilians, it has to take responsibility and prevent them from facing a wide range of hostile possibilities. True in the end, the vessels were boarded in international waters and ferries, that can be easily disabled and towed were in fact raided by commandos, who at the end of the day, killed civilians. But is it really any surprise to anyone that Israel is using excessive force? When did Israel used commandos and not created a problem that could otherwise be avoided? Wasn’t this a possibility that the Turkish government knew from the very beginning?

On Turkish Foreign Policy and the Middle East (Interview)

I personally do not think Turkish foreign policy is anti-Israeli.  We can’t put the blame of some anti-Israeli members of the Turkish government on Turkish foreign policy in general. The depth of Turkish foreign policy thinking is certainly frustrating the Israelis and some American foreign policy observers who look at world affairs through a rigidly Cartesian model of rationality, which is inherently cultural and doesn’t take into account other cultural understandings of rationality. In that sense we can’t really say that Israeli foreign policy is more rational than Turkish foreign policy. At least when you look at the results on the field and see which country has expanded its zone of influence and alliance networks in the last 10 years, the whole picture becomes clearer.

Despite all this, Turkish-Israeli relations can improve quickly if both sides take the right steps. But currently, Israel’s relations with pretty much every country in the region are deteriorating. It doesn’t have good relations with any country in the Middle East, and is frequently attracting criticism from the European Union, Russia, China and most recently the United States (Obama was overheard agreeing with the French Prime Minster Sarkozy, who called Netenyahu a ‘liar’). In a regional setting where Israel has no allies and Turkey emerging as perhaps the most popular country in the region, it is a bit weird to ask Turkey to change its stance against Israel. You can’t sell it to anyone, politically.

Although this doesn’t necessarily reflect by own opinion, many officials in Ankara are waiting for the current Israeli government to change first and get the next government to apologize from Turkey regarding the death of 9 activists. There is a lot of potential for Turkish-Israeli cooperation in the region and soon the Syrian case, with the possibility of an Iranian involvement might once again pit Turkey and Israel into the same front as allies. It will be extremely difficult for Turkey however, to ally with a government who killed its citizens, so such alliance is more likely to take place when another government is at the helm in Israel.

What do you think about normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations and the Karabakh settlement? Which of these problems may be resolved first?

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan explicitly stated in April 2010, that the ratification of the Turkish-Armenian 2009 Accord depends upon the peaceful resolution of the Karabakh issue. At least from the Turkish perspective, there has to be a Karabakh settlement first, and then an Armenian-Turkish normalization. Yet, Turkey also makes some small gestures to the Armenian public opinion, such as the reconsecration of the Surp Agop Church in Diyarbakır. However, a rapprochement with Armenia, although desirable, is not Turkey’s priority right now with more fundamental issues arising with the Arab Spring, its relations with Syria, Israel and Iran. Certainly all Turkish decision-makers will want to take credit for the improvement of relations with Armenia, but the prevailing sense in Ankara is that the Armenian leadership is acting as impediment.

While Armenia asks Turkey not to use the Karabakh issue as a precondition for talks, Turkey also asks Armenia to drop genocide charges and to recognize the Turkish-Armenian border established by the Treaty of Kars in 1922. Besides, Turkey’s actions towards Armenia also affect its relations with Azerbaijan; Turkey wishes not to alienate the Azeris, primarily because of cultural-historical ties, but more practically, because of the future of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The current deadlock will be addressed when the fundamental shift in the Middle East settles once again and Turkey can re-allocate its diplomatic efforts and capabilities to the Armenian issue, or alternatively if Russia’s gas transportation deal with Ukraine arrives at an impasse and the alternative Caucasus energy transit route regains its critical importance once again.




Akin Unver

Dr. Ünver is an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

Previously he was the Ertegün Lecturer of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, Near Eastern Studies department - the only academic to retain this prestigious fellowship for two consecutive years. He conducted his joint post-doctoral studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for European Studies and the Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he authored several articles on Turkish politics, most notable of which is ”Turkey’s deep-state and the Ergenekon conundrum”, published by the Middle East Institute.

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, he graduated from T.E.D. Ankara College in 1999 and earned his B.A. in International Relations from Bilkent University (2003) and MSc in European Studies from the Middle East Technical University (2005). He received his PhD from the Department of Government, University of Essex, where his dissertation, ‘A comparative analysis of the discourses on the Kurdish question in the European Parliament, US Congress and Turkish National Assembly‘ has won the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

Akın also assumed entry-level policy positions at the European Union Secretariat-General, Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eurasian Center for Strategic Studies (ASAM) and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (D.C.), as well as teaching positions at the University of Essex (Theories of International Relations) and Sabancı University (Turkey and the Middle East).

You can follow other works of Akin through: