Turkey: Foreign Policy
It is always remarkable when a domestic policy issue becomes a matter of foreign policy. Yesterday morning, I discussed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasing repression of the media and, in particular, the arrest of Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper, Zaman, and Hidayet Karaca, director of the news channel, STV. When combined with the corruption scandals, the purge of the Gulenists, the total sidestepping off the military on an issue that directly affects its self-image as the embodiment of the Turkish people and its ability to perform, the increasingly dire economic, health and educational reports on the government’s performance, and Erdoğan’s determined efforts to convert the Turkish parliamentary polity into a highly centralized presidential system, but one without checks and balances, then the signs of weakness of the Erdoğan government are everywhere on which foreign governments can pounce. However, rarely do governments use press freedom and rights to free speech as the instruments to undermine an ally of which it is increasingly critical.
This is particularly interesting because Turkey has a long enough history of vibrant press freedom that has revealed the media repression to be very porous. Erdoğan‘s Kurd political satrap, his former economic minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, has a bad habit, just as Erdoğan has, of putting his foot in his mouth and probably ill-gotten gains in his pocket. In the spring, he self-righteously defended his son, Salih Kaan Çağlayan, who had just been arrested and charged with involvement in the 2003 corruption scandal. What was the defense? A blatantly anti-Semitic response! “I would understand if a Jew, an atheist, a Zoroastrian would do all these things to us. Shame on them if these things are done by those who claim to be Muslim. How can a Muslim do this?”
After the Gulenist purge from the police and the judiciary by Erdoğan, a Turkish court very recently dropped the corruption charges against 53 people, including Çağlayan’s son, Salih Kaan Çağlayan, and the sons of two other cabinet ministers. But all has not be sanguine. Just over a week ago, Hurriyet, a mass-circulation paper normally in Erdogan’s back pocket, played up the corruption scandal on its front page by following up on the parliamentary query by Corruption Commission Chairman, Hakki Koylu, an AKP loyalist, of the suspicious transfer of 2.5 million Turkish lira ($1.06 million) to Çağlayan’s personal bank account.
Erdogan may still appear invulnerable as the elected choice of the people, except that he won the presidential elections, in spite of alleged vote rigging, by a very slim margin. As the spiritual core of the AKP and the leader that carried his cohort to both political power and personal wealth, he is now incapable of separating himself from those colleagues. Countries that have grown weary of Erdogan’s unreliability are now taking advantage of that weakness and, in particular, his efforts to suppress the media, to undermine him further – in spite of commentators, like Semih Idiz, who still see the efforts at consolidation of power while sweeping the corruption scandal under the rug to be unstoppable. However, the combination of the suppression of the media through the arrests of journalists and heavy fines levied against media outlets by the government and the news of the widespread corruption, may, as Nobel prize-winning writer, Orhan Pamuk commented, but with my cliché, offer the two straws that broke the camel’s back.
Given America’s strategic interest in ensuring that Turkey remains a capable and secure partner, particularly in the fight against Islamic State, it now seems that those strategic interests can be married to the issue of a free press. Jen Psaki, Secretary of State John Kerry’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, while admitting that John Kerry has not personally taken up the issue, and while insisting that Turkey remains a democracy and an important ally and NATO power, clearly suggested that the American embassy in Ankara has raised the issue of press freedom in Turkey. She replied to press queries about the media repression in Turkey by saying that, “the United States supports freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest. We look to Turkey to uphold these fundamental freedoms. We remain concerned about due process, broadly speaking, and effective access to justice in Turkey…we are concerned by the detention of journalists and media representatives following police raids on the offices of media which have been critical of the government. Media freedom, due process, and judicial independence are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Freedom of the media includes the freedom to criticize the government. Voicing opposition does not equal conspiracy or treason. As Turkey’s friend and NATO ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold Turkey’s core values and democratic foundations.”
Criticism for the US of Turkey has become more blatant. The EU has been even more critical than the US. The EU has openly stated that the raids were incompatible with media freedoms and, further, suggested they could affect Turkey’s longstanding bid to join the bloc. Erdoğan has responded by dismissing such threats, but most ordinary Turks take them seriously.
However, whatever the debates over media suppression, the current central issue in foreign policy for Turkey is – not Israel and Gaza or even Cyprus – but the rise and spread of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. On the one hand, Turkey has harboured Islamic State militants and permitted Islamicists to cross the border into Syria to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime. The main opposition military supply line runs from Turkey to the northern city of Aleppo, which is why the recent Syrian army recapture of Aleppo was so important. At the same time, true to his faith in the teachings of his hero, the Turkish anti-Semitic philosopher, Nurettin Topcu (1909-1975) (see his essays “Money and the Jew”, mankind’s two enemies, and “Human Beings and Jews” where Jews are depicted as the bloody and sinful ordeal for humanity), Erdoğan himself envisions Turkey as the future Islamic caliphate. So he is tempted as well as pressured to join the US-led coalition against Islamic State. However, he has not.
In the meanwhile, AKP media mouthpieces deride that US pressure as a conspiracy to trap Turkey into fighting battles for the West. Erdoğan denounced Interpol when, at the request of Egypt, it issued an arrest warrant for Youssef al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is an Egyptian-Qatari national as well as an intellectual eminence grise of the Muslim Brotherhood and president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who is suspected of having found a safe haven in Turkey. Is Erdoğan protecting Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who has supported suicide bombings in Israel and endorsed the killing of Jewish fetuses? For Qaradawi, Muslims can only speak to Jews through the sword and the rifle.
On 21 November, Dursun Ali Sahin, an Erdoğan appointed governor of Edirne in Eastern Thrace, a city that once had 13,000 Jews and now has only 2 as a result of systematic ethnic cleansing over the years, decided to convert the Jewish synagogue there into a museum, but one in which there would be no displays. After an outcry, Ali Sahin apologized and said he had been misinterpreted. However, it is widely believed that Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is a distraction for his deeper anti-Semitic convictions. So much for Hamas’ cousin, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, occupying the peaceful road to Islamic unity.
Turkey and Egypt have become each other’s worst enemies. They have cut off diplomatic relations with one another and Egyptian men between the ages of 18 and 40 are banned by their government from traveling to Turkey without the written approval of Egyptian State Security. This has also exacerbated the tension between Turkey and the West, a tension enhanced to the breaking point when the US State Department issues its annual reports on the mistreatment and torture of political prisoners in Turkey at the same time as both countries obfuscate the Turkish-American illegal rendition, detention and torture of Islamist terror suspects. Turkey (the only NATO member to do so) vociferously denounced American actions in the wake of the recent Senate report on the illegal activities and torture by calling on those who violated laws and democratic norms to be held to account. Ankara tried to have it both ways, staking out its greater moral purity while disguising its own sins and never acknowledging that Turkey participated in the rendition of terrorists as cited in the Senate Report. Nor has Erdoğan admitted that he made the Incirlik air base available to the Americans for transfer of those prisoners while continuing to stress his deep-seated anti-western outlook. It is no wonder that relations between Erdoğan and his European and American allies have become so strained.
If Turkish-American relations are strained, to say the least, Turkey’s over fifty-year-old pursuit of membership in the EU, if it has not almost been completely abandoned, is in the doldrums and, thus, the EU threats ring more hollow as Erdoğan continues to pose that he is still interested, though little has been done to whittle down the 14 outstanding conditions for accession from the original 35. But his actions belie his words as Turkey demonstrates an increasing unwillingness to comply with the EU’s entry restrictions.
Cyprus remains a sore point, not only between Greece and Turkey, but between the EU and Turkey. The EU has never stopped objecting to Turkey’s occupation of the northern half of the island. As Greek Cyprus pursues a joint hydrocarbon exploration with Israel and Egypt as partners, Turkey can only fume and foam and threaten to disrupt the exploration by deploying the Turkish navy. Erdoğan’s loose tongue does not help. A week before the EU ministers and top brass visited Ankara for talks, he fired a fuselage: European Christian states do not like Muslims but they love the “oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world”. He went even further: Europeans were accused of enjoying watching Muslim children die.
So why do Western leaders troop religiously to Ankara, not only European leaders (recently High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, Frederica Mogherini, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain), but US Vice-President Joe Biden in November and the Pope in December. The unequivocal answer – realpolitik. The West will do whatever it can to keep the Islamists from allying with the far more radical Islamicists. The EU and the USA are also wary of the growing friendship and links between fellow wannabe strongmen who are remarkably similar in a number of respects – Putin and Erdoğan – as they come closer to one another in sharing their increasing international isolation. This explains the delicate tightrope walk by both the USA and the EU as they reinforce the message that Turkey is an important ally and, at the same time, raise the decibel level of the criticism of the Erdoğan government.
Erdoğan’s decision to allow Turkey to be used for pipelines as a transit route for natural gas between the Middle East and the West both has undermined the Russian-Tukey relationship while, at the same time, it has brought Putin to Ankara to woo Erdoğan with his charms, though unlikely to be completely successful given Russia’s support for Turkey’s enemy, Assad’s Syria. Putin, however, came armed. On his visit at the beginning of December, Putin announced that the US$22 billion South Stream project running through Bulgaria from Russia would be scrapped. However, that proposal turned into an unloaded gun when, in the face of Western sanctions against Russia, Bulgaria declined to host the pipeline.
Putin had to become more fawning than ever on his December 1st visit to Turkey and proposed a huge 63 billion cubic metre capacity pipeline from Russia through Turkey in addition to the 16 billion cubic capacity pipeline already under construction to supply both Turkey and Europe with Russian natural gas. This would provide the kleptocrats in Turkey with a large amount of loose change. These projects are over and above the 18 billion cubic metre Tanap project from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe that Iran is building. Turkmenistan will also be able to access that pipeline for oil transmission. As a bonus for Turkish cooperation, Russia promised to reduce the costs of gas to Turkey by 6% on 1 January 2015.
In spite of realpolitik, it is amazing that Turkey has not been evicted from NATO for ignoring the boycott of Russia over the issue of Ukraine.
Here is where money trumps ideology. Israel too may also be permitted to build a pipeline from its enormous gas fields on the Mediterranean coast to Turkey. Although economic cooperation between Israel and Turkey may be forging ahead, political relations continue to worsen. Israel has accused Turkey of training Hamas operatives while Turkey insists it is only hosting Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and its leader, Saleh al-Aruri who was deported from the West Bank by Israel in 2012 after his 18-year prison sentence had been served. Even the Palestinian Authority accuses Aruri, with support from Ankara, of planning multiple attacks against Israeli targets.
The contradiction between economic interests and ideological convictions, between the realities of the marke place and Erdoğan’s populist domestic policies, such as the distribution of free coal to the needy that also serves as a cover for stealing money from the public (estimated at 10 billion Turkish lira by the end of 2013 when rake-offs from the coal deals, transportation and distribution are all taken into account) as Turkey closes dangerous and inefficient coal mines forcing the government to buy coal on the spot market, both of low quality and high cost, to meet its “obligations” as that coal must be distributed for electoral benefit in the run-up to the June elections. In addition to a press freedom crisis and a corruption crisis, Turkey is coming closer and closer to a financial crisis. In the process, the EU and the USA are putting their joint weight on the opposite side of the teeter-totter than Erdoğan.
Turkey’s obsession with orchestrating regime change in Syria has been a failure, yet Ankara does little about the rising threat of lslamic State even as Turkish cars are stolen to be used as car bombs, as in the 29 November suicide attack in Kobani at the Mursitpinar crossing into Turkey. Turkish territory is used as preparation areas for attacks by IS on Syria. IS fighters can be found in Turkish villages near the Mursitpinar border crossing with Syria. Those fighters attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces from the rear as the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, now that it has secured a revenue-sharing agreement with Baghdad, grows closer to the Kurds in Turkey than to the government in Ankara
Is Ankara hosting IS as pressure on the anti-Assad coalition, that includes Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, to create a buffer and no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border? Why is Erdoğan so stubbornly resistant to including Assad representatives in the Geneva talks sponsored by both Russia and the US? Erdoğan has chastised the US for its “impertinence, recklessness and endless demands” offered from “12,000 kilometers away”. In some ways the criticism is wholly justified for Turkey hosts over a million Syrian refugees (Ankara says it is 1.6 million) while countries like Canada cannot even muster the ability to admit a meagre 1,300 to which it is already pledged.
Nevertheless, Turkey increasingly appears as the odd man out in the Middle East with enemies in Cairo, Damascus, and the Arabian peninsula, cool relations with Baghdad, not to speak of its direct rivalry with Tehran. Netanyahu has to be gloating with these radical shifts since the 2010 Mavi Marmara episode even as Erdoğan continues to host Hamas and enhance its presence in the West Bank.