Erdogan, Champion of Mideast Moderation: Reality or Mirage?

Erdogan has intensified his critique of Israel in the aftermath of Biden’s failed visit to Israel, but, as in Washington, so far the reality falls far short of appearances.
Along with the rest of the world, Erdogan has intensified his own rhetoric against Israel since Biden’s failed visit to Israel, judging from Israel’s Ynet News on March 19, 2010. Erdogan’s critique scores on several fronts, leaving him still the rhetorical leader among moderates:

  • Ties with Turkey will not return to normal until Israel ends the siege on Gaza;
  • The approval of new homes in Ramat Shlomo is “unacceptable” and shows that Israel “wants to erase the Palestinians step by step”;
  • Israel’s behavior “can harm regional stability.”

Ankara is still significantly ahead of Washington, having not only laid out demands at the highest level for changes in Israeli behavior in Jerusalem and Gaza but also underscoring the negative international impact of Israel’s conduct.
Going slightly beyond mere rhetoric, Erdogan thus made it clear that bilateral ties are being intentionally downgraded pending a change in Israel’s behavior. This was already clear, but his public affirmation at least makes it official that Turkey has crossed the line from words—so far Washington’s limit—to action. Now the question is whether Turkey or other states will move on to more substantive action than a vague negative tone in relations. More specifically, will Erdogan be able to entice Obama to follow his lead?
Erdogan is gently scouting out new diplomatic ground, laying a trail that seems designed to be as easy as possible for Washington to follow. For example, Erdogan’s reference to Israel harming regional stability follows closely from the recent comments of Petraeus.
The reality of Turkey’s ties to Israel (Israel National News, 3/16/10) are far warmer than Erdogan’s words might suggest, however. This week’s visit by IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to Turkey for a NATO counterterrorism conference, despite the fact that Israel is not a NATO member and his meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul show clearly the strength of bilateral ties and the depth of the international isolation of the stateless and marginalized Palestinians.
Erdogan would undoubtedly be delighted to get some credit for helping resolve any of the various regional disputes, but he has yet to demonstrate that his anti-Israeli rhetoric is much more than a cover for the continuation of a profitable bilateral military relationship at the expense of both Palestinians and Turkey’s own Kurds.

Turkey Moves Toward Regional Leadership

In a Mideast region being ripped apart by greed, short-sightedness, arrogance, refusal to compromise, a growing addiction to violence, and the virtual absence of wise leadership, Turkey appears to see itself as the leader of a new moderate regional coalition. Can Washington maintain pace?

On October 30, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held a joint press conference in Iraqi Kurdistan, saying:

It is time for Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis to rebuild the Middle East. Therefore, it is time for everyone to take brave steps.

This does not automatically mean equality for Turkish Kurds, of course, and yet, it seems an improvement over the Turkish military attacks of last winter and suggests a real openness in Turkey to questioning sensitive political taboos.

Turkey’s Kurdish Question. One small but perhaps “brave” step taken by Turkey was the release on October 20 of five PKK members who surrendered in the name of achieving a peaceful settlement but had been arrested. Whether or not Turkey will institute reforms to make its own Kurds feel more welcome as Turkish citizens remains to be seen. That 100,000 people would turn out in Turkish Kurdistan to welcome the PKK members home as heroes was a signal that Istanbul should tread lightly in Kurdish regions. It might start with a “brave” step to open a dialogue in response to the call for a “civilian constitution” by Mehmet Şerif Gençdağ, who spoke on behalf of the returnees. Co-chairman of the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Ahmet Türk underscored the point by stating in a speech in Kurdish that “introducing freedom in Turkey will not lead to the country’s disintegration, an excuse currently being used by people to generate fear in society.” A hardline stance toward Turkey’s Kurdish minority by Istanbul would certainly give the lie to its protestations of wanting a policy of peace and cooperation throughout the region. If Istanbul is serious, it will have to take care to avoid letting those parties desiring continued regional tension exploit Kurdish sensitivities for that may be the most serious ticking bomb that could explode in Erdogan’s face.

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Too ambitious?

In a partial answer to those who may think Erdogan is overextending his country, Turkey is moving forward with plans to become the regional energy hub by cooperating with Kazakhstan and Russia.

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Turkey: Mideast Peacemaker?

At the same time as Turkey was negotiating the shoals of its Kurdish question, Prime Minister Erdogan was in Iran criticizing nuclear powers for imposing “arrogant sanctions” against Iran.

Turkey is positioning itself to be the agent of a possible historic regional realignment. If any genuine willingness can be found in the West to follow through on Obama’s conciliatory message of understanding that came in the early, optimistic months of his administration, then it could be Erdogan who will end up earning the Nobel Peace Prize by facilitating a Western-Islamic compromise.

Although Erdogan may yet face domestic opposition to his effort to move Turkey away from its traditional foreign policy subservience to Washington, Turkey has much to gain from flexibility. If it can succeed in moderating Tehran’s treatment of its people and reach agreement with Iran on a joint activist stance supporting Muslim democracy combined with resistance to Arab dictators, resistance to al Qua’ida terrorism, and resistance to Israeli expansion, it will transform regional affairs. Turkey and Iran together have the power to provide real regional leadership, should they be able to agree on the way forward, and moderate Islamic activism is a position that currently has a very large vacancy.

Erdogan spelled out part of what a Turkish-led moderate bloc would mean a few days before his late-October visit to Iran, telling al Jazeera:

We are not in favor of presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iran and in our region. But it is not fair and unjust to put pressure on Iran while someone else in the region has such weapons. The world must assume a fair attitude. In that case a totally different environment of confidence will emerge.

The vision of a single set of rules to govern regional nuclear rights would fundamentally shift interstate relations, where the region is currently dominated by Israel’s exclusive possession of nuclear weapons.

Going beyond nuclear rights, Erdogan laid out a general principle that could, if accepted in Washington, go far toward resolving its conflict with Iran:

Iran has a long-standing political tradition of its own. You cannot ignore Iran and any attempt to encourage negative approaches to Iran will damage efforts to ensure peace in the region.

A Turkish commentator reassured Washington (whose own invitation to Erdogan was postponed because of “a Turkish holiday,” thereby affording Erdogan time to consolidate ties with Iran and Iraq first) by soothing that the new warmth in Turkish-Iranian relations does “not signify a shift toward an Iran-oriented foreign policy.” Perhaps not, but it does signify a shift toward acceptance of Iran as a legitimate player combined with a hint that Iran might facilitate its acceptance by some unspecified shifts of its own. In noting politely that “Iran has always been a key actor in regional peace and stability because of what it has done and what it will not do,” [emphasis added] Erdogan seemed to be telling Washington to accept Iranian prominence and telling Iran to avoid destabilizing behavior. It is not yet clear whether either side will be willing to accept Erdogan’s advice. After all, it was Larijani who only two weeks ago reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to defending the rights of Muslims. Whether or not Tehran and Istanbul can come to agreement on how that should be accomplished remains to be seen.

Western Calculus.

But a Turkish-sponsored Western-Islamic compromise remains far in the future, for such a compromise would entail a highly uncharacteristic voluntary Western pullback from its current aggressively militant stance. The astonish shortsightedness of the West in refusing to participate in NATO war games in NATO partner Turkey without the presence of non-NATO Israel and the hostile reaction to the U.N. report on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza bode ill for Erdogan’s hopes to be a regional peacemaker.

Iranian Calculus.

And that’s not the sum of the obstacles in Erdogan’s path by far. His hopes of success also hinge on his ability to persuade Iran to play ball. As Gülnur Aybet put it:

Turkey’s primary purpose in this visit is not to act as a mediator between Iran and the West but to deliver an independent Turkish message to the Iranian authorities that Iran is not being convincing about the civilian intentions of its nuclear program to the international community. However, Turkey insists it will engage Iran on this issue as a country which empathizes with Iranian sensitivities.

But Erdogan has a good shot at persuading Iran to moderate its behavior. Iran can only gain by a conciliatory attitude toward Turkey. Israel’s hardline attitude makes triangular relations a zero-sum game, affording Iran a golden opportunity to enhance its regional position at Israel’s expense by pulling Turkey away from its close ties to Israel. Turkey also represents the route for Iran to break out of the West’s economic embargo and improve ties with Europe. Not content to wait for the future Nabucco pipeline, Turkey and Iran have, according to Iran’s PressTV, signed an agreement for Turkish aid in constructing an oil refinery that directly undermines Western economic sanctions and thus offers Tehran a powerful incentive to compromise with Turkey on other issues. Beyond this, for Iran to receive sympathetic attention from NATO member Turkey puts a serious crack in the anti-Iranian Western front that Tehran would be very foolish to spurn. Washington risks being overtaken by events.

Indeed, Tehran seems determined to maintain the diplomatic momentum. Majlis Speaker and prominent regime foreign policy spokesperson Ali Larijani stated enthusiastically:

The Islamic Republic of Iran perceives no limitation or restriction on the expansion and development of its brotherly relations with Turkey.

In addition, Ahmadinejad’s just-announced decision to participate in the November 5-9 meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference in Istanbul suggests the two sides are determined to keep the diplomatic momentum going. Iran, still a regional outsider, hardly seems to have much choice if it still aspires to regional prominence. Even its one state ally, Syria, seems to be moving into the Turkish orbit with the creation of the Turkey-Syria High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Ahmadinejad will thus evidently see Erdogan again before Erdogan manages to find the time to visit Washington; Ahmadinejad would be well advised to take advantage of his luck and show up in Istanbul with a substantive package of security compromises for his host.

Potential Western Benefits.

If Iran has good reason to play ball with Turkey, the West also stands to gain. The economic benefit of having a second source of critically-needed natural gas for Europe to reduce its dependence on Russia is hardly trivial. In security terms, the West also stands to gain. Muslim, NATO-member Turkey is well positioned to persuade both sides to moderate their positions on the nuclear issue, persuading Iran to behave with real transparency in return for an unambiguous Western acceptance of an Iranian civilian nuclear industry. Aside from the nuclear issue, a West seeking resolution of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts would surely benefit from any joint Turkish-Iranian steps to combat illegal narcotics and stabilize Afghan and Iraqi societies.

With Turkey having just doubled its commitment of troops in Afghanistan and taken over NATO command in Kabul, Turkey is in an increasingly strong position to persuade Washington to listen to its views. The same is true for Iraq, where Turkey is accelerating its efforts to provide economic support and just signed “more than 40 agreements ranging from fighting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism to energy cooperation and sharing water” even as it implements diplomatic initiatives toward the Kurds.

Can Washington Compromise?

Whether or not the West will come in sufficient time to appreciate the opportunity Turkey is offer, however, remains unclear. Will the West shoot itself in the foot to the extent of alienating Turkey in order to pander to the Israeli rightwing? Or, to put it differently, will Washington’s regional ambitions prevent it from accepting the idea of an independent and regionally powerful Iran?

If Washington is indeed determined to learn from the Dec. 2008 Gaza experiment the lesson that the right way to deal with the Muslim world is military suppression of those who refuse to subordinate themselves to Western preferences plus obdurate refusal to allow independent Muslim entities to participate as equals in the global political system, then that may indeed be the result.

Before the Israeli rightwing cheers too loudly, it might contemplate the implications of a Mideast in which Turkey and Iran are jointly leading an international movement in opposition to Israel and, simultaneously, managing a future Nabucco gas pipeline keeping West Europe warm. While Washington empire-builders may extrapolate from tiny Gaza that military force can repress larger Islamic societies, it seems clear that Erdogan has learned something very different—that the chaos resulting from Western/Israel military suppression of Muslim desires for independence is simply becoming too dangerous to continue tolerating. Maybe Greater Israel advocates in Israel and the Washington elite should rethink the lessons of their Gaza Laboratory.

Rafsanjani Reassures Iraq

Ex-president and “Mr. Pragmatic” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is in Baghdad…to reassure Iraq of its large neighbor’s friendly support now that the much-beloved Americans are beginning to pull back. Or maybe that’s not quite the right tone. As Layla Anwar brilliantly assesses it, the deal is Iranian management of Iraq on behalf of Washington.

And the rest of the story, she continues, is a grand regional settlement.

From a thoughtful American perspective, this makes sense. (I know, one does not combine “thoughtful” with “American,” but recession has a way of taking the fun out of hubris.) Sure, why wouldn’t Washington want to resolve all the burning issues by sharing Iraq with Iran, getting Iran to make us a deal in Afghanistan, resolving the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict…

Ah, OK, Washington gets peace in Palestine, peace in Iraq plus access to its oil and maybe permanent military bases (everybody in Iran OK with that???), peace in Afghanistan.

But exactly what does Iran get?

  • Access to Iraq…well, it already has that and is only going to get more as the U.S. gets distracted with other problems.
  • Stability in Iraq…hmmm, such a deal would make stability Iran’s problem, no? Are the Saudis and the Iraqi Sunni tribes on board with this?
  • Stability in Afghanistan, end to drug threat, stability in Baluchistan. That seems pretty much a win-win for Washington and Tehran.
  • Isolation of al Qua’ida. Another win-win.
  • Nuclear security guarantee from Washington? That will kill a lot of careers in Israel. If Obama has that many guts, he’ll have earned his office.
  • Full access to international trade and technology?
  • Departure of U.S. navy from the Persian Gulf?

Counterbalancing that,

  • Iran loses the threat of attacking lots of Americans on the ground.
  • Until Israel is brought very firmly on board, Iran will be even more threatened than it is now, with Israel having an endless array of excuses to spoil the party by attacking Hamas or a West Bank refugee camp or trying to rescue one of its spies from Lebanon or whatever.
  • America, once out of its quagmire, will…well, who knows what it will do?

There is a grand regional bargain here, I think, but it is a three-legged stool:

  1. Iran intervenes in all directions counseling moderation.
  2. Washington guarantees both Iranian and Israeli security.
  3. Israel turns away from “Greater Israel” aspirations to become a good neighbor within its 1967 borders.

Iranian, American, and Israeli negotiators must all sit together on the stool, and no one is allowed to put his feet on the ground. And they have to balance there for a long time while the smoothly oiled political machine in Tehran decides whether or not this bargain with the devil merits giving up all the fun it has been having playing leader of Islam.

Then there’s all those details like millions of Iraqi refugees, a regional nuclear-free zone, persuading Hamas that ruling a united West-Bank+Gaza country is as good as it can get, tribal Sunni fury at being denied a return to power, Saudi horror as the Shi’ite crescent emerges from the sands, and a very frustrated al Qua’ida.

Turkish Model of Moderate Islamism Threatened by Incursion into Iraq

Can Turkey construct a model of moderate, inclusive Islamic politics even as it launches major military operations against Kurdish rebels?

Protests are spreading in Kurdish Turkey against the current Turkish incursion into Kurdish Iraq. What Istanbul has portrayed as an anti-terrorist operation is already, less than a week after Turkey’s recent military action commenced, starting to blow back, provoking ethnic unrest within Turkey. Do Turks realize how dangerous their little military solution is becoming…to them?

Ethnic Kurds in Turkey Protest Incursion

Large protests in support of the PKK turned violent in the town of Diyabakir on Monday as protesters clashed with police.

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel Hamid said the situation in the town was tense and that reports of similar small clashes in other Turkish towns reflected the growing frustration of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. She said that there was also growing anger on the Turkish side as the number of coffins of soldiers returning home continued to mount. There are fears for increased instability as local Peshmerga forces could engage Turkish troops.

Under the moderate Islamic party Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) now “ruling” Turkey (within the space it can carve out of a political system dominated by the military), a model of a third way for Moslem states—in addition to secular dictatorships and Islamic radicalism—is emerging. The PKK, which seems to be the most popular party in Kurdish as well as Turkish ethnic regions of Turkey, is arguably leading the way toward a modern, post-ethnic Turkish nationalism inclusive of the Kurds. Whether or not Turkey can manage to teach the PKK a lesson without inflaming old ethnic tensions within Turkey to the degree that will derail this long-overdue process is a critical question, not only for Turkey and its neighbors and their own large Kurdish minorities but more broadly for Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia, India, Iran, Somalia, and Lebanon—all of which face the same challenge of figuring out a route to modernization that will offer civil liberties, economic development, and mutual respect among minorities while avoiding the Scylla of dictatorship and the Charybdis of repressive Islamic fundamentalism. A tough stance against proponents of violence combined with a compassionate stance toward domestic minorities plus serious efforts to pull the standard of living in minority regions closer to that of the nation as a whole is in theory the right approach to achieve this goal. But the dynamics in which a tough stance against militants plays out typically tend to weaken the other two legs of such a policy. If Turkey can indeed manage to implement such a three-legged policy, then Turkey would constitute a major obstacle to the emergence of the Islamic political fault line so ardently being sought after by extremists.

Milestones to watch for that would indicate the worsening of this new crisis include:

  • Kurds citing Kosovo independence as a precedent.
  • Civilian Iraqi Kurdish deaths.
  • Turkish troops firing on Turkish protests.
  • Fighting between Turkish invasion forces and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers (the peshmerga).
  • The PKK carrying out its threatened attacks in Turkish cities.
  • Rise in popularity of the PKK within Turkey.
  • Turkish repression against peaceful political action by Turkish Kurds.