Why Turkey Cautiously Urges Syria to Reform

Turkey advised Syria to “positively respond” to the people’s demands for political reform, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Monday. Shortly before leaving Ankara for a visit to Iraq, he told reporters that a “reformist approach would help Syria to overcome the problems more easily.”

After weeks of turmoil in the Middle East, protesters finally took to the streets in Syria as well. The country is the most repressive dictatorship in the Arab world and despite rumors to the contrary, its president announced on Wednesday that he would not lift a fifty year-old emergency law in the face of civil unrest.

An estimated one hundred demonstrators had died and hundreds wounded in clashes with security forces since the protests began two weeks ago.

Syria and Turkey share an eight hundred kilometer land border. Last year, along with Lebanon and Jordan, the two countries agreed to allow a free flow of people and goods to take place across their frontiers which has helped especially Turkish companies set up shop in Syria. As part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, Turkey never criticized Syria despite the vast political differences between the two.

As Syria has likely to prepare for a period of political upheaval, Turkey is careful not to offend the current regime nor alienate its potential successor.

Syria, moreover, has a Kurdish population of some 1.4 million. Were the Syrian government to collapse and the Syrian state to disintegrate, it could embolden Kurdish demands for sovereignty. Ankara and Damascus have held regular strategic talks in anticipation of such an event and they organized their first ever joint military exercises in April of last year.

With Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak gone from Iraq and Egypt respectively, Turkey, like all moderate Arab nations, worries that the Arab world might not be able to offer enough of a counterweight to the growing influence of Iran in the near future. Its burgeoning trade relations with Syria seemed to weaken the bond between the two remaining members of the “axis of evil” in the Middle East. The uncertain outcome of regime change in Syria probably upsets the Turks more than the current authoritarian government, no matter its close ties with Tehran.

Turkey’s Irrelevant Islamism

After Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became prime minister of Turkey for the conservative Justice and Development Party AKP in 2003, both the secular opposition and Western commentators were quick to expound their fears about the country’s apparently newfound Islamism. The legacy of Atatürk was being squandered, some alleged, in favor of backwardness and nationalism.

Those fears peaked in 2007 when Erdoğan nominated his foreign minister Abdullah Gül for the presidency. Gül was an outspoken Islamist and his wife even wore a headscarf! Such outward symbols of religion had for long been anathema to Turkey’s secularists yet Gül became president and has been popular ever since. Read more “Turkey’s Irrelevant Islamism”

Turkey Awakes as a Regional Power

Turkey has worked hard in recent years to establish itself as something of a Middle Eastern power broker. With Brazil, it managed to negotiate a nuclear fuel exchange agreement with Iran last month while Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a strategic partnership with Russia in February. On Thursday, the architect of Turkey’s newfound regional engagement, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, could announce the creation of Middle East free-trade zone.

Besides Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria have agreed to allow a free exchange of goods and people to take place between their borders. Neighboring states are explicitly invited to participate in the near future.

At the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in Istanbul on Thursday, Davutoğlu stressed that the initiative should not be considered an alternative to the European Union which also maintains a common market. “We want a vehicle to leave from Turkey and reach Morocco without stopping at any border gates,” he professed.

Although Turkey still favors EU membership, its ambitions have been disheartened in recent years because of Europe’s apparent unwillingness to admit it into the union. In many Western European member states, mounting concerns over immigration and supposed Islamification coupled with widespread Euroskepticism is preventing national leaders from arguing in favor of expansion. Turkey, which has hoped to be accepted as part of the EU for many decades, is now taking a different path. Increasingly, it is turning eastward, having decided, apparently, that its future, at least for the time being, lies in Asia, not Europe.

Last December, The Economist described the move as “natural, considering proximity, the strength of the Turkish economy, the revival of Islamic feeling in Turkey after decades of enforced secularism, and frustration with the sluggishness of talks to join the European Union. Indeed,” notes the British newspaper, “Turkey’s Middle East offensive has taken on something of the scale and momentum of an invasion, albeit a peaceful one.”

Turkey has already signed free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It hopes to achieve similar arrangements with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries are only too happy to connect with Turkey’s burgeoning economy which has grown impressively in recent years, in spite of the global downturn. Turkish exports to the Middle East and North Africa have swollen nearly sevenfold to $31 billion in 2008. The country is investing considerably in many neighboring states, including Iraq, and its significance as a conduit for energy to Europe is set to increase as the future Nabucco pipeline will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan to the West.

Even Turkey’s indignation in the wake of Israel’s violent interception of an aid flotilla bound for Gaza earlier this month should be understood as a conscious attempt to promote its regional influence. Turkey, like most of the Middle East, is very much concerned about Iran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons and relies very much on the import of Iranian gas. That is why, in April, Davutoğlu offered to mediate. Turkey fears that Western pressure will only isolate Iran further and invigorate its desire for the Bomb, which would suddenly make Iran, not Turkey, the great power in the region.

If Turkey intends to normalize its relations with Iran — which it does — it can hardly be seen as making steps to prepare for a nuclear Iran — which it dreads. So, Erdoğan reacted with outrage when Israel prevented ships carrying aid and activists from reaching the Gaza Strip and killed nine on board in the process. Israel is already a nuclear power and it appears that Turkey is willing to jeopardize its relations with the Jewish state in order to justify, once Tehran announces the weaponization of its nuclear program, its own rapid reach for the same.

This puts the West in tough spot. Turkey, after all, is part of NATO and supposedly still a candidate for EU membership. Europe has simply missed the boat and must accept Turkey as a regional power on its fringe — something that could actually help its foreign policy both in the Middle East and with Russia, if handled carefully.

The Americans have greater difficulty coping with Turkey’s rise. They will not like to play favorites between Turkey and Israel, especially with Iran hanging in the balance. No wonder American defense secretary Robert Gates was annoyed on Wednesday when Turkey voted against a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. “If there’s anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is in no small part because it was pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that Turkey sought,” he told reporters in London. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones though. America is less popular in Turkey than Europe is. A BBC poll conducted in April revealed that 70 percent of Turks hold a negative view of the United States for which the Iraq War is largely to blame.

At the same time, the West hasn’t lost Turkey yet. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ruling party may be more Islamist than befits the country’s fifty years of secular politics but at the same time, it is pushing back the remaining power of the military. Reform along Western lines is still moving foward, if slowly. In Iraq, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu has played a key role in forging alliances between the country’s competing Shia and Sunni factions. Moreover, he has courted the Kurds in southeastern Turkey and north Iraq which is a step toward pacifying the border region.

Turkey isn’t suddenly obstructionist. It remains committed to NATO and ultimately seeks membership of the European Union. But for the time being, it will conduct a more independent foreign policy — something the West should try to exploit instead of complain about.

Turkey and Russia, Sitting In a Tree

Europe may be reluctant to embrace Turkey but the country is well underway to establishing itself as a regional power. As a gateway to the West, it engages with nearby Middle Eastern states, signing free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia. It is currently in negotiations with the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, to make similar arrangements, as it is with Syria. There is even hope that the newfound closeness with secular, moderate Turkey represents a move away from Syria’s controversial alliance with Iran.

Now Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is working on building a strategic partnership with Russia.

The two countries intend to boost their respective trade volumes over the coming years to a grand total of $100 billion. “Our relations are developing and becoming more diversified in the political, military, economic and cultural spheres,” according to Erdoğan. “What is exciting for me is that both sides have a positive will,” he said at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last Wednesday.

The two leaders announced that they will abolish visa requirements for nationals traveling between Turkey and Russia. A final deal is expected to be worked out when President Dmitri Medvedev visits Turkey next May or June. A strategic coperation council meeting will be held at the time. Turkey has launched similar platforms with Syria and Iraq in 2009.

Erdoğan and Putin also discussed energy; specifically, the construction of Ankara’s first nuclear power plant. Russian firms will probably be given a chance to bid for the contract.

All in all, it would appear that Turkey isn’t waiting for Europe anymore. Contrary to European perceptions, Arabs regard Turkey as the closest thing to modernity around. As much as the country is a gateway to the West to them, it can be Europe’s arch to the East and a viable partner in relations with Russia. The EU ought to treat Turkey as the regional power it is therefore.