Category Archives: International Relations of Middle East

Turkey and Israel: The Revitalization of Relations?

From the 1980s onwards the Turkish-Israeli relations started improving gradually. The year 1996 in particular was a milestone as the two countries signed a series of agreements of military cooperation and training, among others. The agreements were of outmost strategic significance as they gave rise to a pro-Western strategic axis which had a serious impact on the regional balances of power.

From Friends to Foes

The election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power of the Turkish state in 2002 had a gradually negative influence on the relations between Turkey and Israel for two main reasons. The first reason was the systemic changes that occurred in the region after 9/11 and the American invasion in Iraq (2003). The second reason was the AKP’s ideology which is positioned somewhere in between political Islam and democratic ideals even though the party itself denies any relationship to political Islam and declares that it is a “conservative-democratic” party. As far as the first reason is concerned, after 2001 Turkey had to manage a geopolitical environment which was particularly unstable both for its own and Western interests; this created the necessity for a closer relationship with the Arab/Muslim world. In terms of the second reason, the ideology of the AKP and the “Davutoğlu doctrine” (i.e. Turkey’s foreign policy doctrine based on the writings and approach of its Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlou) called for improved relations with the Middle East and distance from the West and Israel. The AKP’s approach toward the Arab/Muslim world and its anti-Western stance gained even greater momentum after 2006. That was when the European Union disappointed Ankara regarding its prospects for accession, while the friction between Turkey and Washington about Iraq – which includes the dimension of the Kurdish issue – continued.

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The Perfect Alibi? – Syria & Turkey in Crisis

It has been reported that a Turkish fighter jet was shot down on Friday, June 23, 2012, by Syrian forces. The Syrian military forces had later confirmed the reports. Leaving aside the technical details about how the crash occurred, and who is to blame, this incident could significantly escalate the existing crisis between the two countries on the one hand, and offer the perfect alibi, as well as credibility, to Turkey and its western allies – namely, NATO – to actively and militarily intervene in Syria, on the other.
Importantly enough, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, said that Turkey will do “whatever necessary”. But what does “whatever necessary” means? In answering this question, one must take into account earlier reports saying that CIA officers have been helping Syrian rebels through Southern Turkey. Even though the Turkish government rejected this information, it raises concerns about the role of Turkey and other external actors in the Syrian conflict, as well as the near-future intentions of westerns powers. Furthermore, let us not forget that the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, in April, 2012, threatened to invoke NATO’s self-defense article 5.

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The New Iraq? Libya After Gaddafi

Gaddafi is dead and the Libyan people are outside in the streets, celebrating their victory against the 42 year dictatorial regime. Yet while the dictator is gone, difficult choices lie ahead for the Libyan people.

Libya has not become a “new Iraq” in the sense of western forces undertaking the same role they did in that country. Rather the West preferred to conduct a proxy war against the regime through the rebels. So, the rebels took the victory, killed the dictator and now they are expected to re-build their own state. This is no bad thing! After all, the coalition forces did an extremely poor job in Iraq and no one would expect them or want them to treat Libya as Iraq – mark II.

Yet, it would be naïve of us to think that the West will now leave Libya alone to stand on its own feet, and, most importantly, rely on its own resources! Therefore, despite the fact that the toppling of the Libyan regime took place under different circumstances and was undertaken by different actors than those involved in the downfall of the Iraqi one, the presence and influence of the West or at the very least of western interests – will be very obvious.

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Turkey: Zero Chances for "Zero Problems"

Since the election of Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Turkey followed a different foreign policy orientation. The man behind this foreign policy shift was Ahmet Davutoglu, today’s Foreign Minister. Davutoglu had a whole new idea about how the goals of Turkish foreign policy should be pursued and in his book “Strategic Depth” (Stratejik Derinlik) (2001) he brilliantly drafts a strategic doctrine for Turkey’s new foreign policy. Despite its relative success, this doctrine is seriously challenged by many regional developments, which are making it hard to believe that its implementation could ever be possible.

“Zero Problems”

A central theme of Davutoglu’s, and Turkey’s, foreign policy doctrine is the “zero problems with neighbors” principle. In brief, this suggests that Turkey wants to re-engage with the Arab world and the broader region more generally, by playing the role of the peace broker and mediator for regional disputes and conflicts. Based on “zero problems” Turkey is willing to abandon its crisis prone attitude and resort to “soft power”, cultural and historical bonds with its neighbors, and create economic and political relations of interdependence between the states of the Middle East and beyond, in order to resolve any bilateral or regional problems. At the same time Turkey is not neglecting the good relations that it should maintain with international actors like the US, EU and Russia. However, the last few months Turkish foreign policy has been facing quite a few problems not only in its region but also internationally. This has led many analysts to reconsider the feasibility of the “zero problems” principles and the goals of the Turkish foreign policy themselves.

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Possible Geopolitical Implications of the Syrian Crisis

As the crisis in Syria keeps escalating and the violent crackdown of the Bashar al-Assad regime results in more civilian deaths, the growing instability and civil opposition is significantly challenging the die-hard regime and raises questions regarding how much longer it can keep up with the deteriorating domestic situation and the increasing international pressure. More importantly, the troubling question that emerges is what might happen when the regime is finally overthrown?
While people in Syria and the West want a major change to take place in the country, the same cannot be said for some of the other states of the Middle East. Even if western countries want al-Assad to step down they will not intervene in Syria as easily as they did in Libya because this time there is much more at stake since Syria is geographically and geopolitically located at the heart of the Middle East and all of its problems. One needs only to look at a map of Syria and observe the countries with which it shares a border (Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel) to recognize this.
Syria also has political and strategic ties with actors that are hostile to the West such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Paradoxically, during the last decade or so Damascus has been maintaining good relationships with Turkey, a mostly western ally, as well. Nonetheless, for the last few months Turkey has been pressuring Assad to stop the violent crackdown and step down. This shift in Ankara’s behavior towards Syria was a concern for other states in the region like Iran – for various reasons which are examined below. From that perspective it seems that if the regime in Syria were to be overthrown and replaced with a pro-western one, the allies of the present Syrian regime could react in unpredictable ways out of fear, possibly disturbing the regional geopolitical realities and even the balance of power.
Iran is already worried because of Turkey’s stance towards the Syrian crisis. During the last decade the good relations between Syria and Turkey, the Kurdish problem that both states face and the “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine of Turkish foreign policy, have brought Iran and Turkey closer to each other. Yet their good relations, in the context of their competition for regional hegemony and their traditional enmity, can still be questioned. For Iran in particular, the commercial and economic bonds that were developed between itself and Turkey were of vital significance since they constituted a way out of the western embargo (which was mainly imposed to counter its nuclear policies) and give impetus to its development aims. Furthermore, Turkey was a key ally for Iran given the always tense situation between Tehran and Tel Aviv and the fact that Turkey’s relations with Israel have been in decline for the last three years. On the other hand, Turkey used its cooperation with Iran to attain more stability in the transnational Kurdish territories, for economic reasons and of course to approach the Arab-Muslim world including the Palestinians. The increasingly strained relations between Turkey and Israel and the development of better relations between Turkey, Syria and Iran have increased Ankara’s prominence among the Arab countries while creating tensions within the western-Israel alliance.
If the Syrian regime were to be replaced with a pro-western one, a number of things could happen. Iran might turn against the new Syrian regime and Turkey for supporting the change while Turkey would probably lose the support of Lebanon, Palestine and probably of other Middle East countries as well. The instability or even sectarian conflicts that could possibly emerge in Syria would create the necessary conditions for the Kurds to intensify their efforts for autonomy thus creating instability and conflicts in Northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well. These, in turn, could lead Israel to adopt a harder stance towards Iran and therefore force the US to undertake a more active role in backing it. Within this context Turkey’s developing solidarity with the Arab-Muslim world could fall apart and the doctrine of “zero problems” would face a setback. Hence Ankara would once again have to rely on its traditional western allies, which it has been largely neglecting of late. This, of course, would depend on Turkey’s ability to strike a balance between its old friends and its new potential enemies, especially now that it would have to face the great Iranian threat.
The above scenario may not come to fruition, yet it is far from implausible. Such a scenario would create new regional and international alliances thereby changing the current order and balance of power in the Middle East. The possibility alone of such a development indicates both the geopolitical and geostrategic importance of Syria and the reasons why the international community finds it more difficult to intervene there than it did in Libya. Even as the humanitarian crisis that is taking place there worsens, and evidence of genocide emerges, the Syrian crisis is far more complicated than the Libyan one and should consequently be handled with caution by the international community.
Zenonas Tziarras, Global Politics Online Magazine (www.global-politics.co.uk), 4 Sep. 2011.