Today marks the third anniversary of the Mavi Marmara incident, an Israeli military raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla to Gaza that resulted in the death of nine Turks and in the shattering of the once-close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
In March, Turkey and Israel -- with American help -- started what looks like will be a drawn-out reconciliation process. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized for "operational mistakes" made during the incident that resulted in the loss of life, meeting one of the three conditions set forth by Ankara for diplomatic relations to be restored. The two countries are now working on the second condition, compensation for the victims, which is where they seem to be getting stuck. As Ha'aretz recently reported, Israel is offering to pay $100,000 to each victim's family, while Turkey is demanding $1 million (Turkish officials have denied the Israeli report).
Things will likely get more complicated in terms of the third condition, which, as set forth by Erdogan, is Israel's lifting of its blockade on Gaza. During his recent visit to Washington, the Turkish leader again stated that relations with Israel could only be restarted once this condition has been met. So far, there has no been any indication from either side about how they plan to deal with this complicating issue beyond some vague statements made by Turkish officials about Israel taking "positive" steps to improve conditions in Gaza.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Washington last week hoping to get Washington to commit to taking a more assertive stance on Syria, but in the end left with very little of what he wanted.
In fact, if anyone changed their positions during the visit, it was the normally strong-headed Erdogan, who came away from his meeting with President Barack Obama in support of Washington's efforts to put together an international conference on solving the crisis in Syria, dubbed Geneva II. Erdogan had previously been dismissive of such a diplomatic effort, calling it a stall tactic by the Assad regime and its supporters, but in Washington he sang a different tune, saying he was now in favor of Geneva II, particularly since Russia -- Assad's main supporter -- and China are now expected to participate.
Veteran Turkish analyst Cengiz Candar, writing for the Al Monitor website, explains how the White House got Erdogan to change positions:
The Americans pampered Erdogan enough to twist his arm without hurting and enabled him to showcase his Washington visit to the Turkish public as a victorious diplomatic fanfare. The meeting of delegations at the White House was unprecedentedly crowded with 1+13, that is in addition to Erdogan and Obama, there were 13 others on both sides. Americans accommodated the Turkish whim for this ludicrous number clearly with prospects of possible profits.
Like most other countries, Turkey has no desire to see the current Syrian regime stay in power but also has little appetite for intervening militarily in Syria. At the same time, like many of its neighbors, Ankara is finding itself dealing with a growing Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis, one that could have a disruptive effect on Turkey's own domestic affairs.
A new report released today the International Crisis Group takes a look at this dynamic, suggesting that Ankara needs to recalibrate its Syria policy if it wants to keep the effects of the conflict in that country from spilling across the border. From the ICG's report:
Turkey has no capacity to solve intractable problems inside Syria alone, and is not considering significant military intervention. Stepped-up arming of opposition fighters seems unlikely to enable them to topple the regime quickly. And Turkey’s wishful thinking about the Ottoman past and a leading historical and economic role in its Sunni Muslim neighbourhood is at odds with the present reality that it now has an uncontrollable, fractured, radicalised no-man’s-land on its doorstep. Meanwhile, the suffering of millions of civilians in Syria continues. Even though Ankara has responded well over the past two years, it will need more support as the refugee crisis becomes larger and protracted. Turkey should allow UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations greater access. EU member states should also show more solidarity by facilitating access to their territory for fleeing Syrians, who should not be turned away at either EU borders and should be granted asylum.
Compared to previous years, this April 24 -- the day that commemorates the 1915 destruction of the Ottoman Armenians -- has arrived with few diplomatic problems for Turkey. There were no resolutions in other countries' legislative bodies recognizing the 1915 events as a genocide to fight off and no foreign governments to spar with over the issue.
But could this merely be the calm before the storm? In two years, which will mark the centennial of the 1915 events, Ankara will likely be facing a very different picture, with preparations already being made to use the occasion to, as one Armenian website put it, "take Genocide recognition to a new dimension."
Turkey's policymakers are not unaware of the preparations being made for 2015. In fact, as the Hurriyet Daily News's Barcin Yinanc suggests, they have a careful plan for how to deal with what's coming. From her report:
No one, of course, should expect the Turkish government to remain idle regarding these activities.
Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Perhaps the only tangible achievement of President Barack Obama's visit to Israel last month was getting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call his Turkish counterpart and issue an apology (of sorts) for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, helping set in motion what is hoped will be a restoration of diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey.
But there are some troubling signs popping up that should cause concern about where this incipient Turkish-Israeli rapprochement might be heading. In an Istanbul press conference yesterday, several Turkish survivors of the military attack on the Mavi Marmara said they would continue to pursue legal action against Israel in Turkish courts, despite the Israeli apology and offer for compensation -- which were made with the expectation that legal proceedings connected with the incident would be dropped. Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation that was scheduled to come to Turkey this week to work out the compensation issue has delayed its trip by a few weeks, supposedly because of scheduling conflicts.
Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
By now, it's become fairly commonplace to hear Turkey's once-vaunted "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy spoken about in the past tense. The last two years have certainly not been kind to this policy, which had tried to break past some historical dynamics that had characterized Turkey's relations with certain neighboring countries for decades, if not centuries. While some of the "zero problems" policy's failure can be chalked up to mistakes -- both conceptual and practical -- made Turkish policymakers and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the changes brought about by the Arab uprising and the forces they unleashed, also helped undermine many of the assumptions that Ankara was -- rightly or wrongly -- working under.
In a new analysis, Ian Lesser, an astute observer of Turkish affairs with the German Marshal Fund, takes a look at some of these changes, suggesting that Ankara may be entering a period where it has to now fight several new "cold wars." From Lesser's article:
Over the past decade, Turkey’s foreign policy has been directed toward breaking this pattern of crisis-prone relations, with some real success in the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The end of largescale competition in Eurasia, alongside Turkey’s economic dynamism and expanding regional commerce, created the conditions for a “zero-problems” approach to the neighborhood. This was a posture admirably suited to its times. But these favorable conditions are disappearing rapidly, and Ankara faces some troubling cold wars, new and old, that will shape the strategic environment and the nature of Turkey’s security partnerships.
Last week's visit to Turkey by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly hit all the right positive notes. Dozens of bilateral agreements were signed by the two countries and Samaras and his Turkish counterpart both vowed to increase trade between Turkey and Greece and to work together to solve the Cyprus problem.
The two once-bickering neighbors have certainly come a long way from decades past, when a visit like Samaras's to Turkey -- now something fairly routine -- would have been hailed as a major breakthrough. That said, it appears that some trouble might be in store for Turkey-Greece relations, particularly regarding the issue of Athens' desire to lay claim to a vast amount of potentially oil- and gas-rich maritime territory in the eastern Mediterranean. From a recent Wall Street Journal report that came out only days after Samaras left Turkey:
Greece has renewed its territorial claims over a broad swath of disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean where the indebted country hopes to find vast oil and gas deposits—a plan that risks sparking a confrontation with Turkey.
Over the past several weeks, senior government officials have made a series of public statements—both at home and abroad—pointing to an almost two-decade-old international treaty granting those rights, one Greece hasn't asserted until now. Athens also has been building support in other European capitals and stepping up a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations….
Embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad probably gets very few visitors these days, and rightly so. Still, it appears Assad can count on the friendship of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, which recently sent a high-level delegation to visit the Syrian autocrat in Damascus. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
A parliamentary delegation from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad early yesterday. The three-member group, which consisted of deputy leader Şafak Pavey and deputies from the neighboring Hatay province, Hasan Akgöl and Mevlut Dudu, was in Syria following an invitation from al-Assad, according to CHP sources.
Al-Assad told the team there was “a need to distinguish between the stance of the Turkish people, who back stability in Syria, and the positions of Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, which supports terrorism.
“The Syrian people appreciates the position adopted by forces and parties in Turkey that reject the Erdoğan government’s negative impact on our societies, which are multi-religious and multi-ethnic,” al-Assad added.