The last few years have seen Ankara's regional role in the Middle East become severly diminished as its relations with one neighbor after another went downhill. But could the current war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel offer Turkey a chance to reassert its regional relevance?
The promise of that happening is certainly there, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was included in a mini-summit this past Saturday in Paris that brought him together with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Qatar, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in a failed effort to create a ceasefire in Gaza.
The inclusion of Turkey made certain sense, since -- like Qatar -- it is has been a strong supporter of Hamas in recent years and is considered to have an open line to the organization's leadership. Ankara has also been showing its support for Gaza in material terms, recently sending some 17 tons of medicine to the besieged area and also providing funding for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.
Turkey's recent approach to regional Kurdish issues has been highly contradictory. In northern Iraq, in an effort to diversify its energy supplies and further establish itself as an oil and gas hub, Ankara has entered into energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), something which has infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad but which has helped the Kurds further build a foundation for their independence.
In northern Syria, on the other hand, Ankara has been so alarmed by the growing Kurdish autonomy there that it reportedly has provided support for radical Islamist groups (including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)) in their fight against the the Kurdish militia that controls the region, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
As noted in a recent post on this blog, Russia's moves regarding Crimea left Turkey facing something of a conundrum, unable to protest too much because of its crucial trade and energy ties with Moscow.
As the crisis in Ukraine continues, Turkey's dilemma regarding how to respond to developments there has only deepened, posing an even stickier challenge for Turkish-Russian relations -- something which Eurasianet's Dorian Jones covered in an article today.
In an analysis that was also released today, Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund's Brussels office, takes a further look at how the conflict over the future of Ukraine is testing Turkish foreign policy. Writes Lesser:
Like the rest of Syria's neighbors, Turkey has found itself dealing with severe problems and worries resulting from the bloody conflict next door. From taking in a massive number of refugees to figuring out how to deal with the violent spillover from the Syrian conflict, Ankara faces a series of difficult policy choices.
A year ago, the International Crisis Group took a look at the challenges the crisis in Syria posed for Turkey, suggesting:
Turkey must stop betting its reputation on a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, and make some long-term changes of emphasis. In order to talk to all parties from a position of greater moral authority, it should avoid projecting the image of being a Sunni Muslim hegemon. It should also re-secure its border and ask Syrian opposition fighters to move to Syria. Publicly adopting a profile of a balanced regional power, rather than a Sunni Muslim one, would likewise do much to reduce any possibility that the sectarian polarisation that is crippling Syria will jump the border to Turkey, in particular to Hatay province.
This week, ICG released a followup report, one that find Ankara still dangerously vulnerable to what's happening in Syria. From the report:
The annual April 24 commemoration of the Ottoman-era mass killing of Armenians has long played out according to an unchanged script, with Ankara refusing to acknowledge the horrible deeds of the past and Yerevan and the Armenian diaspora using the refusal to again remind the world that Turkey remains unrepentant for what took place almost 100 years ago.
This year, though, things played out a bit differently, with mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan going off script and issuing a statement yesterday that offered Turkey's "condolences" to the grandchildren of those Armenians who lost their lives during the events of 1915. "Having experienced events which had inhumane consequences - such as relocation - during the First World War, should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes among towards one another," Erdogan's statement, which was translated into nine languages, including Armenian, further said.
Erdogan's words were certainly a change from the blanket denials of the past and were welcomed by some in Turkey's small Armenian community. Rather than groundbreaking, though, they were more of an elaboration on a statement Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made this past December during a visit to Yerevan, when he called the "deportation" of Armenians in 1915 "inhumane."
Turkish politics have entered a surreal vortex where every day produces evermore shocking developments in such a dizzying rate that yesterday's mind-blowing news is quickly forgotten.
Today is a perfect example: it started with with the unsettling sounds of a Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking at an election rally with a voice so strained that he sounded like he had just inhaled a balloonful of helium, moved on to the truly shocking news of the posting online of a recording of a high-level national security meeting where a possible false flag operation to allow Turkey to invade Syria was discussed, and then ended with the announcement that access to YouTube (where the recording was posted) had just been blocked by the government. In other words, just another day in today's Turkey.
As the images distributed the other day by the Turkish press of Russian naval vessels steaming through the Bosphorus made clear, Ankara has little choice about being involved in the ongoing crisis surrounding Crimea.
Beyond its geographic proximity to the peninsula in the Black Sea, Turkey also has deep historical ties to Crimea, once an Ottoman province, and strong interests there, especially with regards to the fate of Muslim Crimean Tatars, who make up an estimated 15 percent of the population.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently expressed his concern about how developments in Crimea might impact the Tatars and today his ministry issued a statement calling the upcoming referendum there on whether the region should become part of Russia as a "wrong" move.
But just how much can Ankara do in the face of Moscow's moves in Crimea? The truth is very little. Write the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey in a brief released this week:
These days, the words related to Middle East diplomacy that probably inspire the least amount of confidence are "Israel and Turkey near repairing alliance" (as the Wall Street Journal suggested the other day).
Since a Washington-brokered breakthrough last March, which led to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling his Turkish counterpart to apologize for the deaths caused during the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, there has been little movement in terms of actual reconciliation. Although there have been various reports over the last year that the two sides are close to patching things up, with only the matter of how much Israel will pay in compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims' families left to be resolved, these have all proven to be erroneous.
But the latest suggestion that the former allies may indeed be close to restoring ties was different, considering that it came from Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu himself. “There has recently been a momentum and new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Davutoglu said in a Feb. 9 television interview.
Since becoming foreign minister in 2009, Ahmet Davutoglu has used the annual gathering of his diplomatic corps as a way of pushing his new vision of Turkey's role in the world and for encouraging his ambassadors -- a notoriously stuffy bunch -- to think outside the box a bit.
A good example of that was the ambassadors' 2010 meeting, which Davutoglu held not in Ankara, but in Mardin, a historic hilltop city not far from the Syrian border in Turkey’s southeast region, which, along with Kurdish and Arabic speakers, is also home to an ancient though dwindling Christian community. Once there, the FM admonished his ambassadors to go out to the city’s teahouses and bazaars and mingle with the (mostly bemused) locals.
Davutoglu, at the time drawing early plaudits for his now failed "zero problems with neighbors" policy, drew on the town’s historical setting to deliver a philosophical – even mystical – look forward to his diplomatic corps. “By 2023, when the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of its founding, I envision a Turkey that is a full member of the EU after having completed all the necessary accession requirements, living in full peace with its neighbors, integrated with neighboring regions in economic terms and with a common security vision, an effective player in regions where our national interests lie, and active in all global affairs and among the top 10 economies in the world,” he told them. In order for that new vision to happen, Davutoglu said, his ambassadors first "need to understand Mardin’s soul."
The Turkish diplomatic corps has been holding its annual meeting over the last few days, but they seem far removed from those heady days in Mardin. Rather than looking hopefully outward, this year's gathering seems to be gazing defensively (even paranoically) inward, offering a very good opportunity to understand the current state of Turkey's tortured political soul.