06 June 2011

Turkey, Arab Spring and the US

I suggested a few days ago that the Arab Spring could be seen as chess moves in a larger game if one concedes that the US wants to have a dominant presence in the region to control the global distribution of oil.

I claimed that without a US encouragement it would be hard to explain why the Tunisian and Egyptian armies refused to obey a direct order from their respective commanders in chief, something they have never done previously and, given their close ties to US military, something they would not have done without US acquiescence. And I concluded that, because the security of Israel is paramount for the US, it would not have allowed that type of regime change (at least) in Egypt, unless it fit a larger plan.

Given that premise, I advanced that the requirement for the US to control the distribution of oil in that region is to bring some stability to it by solving its two major problems: the first one was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The other is the plight of the Kurds.

Interestingly, both of these solutions and the overall game requires Turkish involvement. And that brings us to Turkey's role in that chess game.

Transformation of a Regional Superpower

Everyone agrees that Turkey is the only country in the region capable of successfully challenging Iran. But that in and of itself does not mean much. It is the kind of thing Real Politik types enjoy mentioning but unless there is an actual conflict between the two countries (and I seriously doubt that) it is just an observation.

Turkey is much more important as a friendly superpower who can gently persuade its neighbors to behave in a certain way and who can appear as an honest broker in regional disputes.

In the past, this was not possible for a number of fundamental reasons. The first and obvious one is the Ottoman legacy which colored understandably everything Turkey did in the eyes of its current neighbors and past vassals. Secondly, throughout the Republic, Turkey was staunchly secular, to the point of forsaking Islam and that did not always jive with its Muslim neighbors who grew increasingly pious in the last fifty years. Thirdly, due its secular and modernist aspirations at the outset of the Republic, Turkey maintained an openly pro-Western foreign policy and acted as NATO's easternmost outpost during the Cold War. One corollary of this last point is that until the oil crisis of 1973, Turkey acted like its Arab neighbors did not exist.

All of this changed with the AKP government in 2002. The AKP was the first openly Islamist government in the Republic's history. So Turkey's Muslim neighbors welcomed this new outlook. But, the curious thing was that, despite the warm regional reception, AKP did not turn its gaze to the East right away. The first AKP government followed, very much like its predecessors, a staunchly pro-Western foreign policy with EU membership as its top priority. The only hiccup was in 2003, the AKP dominated parliament refused the Americans the use of Incirlik airbase for the invasion of Iraq. Other than that Turkey remained pro-EU, pro-NATO and pro-US.

Neo-Ottoman Foreign Policy

After the 2007 elections, this pro-Western perspective changed drastically. With a new Foreign Minister at the helm, Turkey began to pursue a neo-Ottoman policy with a twist:
 And in the past few years, under the direction of an energetic foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, whose favourite catchphrase is “zero problems with the neighbours”, it has developed closer relations with the Caucasus (though the Armenian border is still closed) and with Iran, Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, to the consternation of its traditional allies, America and Israel.
Traditionally, Turkey had closer ties with Israel than with its Arab neighbors. It was one of the six countries in the world to recognize the new state of Israel in 1948. In the 1990s, both countries signed military and commercial agreements to cooperate in a number of areas, including security and anti-terrorism. The Israeli air force pilots were allowed to train in Turkey (to use its much larger air space) and the two countries were each other's biggest regional trading partner (when excluding oil).

And during its first tenure, the AKP government maintained those ties and throughout those first five years, their criticisms of Israel -if voiced at all- were mild and muted.

Around 2008, the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Minister of Foreign Affairs suddenly began using a much more strident rhetoric about Israel. Their language was so harsh and their attitude feigning shock and horror at Israeli actions so over the top that people in Turkey joked that the AKP had just discovered the Palestinian plight. The infamous "one minute" episode at Davos, in 2009, where Erdogan stormed off after clashing with Shimon Peres was a good illustration of the changing tone.

This very public confrontation turned Erdogan instantly into a hero in Arab streets. Suddenly Turkey was no longer the descendant of the Ottoman Empire but a powerful Muslim country capable of telling off Israel.

Interestingly, the Israeli response was to counter this with a similar over the top gesture. In January 2010, Israel's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs summoned the Turkish Ambassador and told the cameraman that the Ambassador was going to be seated in a lower chair to symbolically highlight his lower status and that he was not going to shake his hand to make his point. Israeli TV went to great length showing with diagrams the humiliation of the ambassador.

Again, that reinforced Turkey's standing among its Muslim neighbors.

The third installment of this kabuki theater was the Mavi Marmara incident where some Islamist militants and some human right activists got into a ship to sail to Gaza as a stunt to break the Israeli embargo. Israeli commandos boarded the ship to turn it around and when they were attacked by the militants they ended up killing nine people on board.

These incidents (and the accompanying rhetoric) gave Erdogan a huge street cred in the Middle East. Here was Turkey, the nice Muslim giant confronting the big bad wolf of the Middle East, Israel.

Much has been said about this change in tone and most commentators lament this change. My take is different. I believe that the tension is not as real as claimed and it serves a purpose.

Why do I think that?

a) The AKP government's abrupt change: while they could not care less about the Palestinian plight for almost seven years, they turned, literally overnight, into Israel's staunchest critic. Nothing I can think of can explain this 180 degree turn.

b) Israeli government's response: whatever you might think of Lieberman personally -and I don't think much of him- you need to distinguish between governments and the state. Governments come and go but the state is run by a permanent bureaucracy and in the case of Israel, that bureaucracy (especially the Foreign Service) is not composed of stupid people: they will never make a publicly humiliate a powerful regional ally when it does not serve any purpose beneficial to. Especially when the target of this gesture is the country where they train their pilots; it is the country that can make an expansionist Iran think twice; it is their oldest and most secure ally in the region. Even if they wanted to subtly humiliate the ambassador, they would never have done so publicly.

The cameraman was specifically tipped about the incident to make it a news event and it became that. Israel had nothing to gain and everything to lose by this almost childish gesture: I give Israelis too much credit to believe the media notion that it was just a random act of pettiness on their part. To me that is rubbish. More than anything I saw on the Turkish side, this public gesture convinced me that this whole thing was a complicated kabuki theater and this stunt was pulled mainly to bolster Turkey's new-found credibility in the Arab world by reciprocating the heated rhetoric.

c) Mavi Marmara incident: Much has been said and written about this but here is a simple litmus test: I asked all my Turkish friends what would have happened if, say, Greece killed nine Turkish activists in the Aegean sea. Their unanimous response was that this would certainly be treated as casus belli and it would be followed by a declaration of war within 24 hours. No hesitation. Yet in this case, some entertainers postponed their concerts in Israel, a couple of inquiries were launched, military exercises cancelled and both sides huffed and puffed and that was that.


d) Military agreements: For some reason, this is almost never mentioned but these two countries are very tightly linked through a series of military agreements:
The US sponsored 1994 Security and Secrecy Agreement (SSA) implemented by the Çiller government, essentially set the stage for a firm and close relationship between Israel and Turkey in military and intelligence cooperation, joint military exercises, weapons production and training. The SSA is far-reaching in its implications. It also requires the exchange of military intelligence in what is described as the "guaranteed secrecy in the exchange and sharing of information" (...)

In 1997, Israel and Turkey launched "A Strategic Dialogue" involving a bi-annual process of high level military consultations by the respective deputy chiefs of staff. (Milliyet, Istanbul, in Turkish 14 July 2006).

The 1994 SSA was followed in 1996 by a Military Training and Cooperation Agreement (MTCA). Also in 1996, Turkey entered into a Military Industry Cooperation Agreement with Israel, which was in turn instrumental to the signing of "a secret agreement" with Israel Military Industries to update its tank division, modernize its helicopter fleet and its F-4 and F-5 combat planes (Ibid). In turn, the two countries entered into negotiations with a view to establishing a Free Trade Agreement, which came into operation in 2000.
And this is not all. There is also another military agreement involving NATO that ensures that NATO members will not be party to any regional hostilities.
In April 2001, Israel entered into "a security agreement" with NATO as part of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue:

"This security agreement provides the framework for the protection of classified information, as defined by all 19 member countries, and is signed by countries that wish to engage in cooperation with NATO."

In 2004, the decision was taken to "elevate" the 2001 Mediterranean Dialogue "to a genuine [military] partnership and to launch the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) with selected countries [including Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan. Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia] in the broader region of the Middle East." The mandate of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, is to:

"contribute to regional security and stability, by promoting greater practical cooperation, enhancing the Dialogue’s political dimension, assisting in defense reform, cooperation in the field of border security, achieving interoperability and contributing to the fight against terrorism, while complementing other international efforts." (NATO, emphasis added)

The Initiative "offers a 'menu' of bilateral activities" consisting of "defense reform, defense budgeting, defense planning and civil-military relations; military-to-military cooperation to contribute to interoperability through participation in selected military exercises and related education and training activities,..." ; cooperation in the fight against terrorism, including through intelligence-sharing; cooperation in the Alliance's work on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction ... (NATO, The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative)

In practical terms, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) neutralizes Israel's potential adversaries in the Arab World. It essentially grants a green light to Israel and its indefectible Turkish ally. It ensures that other member States (frontline Arab States) of the NATO sponsored ICI, will not intervene in a Middle East conflict instigated by Israel. This is the main purpose of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI): paralyze the Arab States at the diplomatic and military levels, to ensure that they will not act in any meaningful way against US-Israeli interests in the Middle East.

By late 2004, the "enhanced" Mediterranean Dialogue (Istanbul Cooperation Initiative), had evolved into a more cohesive military cooperation agreement. The member countries met in Brussels in November 2004. Senior Israeli IDF officers held discussions, under NATO auspices, with the top military brass of six members of the Mediterranean basin nations, including Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. The hidden agenda of this meeting was essentially to set the stage for a full-fledged NATO-Israel partnership, with the tacit consent of the frontline Arab States.

This partnership relationship was firmed up in bilateral NATO-Israel talks held in Tel Aviv in February 2005.
While relations appear to be strained in the last two years, including a cancellation of joint military exercises after the Mavi Marmara incident, I am not aware of any changes to these military accords, beyond a general threat that Turkey might opt to do so in the near future.
e) Economic ties and pipelines:

As I mentioned these two countries are each other's largest trading partner in the region
On January 1, 2000, Israel and Turkey signed a free-trade agreement.[17] named the "Turkish Israeli free trade agreement" making it the first Muslim majority country to sign such as an agreement with the Jewish state.[18] Israel exports an annual $1.5 billion in goods and services to Turkey, and imports more than $1 billion.[19] Israel and Turkey signed a multi-billion dollar project to build a series of pipelines from Turkey to Israel to supply gas, oil and other essentials to Israel.[20] Turkey Israel's Largest 3rd Export Market on the year of 2011.
More importantly, Turkey is positioning itself to become a major energy hub through which Middle Eastern and Caspian oil and gas is distributed to world markets.
Turkey is geographically located in close proximity to 71.8 % of the world’s proven gas and 72.7 % of oil reserves, in particular those in the Middle East and Caspian basin.

There are several pipelines already operating and many more in the project stage. The existing ones are:

- BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) pipeline which brings Azeri crude to Turkey through Georgia, it is now joined by Kazakhstan;
- BTE (Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum) pipeline which runs parallel to BTC and brings South Caspian natural gas to Turkey;
- Kerkuk - Ceyhan pipeline, the oldest pipeline that brings Iraqi crude to Ceyhan, a second one is being planed;
- Blue Stream pipeline which carries Russian natural gas to Turkey;
- Blue Stream 2 pipeline is planned (running parallel to Blue Stream) to bring Russian gas to Southern Europe and to, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. It will connect to Samsun - Ceyhan pipeline in Turkey and to Ceyhan - Ashkelon pipeline for Israel;
- Samsun-Ceyhan pipeline, which will carry Russian and Kazakh crude to Ceyhan;
- Nabucco (Turkey-Austria) pipeline is a planned pipeline that will carry, Iraqi, Azeri and potentially Turkmen natural gas to Europe.
- There is also a Persian pipeline being planned to carry Iranian natural gas to European market.

Despite some regional jockeying, Russian, European and American interferences and constantly changing pipeline plans, Turkey has emerged as a powerful and stable energy hub with the potential of influencing the distribution of oil and gas. In that context, it is worth noting the following:
Israel and Turkey are teaming up to construct four parallel pipelines beneath the Mediterranean Sea capable of carrying crude oil, natural gas, electricity and water more than 500 miles into the heart of the Mideast.

Funded by the European Industrial Bank, Israeli and Turkish engineers are studying the feasibility of the multibillion-dollar pipeline project, which would begin in the Turkish port of Ceyhan near the Syrian border and end at the Israeli port of Haifa.
Considering all of this, do you believe that Israel whimsically called the Turkish ambassador, made him sit low, removed the Turkish flag from the room and told the cameraman to highlight his low sitting position?

I find that extremely hard to believe.

So Why the Kabuki Theater?

Just as I believe that there is a deeper and more structured US policy about the Middle East than the one contained in official pronouncements, there is also a deeper policy in Israel than the one one can gleaned from the juvenile antics of Avigdor Lieberman.

The fifty prominent Israelis who submitted a comprehensive peace proposal have a very different outlook and understanding about the future of the country than clownish figures like Lieberman. They realize that without a peaceful settlement involving two states, Israel will soon face very unpleasant choices, as in either Jews becoming a minority in Israel or being forced to implement apartheid-like measures.

In that context, helping Turkey emerge as a regional superpower, respected and trusted by Israel's future partners in a settlement seems like a sensible move. Despite the recent rhetoric and the presence of an Islamist government, Turkey is easily Israel's best regional ally. The ties between the two countries are old and deep and cover too many areas to be easily pushed aside by a government.

One has to note also, that this role Turkey could not have played just a few years ago as it was seen some kind of Western or American lackey with no regional credibility. It looked like it supported Israel because it was ordered to do so by the US. That image has profoundly changed within a few short years and in an eventual peace process it will prove to be a much more useful identity than the previous one.

As part of that change, Turkey is already acting like an honest broker in the region: for instance, it provided a useful diplomatic conduit to Israel and Syria for Golan Height negotiations.

It also mediated multinational talks with Iran on nuclear energy and signed a deal on nuclear fuel swap.

It made overtures to Armenia and tried to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding Nagorno-Karabag region. Although it failed, it managed to start a process of normalization with Armenia.

More recently, Turkey played a large role in pressuring President Bashar of Syria and allowed Syrian opposition to gather in Antalya to form a "transitional council."

If I were to venture a guess, I would say that after the upcoming Turkish elections on 12 June, Erdogan will be called upon to negotiate with Qaddafi. He might succeed where Zuma and Medvedev failed by offering the old fox a safe haven in Turkey if he agrees to peacefully leave Libya. Unless he wants to remain the head of East Libya living under a strict embargo, he might just take that deal. Which, in turn would significantly bolster Erdogan's image in the Middle East.

If my contrarian theory is correct and the US has a grand plan to bring stability to the Middle East in order to control the distribution of oil and gas, solving Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the first essential step.
It would be especially helpful if that settlement was helped by a regional power seen as trustworthy and agreeable (in varying degrees) by both sides of the conflict.

Just like the famous quote about Iraq being a military base with oil underneath, if that regional superpower was also the energy distribution center that gets along with all its neighbors, including Russia and Iran, (as the saying goes) you could not ask for more than that.

In this case, perhaps you could, as the same country could be instrumental in resolving a second major conflict in the area, one that has the potential to disrupt stability and the safety of pipelines. And that is the Kurdish problem.

That's for another day.

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