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Managing a More Assertive Turkey

Interviewee: F. Stephen Larrabee, Distinguished Chair in European Security, RAND Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 3, 2010

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Turkey's recent diplomatic differences with the United States and its sharpened deterioration of relations with Israel come from Turkey's desire to reestablish its role as a major influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, says F. Stephen Larrabee, an expert on Turkey at the RAND Corporation. "Turkey is returning to a more traditional role, one in which it was closely involved in the Middle East for centuries, going back to the Ottoman Empire," says Larrabee. He says the days when Turkey was a "junior partner" of the United States are over.

"We're dealing with a new Turkey, one that is more assertive and self confident," says Larrabee. "That doesn't mean our interests don't coincide in some areas, but we have to recognize that when it comes to the Middle East, U.S. and Turkish interests only partially coincide." He says the United States is "in danger of finding itself in a very weak position" unless it issues a stronger criticism of Israel for its attack on the Turkish ship headed to Gaza. And on Iran, he believes the Turks will abstain in the Security Council on new sanctions, which will only further strain relations with the United States and Turkey's European allies.

What has led to the widening split between Turkey and both the United States and Israel?

The downward spiral of relations over the last eighteen months goes back to the Israeli Gaza offensive in December 2008, which marked an important turning point. Relations since then have really gone downhill. Turkey appears to be on a strongly anti-Israeli course, but in a broader sense one has to see this in a historical perspective because this represents the adjustment of Turkey to the aftermath of the Cold War. Turkey became less dependent on the United States for its security. The end of the Cold War opened up new opportunities for Turkish policies in areas Turkey historically has had strong political and economical interests, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia. Turkey is returning to a more traditional role, one in which it was closely involved in the Middle East for centuries, going back to the Ottoman Empire

Turkey's reaction has both internal and external components. Internally, it's been very popular. It has shown everyone that it wants to be a strong leader. Externally, it's been popular with the Arab countries and enhanced its prestige in the Arab world. Turkey eventually wants to be an important regional player in the Middle East. There's a vacuum there, and it's trying to fill that vacuum.

I've always thought that the U.S. problems with Turkey really began when the United States asked Turkey to let American troops come into Iraq from Turkey at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 and Turkey's parliament narrowly turned it down.

That obviously was an important catalyst. The decision of the Turkish parliament not to allow the United States to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq was an important turning point in the relationship with the United States, but then again you have to see it a little bit from Turkey's perspective. Turkey never had any love for Saddam Hussein. They considered him a dictator just like the United States did. But Saddam kept the Kurds, which have a rebellious minority in Turkey, under control and he represented stability. They regarded the American invasion of Iraq as very detrimental to their own security.

The decision of the Turkish parliament not to allow the United States to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq was an important turning point in the relationship with the United States.

You mean the Turks were concerned about the Kurds getting more independence from Iraq and festering Kurdish independence?

Yes, but I would say there were three things that they feared. First of all, they feared that the invasion would lead to the destabilization and fragmentation of Iraq, which it did. They feared that it would also lead to an increase of Iranian influence, which it did. And they most of all feared that it would lead to an increase of Kurdish nationalism and a thrust for independence, which would affect the integrity of the Turkish state itself, creating its own large Kurdish minority. So in other words, the strategic framework on which Turkish policy was based was really undermined and destroyed by the invasion, which as I said, they had great reservations about and tried to restrain.

More recently, Turkey and Brazil negotiated an agreement to trade Iran's low-enriched uranium for higher enriched fuel bars to be used in a research reactor in Tehran, a project which the United States and other powers proposed last October. Now the United States is hostile toward the deal because it gets in the way of a new sanctions vote in the Security Council. What prompted Turkey to take a lead role in these negotiations?

It's part of their general feeling that they want to be a major player in the Middle East. They've shown that by their willingness to act as a mediator in the dispute between Israel and Syria, and they've continued to play a role as a mediator between the United States and Iran. What they did with the nuclear deal was again to become the broker, but it's part of the larger dimension of Turkish policy. This is part of the changes since the end of the Cold War, which opened up new opportunities for Turkey.

In essence, this doesn't have much to do with Islam. It has much more to do with the change in the Turkish security environment. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the security problems that Turkey has are now in the south, in and around its borders. That includes the fragmentation of Iraq; the possibility that Iran will get nuclear weapons; the Palestinian problem, which, of course, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is taking a major role in and siding openly with the Palestinians. It's an important break with previous Turkish policy.

What do you think will come first in the dispute over the agreement with Iran--the sanctions vote in the Security Council or the Iranians sending this agreement to the IAEA and the Vienna Group?

It's hard to say, but I would say that frankly the situation over Israel is going to be really a much harder one for the United States in many ways because Turkey's determined.

And what is Turkey seeking? To get Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza?

Not only that. They've set up a number of criteria that they want. They want a formal apology; they want them to return the bodies of the dead; they want them to return the protesters. They're playing hardball because they know that they have quite a bit of support.

They're threatening to make [this] into a bigger thing in the UN, to put Israel in the defensive, politically and internationally. The Turks see this as an opportunity to enhance their role in the Middle East, particularly with the Arab nations. They know Israel's in a weak position so they want to exploit as much as they can to their political advantage.

Do you think that Erdogan and the foreign minister's anger at Israel really stems from the 2008 Gaza attack?

That was a turning point, but something that had been mounting over the years. This is not the first time that Turkish foreign officials called Israeli actions "state terrorism." This is part of an evolving process where Turkey, and Erdogan himself, has moved in an anti-Israeli direction. The Gaza offensive was a turning point, but it wasn't the beginning. It was just the climax of a deterioration of a relationship which has been going on for some time.

On the Gaza blockade, the United States is faced with a delicate internal problem. It's in danger of finding itself in a very weak position if it doesn't come out with a stronger statement on the Israeli action.

It's interesting that when the previous Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in power, Israel agreed to have Turkey mediate with Syria. So relations must have been pretty good at that point.

They were better, but under the surface there were still an awful lot of difficulties. But they hadn't really sprung out into the open as viscerally as it did after the Gaza invasion. And part of what many people feel was a springboard was the fact that Olmert was in Turkey for three or four days meeting with Erdogan before the offensive and he didn't mention a word to Erdogan, and Erdogan felt as if he'd been double-crossed. That's what a lot of Turks say.

Some people think perhaps the whole problem began when Erdogan had this public confrontation with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos conference at the end of January 2009.

But it didn't begin then. That was just, again, the culmination of the rising frustration that had been kept up for several years. [Davos] came right after the Gaza invasion, and Erdogan simply exploded. It was only a few weeks after the offense. Emotions were still very, very raw.

This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, presumably to discuss the Iran agreement, but clearly the whole Gaza blockade came up.

There was no joint press conference, but Davutoglu made very clear to reporters afterwards he was quite disappointed with the American response to the Israeli raid on the Turkish ship, which he felt was far too tepid.

Actually, the American reaction on the blockade was balanced, calling for an investigation. It criticized the actions of the Israelis, but in relatively mild terms. It tried to take a balanced position, saying, "We have to get all the facts," and Davutoglu made quite clear this was unsatisfactory.

What would you say if you were giving advice to the State Department or the White House on what to do with Turkey?

Generally, they should start from the point of recognizing that we're dealing with a new Turkey, one that is more assertive and self confident; we shouldn't expect Turkey to act as it did during the Cold War when it was sort of a junior partner. That doesn't mean our interests don't coincide in some areas, but we have to recognize that when it comes to the Middle East, U.S. and Turkish interests only partially coincide. The real issue is to manage those differences. It does not mean that Turkey is turning its back on the United States or on the West. It does not mean its policies are becoming Islamized, but we have to recognize the changes that have taken place structurally since the end of the Cold War and try to manage those divergences as best as we can.

And on Iran and the Gaza blockade?

They are separate issues. On the Gaza blockade, the United States is faced with a delicate internal problem. It's in danger of finding itself in a very weak position if it doesn't come out with a stronger statement on the Israeli action. We are very much apart from a lot of our allies, let alone from Turkey. I think the Turks have overemphasized their influence in Iran. But they're not likely to back down, and in the Security Council, they are likely to abstain, which will further exacerbate relations between Turkey and the United States. Although here, it's not just between Turkey and the United States, but between Turkey and its Western allies.

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