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Turkey's Rising Mideast Role

Authors: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 26, 2011

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Despite tensions between Turkey and Israel, and Turkish efforts to mediate a deal with Iran, relations between Turkey and the United States seem on the upswing, says Steven A. Cook, CFR senior fellow for Middle East Studies. Cook says the Obama administration has worked hard to overcome diplomatic problems and sees Turkey, "not just as a geostrategic asset, but as a potential partner" in a region undergoing tremendous change because of the Arab uprisings. Cook says "the Turkish star is rising," and Turkey has positioned itself as a political leader of a region "presently lacking that kind of leadership, whether it's in North Africa or in the Gulf." He says Turkey's agreement to accept a NATO deployment of early-warning radars aimed at Iran is an attempt to demonstrate that "it remains committed to being integrated with the West through NATO." In addition, Cook says the United States has been supplying Turkey with real-time intelligence on the Kurdish separatist terrorist group, the PKK, which operates out of bases in Iraq. However, Cook says questions remain about whether Turkey can be a constructive player in the region.

In Turkey, the attention right now is on rescue operations in the towns of Ercis and Van to help those affected by this weekend's serious earthquake (NYT). But there's also a large-scale Turkish military operation (Reuters) going on in the Kurdish part of Iraq against the PKK. What else going on in Turkey these days?

With this 7.3 magnitude earthquake in the eastern portion of Turkey, there's obviously a lot of attention on that. That also happens to be a part of Turkey where there is a large Kurdish population. As you pointed out, this coincides with ongoing Turkish military operations against the [PKK]. This separatist, one-time Marxist, Kurdish nationalist, terrorist organization has been fighting Turkey since the mid-1980s--in various waves and degrees of intensity. What precipitated the Turkish military operations was an attack on October 19 (NYT), in which twenty-four Turkish soldiers were killed and large numbers of others were injured in a PKK attack on a remote Turkish base in Hakkari Province. [In response, Turkey has dispatched] about ten thousand troops and warplanes against PKK fighters within Turkey and special forces units into northern Iraq to go after their bases there.

And does this cause any problems for the United States withdrawing the last troops from Iraq?

It's not causing any problems per se. The United States has been squarely shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in identifying the PKK as a terrorist organization. Since November 2007, the United States has been supplying real-time intelligence to the Turkish armed forces so that they can better coordinate their own attacks on the PKK. The situation in Iraq [had been] a source of tremendous tension between the United States and Turkey [before] 2007. The Turks wanted the United States to target the PKK--something that the United States chose not to do for fear of destabilizing northern Iraq, where the PKK maintains its bases.

The Turks have sought to position themselves, not just in the economic sphere, but as political leaders of a region that is presently lacking that kind of leadership, whether it's in North Africa or in the Gulf.

As far as our pullout is concerned, given the fact that we were not directly involved with the PKK, it's not as much of a complication and we will likely be continuing to supply the Turks with the kind of intelligence that they need. The Turks have been seeking unmanned aerial vehicles to operate on their own, some of which are Israeli-manufactured. They'd like some American-manufactured drones in order to target the PKK more effectively.

Turkey has been involved in several diplomatic controversies in recent years, such as trying to act as a mediator, along with Brazil (RIANovosti), on Iran's nuclear issue, and fighting with Israel. Is this Turkey trying to show it can be a major power?

Turkey is a major power. It boasts the fifteenth largest economy in the world. It is clearly a diplomatic player in the Middle East. People in the Middle East have looked toward Turkey on a variety of issues. The Turks have sought to position themselves, not just in the economic sphere, but as political leaders of a region that is presently lacking that kind of leadership, whether it's in North Africa or in the Gulf. What seems to be happening is that the Turkish star is rising as the Iranian star is fading, which is precisely what the Turks would [say] their goal has been all along.

The Turks and Brazilians voted against (NYT) UN Security Council resolutions to sanction the Iranians. There have been suspicions that Turkish banks have been involved with Iran despite many, many countries applying bilateral sanctions on Iran. And of course there's the situation with Israel as a result as of the Mavi Marmara incident, a Turkish ferry, which was among a group of ships seeking to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed. The ensuing Israeli refusal to apologize and tough Turkish rhetoric has led essentially to a collapse in the Turkish-Israeli relationship. [But despite the chill in relations, the Turkish government accepted Israeli offers (Haaretz) to help in the rescue operation, and Israeli equipment was being flown into Turkey.]

So there has been a burst of Turkish diplomatic activity, a new foreign policy that has sought zero problems with its neighbors. In some ways, it has been successful. Turkey's profile is greater than ever in the Middle East, but Turkey continues to have problems with countries like Cyprus, Armenia, and Israel. Obviously this situation with the Kurds continues to be a problem, although that's not necessarily a foreign policy problem.

People are quite unsure what to make of Turkey's new self-proclaimed role in the Middle East. Turkey has all of the ingredients for being a constructive and important player in the region. The question is whether it is actually going to play that role.

What seems to be happening is that the Turkish star is rising as the Iranian star is fading, which is precisely what the Turks would [say] their goal has been all along.

And of course it's at great odds with Syria right now because it's been sheltering refugees from the crackdown led by the Syrian government, right?

That has been a change. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan had invested a tremendous amount of political capital in cultivating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkish business has invested in Syria. There was also a domestic component of it, given the fact that Syria borders Turkey's southeast. If there was an increased amount of trade between Turkey and Syria, the hope was that it would spur economic development in that part of Turkey, thereby ameliorating Kurdish demands for, at the least, autonomy. But obviously with the crackdown in Syria, the Turks have worked hard to try to alter Assad's behavior, giving him chance after chance after chance, but finally they seem to have broken from Damascus. So those relationships are very difficult, and in fact there is some speculation that the PKK attacks of October 19 were somehow encouraged by the Syrians and Iranians as a message to Ankara to lay off of and relieve Turkey's pressure on Syria.

Of course Turkey has recently agreed to take NATO missile radars (AP) aimed at Iran. Has this caused strains with their relations with Iran?

Yes. I think it's clear that it has strained relations with Iran. The Turks had felt somewhat burned by this Tehran research reactor deal that they did with the Brazilians, which was not accepted by the United States and other Western powers. And here was an opportunity for the Turks to demonstrate clearly that, despite speculation in some quarters that Turkey was leaving the West, it remains committed to being integrated with the West through NATO, and ultimately through the European Union. The fact that the Iranians have been complicit with the Syrians in the bloody crackdown in Syria made it easier for the Turks to make that decision. One sticking point here was how the data from this early warning radar station was going to be used. The Turks were making noise that they didn't want to share this data with the Israelis. I think the technical issues have been worked out and the Israelis will in all likelihood get data from this early-warning radar station.

The Obama administration continues to see Turkey, not just as a geostrategic asset, but as a potential partner and would like very much to have a strong Turkey policy.

And their overall relations with the United States?

The Obama administration has worked hard to overcome some of the problems that have cropped up over the course of the last few years, like the collapsing relations between Israel and Turkey, the Tehran research reactor deal, the "no" vote in the UN Security Council. I think that the Obama administration continues to see Turkey, not just as a geostrategic asset, but as a potential partner and would like very much to have a strong Turkey policy. That doesn't necessarily mean it's always an easy relationship, and in fact there's a lot of mythology surrounding the U.S.-Turkey relationship--that in some bygone era it was easier than it is now. But clearly, the Obama administration saw Turkey as having a potentially important role in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that the United States continues to build on the U.S.-Turkey relationship in hopes that there really will be a partnership between the United States and Turkey.

Is Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) still dominant in Turkey?

Yes. In the June 12 parliamentary elections they won 49.95 percent of the vote. That is their largest margin of victory in the popular vote since they came to power in 2001. Although, by dint of a quirk in the Turkish electoral law, they will actually have the least number of seats in parliament since they came to parliament in 2002. That's a function of the fact that there are more parties in the parliament now than when they were first elected in 2002.

When I was in Turkey a week or so ago, the prime minister declared to his parliamentary caucus that it was his goal to see a new Turkish constitution written within the year. And I think the fact that they don't dominate parliament with as many seats as they once had will force them into a more pragmatic posture that will force greater compromise in this constitution-writing process. But I don't think anyone opposes the idea of writing a new constitution. In fact it's long overdue in Turkey, and clearly, about half of Turks like the direction that Turkey is going right now and like the AKP stewardship.

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