When Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in August, Turkey was thrust into a delicate balancing act between a pro-democratic West and an emergent Russia, a nation that supplies the bulk of Turkey’s energy resources. But as International Crisis Group expert Hugh Pope sees it, Turkey’s foreign policy strategy requires Ankara to maintain neutral ties with competing parties, and for now, the strategy is working.
Pope says the chaotic security situation in Iraq partly explains why Turkey’s star is rising. As Turkey increases its relationships with states like Iran and Syria, which Washington regards as "rogue" elements in the region, Ankara’s value to the West may increase further. Pope says the international community should reward this ascendance by voting Turkey onto the UN Security Council as a nonpermanent member, a seat Turkey has been lobbying for incessantly. "They have open channels of dialogue with everybody," Pope says. "A lot of people underestimate how much Turkey can do behind the scenes."
Turkey is aiming to strike a balance between friend and foe, evidenced by Ankara’s desire to maintain relations with Syria, Israel, Iran, and Iraq. But as we’ve seen with the recent Russia-Georgia conflict, tensions do emerge. Going forward, how will Turkey balance its many competing interests around the region?
This is the main factor that we’ve had under the AK Party [AKP, or Justice and Development Party] certainly. It’s part of a trend that has existed now for several years. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] also tried to build this circle of friends around Turkey, and it’s been remarkably successful. Twenty years ago, there were all enemies around Turkey, and the best of them was Soviet Bulgaria. And now, there are only two remaining as disputed borders: one is Armenia, and the other is Cyprus.
If the Black Sea becomes a contested area, that’s a big problem for Turkey. That is an area where the United States is pushing and Turkey is allowing some U.S. naval vessels through into the Black Sea. But it’s trying to minimize it. What will Turkey do? It will try and use its regional influence, which has grown, to persuade the United States, if it can persuade it, to give it more space, and it will try and make its arguments more heard in Washington. That hasn’t happened in recent years but in the last year it has become much better with Washington since the dispute of Iraq has cleared up.
Turkey will always choose with the United States, I think, as things are right now, especially when it comes to a choice between the United States and Russia. But Turkey’s whole strategy will be to delay any such moment of truth. They do not want to be outed on this question.
Have there been changes to Turkey’s strategic leverage that gives it more influence in Washington? Or are improved relations simply the result of a better war result in Iraq?
The situation in Iraq made the United States realize that everything that it planned for in Iraq was not going to happen just as it wanted to. Iraq was not going to become the new centerpiece of the new Middle East. So, in that sense Turkey has recovered some of its profile in Washington. Another big reason for it was the United States accepted they could no longer defy or just ignore Turkey’s requests on the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], which was the one thing Turkey really cared about. And so that opened the door for a lot more cooperation. And, it certainly made all the difference that the U.S. is sending regular visitors to Ankara. It’s a very important part of a smoothing relationship. Another possible cloud on the horizon is [whether] the question of the Armenian genocide [will] come up again in Washington, probably next April.
Turks widely believe that the United States came to the region, came to Iraq, with the ultimate aim of gaining leverage over Turkey economically and strategically. What’s behind this paranoia?
Turkey has lived on its own for a long time. And the latest Transatlantic Trends survey (PDF) shows that 48 percent of people in Turkey believe that they should act alone on the international stage. Where does it come from? Turkey is founded on a quite unusual set of circumstances that allowed it to be basically the only country that is not subject to worse than imperialism, and they did that through a very narrowly won victory in the 1920s. The West wanted to carve up Turkey-America included, Woodrow Wilson signed it-into a series of little statelets of which the Turks would get something a bit akin to an American Indian reservation. It was in defiance of the Europeans, and that is the main spring of this suspicion of the West: "We made this Turkey despite the West." And even though during the Cold War, America did masses of things to support Turkey; they know that they are somewhat dependent on the United States for armaments, for strategic support, even in this fight against the PKK, they’re dependent on the Americans. That of course gives you a dependency relationship which makes you very worried about what your patron is going to do.
You just mentioned military cooperation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, was recently in Istanbul and Ankara. Can you shed a little bit of light on what the United States wants now?
The U.S. always has a long list of requirements. I remember the days when the U.S. ambassador’s office had a coffee table on which were only an F-16, an M116 tank, and another piece of U.S. military equipment. That was the only image one left the office with. And, yes, the United States has a long laundry list of things that it wants. But the main result of Mike Mullen’s visit was to illustrate to Turkey that they’re being taken seriously. And this is half of the battle, that they’re being listened to. And that, for the United States, has done a great deal. To come here is very important because it’s hard to overstate the extent to which people have not been coming to Turkey in the years before.
[The U.S.] will be looking for help on Georgia. Yes, Turkey’s going to help on that. Turkey wants to seem independent of Georgia. Turkey does not want to have Russian troops on its border again in the way it used to be in the Cold War. But, at the same time, they are also not wishing to do anything that would create another excuse for Russia to advance. And Iran, of course, is another big issue. The Turks are the only [country] from the Western camp who’s been able to explain the Western position face-to-face with Ahmadinejad. If he [Erdogan] is expressing a European position to Ahmadinejad, not the American position, then they know exactly how far the United States is going to go against Iran.
But how can Turkey have it all? Take the Russian example. When Turkey allowed U.S. warships to pass through the Bosporus strait, Russia responded by closing doors to exports, increasing custom checks, and ultimately costing the Turks a lot of money.
Turkey has no choice. As you just pointed out, this conflict, any conflict, any rise in tension in this area, costs the Turkish economy money. And that’s what Turkey’s trying to avoid. As the threats rise around it, Turkey will just draw in its horns. It will become less able to, for instance, pursue big new projects in Russia, will become less able to get what it needs to do in the Iranian energy scene. All these things are costs for Turkey. It’s not like Turkey is winning by being friends with these people. It’s just trying to keep out of the way as much as possible.
Two weeks after we saw the Russia-Georgia situation, Turkey’s energy minister was in Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Is the energy security one of the biggest issues that Turkey’s going to face going forward?
Things has already gone over the top, relying on Russian gas [for 65 percent of Turkey’s gas imports]. That says it all. That’s not going to be changed. You talked about going to Iran for gas. How are they going to get gas from Iran? Iran is not investing in its gas fields. It’s a bureaucratic mess; it’s under the threat of foreign sanctions. We’ve been talking about the South Pars gas field for years and years and years. What’s happened? Nothing, except on the Qatari side, where they’ve gone ahead. Iranians have not been able to do much. Every winter the Iranians cut the existing gas flow, and it’s not necessarily political, it’s maybe just because Iran has an energy crisis of its own. You know, there are reasons Iran is wanting nuclear energy. Its energy policy is not delivering enough energy for its huge population. And it’s cold in Iran in the winter. Going to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, yes, it’s important for [Turkey’s energy future].
And other Central Asian states?
And Azerbaijan. The opening up of Central Asia and the Caucuses to international engagement is one of the huge pluses of the end of the Cold War. It’s a great achievement of U.S. foreign policy at the time; they were the only ones who really saw it and jumped on it and took advantage of it, supported Turkey’s role there. Turkey’s not a political model or anything in those countries, but it’s deeply engaged commercially. It’s not just energy. Almost everything you see being built in these countries has Turkish nuts and bolts in it. They are the biggest individual country supplying businessmen in the service sector in these countries, so it’s not just energy.
Turkey has traveled to New York to make a plea to join the UN Security Council as a nonpermanent member. A decision has not been made, but do you think they have made their case?
It’s a question of prestige. Turkey obviously as a representative of the European bloc is going to be actually rather limited in what it can do as Turkey on the Security Council, but it wants to be seen as a regional power now. And actually, why not? The time has come. It’s a great symbol for Europe to choose Turkey because Turkey is actually a member of almost every major European institution, from the Eurovision Song Contest to the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], and in fact, has the closest relationship with the European Union of any non-EU member, although the last step is turning out pretty complicated. But Turkey has a lot of unique things that it represents. I mean, the European Union decision to start negotiation with Turkey was a message to the whole Muslim world that we can treat Muslims as equals. A Turkish PM [prime minister] or president in the morning in Jerusalem, in the evening in Tehran, and then in Khartoum? They have open channels of dialogue with everybody. A lot of people underestimate how much Turkey can do behind the scenes.
Greg Bruno traveled to Turkey on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP) at The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C. This interview was conducted during that trip.