Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | April 4, 2011

Turkey Rising

Turkey’s pulsating new foreign policy is so multifaceted it may soon run out of Turks to keep it going. With “tectonic” geopolitical shifts creating new opportunities, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is executing a pretty tectonic plan of his own. The unmistakable themes are regional leadership, Islamic-world leadership, and putting Turkey in the broker’s seat for as many points of conflict as possible.

The Turkish effort in Libya is gathering steam, with the dispatch of warships to enforce the embargo and the visit to Ankara on Monday of a Qaddafi envoy, reportedly in Turkey to discuss a truce. Turkey is being billed overtly as a “mediator,” perhaps in part because NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen was also in Ankara Monday.

The Erdogan government may have no better luck brokering a Libyan truce than the African Union had the week before last, but Turkey is forging ahead in the political-momentum sweepstakes. On 31 March, Erdogan became the first Turkish prime minster ever to visit the Kurds of Iraq. While in Iraqi Kurdistan, he opened a Turkish consulate in Irbil and presided at the opening ceremony for a new commercial airport.

With this VIP outreach, Erdogan hopes to put Turkey on offense and assume leadership on one of the region’s principal sources of destabilization. Besides Turkey, Syria and Iran are both concerned about restive Kurdish minorities, especially while their central governments are under threat. Opening a unique dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds – who are invested with the state trappings of a semi-autonomous government – is a way for Turkey to gain leverage over the other Kurd-troubled nations. Erdogan naturally hopes to preempt his own Kurdish insurgents as well, with a view to border security and the 2011 national elections.

There may also be an element in this of preempting Iran, which has been caught in recent weeks promoting an Islamist insurgency in neighboring Azerbaijan, a client of Turkey and the U.S. Turkey and Iran want to retain influence with each other, but they are competitors in their visions for regional (and global Islamic) leadership; both are working harder right now to seize separate, sometimes conflicting opportunities than to butter each other up. It was as a participant in this competition that Turkey, in March, confiscated an Iranian arms shipment bound for Syria and went on to report the breach – quite officiously – to the UN.

But wait – there’s more. Turkey achieved a military first last week, hosting a trilateral exercise with the armies of Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO is pleased to see this as a helpful outreach on behalf of the alliance. Turkey sees it as an exercise in regional and Islamic-state leadership –and as a declaration of political independence, like the Turkish armed forces’ series of drills with China (see here and here), and the Turks’ intransigence on their demands regarding the purchase of F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. Turkey wants avionics source codes, which the U.S., in spite of pressure from Britain and Israel, decided in 2009 not to hand over to any F-35 customer. In late March, Turkey suspended its F-35 purchase until the source codes are forthcoming, which neither Israel nor Britain has felt in a position to do.

On Monday, President Abdullah Gul arrived in Indonesia for the first visit of a Turkish president since 1995 (and only the third since Indonesian independence in 1945). Among the ties he seeks to strengthen are Turkish arms exports – to both Indonesia and Malaysia, the most predominantly Muslim of the Southeast Asian nations. Notably, the arms exports in prospect are weighted heavily toward armored fighting vehicles, something both nations already have in abundance. But Turkey hopes to expand arms cooperation to include the joint development of warships and artillery weapons.

U.S. analysts would once have considered this a disquieting development, but perhaps we can congratulate ourselves that we no longer overreact to these things.

J.E. Dyer blogs at Hot Air’s Green Room and Commentary’s “contentions.”  She writes a weekly column for Patheos.


  1. “Opening a unique dialogue with the Iraqi Kurds – who are invested with the state trappings of a semi-autonomous government – is a way for Turkey to gain leverage over the other Kurd-troubled nations. Erdogan naturally hopes to preempt his own Kurdish insurgents as well, with a view to border security and the 2011 national elections.”
    Erdogan trying to make nice with the Kurds might be about as successful as getting a kiss from the Armenians. And just because nitwit Biden suggested it, why is an independent country for the Kurds off the table? The borders of the one time Ottoman dominions were drawn up by the British and French post the War to End All Wars anyway, nobody asked the Kurds if they wanted to be serfs of Baghdad. If the Arabs that want the West Bank have even a scintilla of legitimacy, what about the Kurds in Iraq?

    • Thank you for putting it so well! The plight of the Kurdish people have caught my attention for decades. My fervent hope is that freedom has caught on now, destined to become a raging out-of-control wildfire, an ongoing inferno that may consume all the world again, including modern America. The ‘Phoenix of Liberty’ continues to rise from the ashes.

  2. Thanks for bringing some nuance to the issue, OC. Obviously developments in Turkey over the last decade have been something less than uniformly encouraging and its important to keep up on the specifics.

    Hardly a positive player in NATO, one must, strongly as one may be tempted, be restrained in the urge to kick them out.

    Still, the idea of selling them F-35, especially with source code looks rather dubious though I suppose its probably a fate accompli. Do you think if we decided to cancel the sale they might opt for the Eurofighter (which the British have been flying over Lybia – I fondly remember the Tornado from the Gulf War), Rafale, Grippon or even something from the Russians?

  3. —-With this VIP outreach, Erdogan hopes to put Turkey on offense and assume leadership on one of the region’s principal sources of destabilization—

    What the heck?

    I would be grateful if you would expand on that a bit. I can’t understand what you’re getting at.

    What’s the “leadership” supposed to mean. Erdogan may see it in Turkish interests to cease the outright hostility with the Kurds, and in recent years has softened (slightly) the discrimination against them within Turkey.
    Trade with the Iraqi Kurds is increasing and would be beneficial for both parties, but I’ve not yet seen any sign that that Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds aren’t in direct opposition over Kirkuk.

  4. Interesting article – but does this represent a genuine change in Erdogan’s policy, and a break with Iran, or merely an attempt to work within NATO to subvert its goals?

    A pessimistic outlook suggests that, having failed to stop the NATO intervention, Turkey is now nominally switching sides so that it can make sure that any Libyan settlement stops well short of regime change and transition to democracy. Similarly, in Afghanistan, Turkey could be allying itself with Karzai in the hope that this will encourage a speedier US withdrawal – putting itself in a position (with China) to control the final settlement. Such a solution would involve giving the Taliban control of both central and local government but retaining the present incumbent as a figurehead and guaranteeing stable access to resources (great for China and Islamists, but disastrous for the ordinary Afghan).

  5. Turkey is a functioning democracy. It has come a long way in recent years, and is now compliant with most of the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights. It mostly abides by the rule of law, and it largely respects ‘Western’ norms and rights – including respect for private property. Its constitution contains an effective habeas corpus provision and the judiciary is staunchly independent. It also has a vibrant and free domestic media, and all the Western TV stations are freely available. However, while it is light-years ahead of any of the other countries in the Middle East, near Asia, and North Africa in its observance of democratic norms, it still lags somewhat behind the EU nations. The military (staunchly secular) still has a position in Turkish society, and under the constitution that is anomolous in a modern democracy. The Turks have also responded to the Khurdish insurgency with security laws, many of which are draconian, and have necessitated in Turkey opting out of some of the provisions of the ECHR. On the other hand, other than refusing to recognise their national aspirations, there is no evidence of legal discrimination against the Khurds in the way that Christians are discriminated against in some Arab countries and non-Jews are third-class citizens in Israel.

    Turkey’s recent diplomatic readjustment has several roots. Historically, Turkey has subsumed its Islamic identity. This is because its founders saw Islam as being associated with backwardness. In recent years, with the growth of self-confidence and economic progress the Turks have been more confortable with their Moslem identity and see no conflict between their religion and social progress. Turkish Islam is like modern Christianity, a very different thing from the primordial form of the religion seen in some of the very poor Moslem countries.
    Solid economic progress has fostered the exponental growth of its middle-class. This middle-class has the same values as the middle-classes everywhere. Birth-rates are plummeting in line with European norms as educational and economic aspirations soar. Turkey has registered consistent growth in recent times, in sharp contrast to the rest of Europe which has been wallowing in recession. Turkey sees more economic opportunity to the north, south, and (in particular) the east.
    The hardening of the existing EU towards ever allowing Turkey with its 80 million Moslems become a full member of the EU has also led to the Turks looking eastwards for economic opportunity.
    The Israel-Palestinian conflict has deeply affected the sentiments of the Turkish population. They naturally identify with their fellow Moslems whom they see being occupied, dispossessed, and oppressed. Operation ‘cast-lead’ had a particularly traumatizing effect. The Turks were able to witness what was happening daily on Al Jazeera and Turkish TV whose reporters and cameramen operated in the strip in spite of Israeli attempts to prevent media coverage (unlike here in the US where our media meekly obeyed the Israeli embargo). It is no exaggeration to say that serious damage has been done to the US- Turkey relationship because of the perception that the US is the financer and protector of what the Turks see as Israeli aggression.
    This deteriorating relationship was delivered a further blow when several Turkish citizens were murdered on the high-seas when attempting to mount a protest against the Gaza siege and our Congress blamed the protestors rather than their assailants. Most Turks now take the view that NATO isnt worth a pitcher of warm spit if NATO citizens can be murdered with impunity while going about their lawful business on the high seas – and the US could only blame the victims. It is unlikely that the US military will ever be able to use Turkish bases, or that Turks will ever fight alongside US forces this side of the Palestinian sore being lanced by a just solution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

    Yes, the Turks are looking East. They are newly confident and prosperous. It’s a pity that the population of the only proper democracy in the Moslem world no longer regards the US with much respect.

    • Was this message brought to you by the Turkish Foreign Ministry?

    • Paulite, Turkish democracy functions, but not really well, ever.

      and it’s looking East because it must, being blocked off from EU membership. it’s not new confidence in themselves that turned them Eastward, but a lack of choice. they can not expand their industrial output, and prosperity, any other way.

      • Incorrect. Turkey has been offered immediate freedom of movement for its goods and services within the EU, and the right of establishment for its companies on an equal footing with those in the member-states. What it has not been offered (And the prospect is receeding) is a seat at the EU table and freedom of movement of its citizens within the EU. In other words it is being offered the economic rights, but not the personal and political rights that go with EU membership. However, leaving that aside, Turkey may be getting the best of both worlds: Full access without tarriffs to the EU for its goods and services without the constraints and limitations to its soverignty that goes with EU membership.

        The ironic thing is that Turkey is set fair to be fully compliant with the ECHR and the economic liberalization required by the EU treaties well ahead of it’s original projected date for entry into the EU. However, as that date approaches the more opinion within the EU is hardening against its admission.

        • the Turks don’t seem to see it your way, Paulite


          Dr. Bahadir Kaleagasi, international coordinator at Turkish industry and business association TUSIAD, distanced himself from Bağış’ statements by saying that any status other than participation in the EU decision-making process was unacceptable.

          He stated: “So many prominent European politicians argue that the EU will be globally stronger in enlarging to Turkey. They are right. Moreover, Turkey is already essentially part of the EU sphere of values, law, policies and global interests. In and around Europe, Turkey is also the only model of a big emerging market, industrial economy, information society and democracy which does not rely on a reserve of natural resources such as oil or natural gas.”

          “This model implies for Turkey to be a member of the EU exactly like it does for the actual EU members. Most EU legislation is directly or indirectly applied in Turkey. Therefore, any status other than Turkey’s full participation in the EU’s policymaking system is unacceptable for Turkish business because it would create problems of democratic legitimacy at the national level,” he said.

          • the Kaleagasi quote is from


            • Sadly for Dr. Kaleagasi, wishful thinking is not what decides the relationship between the EU and Turkey.

              Whether Dr. Kaleagasi (whoever he is) considers acceptable or unacceptable is neither here nor there. The decision rests entirely with the existing member-states, and the position against the admission of Turkey into the political structures of the EU is hardening. Polls in each and every EU membership show large pluralities against Turkish membership of the EU – even Britain, the only EU member-state whose government remains unequivocally in favour of allowing the Turks in. France has thrown the fatal gauntlet by saying that it will hold a referendum on its consent to Turkish membership. I say “fatal” because a consistent 80% + of the French electorate is resolutely against (A further 10% are “don’t knows”, with less than 10% in favour). The polls in Germany show similar figures. On the other hand, there is a fair amount of agreement within the EU for the relationship that Dr. Kaleagasi (whoever he is) deems “unacceptable”.
              As for the good doctor’s remark about “democratic legitimacy” – that is sheer nonsense. The EU has long had these trade and establishment relationships with non EU-members Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland. No one is questioning the “democratic” credentials of these countries.


              • Paulite, where are you going with this stuff?

                First you question whether Turkey is blocked from expanding its exports into the EU, saying that Turkey’s been offered economic rights, then you ignore the Turkish reaction that economics rights (and the offer of them was not near to full rights) was not sufficient when it didn’t include any ability to influence the rules and regulations that govern all EU economic activity.

                Instead you’re pointing out that indeed Turkey can not expect more than what they say won’t suffice BECAUSE it is not really distinguishable from non-membership in terms of economic relations.

                What are you saying? Is that Turkey doesn’t understand the situation as well as yourself or are you implying that they’re deliberately misrepresenting it?

              • I first apologise for my tardiness in replying (I have a real life which has its own demands!)

                I think you need to re-read what I said.

                To clarify:
                Dr. Kaleagashi isn’t Turkey. he is someone with opinions as to what he thinks is acceptable to Turkey. Unfortunately, what he wants is not on offer – nor is it likely to be.

                The EU is a free-trade area. It is also a political institution, and a community of people who have a right to pass freely within the territories of all the member-states. Turkey already enjoys most of the free-trade benefits of EU membership. Its goods trade freely, and without tariff, within the EU. Its companies can establish residency and subsidiaries within the EU. The few remaining economic constraints are in the process of being dismantled.
                However, Turkey is not a member of the community, nor a participant in it’s institutions. Neither do its citizens enjoy the rights of the citizens of EU member-states. The most important of these is free movement within the EU. Whether Dr. Kaleagashi likes it or not, the prospect of Turkey becoming an EU member-state is receeding. The good doctor deeming this unacceptable is not really relevant.
                France has stated that it will hold a referendum on further expansion of the EU, and if the referendum is against expansion, it will veto Turkish membership. I have already told you the depth of opinion against allowing Turkey into the EU. The Turks know that the writing is on the wall for their EU application. It is one of the reasons why Turkey is turning its attentions eastward.

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