IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2009

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The Role of Turkey in the Middle East

Meliha Benli Altunışık

Professor
Department of International Relations,
Middle East Technical University, Ankara

In the last two decades, Turkey’s Middle East policy has been evolving towards more activism. 2008 was not an exception. In fact, the Middle East was the region where Turkey focused most of its energies throughout the year. This policy led to some criticism at home and abroad that the government was reorienting Turkey’s foreign policy towards this region. In particular, the perception that in the last few years there has been less emphasis on developing Turkey’s relations with the EU exacerbated these concerns. Nevertheless, such criticisms did not bar the government from increasingly engaging in Middle Eastern issues.

Iraq Policy: A New Opening

In 2008 Iraq continued to be one of the most important issues in Turkish foreign policy. The year started with Turkey’s ground military operation in the north of Iraq in pursuit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish organization fighting with the State. This was a major development, as Turkey had had to stop such incursions after declining to cooperate with the US in its war effort in Iraq in 2003. However, amid domestic criticisms due to escalating PKK violence in 2007, the government obtained a one year parliamentary mandate to conduct operations in Iraq to undermine the PKK’s ability to launch attacks from there. This development alarmed the Bush administration, as it did not want to have instability in the relatively quiet north. Since a meeting at the White House between the US President George W. Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November 2007, the two countries have restarted cooperation over Iraq issues. Particularly important has been the understanding to eliminate the PKK as a factor in Turkey-US and Turkey-Iraq relations, including relations with the Iraqi Kurds. Within this context, a trilateral mechanism between Turkey, Iraq, and the United States was created. The United States started to cooperate with Turkey by providing intelligence on the PKK in Iraq. As a result, Turkey started aerial operations in the area. In February 2008 Turkey also undertook a nine-day ground operation against suspected PKK targets in Iraq.

Although it is still hard to tell to what extent this operation achieved its military objectives, it clearly was successful in political and psychological terms. The operation meant that a barrier was overcome in Turkish-US relations. It also eased the domestic uproar against the PKK attacks and what was seen as the inability of the state to deal with them. More significantly, in terms of relations with Iraq, what happened signified a dual track strategy. On the one hand, the military operations gave Turkey an opportunity to show its resolve to deal with the PKK attacks emanating from Iraq. On the other hand, the operations created an opportunity for an opening towards the Iraqi Kurds, which was not possible before, due to the supportive attitude of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) vis-à-vis the PKK. The invitation of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, during the land operations, was a sign of this dual track policy. Talabani visited Ankara in March and Turkey has continued its rapprochement with Baghdad and the government of the autonomous Kurdish region since then. It was clear that this new policy was based on a consensus between the government and the military. The National Security Council, where the military is also represented, issued a statement saying it was interested in having good relations with Iraq in general based on positive developments there.

As part of the Turkish government’s new opening to Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Baghdad in July 2008. This was a first by a Turkish prime minister in 18 years and the second visit to Baghdad by a leader of one of Iraq’s neighbours after that of the Iranian President. The visit ended with the establishment of the Higher Strategic Cooperation Council, which is to meet once a year under the co-chairmanship of two Prime Ministers, three times a year at the ministerial level and once every three months by senior-level officials. The Council is designed to deal with the vital issues of energy, military, industry, security, and politics. The declaration that announced the decision did not mention the PKK, but it called for respecting each other’s territories and « supporting the joint efforts of Iraq and Turkey to prevent the transit of terrorists and illegal arms to and from Iraq and emphasizing the importance of strengthening cooperation between Iraq and Turkey to control their common borders and prevent all kinds of illicit trafficking. » The declaration also calls for completing a military framework agreement, concluding a pact on combating terrorism and fostering trade relations in both countries’ defence-related industries.

Therefore, Turkey was able to come to a point of cooperation on PKK issues with the US and Iraq in 2008. The central Iraqi government was already more inclined to eliminate the PKK as a negative factor in Turkish-Iraqi relations. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reiterated this position when he said, “PKK’s actions are designed to create problems in Turkish-Iraqi relations” during his visit to Ankara in December. Nevertheless, there were limitations to what the central government could do as long as the KRG refused to cooperate. Thus it was quite significant that Turkey and the KRG were able to develop a working relationship on this issue. Faced with the reality of US withdrawal and increasing power of the central government under Maliki, the KRG realized that it would no longer gain by using the PKK against Turkey. On the contrary, it needed Turkey as an outlet to the world. Thus, the KRG ended its hostile rhetoric against Turkey and started to put pressure on the PKK in its region. Turkey responded by opening an official dialogue for the first time since 2003. Throughout the year, the Turkish Special Representative to Iraq visited the KRG several times.

Turkey reiterated the main elements of its Iraq policy throughout the year. These include, most importantly, the strengthening of territorial unity and stability of Iraq. To this end, Turkey continued to develop its dialogue with all the parties in Iraq, now also including the Kurdish parties. Ankara also continued to work for Sunni participation in the political process, as it had done in the past. Moreover, Turkey focused on developing economic ties with Iraq. Turkish investment, especially in the Kurdish region, continued to grow in 2008. Finally, Turkey continued to work with the US and the countries in the region for Iraqi consolidation. Iraq’s Neighbours’ Meetings, which started as a Turkish initiative in 2003, continued in 2008 in their enlarged form.

The fate of the Kirkuk region also continued to be of interest to Turkey in 2008. Turkey has been opposed to the inclusion of multi-ethnic Kirkuk in the KRG, instead advocating a special status for the region. This position has increasingly been adopted by the Arab, Turkmen, and Christian inhabitants of the region. Thus, the decision about the status of Kirkuk has been postponed. This issue became critical once again in 2008, amid preparations for the election law. In the end, the law passed, stipulating separate local elections for the Kirkuk region.

Iran: A Balancing Act

Two issues of cooperation continued to dominate Turkish-Iranian relations in 2008. First, the two countries cooperated against the separatist Kurdish organizations of the PKK and its Iranian version, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). Such cooperation had intensified after 2003. To reflect the new level of cooperation, the Turkey-Iran High Security Commission, which was established in 1988 but largely remained ineffective in those years, was revived. The 12th meeting of the Committee, convened in Ankara in April 2008, was said to be once again dominated by discussion of security and cooperation against terrorism. The statement issued after the meeting declared, “The increase in some terrorist movements in the region damages both countries, and the most influential way to battle this outlawed problem is the exchange of intelligence and security cooperation.” To further explain the Iranian position, the head of the Iranian delegation, Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Abbas Mohtaj, stressed that “the two countries fight against terror and cooperate with each other, and Iran looks at the PKK and the PJAK as a single terrorist organization under two different names. We want to increase cooperation with Turkey against the terrorist organizations.”

Second, energy cooperation between Turkey and Iran also intensified. Negotiations for a comprehensive energy agreement started in 2007 and continued throughout 2008. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in July 2007 to export Iranian gas to Europe through Turkey, including a provision for Turkey to produce Iranian gas from the South Pars gas field. This project was seen as a significant step towards the realization of the Nabucco project and yet was highly criticized by the Bush administration. The issue was discussed during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Turkey in August. Yet the visit did not yield the expected oil and gas deals.

Ahmadinejad’s visit was not only criticized by the US but also became highly controversial in Turkey. Like many other foreign policy topics recently, this issue immediately became part of the domestic polarization and debate. First, the issue of whether Ahmadinejad will pay a visit to Anitkabir, Atatürk’s mausoleum, as foreign leaders on an official visit to Turkey generally do, was questioned. A crisis was resolved when the government announced that the visit would take place in Istanbul. The government was further criticized for allowing Ahmadinejad to attend a Friday prayer at the Blue Mosque. While he was cheered by some who were there to attend the prayer, others protested him for blocking the traffic. In any case, the visit was significant, as he was visiting a NATO country for the first time. Agreements were signed in coop against drug smuggling and terrorism. There were also reports that the nuclear issue was also discussed.

In 2008 Turkey continued its basic position on the nuclear issue. While accepting Iran’s right under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to have peaceful nuclear capability, Turkey felt threatened by the possibility of Tehran developing nuclear weapon capability. Ankara preferred this issue to be resolved through diplomatic means. Thus, Turkey welcomed Barack Obama’s announcement during the campaign that he would prefer to talk to the Iranians if he was elected president. In the meantime, Turkey continued to align itself with all the EU declarations on the issue.

Third Party Roles in Middle East Conflicts

A relatively new aspect of Turkey’s Middle East policy in the last two decades has been Turkey’s increasing eagerness to play third party roles in the management and resolution of regional conflicts, particularly the Arab-Israeli one. This is in significant contrast to Turkey’s long-held policy of not getting involved in regional conflicts. The reasons for this change are mainly two. First, the changing geo-strategic environment and increasing instability in the region began to have repercussions for Turkey and forced Ankara to become more involved in the management of conflicts. The protracted conflicts led to radicalization and a constant threat of war in the region. The continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict also allows some states to exploit the conflict to increase their power and influence in the region. For instance, the Palestinian conflict has allowed Iran to increase its power and influence beyond its immediate neighbourhood and made it effectively a Mediterranean power. These developments upset the regional balance of power and thus are of concern to Turkey. Secondly, the current AKP government has been particularly eager to play third party roles in the region. The government believes that due to its historical ties with this region, Turkey cannot be indifferent to what happens there.

Mediation between Israel and Syria

Following the gradual improvement of Turkey’s relations with Syria after the October 1998 crisis, and after the collapse of Syrian-Israeli talks in 2000 and the deterioration of US-Syrian relations, Turkey has been trying to restart negotiations between Israel and Syria. Prime Minister Erdogan is said to be involved personally and to have conveyed messages to both sides. Finally, in May 2008, after several failed attempts, the two countries started indirect peace talks in Istanbul under Turkey’s aegis. Israel and Syria held four rounds of indirect negations in Turkey after the peace talks were launched in May. The talks were suspended when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would step down as a result of charges of corruption brought against him in Israel. During Olmert’s visit to Ankara in December 2008, Erdogan and Olmert had a meeting that lasted more than five hours. Later it was revealed that through telephone diplomacy Turkey had facilitated another round of indirect talks and aimed to bring parties to agree on starting direct talks soon. The parties began working on a common text to that end. However, when, five days after Olmert’s visit to Turkey, Israel launched its Gaza operation, Turkey announced that it ended its efforts to facilitate Israeli-Syrian talks.

The Israeli-Palestinian Issue

Disappointed by post-Annapolis inaction and the negative impact of the embargo on the Gaza population, the Turkish government emphasized the volatility of the situation throughout the year. Erdogan referred to Gaza as an open prison and apparently asked the Israeli government to lift the blockade. When the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel ended, Ankara supported Egypt’s efforts to extend it.

When Israel launched its Gaza operation,Turkey announced that it had ended its efforts to facilitate Israeli-Syrian talks

The Israeli attacks against Gaza created a harsh response from the Turkish government. Prime Minister Erdogan immediately started a regional tour in which he paid visits to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. He also had talks with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Then the Turkish diplomats got involved in a shuttle diplomacy to broker a cease-fire.

The government’s response to the Gaza attack, however, seemed to tarnish Turkey’s image as an honest broker in the conflict. Especially the Prime Minister’s approach to the issue was quite emotional. Erdogan was very critical of Israel and yet equally silent about Hamas’ share in the saga. The overall Turkish attitude during the crisis gave the impression of Turkey acting as a spokesperson for Hamas. Although this attitude has become popular with the masses in Turkey and in the Middle East, it created tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations. Furthermore, it also damaged Turkey’s position in the highly polarized Middle East as being above such divisions. On the other hand, the new setting also created some opportunities for Turkey to be influential over Hamas and to convince it to act as a legitimate political party. Turkey has also been active in reconciling Fatah and Hamas, which seems essential for any progress in the peace process. Whether Turkey could use this potential, however, remains to be seen.