MERI Forum 2014 | S3: Turkey in the Neighborhood (Part 3)


Session 3: Turkey in the neighbourhood
Date: 05/11/2014

Part 1: Intervention of Cengiz Çandar (Journalist, Turkey)
Part 2: Intervention of Şaban Kardaş (ORSAM)
Part 3: Intervention of Michael Werz (CPA)
Part 4: Questions & Answers Session


Transcription of Michael Werz (Senior Fellow, CPA)

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here. It is a great honour and a great pleasure to be on a panel with Cengiz. It is always the best thing it can happen to you as a policy person. I would like to speak about the relationship between the US and Turkey which is a relationship that was very close until very recently and has dramatically deteriorated in recent weeks and that is an astonishing development which very rarely happens. For the US a good partner, especially for this region but in a world that is in disorder is a partner that not only devices a smart foreign policy but has three assets and three pillars which are important: First, this partner has ideally democratic legitimacy in its own country for what it does externally. Second, that partner has also tactical abilities, understanding situations and moving quickly in making adjustments. Third, ideally that partner has a strategic vision and understands complex regional dynamics, as they are taking place in this region.

To a certain degree, when AKP came to power in 2002 and Prime Minister Erdogan then in the early days was describing the new policy as one that wanted to make sure that Turkey was not under the impression anymore that it was surrounded by enemies was a very important step. The old saying was Turkey is surrounded by three oceans or three seas and four enemies and it was an important step to change that regional dynamic as has been pointed out. And of course, the domestic equivalent was the Kurdish opening; the first one where there was a dual strategy of demilitarising the Turkish society and neutralising and overcoming the Kurdish conflict which of course back then didn’t work out. And Erdogan was one of the reasons when President Obama in 2009 went to Ankara and has done something that no President has done before. On his first trip to Europe he went to Turkey. It has never happened before. He gave a very important speech in the parliament in Ankara and offered a long-term strategic partnership to Turkey and that partnership has been strong over the past few years but there were three turning point that have taken that partnership apart. Those three turning points are associated with three cities; one in Turkey, one in Iraq and one in Syria.

The first turning point from the US perspective was Gezi Park. The protests in Istanbul were entirely manageable protests but the Turkish government tried to push back very hard and you all know that days and weeks of street fighting ensued. From a US perspective that was a culmination point in two senses.

It was clear that continuing concern about press censorship soft and hard, internet censorship, social media censorship, interference of the government in the judiciary were really coming to a culmination point. Gezi Park epitomised and reflected that concern, namely that Turkey was backtracking in terms of its democratic achievements. It was also analytically important because it showed that there was no force within the AKP, namely President Gul, who would stand up and say we want to be a moderate conservative party that unites our country. There was no such force in the AKP. So, from a US perspective it was clear that Turkey as a partner was losing one of the important capacities, domestic democratic legitimacy for its policies domestically and internationally.

The second turning point was Mosul. The government of Mosul send distressed calls to Baghdad and other places on June 6th and everybody knew that the city was under imminent threat of ISIS. On June 10th, Foreign Minister Davutoglu said there was not risk for the Turkish consulate, there is no risk for Turkish citizens….Turkish General Consul Yilmaz and other Turkish citizens were taken hostage. What was the reaction in Turkey? The reaction was not to sit back and say what went wrong, let’s try to figure out what was the wrong assessment. The reaction was that Prime Minister Erdogan four days later asked the Turkish Press not to report on Mosul, not to report on ISIL and in Ankara a court issued an order which was given to all the media on June 17th basically outlawing any report on this issue. So, again from a US perspective an important partner shows that the tactical abilities, the understanding of shifting situations was really limited and so was the capability of Turkey to extract its citizens including senior level diplomats from Mosul. It was either lack of capabilities or lack of decision-making but this also shows that the second pillar of an important partnership was being weakened.

The third turning point was Kobani but it was as much Turkey’s neutrality that Cengiz has described as was the reaction to the street protests in Turkey on October 6th and 7th. The interesting thing here is that of course the conflict became regional and the peace process between the government and PKK was for the first time driven by external development more than domestic developments. It seemed that the government did not fully understand that and the distinction between Kurds in Turkey and Kurds outside Turkey was still a paradigm of Turkish policy. The fact that this was not fully understood and that the Turkish government seemed to like the peace but not as much the process that goes with the peace was questioning the third pillar of Turkey’s capability, the strategic and longer term understanding of regional dynamics in a very complicated arena and so from a US perspective I think the turning point was October the 19th when the US dropped humanitarian aid and ammunitions into Kobani without really informing the Turkish government. That was a clear decision in the White House that American interests and the protection of Kobani were more important than the immediate relationship with the Turkish government which was probably a very difficult decision to make. But it also shows that we have come to an end point between 2009, President Obama’s visit, and 2014 within a five year period which requires a reconceptualization of the partnership between US and Turkey. That process is underway in Washington right now.

It did not help Turkey that high level diplomats like the US Ambassador to Turkey…were frequently insulted by high level members of the Turkish government. The then Prime Minister Erdogan insinuated that the Ambassador was involved in illicit and illegal activity in Turkey or Ankara….that of course was not helpful if you want to have friendly relations. But the larger points, democratic legitimacy for domestic and foreign policy in Turkey, tactical capabilities of understanding of fast moving environments and the strategic understanding of the regional dynamics are really the issues that are now driving the policy conversation in Washington.

I think the relationship is already undergoing a very fundamental change. This will continue for the time being and this at the same time opens opportunities for new conversations, especially for Kurdish actors in the region that are required to understand what US and Western priorities in the region are and what are local actor and regional actors prepared to invest in a possible partnership. Because what we have seen on the ground, namely the de facto cooperation between the US and YPG is something that probably none of us would have even thought about two, three or four months ago. So, it’s an interesting shift that was not always intentional but it was driven by domestic factors and dynamics in Turkey, the military dynamic on the ground in northern Syria but also an assessment in Washington that the divergence between Turkish and American interests was so large that that conflict had eventually to become open.

Comments are closed.