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Opinion: Explaining Turkey’s high-risk activism

Turkey’s search for its own path is accompanied by significant risks.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan pauses during a meeting in Ankara, Oct. 14, 2009. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — On Monday, Prime Minister Recip Erdogan of Turkey arrived in Washington trailing a list of actions designed to achieve “zero problems” with his country’s neighbors. Considering how many immediate neighbors there are (seven) and who they are (e.g. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia) this is a tall order. Ankara’s activism has raised the stakes in its own neighborhood and eyebrows in the United States.

Turkey has long been a valuable member of NATO and supporter of U.S. initiatives, e.g. the first Gulf War, Afghanistan. Its application to join the EU has been in Brussels’ mailbox for more than 20 years. Now, several developments in the region — an erosion of U.S. interest and power, the rise of an assertive Russia and Iran, a nonexistent “peace process” in the Middle East and the emergence of the Black Sea as a central energy corridor — have spurred Turkey to carve out its own distinctive role.

Turkey is poor in energy resources but rich in strategic location. Russia is now its largest trading partner and energy supplier. Ankara has agreed to let the Russians build the “South Stream” pipeline across Turkish territorial waters. Last year Turkish reaction to Russian dismemberment of Georgia — with whom Turkey had extensive ties — was muted and U.S. attempts to put more naval forces in the Black Sea at the time were rebuffed. When the foreign minister visited Georgia, a deputy undersecretary simultaneously visited the breakaway Abkhazia region.

But it would be misleading to see this as an East-West choice. Turkey has not retreated from involvement in European energy plans and signed the long-delayed agreement on the Nabucco Pipeline the same month as that on South Stream. It rapidly recognized the new state of Kosovo, which the EU and U.S. wanted and Russia did not. President Obama’s visit in April, 2009 produced a jump in favorable views of the U.S. but suspicions linger from years of being other countries’ instrument.

What we are seeing is a Turkish foreign policy that is viewing its neighborhood through Turkish lenses unrestrained by allies’ views or old paradigms. As such, Turkey’s search for its own path is accompanied by significant risks. In October the government signed protocols with Armenia pledging to open a border that has been closed for more than 15 years in support of Azerbaijan’s position in Nagorno-Karabakh. This has infuriated the Azerbaijani public and government, which has threatened Turkey’s privileged access to Azeri energy supplies. If Turkish-Armenian normalization goes ahead without progress on Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey will have traded longstanding and much needed ties with resource-rich Azerbaijan for a new uncertain level of involvement with landlocked, Russian-dominated and quite poor Armenia.

This risk is minor compared to those in the Middle East. American desires to isolate and pressure Iran run directly counter Turkey’s $10 billion annual trade with the Islamic Republic. The same prime minister who is coming to Washington has sharply criticized talk of sanctions and proclaimed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be “our friend.” A friend he may be, but if he persists with uranium enrichment and threatens others in the region, Turkey will seem an enabler.