Opinion: Explaining Turkey’s high-risk activism

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.

Probably no change of direction has been as dramatic as Turkey’s courting of good relations with its Arab neighbors, Iraq and Syria, combined with its simultaneous slaps at Israel, a long time ally. An emotional outburst by Prime Minister Erdogan at Davos in January was followed by visceral criticism of Israeli action in Gaza and, most recently, cancelling of Israeli participation in the “Anatolian Eagle” military exercises. The gains are substantial for Turkey’s image among Arab states and with Iran.

But the risks are great. Ankara risks losing the valuable military and technological cooperation it had enjoyed with Israel, not to mention the $300 million annually derived from Israeli visitors — some 500,000 last year. It has raised great suspicions among Americans concerned about the fate of Israel and forfeited its role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East — a role that almost succeeded in creating direct Israeli-Syrian talks. Instead, Turkey now has a “strategic partnership” with Syria, another “trade” that may bring it closer to a much poorer, weaker and more isolated country.

More broadly, virtually all of the Turkish moves strengthen the hand of Russia in the region, already boosted by its actions in Georgia. Turkish-Azeri tension over the Armenian overture, for example, rebound to Russia’s advantage, as the major gas supplier to Turkey and alternative market for Azerbaijan.

Why would Turkey pursue such policies, especially given recent failed gambles? In 2004 it reversed decades-long policy to back an EU-brokered settlement in Cyprus. The result? Greek-Cypriots rejected the plan, northern Cyprus is still isolated and Cyprus has been admitted to the EU while its own prospects languish.

Domestically, Turkish policies resonate positively with an important part of the public. Changes in Turkey in the last decade have brought to influence more conservative and more Islamic actors from Anatolia and eastern Turkey, a newly empowered elite no longer as interested in getting the West’s approval. Ironically, the very democratization that the West has pushed has given this group more influence over foreign policy.

Internationally, Turkey is asserting — or reasserting — itself in a region that was once under its sway. This is not a revival of the Ottoman Empire, but a move to fill the vacuum created by missing U.S. influence in the Middle East and a weak, uncoordinated European response to Russia in the Black Sea. Given history and the country’s geostrategic position, it seems to the Erdogan government both natural and obligatory to fill this vacuum. The aim is to create a less turbulent region and a more secure energy supply while satisfying an important domestic constituency. But internationally there is another constituency, here in Washington, that needs some reassuring.

Ronald H. Linden is a Senior Fellow of the Transatlantic Academy based at the German Marshall Fund in Washington D.C.