Aspenia Online, Old Continent (The Aspen Institute) – Turkey and Europe: Who is Drifting Away?

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The original version of this analysis can be found on Aspenia Online, Old Continent

Last October, the European Commission presented its 2012 Progress Report for Turkey. Since 1998, the annual document provides an assessment of Turkey’s progress towards the fulfillment of the criteria set to obtain full European Union membership, highlighting both the country’s achievements and shortcomings. Although over the years, Turkey’s high political echelons seem to have grown accustomed to the mixed feedback received by the EU; yet this year’s document triggered a wave of strong criticism, as its outspoken and concerned depiction of the status of Turkey’s democracy offers an accurate snapshot of the current status of EU-Turkey relations.

Even in its introductory section, the 2012 Progress Report does in fact provide a no-frills analysis of where Turkey stands vis-à-vis the European Union and its democratic standards. Not only does it stress Turkey’s unilateral suspension of relations with the Council’s presidency because of Cyprus’ temporary EU presidency, but the report expresses “serious concerns with regard to Turkish statements and threats”. In fact, the Cyprus issue stands as the single, most critical question Turkey needs to face if it wants to see substantive progress towards EU membership. Since 2006, the negotiations on eight of the thirty-five chapters Turkey needs to align itself with have been suspended, because of the country’s firm refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus, and its continuing and solitary support of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Unless this changes, these eight chapters will remain suspended, even assuming a successful progress and, eventually, full compliance on all the remaining chapters.

Turkish domestic politics also has a primary role in the 2012 Progress Report, especially with regard to three issues: the trials for the Ergenekon case (an alleged criminal network with possible ties to Turkish ultra-nationalist figures), the Sledgehammer case (an alleged plan for a military coup d’état) and the Kurdish issue. As for the two trials, the European Commission expressed its concerns over “the rights of the defense, lengthy pre-trial detention and excessively long and catch-all indictments”. It also deplored the general lack of transparency in dealing with witnesses and in managing the evidence.

On the Kurdish issue, the Commission flagged the lack of any visible progress since 2009, when the current government launched an initiative called the “Democratic Opening”, which failed to produce any tangible result. The report highlights how this initiative has been shelved, and how, despite some degree of inter-party dialogue, the government still has to come up with an alternative strategy. In sum, the Commission stressed that there seem to be persisting flaws in Turkey’s management of the Ergenekon/Balyoz trials and no significant progress on the Kurdish issue. Its assessment seems even more negative when it comes to the broader record of Turkey’s human rights: the report highlighted the worsening conditions of freedom of expression and restrictions to freedom of the media.

The publication of the report triggered a salvo of criticism from Turkish officials, who attacked  the contents of the document and the allegedly biased stance of the European Commission. Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis claimed this year’s report openly aims at delaying the country’s progress towards full membership. In a note, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs labeled the document as “unbalanced”, claiming “Turkey’s constructive approach to the Cyprus issue is well-known”, stating that Ankara would “expect the EU to contribute to a solution rather than being a party to the Cyprus problem”. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan only added to it, unilaterally setting 2023 (Turkey’s 100th anniversary) as the ultimate deadline for EU membership, and arguing that Cyprus should not have been allowed to join the EU in 2004, defining that decision “a serious mistake, [a mistake that] continues with increasing effects”.

Fourteen years after the first Turkey Progress Report issued by the EU, both sides are progressively getting closer to laying their cards on the table. Several EU member states have become increasingly vocal in expressing their aversion towards Turkey’s potential admission to the European Union, and Turkey is well aware of the political weight such positions have over its chances to achieve that goal. At the same time, Turkey reached a point in which it seems definitively more eager to move alongside the European Union and reaffirm its ownership of domestic politics-related decision-making, rather than seeking full compliance with the EU’s rules. In today’s strongly polarized domestic political environment, chasing EU membership becomes a secondary issue, if not a liability – especially so as Turkish public opinion has lost any interest.

In economic terms, Turkey managed to pull through the global economic crisis with flying colors, averaging a GDP growth of +4.3% in the 2001-2011 period, and marking +9.16% and +8.49% in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Prime Minister Erdogan, emboldened by a staggering electoral result in 2011, when his party obtained 49.8% of the votes, knows he can count on solid political and electoral consensus. Investing such political capital in reform attempts that would alienate voters does not come as a viable option, especially at a time when Turkey is approaching a key political phase.

The current debate over the constitutional draft is namely accompanied by the AKP attempt to introduce a presidential system, which would allow Erdogan to stay in power for another mandate or two. The main partner of the horse trading involved in promoting this constitutional reform is the anti-EU Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The fact that Erdogan hinted at the possibility to reintroduce the death penalty, something which would please the electorate of the MHP, is revealing of the extent to which Turkish politics is currently tuned to domestic considerations, rather than to the increasingly remote possibility of obtaining EU membership.

Despite these domestic dynamics, the EU, in an unexpected intergovernmental twist, might change its stance on the ultimate membership perspective for Turkey. In particular, French president Francois Hollande is not as staunchly opposed to the idea as his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy,  and is discussing options aimed at not losing Turkey. It might be too late – but not necessarily, if Turkish domestic politics finds a new  equilibrium.

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Militant Leadership Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – An In-Depth Portrait of Murat Karayilan, Field Commander of the PKK

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The full version of this analysis can be found on Militant Leadership Monitor, Volume 3, Issue 11

Murat Karayilan joined the separatist terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) by the end of the 1970s. Right before the military coup that took place in September 1980 in Turkey, Karayilan was among the PKK militants that fled to Syria, where Hafez al-Assad’s regime offered shelter and support to the organization. By 1998, the PKK faced a major crisis: the Syrian regime stopped providing any direct support to the organization and expelled Abdullah Ocalan, its founder and leader, from his safe house in Damascus. In the following months, Turkish authorities captured and imprisoned Ocalan, who called for the PKK’s militants to withdraw from Turkey. In such a critical moment, Karayilan took over from the group’s imprisoned leader, and managed to reorganize the PKK. Since then, while Abdullah Ocalan has maintained a cult-like ideological leadership over PKK members and sympathizers, and despite the internal divisions that recently emerged within the organization, Karayilan has been commonly acknowledged as the organization’s operational leader. (…)

Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Deterrence and Diplomacy: Turkey and the Syrian Crisis

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The original version of this analysis can be found on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints

After the exchange of artillery fire along the Turkish-Syrian border, the Turkish government is weighing the possibility to keep carrying on with indirect retaliatory attacks, and to send its troops into Syria, should their presence along the Turkish-Syrian border fail in serving as a sufficient deterrent. Turkey’s main interest is to stay away from a full-fledged confrontation with the Syrian military, as the risks of such conflict have the potential to affect the credibility of both Turkey’s government and military establishments. This holds true especially as, after the attack that killed five people in the border town of Akcakale in early October, a new deliberate aggression against Turkish civilians could lead to a Turkish cross-border operation. The government has so far implemented a wide range of measures in order to mitigate the risk of Syrian government forces staging further attacks, from the relocation of two mechanized brigades along the Syrian border, to a widely publicized inspection of the troops’ readiness carried out by the Chief of General Staff and the Land Forces Commander. The Turkish parliament’s recent vote that authorized the government to launch cross-border military operations against Syria must also be seen as part of the wider attempt to deter Syria, rather than as a decision related to Turkey’s actual will to intervene militarily.

While deterrence is clearly a strategic priority, on the other hand it must be stressed that Turkey is already involved in a proxy war against the Assad regime, in the form of different means of support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed group mainly composed of Syrian military defectors and civilian volunteers. Whether Turkey (along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia) currently is, or has been, providing FSA fighters with weapons and training is still a moot point, but it is hard to believe the FSA relies exclusively on weapons seized from pro-Assad forces, and even assuming Turkey is not providing any equipment, the FSA always counted on Turkey as a safe haven. Turkey’s stance towards the FSA, and the decision, back in August 2011, to host and support Syria’s main coalition of opposition groups, the so-called Syrian National Council (SNC), leave little room for doubts as to whether Turkey has quietly entered into its own “proxy war light” against Syria. Assad’s response consisted in entrusting the security of parts of northeastern Syria to members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party that is considered an offshoot of the separatist terrorist group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has targeted Turkish military forces and civilians since the 1980s. The PKK, whose members are mainly based on the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, seems to have seized the opportunity and used the freedom of movement northern Syria had to offer to regroup and reorganize itself before launching a number of attacks against Turkish troops over the last year.

The PKK’s presence and involvement in the conflict is also a reason for Turkey’s reluctance to launch a main operation against Syrian forces. In an unusually ambitious and risky move, last summer the terrorist group tried to seize control of the Turkish district of Semdinli, located in the Hakkari province, along the border with Iran. The battle that ensued lasted about two weeks, after which the Turkish military eventually managed to regain control of the district. The battle for Semdinli, however, represented an important warning for the Turkish government, as it showed once more how the PKK has the ability to change its strategy according to the political situation of the moment, and how a strong military presence in the region is still required. At present, mobilized troops can roughly be divided between those deployed along the Syrian border, and those employed against the PKK in the rest of southeastern Turkey. The concentration of forces along the Syrian border required by a land forces-centered cross-border operation would work against short-term priorities, as it could tap military resources currently employed against the PKK, giving it the opportunity to stage other large-scale attacks in the rest of the Southeast.

Domestic considerations also play a role in limiting Turkey’s options in dealing with Syria, although it must be noted that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) can count on a solid parliamentary majority, good party cohesion, and widespread popular support. The main element to take into account is the legacy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy. After being appointed in 2009, Davutoglu launched the widely publicized approach of “zero problems with neighbors”. It was one of the conceptual pillars of a broader strategy, which was supposed to break away from Turkey’s traditional approach to foreign policy, which too often translated into an overly disengaged and supposedly neutral diplomatic stance toward the non-Western world. The concept of “zero problems with neighbors” attempted a more dynamic and proactive diplomatic engagement with Turkey’s “tough neighborhood”. The daring nature of Davutoglu’s strategy became apparent from the early stages of its implementation, when it became clear that the concept of maintaining good relations with other regional actors was implicitly taken as a means, rather than being considered the end to achieve. Syria became the Turkish foreign policy’s benchmark in showing this misconception – and then the biggest blow to the credibility of Davutoglu’s approach.

The Foreign Minister is now facing strong criticism from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, which accused him of following a reckless foreign policy, and of being responsible for having brought Turkey to the brink of war. CHP’s criticism seems directed at the fact that when the first signs of unrest appeared in Syria, Turkey was working on tightening its relations with Assad. In fact, only a few weeks before Syria experienced the first clashes in early 2011, Turkey’s deputy Chief of Staff was discussing military cooperation directly with Bashar al Assad, while in April 2011 the Turkish Foreign Ministry went as far as stigmatizing Syrian resistance to Assad’s alleged reformist thrust. While the process was apparently part of Davutoglu’s diplomatic grand strategy, the reality check eventually hit Turkey’s leadership in the spring of 2011, after the attacks against Syrian civilians intensified and the first groups of refugees started crossing the border. By that point, Turkey opted for a rather swift turnabout, and began supporting the creation and the development of the FSA and the SNC.

Since then, events have been pushing Ankara away from a purely diplomatic engagement and toward a dangerous military confrontation: as of now, deterrence remains the preferred path, albeit a narrow one.