Monday, September 19, 2011

A wild Turkey

Turkey under Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan has gone from being a staunch NATO ally and testimony as to the ability of a Muslim country to govern itself rationally (if with the occasional help of the military) to a semi-Islamist bull charging through the Middle East china shop after drinking several gallons of double espresso.  David Warren calls Erdogan, "The man who could trigger a world war":
The "vision" of this politician, which he can articulate charismatically, is to combine efficient, basically free-market economic management, with a puritanized version of the religious ideals of the old Ottoman Caliphate. (Gentle reader may recall that I am allergic to visionary and charismatic politicians, who operate on the body politic like a dangerous drug.)

Erdogan's vision has turned outward. His strategy has been to seek better economic integration with the West, while making new political alliances with the East - most notably with Iran. He now presents Turkey as the champion of "mainstream" Sunni Islamism, while trying to square the circle with Persian Shia Islamism. This could still come to grief over Syria, where the Turks want Iran's man, Assad, overthrown, and the Muslim Brotherhood brought into a new Syrian government.
The catalyst would be -- what else? -- Israel:
It was he who sent the "peace flotilla" to challenge Israel's right to blockade Gaza (recognized under international law and explicitly by the U.N.). He made the inevitable violent result of that adventure into an anti-Israeli cause célèbre. He has now announced that the next peace flotilla will be accompanied by the Turkish navy.
This will put Israel in the position of either surrendering its right to defend itself, or firing on Turkish naval vessels. There is no way to overstate the gravity of this: Erdogan is manoeuvring to create a casus belli.
He has made himself the effective diplomatic sponsor for the Palestinian declaration of statehood next week - from which much violence will follow. Every Palestinian who dies, trying to kill a Jew, will be hailed as a "martyr," with compensation and apologies demanded.
He has been playing Egyptian politics, by adding to the rhetorical fuel that propelled an Islamist mob into the Israeli embassy in Cairo last Friday. He is himself in Cairo, this week, on a mission to harness grievances against Israel, in the very fluid circumstances of the "Arab Spring." For action against this common enemy is the one thing that can unite all disparate Arab factions - potentially under Turkish leadership.
The West is just watching, while Erdogan creates pretexts for another Middle Eastern war: one in which Israel may be pitted not only against the neighbouring states of the old Arab League, but also Turkey, and Iran, and Hamas, and Hezbollah.
This is what is called an "existential threat" to Israel, unfolding in live time. It could leave the West with a choice between defending Israel, and permitting another Holocaust. In other words, we are staring at the trigger for a genuine world war. With Recip Erdogan's twitching finger on it.
Jonathan Spyer is even more blunt:
The weakening of both the U.S.- and Iranian-led regional alliances has left a power vacuum into which Erdogan’s Turkey is now trying to step. Ankara used to pride itself on its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Today, under the leadership of the Islamist AKP, Turkey is simultaneously picking fights with a long array of enemies, while trying to propose itself as a candidate for the leadership of the region.
Thus, Ankara is playing the key role behind the scenes in aiding and organizing the Sunni opposition in Syria. It has in recent days been enthusiastically bombing Kurdish targets in northern Iraq (with the loss of a number of civilian lives). It is threatening Cyprus against beginning to drill for gas in its own territorial waters.
The clash with Israel, however, forms the centerpiece. This is not simply another item on the list of disputes. Opposition to the Jewish state remains the commanding political passion for millions across the Arabic-speaking and broader Muslim world. Turkey has for the last year been engaged in launching a bid for the ownership of the Palestinian cause, knowing it represents the path to popularity in the eyes of the region’s masses, and therefore influence over their rulers.
Turkey’s move toward enmity with Israel is also encapsulated in the image of a ship heading toward Israeli waters. This ship, the Mavi Marmara, carried Islamist activists of the IHH organization, as part of the naval flotilla to Hamas-controlled Gaza, in May 2010. Israel’s killing of nine of them, as they resisted the boarding of their ship, was the moment when the die was cast. Since then, Israel’s relationship with Turkey has been in free fall.
Events are moving fast. The Turkish prime minister was in recent days met by wildly enthusiastic crowds in chaotic Egypt. They chanted “Erdogan! Erdogan! A real Muslim and not a coward,” named him “the new Salah al-Din,” and called for joint Turkish and Egyptian action to end the naval blockade on Gaza.
The media is full of rumors that three Turkish frigates are set to be dispatched to the Mediterranean. Some unconfirmed reports even suggest that they will be authorized to clash with Israeli vessels if aid ships are intercepted in international waters.
We have come a long way from Reliant Mermaid, via the Mavi Marmara, to the prospect of Israeli-Turkish naval clashes. With the region in flux, a new Turkey is looking eastwards. Israel will do all it can to repair relations, but will stand in the defense of its vital interests — as it did in May 2010, and as it has always done.
I'm curious as to how long Erdogan is seen as the new Saladin.  Erdogan is not Arab, but Turk, and the Arabs have long, bitter memories of Ottoman dominance of the Middle East.

But David Goldman points out that Erdogan's Turkey may not be strong enough on its own to push anyone around and develop its own hegemony:
Now that Turkey has threatened Europe with a “freeze in relations” if Cyprus (as planned) assumes the presidency of the European Union in 2012, it must seem to Erdogan that everyone is driving in the wrong direction. Earlier this month Turkey declared “null and void” the United Nations’ Palmer Commission report, which supported Israel’s right to enforce a blockade against Gaza. That was a minor gaffe, because United Nations dicta have the authority of revelation to the liberal media, except, of course, when they support Israel. It’s one thing for Turkey to freeze relations with Israel — we take it for granted these days that everybody hates Israel — but the Europeans? Everybody likes the Europeans, who have replaced their defense ministries with an answering machine that says, “We surrender.” And over Cyprus? Even Russia, Turkey’s key trading partner and the host for millions of Turkish guest workers, is aghast at Erdogan’s tantrum. Russia has strong ties to Cyprus.
The Arab world is in free fall. Leave aside Syria, whose regime continues to massacre its own people, and miserable Yemen, and post-civil war Libya. Egypt is dying. Erdogan’s “triumphal” appearance in Egypt served as a welcome distraction to Egyptians — welcome, because what they think about most of the time is disheartening. What’s on the mind of the Egyptian people these days? According to the Arab-language local media, it’s finding enough calories to get through the day.
Once again, the Pachyderm in the Room, as my beloved Dr. Temperance Brennan would say, is food:
Egypt imports half its caloric consumption, the price of its staple wheat remains at an all-time high, and most Egyptians can’t afford to buy it. The government subsidizes bread, but according to the Egyptian news site Youm7 (“The Seventh Day”), the country now faces “an escalating crisis in subsidized flour.” Packages of subsidized flour are not reaching the intended recipients, in part because the Solidarity Ministry hasn’t provided the promised shipments to stores, and in part because subsidized flour and bread are diverted to the black market. A small loaf of government-issue bread costs 5 piasters, or less than one U.S. cent, but it can’t be found in many areas, as the Solidarity Ministry, provincial government, and bakers trade accusations of responsibility for supply problems. Poor Egyptians get ration cards, but flour often is not available to card-holders. Rice, a substitute for wheat, also is in short supply, and the price has risen recently to 5.5 Egyptian pounds per kilo from 3.75 pounds.
Most Egyptians barely eat enough to keep body and soul together, and many are hungry. That is about to get much, much worse: The country is short about $20 billion a year. The central bank reports that the country’s current account deficit in the fiscal year ended July 1 swung from a $3.4 billion surplus in the fiscal year ended July 2010 to a deficit of $9.2 billion in the fiscal year ended July 2011. Almost all of the shift into red ink occurred since February, suggesting an annualized deficit of around $20 billion. Egypt’s reserves fell about $11 billion since the uprising began in February. Who’s going to cough up that kind of money? Not Turkey [...]

Not the U.S. Congress, for that matter, nor the hard-pressed Europeans, who have their own problems, nor the Saudis, who can be counted on for a few billion here and there, but not $20 billion a year. I reiterate: Egypt will make Somalia look like a picnic.
Goldman has made this point about Egypt before. But Turkey may have another angle, natural gas deposits:
On September 8, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Aljazeera that his government had taken steps to prevent Israel from unilaterally exploiting natural resources in the Mediterranean Sea. "Israel has begun to declare that it has the right to act in exclusive economic areas in the Mediterranean," he stated, apparently citing Israeli plans to tap newly discovered offshore gas reserves. Israel "will not be the owner of this right," he warned.
In other remarks, Erdogan declared that the Turkish navy would protect future aid ships bound for Gaza in order to prevent a repetition of the 2010 flotilla incident, in which Israeli commandos killed nine activists attempting to break the blockade. These comments came just days after the release of a UN report condemning the deaths but justifying Israel's blockade -- a judgment that prompted Ankara to drastically reduce diplomatic relations between the two countries and freeze their substantial military cooperation and trade.
By September 9, both governments seemed to be stepping back from a confrontation over any future humanitarian convoy. One Turkish official reportedly said that Erdogan had been "misquoted" and taken "out of context," while Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office countered a media report attributed to the office of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman about potentially supporting the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in its conflict with Turkey. Even so, the potentially more problematic issue of offshore natural gas rights looms large.
Which brings us back to another intractible Middle East issue mentioned earlier, Cyprus:
Neighboring Egypt is already a key player in the international natural gas market, while Lebanon and Cyprus are considered geologically likely to have significant offshore reserves of their own. The first exploratory drilling off Cyprus is set to begin next month -- a development that could result in even more threatening rhetoric from Ankara.
Although Erdogan's September 8 comments conflated the gas and Gaza blockade issues, the real key to understanding Turkey's current squabbles with Israel is the unresolved dispute over Cyprus. In the 1960s and 1970s, tensions between the island's Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking communities -- backed, respectively, by Athens and Ankara -- often seemed a greater danger to regional peace than differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to the island to support the Turkish Cypriot community and block any union between the majority Greek Cypriots and Greece, the island has been divided, with UN forces interposed between the two sides.
Frequent attempts at reconciliation have failed. With Ankara's backing, Turkish Cypriots have established the notionally independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is bolstered by the presence of more than 30,000 Turkish soldiers. Yet no country other than Turkey has recognized the TRNC -- a fact that continues to infuriate Ankara. Meanwhile, the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus has become a member of the European Union and is considered to represent the entire island.
The recent discoveries of natural gas under the eastern Mediterranean seabed have seemingly prompted Ankara to renew its diplomatic campaign on behalf of Turkish Cypriots. Erdogan reportedly stated last week: "Turkey, as a guarantor of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, has taken steps in the area [of the offshore resources], and it will decisively pursue its right to monitor international waters in the east Mediterranean." Such a policy could put Turkey at odds with all the littoral governments of the area, from the Republic of Cyprus to Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria:

Read the whole fascinating story, which suggests that Turkey could be picking fights with just about all of its Middle East neighbors.  Not good fireign policy, especially if Goldman's outlook for Turkey is accurate:
If the Obama administration and the New York Times are pulling their hair out over the disintegration of Arab society, consider how Tayyip Erdogan must feel. His economic boom is about to come to a crashing end, and his country is doomed demographically to split up when Kurds outnumber Turks not long from now, as I argued here recently. And his ambitions for Turkish hegemony in the Muslim world have run directly into an existential crisis that is long past solution. That would make anyone crazy. Don’t think of the Turkish leader as an outpatient who lost his meds. In the spirit of political correctness, we might call him “existentially challenged. ”
It would be easy to overestimate just how dangerous Erdogan might become. The estimable David Warren calls him “the man who could trigger a world war.” That seems alarmist. Whom is Erdogan going to fight? Any military provocation would lead to a further collapse of the Turkish currency, and a deep setback for the Turkish economy.
The future of the Middle East -- and perhaps the world -- is on a knife edge.

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