BY LAURENT LEYLEKIAN
The dramatic deterioration of the Turkish-Israeli alliance after the publication of the UN report on the flotilla incident displays some quite interesting features both from an Armenian standpoint and from a more comprehensive one. We are not dealing here with Turkey’s usual blackmail policy toward anyone who dares to thwart its will but with the difference between Armenia and Israel regarding these blackmails and with the present prospect of Turkey’s foreign policy.
Yet, from a geopolitical point of view, Israel and Armenia seem to share some common characteristics: they are small countries with few natural resources and with reduced populations located in a globally hostile and complex environment. Accordingly, they are forced to stand by global players if not superpowers. In this comprehensive framework, Armenia had to put aside the genocide issue, to downplay its reluctance toward Turkey and was pushed by a conjunction of interests to embark upon a gesture of goodwill which led to the so-called “football diplomacy” and eventually to the protocol agreement signed in October 2009 under the patronage of usual worldwide overlords.
Starting from a far different history, Israel used to consider Turkey as a factor of moderation, secularity and stability in the Muslim world. This fantasy was supported by the strong Turkish communication policy which permanently recalled advantageous events such as its welcome of fleeing European Jews during WWII1 while it kept silent about opposite signals, for instance how it looted and penned its domestic Jews and Armenians in concentration camps during the same period under the notorious Varlık Vergisi regime2. Therefore, starting from mere commercial agreements, Israel progressively reached tactical and military agreements which finally led to a strategic partnership, mainly directed toward their supposed common foes, Iran and Syria. Obviously, this partnership was consolidated under the favorable aegis of the United States from the 90s to the 2000s.
For both Armenia and Israel however, the honeymoon period has come to an end. Regarding Armenia, the process was quite mild: using various alibis – such as the opposition of the CHP and other nationalistic factions, the Artsakh3 conflict with Azerbaijan – the Turkish Parliament refused to ratify the protocols with Armenia. These protocols were eventually removed from the agenda of the Parliament, thus ending this controversial episode. In order to distract the International community from this setback, but also to control the possible damage of some recent US Court decisions about the looted Armenian assets4, the Turkish government spread around that it will return a minor fraction of these assets5 to its religious minorities, a decision that was critically assessed by the supposed heirs of this restitution6.
Regarding Israel, the visible beginning of the end of the “strategic partnership” may be dated back to the famous Davos summit, in January 2009, when Recep Erdogan publicly insulted Shimon Peres, calling him a child-murderer in reference to the Palestinian conflict. The situation clearly aggravated in May 2010 when Israel blocked the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship, allegedly sent to deliver some “humanitarian” aid to the Gaza strip but actually operated by Turkish Islamists and maybe by their secret services too. In this operation, Israeli forces injudiciously killed nine Turkish citizens, triggering Turkey’s hysteria. Since then, the Turkish triumvirate – Gül, Erdogan, Davutoglu – endlessly demands apologies from Israel, something that Tel-Aviv cannot and will not accept. These last days, the UN report on the Mavi Marmara incident just strengthened Turkey’s intransigence and Ankara eventually expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut any political, military or commercial relations with the Jewish State. Some Israeli passengers transiting by Istanbul were even briefly retained and Turkey even alluded to a possible military intervention when it mentioned that its future “humanitarian” ships toward Gaza would be escorted by some military vessels.
Armenia forced to play politics, not Israel
In this succession of events both the form and the substance are interesting. Let us start with the form: Actually, a first point which is worth examining is the comparative responses of Armenia and Israel when faced with the very same and authentic Turkish brutality and arrogance. The contrast between the Armenian moderation and the Israeli anger is really striking. Since the signature of the protocols Armenia, upon which the agreement had been forced, has played it quite cleverly, using both political and juridical arguments. On the one hand, it constantly said that it would place the protocols on the Parliament’s agenda as soon as they were ratified by Turkey. On the other hand, the Armenian government seized the Constitutional Court which confirmed the protocols’ validity but which denied any strong impact of these protocols on both the Artsakh conflict and the Armenia-Turkey border7. The apparent Armenian goodwill put the pressure from the International community on Turkey and Ankara finally but discretely dismissed the protocols which were once signed in style.
The situation is clearly different for Israel on which Ankara’s demands for apologies and compensation progressively became an ultimatum. Recently, Ahmet Davutoglu even dared to reject the US mediation in this dispute. Facing this intransigence, Netanyahu’s government didn’t try at all to mitigate its position or to play smart politics. It just launched communication campaigns, mainly toward the United States’ decision-makers, through the pro-Israeli Medias and its usual AIPAC-like lobbies. In an unprecedented move, Avigdor Liebermann, the hardliner Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs even mentioned that its country could help the passage of the Armenian Genocide resolution in the US Senate and could even “be supporting Armenia in its dispute with Turkey over control of Mount Ararat”, an alleged demand that official Armenia itself has refused to formulate up to now.
Military capability determines political attitude
Clearly, the Israeli stance is backed by its actual military capability and its technological advance, even more than by its strong leverage on the US policy. Its nuclear weapons aside, Israel has developed an impressive military industry which has produced high-tech weapons and equipped even some Western powers. With companies such as Elbit, TAT Technologies, IWI or IMI, Israel is able to provide its army with light weapons but also with Merkavas tanks, F-16-like aircrafts or even advanced missiles or drones. Thanks to its electronic industries, it is also regularly selected to reengineer military equipments, including in Arabic countries or … in Turkey. Israel is now the fourth international weapons provider and its exports amounted to 5.7 billion dollars in 2007. Obviously this capability is built upon a strong scientific community which places the country at the topmost level of relevant rankings8. In this context, an unlikely clash in the Eastern Mediterranean See between Israel and Turkish vessels would probably prove disastrous for the latter, providing the fact that some of the Turkish warfare technologies were bought in Israel.
In contrast, Armenia which shares a ground border with Turkey is far from having the same assets as Israel. Since the fall of the USSR, Armenia started a reconversion of its economy which was then mainly based on heavy industry. If Yerevan made some barely disputable choices – such as reviving agriculture – it largely neglected its scientific and technological potential to base its growth on real estate construction and on trade. As a result, Armenia’s military and technological capability is quite substantial but strongly dependent on its big Russian supplier, not to mention the Russian units which protect the Armenia-Turkey border. The recent announcement by Armenia than it operates S-300 missile9 and that it could even purchase S-400 missiles exemplifies this dependence10. Therefore, though Israel also depends on foreign suppliers for its security, Armenia is by far more dependent and accordingly needs to play politics more than the Jewish State. However, this constraint can turn out to be an advantage: with its quite smart position, Armenia succeeded to appear as the Good and to hinder Turkey’s regional schemes. On the contrary, Israel with all its military assets is now seen as the Villain by most of the players, however Ugly Armenia’ and Israel’ common foe – Turkey – may seem.
Erratic Turkey partly reflects its internal struggle
Actually, if the goal pursued by Turkey might have been rather clear when the AKP first took over the power, the discrepancies within the Turkish government gradually made it quite puzzling. Since Ahmet Davutoglu started shaping his country’s foreign policy, he has claimed to implement a neo-Ottoman vision. Basically, this renewed imperialism considers that any area that was once encompassed by the Ottoman Empire must “enjoy” a privileged relationship with Turkey11. Therefore, Turkey tried to appease the problems it has with most of its neighbors – the tentative improvement of its relation with Armenia having been a kind of failed litmus test – and even to intervene as an “honest broker” aiming at solving regional disputes through its supposed Ottoman-old regional knowledge. Turkey actually and successively – if not successfully – imagined mediating Israel and the Palestinian authority, Israel and Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan or even Lybia and the West.
However, Islamism is another deep trend of the new Turkish regime when compared to the old Kemalist elite. In this regard, since 2002, the AKP government has progressively radicalized its positions. If it tried to put forward the misleading wording of “moderate Islamism” at the beginning, it increasingly proved to be more and more radical, a tendency that was fostered both by its failure to access to the EU and by the intrinsic social evolution of Turkey’s population, two processes that fed each other. Thus the Davos episode, the Mavi Marmara operation, the strengthening of its relation with the Hamas or, more globally, Israeli-bashing are policies implemented by Erdogan both to change Turkey’s image in the predominantly-Muslim Arabic world and to please its home constituency. In this respect, the recent advocacy by Mahmud Abbas for the recognition of the Palestinian State by the UN is one of the landmarks targeted by this policy and actually, Erdogan is seen as a heroic and charismatic leader by a large fraction of the Arabic peoples.
Clearly, both visions stem from the usual strong Turkish nationalism, as was the case for Kemalism, and they are both supported by Turkey’s impressive economic record however fragile the ground of this economic growth may be12. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s and Davutoglu’s Ottoman daydreams for Turkey are probably quite different: the former – sometime nicknamed the Caliph of Istanbul or the Padishah – probably imagines a kind of Islamic empire centered on and ruled by Turkey whereas the latter rather thinks of Turkey as a mini-superpower with its feudal influence zone13.
Many problems with all neighbors
The net result of these competing visions is the apparent inconsistency of Turkey’s foreign policy, and more than this supposed inconsistency, its limits. From 2002 to now, Turkey successively turned its attention to the EU, Russia and Eurasia in the aftermath of the Georgian conflict and to the Middle East since the Davos row.
Actually, as relations with the West were cooling down because of the EU prospect’s fading away and of the renewed Islamic trend of its society, Turkey embarked upon a kind of energetic flirt with Russia before realizing that, while Moscow could clearly take advantage from this momentum, it was mainly a trap regarding its own emancipation dream: Ankara depends already on Russia for most of its gas and for a sizeable part of its oil. Moreover, incentives of a role in South Caucasus or of a path through Central Asia though South Caucasus appeared to be mainly illusive given the Russian control on these areas.
Therefore, Turkey started to heat up its relationships with the Muslim world, notably with Syria, with the Hamas and with their common suzerain Iran with which it boosted its economic exchanges and, as a side effect, a renewed collaboration against PKK/PJAK14. The degradation of its “strategic partnership” with Israel naturally comes along with this new orientation. However, the initial support given to Gaddafi and Assad, respectively in Libya and Syria, the subsequent about-faces in these two countries after a very opportunistic feeling of wind change, just cast a serious shadow on the Turkish commitment toward the Islamic-tinted revolutions. Some other signals seem to indicate that the so-called realignment of Turkey may just be a posture: for instance Ankara’s recent agreement to host anti-missile radars on the eastern part of its territory, i.e. directly against Iran, strongly displeased Tehran but also Moscow. Likewise Erdogan’s recent speech in Cairo was quite ambiguous as, on the one hand, he implicitly reiterated his threats against Israel and his Islamist orientation, mentioning “when we look at the region, we will find that Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey are the most important countries. For this reason, there has to be some sort of cooperation among these nations”; but on the other hand, he recommended “a secular constitution for Egypt”, saying “do not fear secularism because it does not mean being an enemy of religion. I hope the new regime in Egypt will be secular. I hope that after these remarks of mine the way the Egyptian people look at secularism will change”.
Those who admire Erdogan will probably term this borderline posture as clever whereas the others will find it confusing. Whatever its intent, the actual outcome of this diplomacy is the increased mistrust with which various players – from the US to the Hamas, from Iran to the EU and Russia – are now considering Turkey. The mere fact that Davutoglu had recently to hammer home that the “no problem with neighbors” policy is successful demonstrates how dubious this affirmation is15.
Turkey part of the problem, not of the solution
However, if we put aside both Erdogan’s gesticulations and the apparent contradictions of Ankara’s diplomacy, we must recognize that Turkey succeeded in reaching the “strategic depth” aimed by Davutoglu.
His country is no more under US dominance and it is actually uncontrolled and uncontrollable. As a crazy weathercock, this Turkey could be equally a threat for Iran, for Israel, for Syria, for Armenia and for Europe, as shown by the recent menaces sent to Cyprus over the Mediterranean drills. Therefore, in this inflammable region, Western leaders would be well-advised to avoid conferring any mediation role to Turkey because it could be both ineffective – Turkey is not necessarily seen anymore as a reliable partner by other Muslim countries – and dangerous as it would benefit only to the reinforcement of this changeable country.
By contrast, we should work to directly appease the Middle-East by enforcing a true democratization in Arabic countries and, eventually, by endowing Palestinians with a true State whatever Israel’s apprehension. After all, Turkey’s regional strength mainly results from the absence of a true democratic Arab leadership and from the unacceptable nature of the current Iranian regime. And the way Turkey is challenging the West is bolder, deeper and smarter than Iran’s one. In the event of Ahmadinejad’s fall, the West could even advantageously envisage swapping Iran and Turkey in its strategic game. This may sound like science-fiction. It is not: A few years ago, Ralph Peters, a retired US officer close to the Intelligence services, published an article entitled “Blood borders: How a better Middle East would look.” In this much commented paper, he made a hypothetical redrawing of the Middle-East’s boundaries. With no surprise, he granted Palestine and the Kurds with a State and he partially granted back Armenia with its Western territories thus limiting Turkey’s harmful influence. Apparently, from now on, we must make a habit of not thinking of Turkey in terms of solution but in terms of problems.
Laurent Leylekian is the former Director of the European Armenian Federation and an independent analyst on Eurotopie
1. A fact which is now seriously questioned by Turkish scholars. See for instance Ayse Hür in Taraf, December 2007, “Türk Schindleri Efsaneleri” (in Turkish, “The Turkish Schindlers Myth”). Another strong opposite signal never mentioned by Turkey’s communication policy is the strong anti-Semitic mood of its population. Thus, Mein Kampf is known to have been a bestseller for years. It is sold in cheap paperback editions.
2. It is a remarkable evidence of continuity that the deportees were sent to Aşkale (Armenian plateau), i.e. exactly where the Armenian intellectuals had been sent and killed at the beginning of the Armenian Genocide 27 years earlier.
3. Formerly termed Nagorno-Karabakh under the Soviet period.
4. In December 2010, Armenian Americans filed a suit against two Turkish banks and the Republic of Turkey for the alleged seizure of their ancestors’ properties, located on the present US military base of Incirlik. After having been noticed twice, including through the US Department of State, Turkey and the banks refused the service of the lawsuit (06/20/2011). They were thus given granted two months by the Court to answer the complaint, but they did not, risking to be ruled against it in absentia. The Court granted them an extension to September 19 to prepare for court proceedings and they finally replied these last days.
5. Only those stolen after 1936, i.e. during the Varlık Vergisi period, are encompassed by this measure. The gigantic spoliation during the Genocide and before is of course not addressed by this decision.
6. Aram I, the Armenian Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia issued a critical open letter to Erdogan. Check Armenian Weekly.
7. For a more detailed analysis, check “Constitutional Court Limits Protocols’ Damage to Armenian National Interests,” Harut Sassounian, Asbarez, January 2010.
8. The Scientific Wealth of Nations
9. Armenia confirms possession of S-300 missiles, Trdefence.com, December 2010.
10. An opinion which is altered neither by the notable shot down of an Azeri drone by the Armenian forces in Artsakh, neither by the marginal display of first-ever Armenia-made drones during the military parade that came with the 20th anniversary of independence.
11. A “privilege” which is variously felt by its recipients. According to cable ANKARA 00000087 005 OF 006 disclosed by Wikileaks, Ambassador Jeffrey noted that “Finally, not all of the ex-Ottomans look with fondness on their past under the Pashas, or yearn for Turkey’s return”. For a quite comprehensive analysis of the first cables series disclosed by Wikileaks on Turkey, read (in French) “les fuites américaines mouillent la Turquie”, Eurotopie, January 2011.
12. The fundamentals of Turkey’s economy are variously appraised. See for instance “Instant obsolescence of the Turkish model”, Asia Times, August 2011.
13. Not to speak about the difference of personality. Read “les fuites américaines mouillent la Turquie”, Eurotopie, 2011.
14. A position than has just been restated by Turkey despite the recent cold with Iran. Read “Erdogan Reiterates Turkey-Iran Cooperation in War on Terrorism”, Fars News Agency, 09/27/2011.
15. “Turkey’s Davutoğlu says zero problems foreign policy successful”, Today’s Zaman, 09/18/2011.