Sunday, 4 September 2011

So Much For 'Zero' Problems

All of a sudden Turkey’s famous ‘Zero Problems’ diplomatic rhetoric has morphed into multiple problems on multiple fronts. In addition to mounting problems with Cyprus, Iraq and Iran Turkey has done something unique in simultaneously achieving hostile relations with both Syria and Israel. This is not easy

Turkey’s hyperactive reaction to the recently released United Nations report on the by-now infamous Mavi Marmara incident of June 2010 in which nine Turkish citizens were killed as they tried to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza shows Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s unique ability to make justified anger look slightly foolish and ultimately self-defeating. He demanded an apology from Israel, didn’t get one, and used the UN report to escalate the issue

In all their huffing and puffing about the incident the Turkish leaders ignored the fact that the report actually said the blockade was legal and that Israel had every right to defend itself from terrorist arms smuggling. The Turks didn’t want to hear this. What they latched onto was the report’s justified criticism of the clumsy reaction of the Israel forces as they boarded the ship in international waters and killed nine people in the process of taking over the ship.

Erdoğan seized on this part of the report and instantly ordered a down-grade of relations with Israel and stopped all military cooperation. On top of this the Turkish government made heavy-breathing noises about escorting its merchant ships (as if the Mavi Marmara was a normal merchant ship and not deliberately trying to provoke the reaction it got) with its navy. One wonders what the Turkish Navy will do when and if another attempt to break the blockade is made inside Israeli territorial waters. The fact that this heated rhetoric might reduce Turkey’s credibility on the world stage never seems to have occurred to him.

It’s important to remember that this virulent anti-Israel stance is not generated by any Turkish version of Islamic fundamentalism. It is more just Tayyip Erdoğan being Tayyip Erdoğan. He cannot stand dissent in any form, least of all when it comes from someone he detests like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No one in the Turkish government dares to disagree with Erdogan, and he naively expects the same obedience from leaders of other countries. In Erdoğan’s mind only one country is justified in having national interests, and that’s Turkey.

While all this was going on Turkey announced that it had agreed to install American anti-missile radar. The Islamic press in Turkey is working overtime to convince its gullible readers that this radar is really aimed at Israel, not Iran. Right. It’s doubtful that many Iranians share that particular twist of reality. The Turks were so nervous about installing this radar that they demanded any reference to NATO be removed in the documentation. Do they seriously think this is going to fool the Iranians?

Meanwhile, relations with Syria are not getting any better as the Syrian leader Basher Assad continues to defy Erdoğan’s calls for reform. Not too long ago Turkey held up its relations with Syria as a model of how neighbours should treat each other. Now Turkey is nervously hosting thousands of Syrian dissidents and is even considering joining international sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Then there is the PKK, the violent military wing of the Kurdish movement that continues to attack Turkish soldiers. After several bloody attacks Erdoğan’s patience – never in great supply anyway – ran out and he ordered air strikes against suspected PKK basis in northern Iraq. There is even talk in the hyper-nationalistic Turkish press of sending troops into Iraq to clean out the PKK bases. The fact that all this has been tried before to no avail does not seem to have occurred to anyone. I’m sure the Iraqis would love to see thousands of Turkish troops cross their border.

As if this wasn’t enough another Turkish minister made threatening noises about using the navy to block the attempts of the Republic of Cyprus to search for off-shore gas in its own territorial waters. He didn’t say exactly what international legal principle gives Turkey the right to interfere with exploration in another country’s internationally-recognized territorial waters. It would be interesting to learn just how the Turks would justify such a move that would be loudly condemned by the rest of the world, including Russia and the United States. Turkey could easily brush off criticism from the European Union (Cyprus is a member of the EU), but it might have more trouble with Russia and the US.

And, of course, there is the question of Cyprus itself. The Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognized and a member of the European Union. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey. Chances of re-unification of the island have never seemed less likely. The Greeks in the south ask themselves what would be gained by taking over the problems of their poorer Turkish neighbours, particularly with the stiff conditions that Erdoğan has demanded. Failing unification, what will Turkey do if, as likely, it fails to get any other country to join it in recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus? Will it formally annex Northern Cyprus, or will the uneasy status quo continue? No easy answers, and bombast doesn’t really solve much in the real world.

So much for ‘Zero Problems.’

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