Turkey's Foreign Affairs Blitz

While of minor importance to most Turks in comparison to their national football team's efficient victory over a weak Bosnia-Herzegovina side and the team's resulting accession to the Euro 2008 tournament, this past week also featured the Turkish government culminating an impressive flurry of foreign affairs activity. Although the Turkish national team has little chance under its coach, Fatih Terim, whose arrogance shadows his remarkable flair for dramatic dress-shirt and jacket collars, the government's latest efforts will surely give Milli Takım fans something to talk about beyond their team's early exit from the European football championship tournament this summer.

Turkey's latest foreign affairs campaign began almost a month ago. Motivated by Turkey's highly theatrical bluff to invade northern Iraq, Ankara hosted a rather awkward summit with Iraq's Prime Minister Al Maliki. This visit was followed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and his delegation of 11 planes. Erdoğan and Gül would then elegantly contrast the King's visit by hosting Israel's President Peres, in addition to Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Other than the usual series of forced handshakes in front of photographers, Turkey announced that it would lead the development of the Erez Industrial Zone in order to promote foreign investment to a destitute region prone to terrorist activities.

The pace did not slow during this past week. Prime Minister
Erdoğan inaugurated a gas pipeline between Turkey and Greece, a key component of the Nabucco pipeline project that transports Central Asian gas supplies to Central Europe. President Gül then participated in ground-breaking ceremonies for the new Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway, which has greater symbolic importance than practical potential due to the dilapidated nature the rail networks in all three countries. Turkey's efforts to pursue peace in Palestine were ultimately awarded with an invitation to the Annapolis Summit, which was a significant acknowledgment of Turkey's (otherwise weak) presence in Middle Eastern affairs.

In December, Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan will visit Greece to strengthen ties and promote Turkey's candidacy for the EU.

The Turkish media has been bubbling with suggestions of Turkey's emergence as a regional hegemon. These sentiments are typified by an article by Fatih University academic,
Gökhan Bacık:
Turkey seeks to take concrete actions in the Middle East to move regional politics from its current abstract content to a more practical and implemental level. This is also not surprising because Turkey has the ability and capacity to achieve this. The Erez Industrial Zone, which will be constructed under Turkey’s leadership in the West Bank, is exemplary...There is one simple fact behind Turkey’s ability to offer concrete options and opportunities: that Turkey is a historical actor that has many aspects in common with all the actors of the region. For this reason, its contribution to make the devised projects operational is vital. The operational opportunities of the other actors including the EU are limited.
There is no doubt that Turkey should be commended for its recent surge in foreign affairs activity related to the Middle East. The country must do a better job of defining its modern identity in foreign affairs and this past month has been beneficial to that end.

However, this observer suspects that the ultimate success of Turkey's efforts will be tied to the true motivations for its involvement. If Turkey seeks engagement in a front-page issue like Palestine to self-promote its status as the EU's future bridge between Europe and the Middle East, it is doubtful that they will accomplish anything of note. However, if Turkey believes that it is in its own self-interest
to develop such involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, with or without EU membership, then success will be much more likely. It is quite possible that Ankara is genuinely interested in forging stronger relations with Israel as a strategic advantage for the future.

However, Turkey has been making a big push of late to secure public declarations of support for its EU candidacy from multiple EU members. It is consequently the opinion of this observer that Turkey's most recent efforts, and particularly those involving Palestine, are nothing more than an attempt to pursue newspaper headlines in order to influence the opinions of Brussels Eurocrats. Gül's plan to establish an economic zone in order to address the relationship between unemployment and terrorism seems particularly inane given Turkey's own domestic problems with terrorism. Perhaps Turkey would grab even more European headlines if it first solved the unemployment problem in its volatile southeastern region.


Pipeline Politics: Israel

Details were released last week concerning an advanced proposal for a pipeline from Turkey to Israel, which would provide Israel with a new source of natural gas, oil, electricity and water. The project is a notable development in Turkish-Israeli relations during a month that has been highlighted by Shimon Perez's diplomatically significant visit to Ankara today.

(Please review either this article from Zaman for the Turkish perspective or this piece from the Jerusalem Post for an Israeli view of the proposed pipeline.)

If the proposed connection is indeed constructed, this project will represent an intriguing addition to Turkey's growing web of energy pipelines. As an estranged member of the Muslim Middle East, it has been relatively easy for secular Turkey to cultivate a relationship with financially capable and technologically advanced Israel. Perez's invitation to Ankara, which was officially offered by President Gül, reflects the degree to which Turkey's supposed "neo-Islamists" are distinct from other political movements in the Middle East. Perhaps to a lesser extent, the move underscores the historic mistrust that undermines Turkic-Arab solidarity whether in Anatolia, the Caucasus or in Muslim Central Asia.

While the deal appears to be mutually beneficial in terms of Turkey adding a new market to its energy transfer network and Israel diversifying its energy needs, this observer is skeptical of the greater oil export applications for the pipeline suggested in the Jerusalem Post article. In particular, it is unclear what basis there is for the assertion that it is "more practical" to deliver oil to Asian markets via Israel compared to overland routes.

First of all, this observer wonders what real advantages oil transited through Israel has over shipping it from the Turkish terminal at Ceyhan and onto Asia through the proven Suez Canal route. Since the oil will originate in either Iraq or the Caspian Sea, it furthermore seems rather odd to first move the oil west to Ceyhan and then south to Israel and finally onto a destination in Asia. It would make far more sense to ship the oil from Basra or from a port in Pakistan through the growing network of pipelines crossing that country.

It is ultimately of little concern to Turkey whether or not such dreams of exporting oil to the "Far East" via Israel are in fact realized. Of far greater importance is the considerable geopolitical leverage Turkey will acquire through this increased cooperation with Israel. If the proposed pipeline proves successful, Israel will ultimately come to depend on it for a relatively significant portion of its subsistence. Therefore, Turkey will possess a greater means to "lean on" Israel for certain types of military or diplomatic support that the US or Europe will otherwise be reluctant to provide.

Playing Poker and the Turkish Economy

The following article from Business Week offers a good review of most of the main themes of the Turkish economy and its prospects in the event of a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.

The article finishes on a positive note with a comment by the AKP appointed treasury minister and former Merrill Lynch economist, Mehmet Simsek. Simsek believes that the Turkish economy has become sufficiently strong to carry the economic burdens that will inevitably surface in the [unlikely] event Turkey were to invade northern Iraq. While this certainly makes good print for the Turkish electorate and foreign investors, this observer is skeptical that Turkey's economy is really as firmly situated as the treasury minister suggests.

It seems rather odd that the author of this Business Week article chooses to end with Simsek's comment given his tacit reference to the debilitating economic circle Turkey would enter if it were to invade Iraq. A Turkish invasion of Iraq would cause global oil prices to explode and the U.S. stock market would take a further dive as a result. In this scenario, the Turkish economy would likely be impacted in three main regards.

I.) A fall in the U.S. stock market would cause the lira to loose strength relative to the dollar as it always does when there is economic uncertainty in the U.S. The Turkish economy would therefore be forced to pay even more dearly for the higher oil prices for which the Turkish invasion was originally responsible.

II.) Higher oil prices would have to negatively affect the global economy at some point. While Turkish exports might become cheaper in an invasion scenario, there would most likely be fewer buyers for these products.

III.) Since when do foreign investors flock to countries at war? A "bumpy ride" would assume that the Turkish military could eventually destroy every last whimper of PKK support. The possibility of that happening is zero. Whereas the chance of bombs going off in Izmir in the aftermath of an invasion is tremendous. A war in the south-east would also discourage tourism and depress real estate values, which are largely supported by foreign investment. The country's deficit, which would be already exacerbated by higher oil costs, will also be widened by greater military spending.

Turkey's political leadership may pretend that their actual reason for delaying the Turkish invasion of northern Iraq was in order to extract concessions and greater support from the U.S. There is no doubt that the Turkish government has played a solid hand of poker with its string of ultimatums. However, it is the opinion of this observer that the country's leadership is privately aware that the economy cannot overcome a war and the effects of its aftermath. The economy has certainly come a long way in less than a decade, but it has not reached a point where its fundamentals are truly sound.


Economic Take: The Kurdish Issue

Traveling through the southeastern regions of Turkey can be a bittersweet experience. Not only is the region's geography breathtaking at times, but so is the hospitality and incredible warmth of its people. Unfortunately, the living standard of most of the region's ethnic-Kurdish population is tragically low. While the historic economic situation of this part of Turkey has never been as robust as in the country's littoral areas, the Turkish military's reaction to the Kurdish uprising during the early 1990s was responsible for considerable regression.

Turks are understandably frustrated when they discuss the conditions of their country's southeastern region. They point to the preponderance of Kurdish families with seven, eight or more children and question why they should have such large families if they do not possess the financial means for their support.

It is very possible that there exists a degree of irresponsibility or irrationality in the family planning logic of Kurds living in southeastern Turkey. However, during the travels of this observer through places like Diyarbakı
r, Van and Urfa, it was apparent that there also exists a statistical rationale for having so many children. More offspring, and boys in particular, increase the likelihood that one of those children will be able to financially support the family one day. For an economy in which there are very few 9am-5pm jobs offering pensions, the family unit becomes much more important. This contrasts with urban centers, where people can literally afford to be self-focused. The reality presented is of course not exclusive to Turkey. In fact, it is relevant to many other parts of the world, including in my own country.

The Turkish economist,
Mustafa Sönmez, has recently added a great deal of refreshing perspective to these issues as they relate to Turkey. His report entitled, "Increased Poverty in the East and Southeast and Solutions: Peace", is reviewed in the following Today's Zaman article. The conclusions of Mr. Sönmez are not particularly earth-shattering. Nonetheless, they highlight the fact that activity and discussion in Turkey of economic development in the southeast has been relatively superficial to date.

Turks will frequently reference the Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), or Southeastern Anatolian Project, as proof of the country's genuine conviction to develop the region. Ideally, this grandiose public-works project will do just that by harnessing the regions (rapidly depleting) water resources through a series of hydroelectric dams and irrigation systems. However, the execution of the GAP project has been slow and it appears that its funding has not been consistently supported by the country's politicians. In addition, this observer wonders whether the Turkish government enjoys playing God with the water supplies of its southern neighbors more than helping its Kurdish citizens.

Traveling through the southeastern regions of Turkey can be a bittersweet experience. Not only is the region's geography breathtaking at times, but so is the hospitality and incredible warmth of its people. Unfortunately, the living standard of most of the region's ethnic-Kurdish population is tragically low. While the historic economic situation of this part of Turkey has never been as robust as in the country's littoral areas, the Turkish military's reaction to the Kurdish uprising during the early 1990s was responsible for considerable regression.

It is often noted that PKK activity in the region has slowed the project's rate of completion. While the PKK is often a legitimate scapegoat in Turkey, it is truly not a viable excuse for those citizens, who fear the tide of terrorism. As NATO peacekeepers in Afghanistan or US soldiers in Iraq can tell you, people of any ideology are less likely to start shooting if they have reliable electricity and running water.