Turkey In Between: Syria-Israel & Georgia-Russia

Adding to its much coveted resume as "Europe's bridge to the Middle East", Turkey has now been officially recognized as the facilitator of talks between Israel and Syria. Whether or not the Israeli media agrees with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's motivations for publicizing the existence of talks, Turkey can at least shine in the warm spotlight of international recognition for a few weeks.

While most Turkish diplomatic activity in the Arab Middle East other than with Iraq follows a mechanical approach, Turkey's role as a mediator between Israel and Syria is uncharacteristically complex. There exists a very clear logic behind Turkey’s effort to mingle in the affairs of these two countries.

Compared to its relationship with neighbor Iran, Turkey's rapport with Syria is relatively underdeveloped. Perhaps the most significant reason for this is the incredible backwardness of Syria’s Baathist state-controlled economy, which is also responsible for the incredible backwardness of Syria’s regional foreign policy. Syria's problematic approach last affected Turkey in a dramatic way in 1998. Syria gave refuge to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, much to the disgrace of Turkish public opinion that had designated Ocalan as a terrorist. Syria would ultimately harbor the Kurdish leader in Damascus until the threat of a Turkish invasion successfully forced his eviction.

In comparison, Turkey’s rapport with Israel has proved quite dynamic. Successive Turkish governments and the Turkish military have pursued a symbiotic relationship with Israel despite the risk of alienating Turkey even further in the eyes of the Arab World. Both countries, similarly focused on linking themselves with the West, have cooperated through military exchanges and natural resource transfers. In addition, Turkey hopes to court the sympathy of the Israeli lobby in Washington as a means of counter-balancing the influence of the Armenian lobby on American foreign policy.

While no observer could claim that Turkey’s efforts will actually make a significant difference in solving the issues that separate Israel and Syria, Turkey’s actions will help it acquire some additional credibility with pundits who influence EU opinion. This alone could be reason for Turkey to exert its diplomatic energy.

The highly involved nature of Turkey’s interest in affairs south of its border stands in tremendous contrast with its attitudes concerning the tumultuous political situation to its north-east. Turkey has chosen a relatively silent course as Georgia struggles to deal with breakaway Abkhazia and omnipresent Russia.

(On Monday, the UN announced that a Russian jet did indeed shoot down a Georgian unmanned surveillance drone patrolling over Abkhazia.)

Other than its relations with Armenia, which are “very well” defined, Turkey's diplomatic intentions in the greater Caucasus region and Central Asia have been unclear ever since the failure of its Pan-Turkism initiative in the 1990s. While Turkish construction companies and textile producers have been keen to acquire contracts and conduct foreign direct investment projects, Turkey's main interest in the region has been its role as a conduit for Central Asian energy exports to Europe and beyond. Turkey's energy interests in Central Asia have understandably run counter to those of Russia, which are monopolistic by nature.

Turkey's concern for its trade relations with Russia must also not be overlooked. Roughly 70% of the country's natural gas supplies come from Russia, worth approximately $2bn. In addition, Turkish companies currently boast $4.5bn in foreign direct investments in Russia, while Russia companies have $3bn in Turkey. Therefore, the rather undefined character of Turkey's relations with the Caucasus and Central Asia is most likely due to its disinterest in provoking Russia's wrath.

In contrast, provoking Russia's wrath has been one of the main occupations of Georgia's second post-Soviet Union president, Mikhael Saakashvili. Saakashvili’s attempts to overhaul his country’s economy and mentality, often in brazen defiance of Russia, have won him a large following in the West. The US is widely believed to have provided the George Washington University Law School trained lawyer with the necessary moral support and financial backing to overcome considerable odds.

While Turkey has shown such great interest in helping Israel resolve its issues with Syria, it has comparatively neglected neighboring Georgia’s plight. Although comparing Georgia to Israel on a geopolitical scale is like weighing a bowling ball against a golf ball, it is nevertheless unfortunate that Turkey chooses not to more publicly support the Caucasus’ own geopolitical David against the Russian Goliath.

Turkey does in fact give military support to Georgia in the form of training and funding. While the monetary figure of this military support is dwarfed in comparison to that provided by the US, Turkey is probably Georgia’s second largest military donor state. The two countries have also successfully cooperated together on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project – the cornerstone of Turkey’s design to become an energy transfer hub. A new train connection between Azerbaijan, Georgian and Russia will also encourage closer trade relations.

Saakashvili is reputedly trying to transform his country into a fully-functional democracy and regional economic force, both of which would be beneficial to Turkish interests. While Georgia is still far from realizing this dream, Saakashvili’s goals are noble and most likely much more of a near-term reality than expecting Baathist Syria to dramatically evolve.

If Turkey wishes to demonstrate its constructive potential to influence the affairs of the surrounding regions, it would be well-served by addressing an issue that is clearly within its means and in its natural sphere of influence. Sadly for Georgia, Ankara is either too scared to compromise economic relations with Russia or too consumed by the international notoriety it receives from pursuing “peace in the Middle East” as opposed to in the Caucasus.


Turkey's Military and its Role in Politics

Bosphorus Watch favorite, Gareth Jenkins, has authored yet another intriguing piece about Turkish society. Jenkins' most recent essay concerns the professionalization of the Turkish military. Currently, only one in six members of Turkey's military is a professional soldier. While the military's total size is 600,000, the operational effectiveness of its conscripts has been repeatedly called into question especially during the recent operations in northern Iraq. In particular, Turkish conscripts have demonstrated a penchant for being abducted by the PKK, undoubtedly causing great embarrassment to the leaders of NATO's second-largest member force.

Starting in May 2008, the army will begin to phase out the use of non-professional soldiers for its six commando brigades, which comprise approximately 10,000 soldiers. By the end of 2009, the commandos will operate as an entirely professional fighting force. Although unlikely to be accomplished in the short-term, the commandos may only be the beginning of a military-wide effort to transform the Turkish military into an exclusively professional force.

(For further details, please refer to this article in Today's Zaman.)

The strength of Jenkins' piece is his in-depth exploration of the army's past and present relationship with Turkish society. His consideration of the military's role as an "educator" is particularly important:

It is unclear, however, what impact the increased professionalization of the Turkish military will have on its relationship with society as a whole. Many in the higher echelons of the TGS favor the complete professionalization of all of the country's armed services, although they acknowledge that cost considerations make such a change unlikely in the near future. But there is also a concern that the abolition of conscription would sever what they regard as a sacred bond between the Turkish nation and the profession of soldiering.

Turkish school textbooks still portray the military as something akin to the essence of the Turkish nation, although the intensity with which it is inculcated has declined in recent decades. Indeed, until the 1960s and 1970s, when more Turks began to have access to formal education, the country's military was itself frequently referred to as "a school." It was often during their military service that conscripts from poorer backgrounds first learned to read and write and become familiar with social niceties such as the use of a knife and fork. Even today, for the mass of the male Turkish population, military service remains a rite of passage into manhood. Although it is frequently overlaid with resentment at the often haughty manner in which they are treated by the members of the officer corps, many retain an emotional attachment to the institution, if not necessarily to all of its members, long after they have completed their military service. Particularly outside the Turkish elite, the inculcation of the identification between the military and the nation, together with the personal experience of military service, undoubtedly have an impact on public willingness to tolerate the Turkish military's occasional attempts to influence the political process; especially in times of perceived risk or crisis.

The identification between the military and the nation is, however, already being eroded by the spread of literacy and developments in communications, which have meant that Turks now have access to many more sources of information than the state-controlled educational system and what they are told by their commanding officers during their military service. Similarly, the gradual professionalization of the army, even if it is initially only in certain units, is likely to weaken the emotional bond formed by military service; raising the possibility that the requirements of improved military efficiency may come at the cost of a reduction in the TGS's ability to influence the political process in Turkey.

In relation to the lower and rural echelons of Turkish society referenced in Jenkins' article, the army arguably maintains a degree of influence greater than that exercised by the country's traditional primary and secondary school apparatus. In particular, it is relatively unknown to what level this demographic actually completes traditional education. Therefore, military service can be viewed as the last opportunity for the Turkish state to create an "emotional link" among the more disenfranchised, poor or rural members of Turkish society.

The poor or rural male demographic has proven quite significant to contemporary Turkish political proceedings; the number of AKP supporters who hail from this segment of society is substantial. As a result, the Turkish military's ability to apply an emotional stamp on the "hearts and minds" of these poor or rural young men would clearly have great appeal to those in Turkey who advocate a strict secular, Western line, such as country's generals. Professionalization of the military would not only involve a stiff financial cost, but it would also eliminate an important means of ideological influence.

There would also appear to be a second approach to analyzing the
military's pursuit of an entirely professional force. With his comment that, "the identification between the military and the nation is, however, already being eroded by the spread of literacy and developments in communications", Jenkins makes the tacit suggestion that the Turkish military may be coming to grips with the fact that the secular state's ideological influence is waning. There is arguably no greater proof of this fact than in the repeated democratic election of the the AKP.

By foregoing the traditional opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of young conscripts, the military could instead concentrate its resources on creating a secular elite through the ranks of a professional army. It is widely known that those soldiers who are allowed to move up the ranks of the military are able to do so as a result of both professional and ideological merit. Those who profess beliefs other than the traditional Ataturk-inspired secular Western line encounter a professional dead-end. With a completely professional army, Turkey's generals could better guarantee that the desired ideology is maintained from the high command all the way down to the troops chasing the PKK on the ground.

While such improved ideological efficiency, paired with more reliable combat training, would ideally strengthen the Turkish military's operational capabilities, it would also reposition the military's role in society as Jenkins demonstrates.

Despite its much feted "e-coup" in the spring of 2007, the Turkish military's role in politics over the course of the AKP era has been steady, but remarkably restrained compared to past eras. It is conceivable that the generals have in fact bought into the need to practice good public relations vis-a-vis the EU, the Western media, and possibly even Turkey's regional peers.

Rather than diluting its resources in order to more widely interact with the masses, the professionalization of the Turkish military would be a philosophical shift towards the strengthening of elites. Although this might be a rather unfair comparison, a more PR-savvy Turkish military philosophy may hope to develop personalities from within it ranks, who ultimately play a role in Turkish politics similar to the one played by Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell and now John McCain in America.


May 1stanbul

The events of Turkey's 2008 edition of May Day passed in a predictable fashion. Roughly 500 protesters were reportedly arrested, Turkish police exploded tear gas bombs in front of hospital entrances, protesters were pulverized by water cannons and beaten by batons. As is typically the case during such crack downs, the actually number of people taken into custody undoubtedly exceeded official figures. May 1st is a time for security forces to take advantage of mayhem and "clean house" among unwanted members of society whether or not they are even participating in the day's events.

For this observer, and many seasoned expatriates living in Istanbul, there was little surprise concerning the level of flagrant brutality authorized by the Turkish government. One only has to look to the events that take place in the east of Turkey, in places such as Diyarbakır
, to understand the potential of Turkish security tactics.

Unlike the east of Turkey, it was quite remarkable how well the events in Istanbul were caught on camera. As an American who vividly remembers the uproar that surrounded the Rodney King affair, it was unfathomable how oblivious the Turkish security forces acted despite being under a lens for much of the day.

Equally shocking was the indifferent line that seemed to be chosen by mainstream Western media outlets. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan
provided a choice sound bite during the lead-up to May 1st - "It will be mayhem when the feet start to manage the head" - May 1st was not as widely analyzed as one would have hoped. This decision is particularly puzzling given the fact that Turkey is one of the few Muslim countries with a significant middle-class and is such a popular topic in the Western media in general.

Moreover, Turkey's May 1st demonstrations provide a rare view of less mainstream or "silenced" elements of Turkish politics. While the Turkish labor unions ultimately canceled their march on Taksim square, the day was a nationally-televised showcase for a much wider range of political distention than normally receives coverage in Turkey.

The May 1st footage also encouraged this observer to put Turkey in the context of the greater region. The events of May 1st proved that Turkey is not an exception among American neo-conservative backed governments, which are tacitly encouraged to repress political opposition. While Azerbaijan continues on its draconian path and therefore does not merit discussion, Georgia and to a lesser extent Armenia have quite recently witnessed government coordinated acts of repression. Georgian President Mikheil "Misha" Saakashvili, barely received a slap on the wrist in the West for his repression of opposition elements prior to making the decision to hold early presidential elections. Such is Misha's reward for representing the region's only stalwart against Russian imperialism.

Georgia and even Armenia are a "Wild West" in comparison to Turkey -
Turkey is a much more affluent, stable and strategically important country compared to its neighbors in the Caucasus. While it therefore feels somewhat odd to compare Turkish politics and discord to that in Armenia or Georgia, the country's ceremonial May 1st repression ritual reminds one of just how easily Turkey's affairs can devolve if the circumstances are right. Despite its much greater levels of economic and democratic development, the events of May 1st remind one of the degree to which Turkey continues to be influenced by the insecurities of its corporatist core.