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.

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