Saturday, December 31, 2011

Illusion of Peace: Why is wishing happy new year not good idea?

Now the 2012 is a reality, most people all across the globe celebrate last few moments of the previous year, wishing for a better, more peaceful world. 

This wishful thinking carries the seeds of growing paradox and self-destructive trust that eventually makes it more difficult in reaching peace – which I believe no one has experienced or ever going to witness. The illusion of peace, the idea that one day states and nations can peacefully co-exist together is the main reason why nations miscalculated each others’ demarche, resulting in sometimes full-fledged armed wars.

If history is any guide, it is not difficult to see that the most stable times of mankind’s history are the ones when states deeply mistrust each other (remember Cold War vs. 1919-39), engage in rapid arms buildup and fear of possible outbreak of war. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson tried to build a better and peaceful world by establishing League of Nations and issuing 14 points. The catastrophic result of Versailles system -- that put some states, including the entire Muslim nations, at disadvantageous position – was the World War II.

Harlett Edward Carr warned the world in his The Twenty Years Crisis book published in 1939 that a new war is rapidly impending and that states need to mistrust each other. It fell on deaf ears and he was, ironically, celebrating the all-out war among states in 1939 that claimed lives of more a hundred million civilians.

Allied states did not fall on trap in 1945 that a system they were about to design will usher a new era of peace and stability. Immediately after the World War II, Western nations created a system of containment with the Eastern Bloc countries, established NATO that would safeguard Western Europe, allied with any type of regimes in the Middle East and Latin America that were anti-communist. This maintained at least 40-50 years of stability in the world and prevented potentially devastating, mutually assured destructive nuclear warfare.

Signing peace deals with states should not mean that future aggression from these new friends are a distant reality. Similar to how people are biased toward their friends in different walks of life that may mostly spell detrimental and harmful, states’ decisions toward their allies are also biased/miscalculated most of the times. This is not to suggest that states must scratch peace deals and start becoming enemies; it is only suggesting that peace deals mostly are misleading and states, no matter to what degree peaceful relations they enjoy, must mistrust their allies.

This is what we need now: Decision-makers who are calculating pragmatists believing in that other actors play not based on rules of the game but rules that will secure their survival.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Americans are out; Turkish-Iranian power struggle begins

Iraqi Sunni Vice President Tareq Hashemi, and chairman of Al-Jazeera Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer al-Thani attend Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s book-signing ceremony in Doha, Qatar.

I have a new piece in Today’s Zaman today about widening rift between Turkey and Iran and the subject matter concerns a topic that I’ve been extensively writing about this week, which I believe is one of the biggest stories that needs to be carefully analyzed.

On the day when last American troops left Iraq, power struggle between Sunnis, mainly backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Shiites, supported by Iran and current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seems to be resurfacing back. Maliki reportedly ordered an arrest warrant for two of his Sunni vice presidents, including Tareq Hashemi, a good friend of Turks.

One of my colleagues once quipped that Hashemi got used to Turkey to the extent that he spends his holidays not at home but in Istanbul. It is true that Turkey worked tooth and nail over the past two years to secure its position among Iraqi political junctures and to push Sunnis to participate in decision-making process. Saudi Arabia funded Sunni groups and urged them to actively take part in Iraqi politics. But increasingly growing Iranian influence in Baghdad and lack of cooperation from Maliki threw Turkish and Saudi plans into disarray, further alienating Sunnis from Iraqi politics.

Along with conflicting interests in Syria, it is obvious that Iranian-Turkish rivalry over Iraq will take longer than it seems and may further worsen relations between the two countries.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Turkey’s threat against Iran, Syria will backlash

Turkey’s top military council said on Thursday it reviewed Turkish army’s preparedness for war with Syria and Iran following its day-long meeting, where Turkish President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were also present.

At a time when tensions are running high with neighbors like Iran and Syria, it is clear that Ankara’s message that Turkey is ready to defend its nation is designed to send chills through Tehran and its chief ally Syria. This seems to be simple math that realists would not be surprised to see: someone threatens you and you fire back.

But sadly it is not. It clearly indicates that Turkey’s foreign policy establishment has a long way to go to better analyze situation in the ground.

As I noted in my previous note, Iran’s threats against Turkey have become weekly. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu twice conveyed his concern to his Iranian counterpart and demanded an explanation this week. Salehi replied that these remarks are not Iran’s official position.

If a country is hell-bent on building arms and strengthening itself to the extent of acquiring nuclear weapons, foreign threats are a good way to justify what the country is doing now. Iran has frustrated population, living under ideologically corrupt regime. Iranian leadership makes sure that it fabricates a foreign enemy, demonizes it and mobilizes its efforts to defend itself from the enemy. It has almost become clear that Iran is pursuing a hegemonic foreign policy rather than acting defiant. American/Israeli threats against Iran are feeding the regime’s never-ending preparation for war. In these circumstances, Iran got what it wanted: NATO accomplice Turkey, with its secular, Western, anti-Islamic political institutions, is a threat to Iran and can't be a role model for post-revolution Arab states. At least this is what Iran's supreme leader Khamenei's adviser Ali Akbar Velayeti said this week.

Another important distinction decision-makers must make while dealing with Iran is a fact that there are increasingly growing cracks in Iran’s ruling establishment and this is the reason why there are different voices coming out all at the same time. Unpredictable country means unhealthy calculation in international relations and Turkey is right to push Iran to make up its own mind in its behavior toward Turkey.

Turkey is a rapidly rising power in a hostile and complex neighborhood – a territory where political calculations must be made twice because of fragile balance of power. A rising and emerging power – particularly if it has imperial past – always sets off balancing act in adjacent countries where they forge alliances or increase defensive arms buildup against the emerging power. Davutoğlu’s zero problems foreign policy diplomacy has a virtue in this sense: it sends signals to neighboring countries that although Turkey is rising, its ascent is peaceful and even beneficial for prosperity in the region.

Sending vague and subtle threat messages as a response to vague statements of an isolated country should not be helpful, carrying with itself a danger of alienating friendly neighboring countries. Turkey must make sure that it does not become another Israel in the region, whose responses against Iran vindicates the Islamic republic's actions both at home and abroad.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rivalry over Iraq, Syria widens rift between Iran and Turkey

Perhaps the biggest story in the Middle East's never-ending power play this week is brewing and increasingly widening rift between Turkey and Iran. Despite centuries of confrontation between Turks and Persians, the two found non-intrinsic relationship last year as Turkey’s ties with Israel and the U.S. literally collapsed.

Turkey’s efforts last year to keep Western nations at bay in the case of Iran could be explained by Turkey’s legitimate desire to keep the U.S. and the E.U. out of its backyard. Turkish diplomats speculated behind closed doors even during heyday of Turkish-Iranian ties that Turkey’s love toward Iran is more pragmatic than sentimental.

However, Turkey has realized today that keeping the U.S. away from the region is only helping Iran enhance its influence and outreach in the region. It also facilitated Turkey to recognize its boundaries and its limited capacity to put a fence to Iran’s never-ceasing lust to expand. Iranian officials have started bashing Turkey almost every week now although Iranian foreign minister insists that these threatening remarks are not Iran’s official position.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has already conveyed Turkey’s concern and uneasiness over similar remarks twice in the past two weeks.

It is clear that Turkey has suddenly realized that Iran has more say in Syria and Iraq and the Islamic republic understands that Turkey is its chief rival in exporting models for post-revolution Arab nations. Last week, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki basically said Iran has good positions and influence at certain junctures in Iraq but in political matters, he said Turkey has an unacceptable interference.

It is easier for Turkey to wean Syria and Iraq out of Iran’s orbit of influence and democratic governance in both states will automatically reduce Iran’s power which in anyway rapidly loses its appeal. For this, Turkey must continue supporting Sunni political groups and cross-sectarian alliances in Iraq. Saudis will take care the funding part.

In Syria, the clock is ticking against Turkey as long as Assad stays in power. In this vein, Turkey must do whatever is necessary and required to get rid of him, including alliance with Israel if necessary. It seems that only military intervention will solve the Syrian crisis but Turkey must make sure that military intervention does not fundamentally destroys Syria’s military capability – one of the strongest military force facing against Israel in the Middle East.

Being a regional leader requires fierce competition with nations aspiring to advance in their influence and every nation that is claiming to be a regional leader should be prepared to face off similar challenges. Turkey is largely unprepared for such steps, but it is not a challenge that Turkey did not tackle before.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Caucasus International -- new magazine

Photo credit:

I was in Baku this weekend to attend a reception hosted by Azerbaijan’s leading think thank, Center for Strategic Studies, to mark the official announcement of the Caucasus International journal. It is a quarterly journal with amazingly great semi-academic articles, covering particularly the South Caucasus, Turkey and the Middle East. Truly yours is also the managing editor of the magazine, which I believe will be one of the leading academic publications not only in the region but also in other parts of the world. You can access to the magazine and its free content here.

Monday, December 5, 2011

How Arabs’ domestic instability become international affair

I was in Gaziantep, a Turkish city close to Syria’s Aleppo, where Turkish, Arab and Western intellectuals discussed political trajectories of Arab nations in transition for three days.

The name “Arab Spring” was a subject of debate more than anything else. This is not because it is important to define the political upheavel in these countries accurately; it is more about correctly understanding what really these countries are going through amid this instability. Fear of sectarian clashes, terrorism, radical Islamic resurgence, domination of military over key parts of governments were challenges participants hoped won’t become real as a result of these uprisings.

I wrapped up what we had discussed in the conference here. Turkish columnists and academics were particularly struck by the fact that Turkey is not really alluring and attractive to Arabs for their post-revolution countries. Similar ideas were voiced during the conference which put Turkish counterparts in the defensive: “We are not exporting any models. But you are more than welcome to use our experience, we might be a source of inspiration in many ways,” Erşat Hürmüzlü, Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s Middle East adviser told participants.

Another discussion was focused on Israel. Some claimed that Israel is the chief culprit for authoritarian trends in the Middle East – something Israeli participants protested.

But one thing remained vague and participants did not answer to this very crucial question: Why did domestic affairs of Arab countries have become such a big international affair? With its present nature and dynamics, it is unprecedented and extraordinary in the history of mankind to observe a process in which domestic affairs of one country push other nations to a shift in their foreign policy, sometimes damaging fragile balance of power in the region.

It definitely has many explanations but it seems realists will particularly have hard time in explaining why this is the case. I think one of the most significant requirements of conducting an effective foreign policy is to know your adversary – Arab Spring dilutes this. The current unrest raises questions, transforming leaders we know into something else, putting decision-makers of other countries in limbo.

International politics is a game and you would want players of this game to react in situations “expectedly.” Uncertainity the Arab Spring produces makes it hard for other leaders to make effective foreign policy decisions. Countries shift their foreign policies not because they are very much concerned over killings and violence in countries hit by the Arab Spring fever, it is because decision-makers hate uncertainties.

Removing leaders who are sources of uncertainty and unpredictability in dealings with these countries is a good way to explain why states change their foreign policies as a response to instability in other countries.

It is easier now to sell foreign policy choices back at home to public. The rationale the claim behind this shift in foreign policy is simple: They kill, we protest. But this is not the entire picture. China's Mao killed millions of people and only few years later, the U.S., leader of the free world, started reconciliation with the Asia's behemoth. The true logic is this: They kill, create uncertainty. We want to remove the source of unpredictability to make correct foreign policy decisions.

This is the sole reason why Iran starts getting concerned over Assad's killing in Syria. Iran's leadership also fears of uncertainty and wants to see a clear picture in politics of its key ally in the region.