Friday, June 29, 2012

Should we care about Egypt's ruler?

As students of international relations, should we really care about Egypt's new president? Not that much. Because hardly a change in domestic politics of a country shifts its foreign policy orientation. If we are to observe a slight change in foreign policy of Egypt, it is not because it has a new president but because powerful waves of dynamic changes in international politics had pushed Egypt to elect a new president that will be competent in dealing with challenges of the current period. This argument is made not to downplay the power of people that shook Egypt last year but to emphasize what made them to flock into streets.

1979 revolution in Iran is an oft-cited example by those who claim that changes in domestic politics directly affect foreign policy. Then pro-Western Iran made a U-turn in 1979 in foreign policy after Islamists grabbed power in Tehran. But a short glance over events in the region reveals that in fact Iran’s stark departure from its previous position in the region is not because it had an Islamist leader. While Iran was Israel’s and U.S. ally, Egypt and Syria had cool relations with the U.S. and were at war with Israel. It made sense for Iran to side with Israel and the U.S. as long as Arabs were in the other camp. But when Egypt abandoned Syria and changed its orientation with Camp David Accords in 1978, Iran also switched its side and stood by Syria. This change was facilitated by the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.

Assassination of Anwar Sadat after the Egyptian president’s disengagement with Israel is also a good example of how international politics directly affects domestic politics. But assassination of Sadat was not a smart move because his successor had made life hell for the Muslim Brotherhood for 30 years.

Leaders add personal flavor to foreign policy only in cases when they have a luxury to do so. Egypt will be unable to translate its already weak economy into military buildup and the army will continue to have a powerful say in the country’s foreign policy. For the U.S., stability in Egypt is important because Suez Canal is a strategic point where over 2 million barrels of mostly Gulf oil are transported to Western markets every day. This is almost equal to Saudi's Arabia's daily oil output. For this reason, the U.S. will stand by any Egyptian president as long as the president does not seek adventures in the Suez.

More than 17,000 ships pass through the Suez Canal every year, of which 25 percent is oil and gas. When Egypt recovers from the revolution and becomes stronger than it needs, we can then talk about how domestic politics affects its foreign policy decisions. Too much power always carries the risk of abuse. As long as Egypt is weak, new president will have little discretion to drive his country's foreign policy to a direction he wants.


Power struggle in Egypt

Putting foreign policy aside, it is also fun to see an Egyptian president with beard. Egyptians deserve plaudits for their brave struggle in the past year to elevate their country from a league of authoritarian nations to a place it deserves.

Egypt is a troubled country with very powerful military playing as a subject in politics. It will be no easy task to sideline the army despite president-elect Mohamed Morsi’s defiance in Tahrir on Friday. It is odd to observe that Turkey is both an inspiration for masses longing for democracy and for generals trying to establish their tutelage in the political system. Turkey is a NATO member country and has commitments to limit the role of military in politics as part of its membership talks with the European Union. It has a coup-era constitution that was drafted by junta after 1980 military coup and despite 10-year tenure of partly progressive ruling AK Party, the constitution seems firmly in place.

In 2003, shortly after the conservative AK Party came to power, Turkish military issued a strongly-worded statement that was considered as a blunt interference into democracy. Even in 2007, shortly before AK Party’s second term, military issued a statement on its web-site Turks call a “post-modern coup.” Democratization has taken a quite long time to take hold in Turkey.

But what makes me upbeat about Egypt is how fast developments take place there. What happened in Egypt in the past year would take 20 Turkey-years in Ankara. No doubt it will be extremely painful to watch power struggle between civilian politicians and the military but it makes me optimistic to anticipate that it will take not as long as it took Turkey to consolidate its democracy today. It took 66 years for Turkey to partly consolidate its democracy by limiting very powerful military establishment. I’m sure it will be faster in Egypt.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Turkey's new Syria policy means de facto buffer zone

This video shows a long convoy of Turkish military vehicles being transported to Turkish-Syrian border via Mardin. 
As if waiting for that moment, some activists had hard time in hiding their joy when Syria shot down Turkish warplane, believing that this now makes a good case for taking some tangible steps in averting 16-month long crisis in Turkey's southern neighbor.
I have bad news for warmongers: I know no single case of plane shootdown since the WWII that sparked a full-fledged armed conflict. Turkey has no major interest in attacking Syria, including a security one.
Turkey has long worked tooth and nail to make its Syria policy relevant and emphasis has been repeatedly put on Syria being Turkey's neighboring country. But this alone does not make this country more important than other countries which are not Turkey's neighbors.
Now there is an ample opportunity for Turkey to portray Syria as a country ruled by a regime that is too much frustrated and desparately attacking neighboring countries with no reason.
I'm an anti-interventionist yet I'm a staunch supporter of heightened security in Turkish-Syrian border. It was Turkey's mistake to let Turkish-Syrian border loose and fragile to an attack from Syria. When Syria was deploying tanks and armored vehicles in Aleppo, only dozens of miles away from Turkey, Ankara should have demanded an explanation from Damascus and requested it to withdraw the troops.
Syria shot down Turkish fighter jet on Friday and Erdoğan ordered the army to stay alert and changed the rules of engagement of the military on Tuesday. The Turkish army is now ordered to shoot anything they deem threatening from the Syrian side.
This means Syrian troops and tanks won't be able to conduct hot pursuit of rebels, conduct military operations near the Turkish border and pound bombs on rebel camps by choppers or warplanes.
This, in turn, will increase defections and make the Turkish border safe haven for the rebels.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Is Syria that stupid to shoot down Turkey's plane?

Early on Saturday, a statement released after a security summit headed by Turkey's prime minister said Syria shot down Turkey's fighter jet, without elaborating how and why.

Many had speculated that although Syria acted ruthless, Turkey also deserves blame in this incident.

Early on Sunday, however, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made it clear that Syrian side knew it was a Turkish plane, the jet was hit in international air space without any warning, the act was hostile and Turkey will not remain silent. Turkey has not yet unveiled its retaliatory steps and the most you can say is that there are scattered signs that things are getting worse more slowly.

Syria's downing of Turkish warplane is not unmatched in history. There have been many similar incidents like this before. But few exemplify irrationality of these kind of attacks better than Friday's incident, which also probably killed two Turkish pilots.

Then the question comes, why did Syria shoot down Turkey's jet?

Syrian regime critics would jump to a conclusion that the attack is a manifestation of Assad's growing frustration and spillover of the domestic crisis into neighbors. This argument rests heavily on the view that Assad is a ruthless killer and he would not hesitate shooting down planes of neighboring countries.

They claim that this incident appears to be rather a remarkable example of how Assad has become a threat to the stability not only within his country but also to countries in Syria's vicinity. One could make a broader argument that it is not surprising to see Assad attacking every perceived threat after all these atrocities his army has been committing.

One of the misconceptions that muddle the debate over the shooting incident is that rulers like Assad have spinned out of control to a degree that would attack neighboring countries.

But those critics miss two fundamental truths about the situation on the ground.

In two cases states make similar, irrational military provacations like this one that is obviously not in the aggressive state's national interest.

First, states are deliberately behaving in an irrational way to signal to adversaries that it is hell-bent and ruthless in retaliation. This strategy conveys messages as if the state does not have a capacity to understand warnings and red lines.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's earlier remarks that Israel should cease to exist is an evident example of how states sometimes behave as an irrational actor to avoid military attacks.

North Korea's recent military provacations such as sinking a South Korean ship or shelling its island two years ago is a case in point. This kind of tactics are reliable with nuclear-armed states such as North Korea. Why to mess up with nuclear-armed North Korea whose leader is describing itself suicidal and irrational? The same goes with Tehran, whose leader is speaking about destroying Israel and possessing dozens of long-range missiles that could significantly damage Israeli cities. These leaders are definitely not irrational but it is benefiting to be seen this way.

This strategy seems unapplicable in Syria because it has relatively weak and increasingly divided military power, is running out of cash and exhausted by a year and half long operations against rebels across the country. It has little if any capability to do harm to countries considering intervening militarily to end the 15-month long crisis there.

Another case when states behave irrational in foreign policy is when domestic actors push decision-making process to a direction that is not in their national interests. This could be because of divided governance like in Iran or supporting overseas brethren no matter how damaging that policy could be.

Stephen M. Walt and John Mearsheimer's 2007 book on the Israeli lobby is a good read how domestic actors could derail country's foreign policy agenda.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there have been numerous claims that military commanders in Syria have often been acting beyond the administration’s control. In the shadow of potential war and violence, those surrounding Assad are not necessarily making a single, consultative decision based on country's national interests. Given the varying constraints on the power of Assad and the administration across the state bureaucracies, it is not surprising that senior army commanders and bureaucrats are pushing for policies that are not really made by the president and his close circles loyal to him. Recent leaked e-mails of Assad family depict how weak institutions the Syrian regime has.

The crisis in Syria has steered this process reasonably well and generated enormous conflict within the regime.

Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman was overly apologetic and friendly in his Monday briefing, saying that Turks and Syrians are brothers and that Syria is not hostile to its northern neighbor. Why would a state shoot down a foreign jet in international air space and send messages of friendship afterwards?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Why is Turkey surprisingly calm in crashed warplane saga

While journalists are impatient banging their head against the wall trying to find a reasonable answer to Friday’s Turkish jet crash incident eight miles off the coast of Latakia, suffice it to say that Turkey was caught off guard by the issue and the incident was definitely not a pre-planned trap to drag Syria into a war.

Shooting a Turkish fighter jet by Syrian security forces would be a potential stinging blow to Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly fragile regime, which is already very careful in not provoking Western countries, including its impatient northern neighbor Turkey, into aggression.

But the way Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke and kept his temper threw the world public into some apparent confusion. This is certainly not Erdoğan we know, who walked off a stage in Davos protesting Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2009 and boycotted an EU meeting in Brussels in 2004.

Initially, Erdoğan reportedly told a group of journalists in the plane that the Syria side offered a “serious apology” and acknowledged their mistake. He then rebuffed these statements during a press briefing in Ankara, noting that he is not aware of any apology.

Turkey’s reaction to Syria’s hostilities against Syrian rebels close to the Turkish border, unsurprisingly, has been one of knee-jerk condemnation and turning Assad into a punching bag. It was after pro-Assad demonstrators burned Turkish flag in front of Turkish diplomatic missions, Erdoğan unveiled a set of sanctions against Syrian regime back in 2011. Erdoğan’s cold-tempered and calm reaction to the situation stands in contrast to the relative vocal voice Turkey raised in any action of Assad Ankara considered hostile.

Erdoğan’s calmness illustrated a prevailing sense of suspicion and confusion reigned in Ankara, where officials are trying to understand which side is to blame for the incident. Both Turkey and Syria are now groping for ways to salvage their national pride in the most effective way.

Among other things, one of the reasons of Turkey’s calmness could be Turkey’s possible mistake in the entire situation. “What was Turkey’s warplane doing in Syria’s airspace,” a Turkish journalist asked furious Erdoğan in the press conference, without getting a reply.

U.S., who used every opportunity to bash the Syrian regime, also remained silent on the issue. US State Department spokeswoman said they discussed the issue with their Turkish allies but said “let Turks speak out.”

Is it possible for a state not to know for a long time who shot its plane and if its plane violated its neighbor’s airspace or not? And is it possible that U.S. remains silent when its chief ally’s warplane is shot down by a regime, which the U.S. wants to see dead?

At least good news is that Turkey and Syria won’t turn this unfortunate incident into a wider battle.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Many thanks to Foreign Policy magazine for putting me in a list of 100 Twitter users who usually tweet about foreign policy and international politics. FP makes this list every year and yours truly is honored to be in this year’s list along with other journalists, pundits, politicians who are really an authority in their field. Here is the full list of FP Twitterati and you can start following them one by one to make sense of the blizzard of information on foreign policy every day.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Syrian rebels no heroes

Syria is heading toward a civil war something sadly no one has yet could convincingly predict. The situation on the ground remains as grim as ever with growing number of a civilian death toll reaching to alarmingly high levels.
Syria is not a country where unpopular ruler and his combat army are killing people demanding freedom in peaceful demonstrations. The bloody violence there is largely due to a ruthless battle between army of the Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad and thousands of ex-army soldiers and officers, estimated at 10,000 or so.
What makes Assad more brutal than his opponents is his army's indiscriminate shelling and ruthless pursuit of rebels without particular concern for civilian causalities. Witnesses could recount hundreds of episodes in which the regime's army had been heavily shelling and bombing highly populated areas in a bid to root out a dozen militants. Reports of international institutions, including the UN, suggested that killings of women and children are rampant and detained people have been subject to torture, some even being tortured to death.
The video I posted here clearly shows how shelling wreaks havoc a district in Syria's central province of Homs. There is no indication whether or not civilians are still living in those residences yet similar situations are true for many cities where Assad's army has kept pounding for over a year. Activists say the death toll has already reached to 13,000 and nearly half a million people have been internally displaced with some fleeing to neighboring countries such as Jordan and Turkey.
I would like to highlight another story, in which Syrian rebels sets up a British journalist and his colleagues to be killed by the regime's army in Syria near the Lebanese border. This, rebels planned, would draw international condemnation against Assad. 
What existing ideology, religion or culture would condone such a deplorable act and a killing of innocent civilians to make an unfair and certainly immoral gain against your opponent. This is not to say that all Syrian rebels are heartless as those militants but this is only one small part of many "not-so-good stories" we have heard about them.
Western nations, activists and the media had also glorified rebels in Libya and we all had witnessed how they eventually treated with late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
While the world has fixed its gaze to see how the battle turns out in upcoming weeks in Syria and if the rebels have a chance to pick up a momentum out of this deadly stalemate to unseat Assad and his brutal regime, my concern is how many more civilians will be killed in the course of fighting for a palace in Damascus. 
Instead of working hell-bent to oust Assad, which is a desirable yet no easy task, major powers including Turkey and Qatar, should focus to secure the ceasefire and work out a political solution that works best for the both sides. Plan proposed by the UN mediator Kofi Annan was the best one but neither Russia nor Turkey were successful, even eager, in urging Assad and the rebels to stop fighting.