10:00a.m. - 12:00p.m.
Dirksen Senate Office Building
2nd Street NE
Room 562 Washington, D.C. 20002
RICHARD J. SCHMIERER: Well, good morning, everyone. Welcome. I’m Richard Schmierer. I’m the president and chairman of the board of the Middle East Policy Council. I’m very pleased to welcome all of you here on behalf of the Council, to this our 92nd quarterly Capitol Hill Conference. Today we’ll be addressing the issue of Turkey’s emerging role in the Middle East. And we certainly have a very expert panel to do that. Whether it relates to Syria, Iraq, the Gulf, or even further afield in the former Ottoman Empire, all of us today recognize that Turkey is playing an ever-larger role in the region, and an understanding of Turkey’s policies, interests, influence, and actions are important to an understanding of the current dynamics in the Middle East. And so, as I said, we’re very fortunate to have four experts with us.
The red light’s on. Are you picking it up? OK.
Before I turn to the program today, I’d like to just say a few words about the Middle East Policy Council. We were founded in 1981. And we’re an educational organization. Our purpose is promoting a dialogue and understanding between the U.S. and the countries and peoples of the Middle East. And our focus is usually largely on policy-related issues.
We have three flagship programs. One is the quarterly conferences, as we’re having here today. We do these every three months, usually here somewhere on Capitol Hill, in one of the Senate or House office buildings. Our second primary activity is the publication of our journal, the journal – I happen to have a copy here – Middle East Policy, also a quarterly publication. And it has a circulation of well over 11,000. It’s found around the world in world in libraries and, of course, among individuals. And we circulate copies as well to people on the Hill, in the executive branch, and elsewhere in government. So we feel it has a pretty good impact on policy discussions related to the Middle East.
And our third activity is an educational outreach program, which is aimed primarily at secondary school students and teachers, is primarily online although we do frequently brief such visiting groups here in Washington. But the idea is to provide curricular materials to teachers who are interested in doing a segment on the Middle East in a secondary school history or social studies or geography course. So I would encourage you to take a look at our website, which is www.MEPC.org, for our general programs, and our TeachMideast website, which is www.TeachMideast.org, to learn more about our programs.
Now, to today’s event. Today’s program is being livestreamed on our website. And I’m pleased to therefore welcome all of those who are viewing as – in their offices or at home through the livestreaming. The conference proceedings will be posted in video and transcript form on our website, and as will a recap of today’s discussion. And then an edited transcript of the program will be published in the next issue of our journal. And so I think what we’ll be hearing today from our experts will have a very wide dissemination among those who have an interest in the region.
Now, let me briefly introduce our panelists. We will begin the discussion with Ambassador Robert Pearson. Ambassador Pearson served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003. He was a career Foreign Service officer. He also served as president of the international development NGO IRX. And he is currently a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Ambassador Pearson will be followed by Professor Gonul Tol. Dr. Tol is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies and is the founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies.
Next will be Dr. Aaron Stein, who has served with the international crisis group in Istanbul and is currently a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
And our fourth speaker will be Professor Lisel Hintz. Dr. Hintz is an associate professor of international relations and European studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Her forthcoming book, to be published by Oxford University Press, will be based on her recent 18 months of fieldwork in Turkey.
Each panelist will deliver brief opening remarks. There will then be a discussion session following the presentation by our panelists. The discussion will be moderated by my colleague, Dr. Tom Mattair, the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council. Please note that we have placed index cards on all of the seats. Please use these in writing down any questions which you have as the speakers are speaking and hold them up – hold up the card. Our staff will collect the cards during the presentations and give them to Dr. Mattair, so that he can consolidate the questions for the discussion session. So thank you for helping us with that.
And so with that, I’ll turn the podium over to Ambassador Pearson.
ROBERT PEARSON: Richard, shall I come up there?
MR. SCHMIERER: That would be best, if you don’t mind, for the –
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: There is room in the front if anybody wants to move down.
MR. SCHMIERER: – for the video streaming. Thanks.
MR. PEARSON: Well, good morning, everyone. Can you all hear me? My mother used to say she could hear me anywhere. (Laughter.) I think she was right.
Very happy to be here. Richard, thank you very much for the opportunity. Middle East Policy Council, thank you very much for this chance.
There is never a dull day in Turkey. And events daily prove that. And the announcement of the recent date for new elections is just one more example of how vibrant and diverse and changeable Turkish politics and life can be.
So I think that with a lot of American attention always being paid on what the American options are – I’ve been reading about this until I’m tired of it – and what they can and cannot do, that it’s very refreshing to have a symposium based on what Turkey is about in the region. And I’m delighted to be here with my colleagues. We’ve not rehearsed what we’re going to say. So I know that’s going to bring a fresh perspective to a lot of things we do. And the organizers of this event have separated me and Gonul Tol, I mean, we both work at the Middle East Institute, so we can’t pass notes to each other and compare perspectives. So looking forward to it.
But just let me say one or two things about the domestic position today of Turkey. I think it’s quite clear that President Erdogan intends to replace Kemal Ataturk as the principal figure in post-empire Turkish history. If this were a movie, we might call it The Empire Strikes Back. But in any case, what’s most interesting to me about this somehow is why do we care? We—Egypt is an ally of the United States. It’s not operating on democratic terms. Saudis have just begun an enormous and very ambitious reform of their political system.
We don’t raise a hue and cry about them very often in the American press, but we do spend a lot of time talking about Turkey’s loss of democracy. And I think it’s because it was democratic. It’s because it did act as an example – not a model, but an example. It’s because we did have hopes that a very large, modern Muslim country, member of NATO, would lead the way towards a more pluralistic governance system for all of the Middle East and the Muslim world. And I think that’s worth caring about.
Let me turn now to Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions. And I’m going to focus on the things that I think matter most to an American audience. And if I overlook something, it’s not because I didn’t know about it, I think, because I feel like the time is – doesn’t give us that privilege. So I think it’s more important to know, as we all know, that this Turkey is not our grandfather’s Turkey, and that Turkey is not just another NATO country going through a tough patch. Mr. Erdogan is clearly questioning the status and role of Turkey in global history.
In 2016, he said that the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended Turkey’s participation in World War I and settled the boundaries, except for one exception, and created a new Turkish Republic to take its place in the world community – he described it as being a treaty that was pictured as a victory, but it as blackmail actually by allies, he said, to force the surrender of the Ottoman Empire. In December of 2017, he told the Greeks – which certainly made them feel slightly nervous – that the Treaty of Lausanne was a not a sacred text, and that the details were unclear.
In February of this year, he told a Turkish audience that the Ottoman Empire had lost 5 million square kilometers of territory – by the way, that’s half the size of the United States – in the last two centuries, and that the last two centuries had been wasted, he said, whatever that means. In October of 2016, he told the prime minister of Iraq that he should know his place when Iraq asked Turkey to remove its troops from the northern territory of Iraq. He is spinning up tensions with Greece, perhaps for election purposes, but just to needle Athens unnecessarily, just to create tension, because he can. And of course, recently he sailed Turkish warships in the economic zone east of Cyprus to make sure that there would be no further exploration unless Turkey was somehow included in the negotiations about its proper share. So, so much for soft power diplomacy.
Turkey is creating a defense posture that is quite robust. It gives one the impression that Turkey would like to dominate militarily – I don’t necessarily mean occupy – but dominate militarily the geography to its south and to its west. In this way, you might think that chaos in Syria might actually open opportunities for Turkey. Perhaps Turkey – never said this – perhaps Turkey in some way doesn’t really worry too much about this coming to a peaceful conclusion and Syria reestablishing its territorial integrity and its own borders, because it gives Turkey the opportunity in the meantime to establish its hegemony over the areas that it wants to control.
Turkey has a base in Qatar, a clear contrary position to the Saudis. Clearly a position identified with Iran. It has a base in Somalia, the foothold in Africa. And it just acquired rights to an island off Sudan, an island in the Red Sea just opposite Saudi Arabia, just south of Egypt. It has troops, of course, in Iraq, and it has troops in Syria. It is becoming a major defense supplier – motor vehicles, a main battle tank, ships, drones, plans for a future Turkish aircraft, parts so that it doesn’t have to buy parts from foreign suppliers. Makes its own parts for its own equipment. It’s on the American list to receive 100 F-35s, our most advanced fighter, over time. It has signed a deal to install Russian S-400s, anti-aircraft air defense missile system, which just happens to be exactly the same system that is installed in Kaliningrad against the Baltics.
Turkey’s political posture seems to be aimed at having Turkey be in the first tier of Muslim countries in the region, and a leading Muslim state globally. Mr. Erdogan has said, and repeated a number of times, that five is not enough – meaning that the U.N. Security Council has not say over Turkish choices. And if it were to expand, I’m sure he would be interested in having a Muslim state become a permanent member of the Security Council. He called a conference immediately after the U.S. administration’s decision on Jerusalem, trying to solidify Arab and Muslim antipathy to the U.S. decision. The conference didn’t attract that many people, actually. But what was important for me was the fact that he called it and tried to establish himself as a leader of this sentiment very quickly, so that he would be one who would have to be consulted if it went forward.
Mr. Erdogan’s government hosts Hamas. It is a pro-Muslim Brotherhood government. Therefore, its relations with Israel are always – with Egypt are always difficult. Just recently, there was a spat with the Saudis. Crown Prince referred to Turkey as a triangle of evil, along with Iran and Islamic extremists. So warm relations there. Mr. Erdogan has been compelling smaller states to return Gulenist sympathizers as a condition for good relations with Turkey. He has established and is establishing, I should say, a university, which will be a center for Islamic Studies to rival – the rhetoric goes – to rival those ancient centers of Islamic law and culture and civilization in the Arab countries.
Turkey works hard to separate the political and the economic aspects of its relationships. So while Turkey is using extremist language against Israel, it welcomes Israel tourists. While it’s using extremist language against the European Union, it’s claiming the European Union is not investing sufficiently in Turkey. While it accuses the United States of having been complicit in the failed coup attempt in 2016, it complains that Americans are not providing Turkey with enough investment opportunities here, and not investing another – enough there.
As a diplomat, I think I should say a few words about Turkey’s methodology of diplomacy. And I have to say, I have with me in the audience Ambassador Marisa Lino, who helped negotiate with the Turks in 2002 and ’3 our presumed entry into Iraq to help defeat Saddam Hussein. But on the diplomacy side, Turkey’s approach is what I would call a kind of blame, shame and claim approach.
First of all, Turkey never presents itself as being partially responsible for the problem. It’s never responsible for the problem. The problem is always someone else’s, often ours, often the EU’s, but always someone else’s. And they have the burden to come up with the solution. And if the first try isn’t satisfactory, well, then go write another draft. Turkey doesn’t take any responsibility for fashioning the solution, except through demands.
Then it follows this approach with abusive language directed against the negotiating partner. The Germans are Nazis. The Americans were complicit in the coup attempt in 2016. The Israelis are a terrorist state. And this somehow in the Turkish logic is designed to soften up, like heavy artillery, the opponent. It doesn’t. (Laughs.) But in any case, it’s the tactic. And then finally, when that has been exhausted, Turkey will claim that it’s ready for negotiations. It’s ready to talk. It has a reasonable attitude. And if only the other side will see reason and come forward now, understand that they’re ready to talk. And in this way, they essentially manage public opinion and they make diplomacy much more difficult.
Turkey’s position in Syria is so contradictory that it’s very difficult to unravel. But all of the contradictions basically have the same effect, if not the same intention. And the effect is to strengthen the Assad regime. The chemical weapons attack just recently. Turkey praises the United States, criticizes the attack, while being in Syria at the sufferance of the Russians, Damascus’ main ally, and in the past having helped remove people – eastern Aleppo – from areas where the Russians had attacked hospitals and the regime had used chemical weapons against innocent civilians.
Iran is allied in part to deal with the Kurdish issue. The Turks would like to have Iran help them with the Kurds in eastern Syria. But at the same time, Iran opposes Turkish presence in Afrin province. And the Russians to let you know exactly how this trio stacks up, told the Turks it would be nice if they left Afrin. Meant that the Turks – I mean, that the Russians were putting Iran ahead of Turkey in their hierarchy of important players in the region. The U.S. is the only country in the area capable of helping Turkey combat the Russians and the Iranians. You would think somehow that the Turks have acquired a sort of Stockholm syndrome, in which they have adopted the very purposes of the people who are holding them hostage, rather than recognizing that many of those actions are against their own best interest.
I’m going to close on this note: Leaving Syria would be a major strategic mistake. The impact on our friends in Iraq who would feel deserted, the impact on our adversaries in Tehran who would feel encouraged, the impact on the Russians who would like nothing better than that we leave, the impact on the region in Damascus who would know that no matter how long it took they would never have to compromise on a deal regarding Syria. All of those things would follow as night follows day. So whatever the thinking is in the United States, if we think that getting out now is saving us from something, my last thought with you is that in actuality it would leave us with a debt. We will have to pay a heavy debt, we will have to pay later. So we should be right in our choices now. Thank you very much.
GONUL TOL: Well, good morning, everyone. And thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here. Ambassador Pearson, as I expected, covered many things that I wanted to talk about today. So I’ll try to be brief and I might repeat some of the things that he said. In terms of – he asked a question. He said: Why should the United States care about what Turkey does, or what’s happening in Turkey? Well, there are several reasons. I will today talk about Turkey’s fear of Kurdish separatism, and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood as factors – these are the factors that are driving Turkey’s regional policy. And they’re not just problematic for Turkey’s own standing in the region, but they’re also hurting U.S. interests in the region.
So fear of Kurdish separatism. I think that is – that fear is behind – again, it’s the main driver of what Turkey has been doing, especially in its immediate neighborhood. So it was that fear that was behind Turkey’s military incursion into the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. Initially the U.S. announced that after Turkey’s operation that it was outside of its area of operations. But in fact, it ended up – Turkey’s military operation into Afrin ended up hurting U.S. fight against the Islamic State, because the Kurdish forces who are allied with the U.S. on the ground, the YPG decided to withdraw from the fight against the Islamic State in order to support the Kurdish forces against the Turkish attack.
And Erdogan, after that, talked about attacking Manbij. Manbij, is another northern Syrian town. And there are around 2,000 U.S. special forces there. So if he follows through, that of course increases the possibility of a clash between the two NATO countries. And U.S. officials have been working very hard to prevent that from happening. Rex Tillerson was in Turkey, holding meetings with his Turkish counterpart. And after the meeting, they had a press conference where Turkish foreign minister said that they had agreed with the Americans.
Washington promised Turkey that the Kurdish forces withdraw from the town. And Rex Tillerson was vague about that. And we don’t know, maybe we’ll never know, whether there was a deal reached between the two, because Rex Tillerson was the only American official in the room. There was no State Department official accompanying him. So we have no idea what was agreed in that meeting. And discussions have stalled. Obviously, there’s a new secretary of state. So there are no more discussions between the two countries about Manbij. But Manbij is very, very important.
So if – well, after the meetings the U.S. repeatedly announced that they were not – the U.S. was not planning to withdraw from Manbij. Of course, on their part that could be a wise decision, because if the U.S. really intends to stay longer in Syria, they really have to – they have to keep working with the Syrian Kurdish forces. And withdrawing from Manbij might deal a blow to their stabilization operations, especially in Raqqa, although I have to note that there are already problems with the way these – this umbrella group, that’s called the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the pro-YPG elements are very strong within the SDF – there are already problems with the way SDF is governing the town.
But I still think that the Turkish demand that there shouldn’t be any YPG – YPG is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey – so the Turkish government has been demanding that the YPG be removed from Manbij, and they should take no part in governing the town. And they also proposed that the U.S. and Turkey could form a joint military force to patrol the region. I don’t think these are realistic either, despite all the problems that the SDF is encountering in Manbij.
And also – Turkey also threatened to attack the forces in eastern – east of Euphrates River. And that area is very important for the U.S. So Manbij is still west of the river. Erdogan was saying that after Afrin, our next target is Manbij. But there are other Turkish officials who are saying that, well, we won’t stop there. We will continue and attack Kurdish forces in the eastern part of the river. And that’s quite problematic because through the Kurdish forces, the U.S. actually controls energy resources there. So if the U.S. intends to stay in Syria, and if it had a long-term Syria strategy, that’s the only way that U.S. can have leverage over the Assad regime, or can have a place at the negotiations in a post-conflict Syria.
So of course – again, this is all assuming that U.S. will not withdraw tomorrow. So, going back to Turkey’s fear of Kurdish separatism, due to that fear Turkey started working very closely with Russia and with Iran and Syria. And only after a greenlight from Russia, as the ambassador just mentioned, Turkey could be able to launch the military operation into Afrin, because Russia controls the skies there. And I think what prompted Russian decision was the U.S. announcement that they were planning to establish a 30,000-strong border force. So after Turkey has been talking about that military operation for over a year, but only after that announcement the Russians decided to give Turkey a greenlight. So there is very close cooperation and coordination between Turkey, Russia, and Iran on the ground.
And Turkey really needs the Russians in its efforts to contain the Kurds in Syria, and actually to have a military presence there. So that’s why, I think, Turkey tried to walk a fine line after the U.S. led strikes against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities. Erdogan, on the one hand, said that Turkey supported the attack. But on the other hand, in order not to alienate the Russians, they said that the Incirlik Air Base was not used in the strikes. So it’s a very difficult balance to maintain for Turkey.
But, on the other hand, Turkey’s been deepening its cooperation with the Russians. We talked about the S-400 deal. The Russians are also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. And also, they’re building the TurkStream pipeline. That’s a gas pipeline that is under construction at the moment. So that will carry Russian gas to Europe. And also, Turkey is part of the Astana trio. So through – along with Iran and Russia. So through the de-escalation zones, for instance, that was agreed in Astana meetings.
Both the regime consolidated its territorial gains, and also I think Iran expanded its influence in Syria. So Turkey might – Erdogan in rhetoric might be fiercely anti-Assad, and yet, as Bob Pearson just said, through its actions it’s actually empowering the Assad regime, and also the Iranian presence in Syria.
So the second factor, support for Muslim Brotherhood, also it’s been problematic. It drove a wedge between Turkey and the U.S. allies in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE.
With Egypt, Turkey had very close to Mohamed Morsi. And after toppling of the Morsi regime, Turkey became very critical of Sisi, and the two countries decided to withdraw their ambassadors. Right before Turkey’s failed coup in 2016, I think there were reconciliation efforts. But on the day of the coup in Turkey, I think the Egyptian media was too happy. (Laughs.) So I think that opening closed now. And Erdogan – while the Egyptian regime wants Turkey to deport the Muslim Brotherhood members, there’s a large network of exiled Muslim Brotherhood members in Turkey. In Istanbul they have their news channels and media networks. So that’s a condition for the normalization of relations for the Egyptians. And now it’s publicly pushing for normalization is very difficult for President Erdogan, especially, again, what happened after the failed coup. It’s quite difficult.
So the UAE, United Arab Emirates, is similarly concerned about – concerned about Turkey’s links to Muslim Brotherhood. And Erdogan is not very fond of the UAE either. He – after the failed coup, he argued that the UAE was behind the coup attempt. The Saudis, I would say, were less worried about Turkey Muslim Brotherhood ties. And for a while, they tried to mediate between Turkey and Egypt, but not anymore. Not after Turkey sided with Qatar after the Gulf countries’ decision – the blockade decision.
And Bob Pearson said Crown Prince MBS is very passionate. He recently called Turkey as part of axis of evil. And Turkey thinks that the Saudis are in bed with the Syrian Kurds. Just recently the PYD officials, they reached out to the Saudis publicly, saying that they were ready to work with the Saudis. So there is that perception in Ankara as well. And Erdogan is also pitching himself as the leader of the Muslim world. So he was very critical of Trump’s Jerusalem decision. That alienated Israelis further.
So, if you look at Turkey and its standing in the region at the moment, from the U.S. perspective it’s still a NATO country. It’s still an important country. It’s an important partner in the fight against the Islamic State. But it has also become very isolated in the region. So all those things that actually made Turkey a useful partner on the ground, they’re not there anymore. And at times, Turkey is working at cross purposes, like in Syria. If the U.S. aim there is trying to contain the Iranian influence, Turkey’s certainly working as cross-purposes there. Also, weakening the U.S. partners on the ground, the YPG.
And Turkey-Russia partnership is something that is really – that has raised eyebrows here. And Turkey’s S-400 deal – recently U.S. slapped sanctions against Russia, and one of the companies listed there is producing S-400. And there are other issues, maybe my colleagues can talk about, that the jailed Pastor Andrew Brunson. It’s a huge problem, especially for the people on the Hill. And, again, American lawmakers are talking about sanctions.
So Turkey has become – to say the least – has become a problematic partner. And if we can read too much into it, President Trump, right after he announced the attack against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, he didn’t cite Turkey as a close partner of the U.S. in the region. He cited the Saudis, Qatar, and other countries, but not Turkey. But I still think – and also, after Andrew Brunson, it was just before he – he was in the courts the other day. And after that, President Trump tweeted a very critical tweet.
So I think – despite all that, I think the U.S. is still confused about what to do with Turkey. Even the Pentagon. There are different voices. You have the central command. Of course, they are in charge of Middle East, and they have been working closely with the YPG. So they want to keep working with the YPG. And but on the other hand, you have the European Command, who are – who see Turkey as a valuable NATO partner. And they think that the best approach is to engage Turkey and stop working with the YPG.
And also, there are – we’ve been hearing that there are people around President Trump who are – who think – who are tired of Erdogan and think that Turkey has already been lost. But there are others who are saying that, no, we don’t want to be the ones who lost Turkey. So we have to keep engaging Turkey. So there’s a lot of confusion, but I think one thing is clear. Turkey is – Turkey is not a constructive partner. And I think the U.S. is trying to stop Turkey from spoiling things on the ground. And I’ll stop with that.
MR. SCHMIERER: Are there any written questions yet? If there are, could you – you know, could the staff pick them up, please?
AARON STEIN: Hello, everybody. Thank you for the invite. And thanks, everybody, for coming.
I’m going to try and switch gears a little bit and talk about Turkey in the region. And if I had to summarize it in two sentences, I would say: Security focused in the near-abroad, in Syria and Iraq, and transformative in their agenda within the far-abroad, or in the broader region. And I think it’s important to start with that second one, about how they view themselves as transformative, first starting with how the government makes its own assumptions about itself.
You know, so as Americans, we like to talk about how Ankara is disruptive for U.S. interests. And I agree with all of my panelist, and I can talk – and I’ll get to that in the end. And I think we would all agree that when we look at political trends in Turkey, they’re all entirely negative. But when you ask a Turkish official, particularly from the ruling party and from the upper echelon of the ruling party not from the rank and file, I think they would tell you that they went through a tremendous catastrophe in July 2016 with the failed coup attempt.
They’re facing extraordinary security pressures based upon the conflict in Syria, but also from the internal dynamics to their own polity within the Turkish bureaucracy itself. And this being the threat posed, at least self-identified, by the Fethullah Gulen movement, and that they would push back aggressively on this idea that Turkey is not democratic. I don’t agree with any of that, but that is what they would say.
And so when you ask them why – so when you begin to say why are they transformative in the region, I think what they would say is that the way things have been going – particularly since the end of the Cold War, but more in lightspeed since 9/11, and then really since the U.S. invasion of Iraq – is that the dynamics are entirely against Turkish security interests, which is the collapse of internal governance first in Iraq and then, beginning in 2011, inside of Syria. And then, continuing from 2011, the outgrowth of the political instability caused by the democratic, or at least liberal, popular uprisings across the region that we now call the Arab Spring.
And I think, in terms of that transformative understanding of where Turkey’s role is in the region, is those dynamics that led to that populist political upheaval in Egypt, in Syria obviously, but also in Tunisia, Libya, elsewhere and in smaller numbers, are still there bubbling beneath the surface. And so while the Egyptian government in particular may have clamped it down through first the overthrow of the Morsi government and then ultimately through the introduction of more authoritarian rule in itself, that is a short-term fix.
And so if you are Turkey, with this new political identity that they are trying to solidify, that they think is more democratic, they are making a long-term bet and are ultimately set up for success, while the old status quo – perhaps best represented by the United States and its regional security posture – is destined to fail. Again, I don’t agree with that. But I think that is what they would say. And I think the ultimately explains – albeit in contradictory terms – but, nevertheless, the underpinning of the relationship of Qatar, a state that has financially – has financial power, and was from Turkey’s point of view politically, you know, instrumental in helping to advance this transformative agenda. I think it also explains what Turkey is doing in North Africa, in Sudan in particular, and to a lesser extent in Somalia.
Now, in the near-abroad, it’s very clear that what’s driving Turkish decision making is security, security, security. And that security is – like Gonul said, it’s completely derived around the PKK – Turkey’s PKK problem. I mean, the PKK, you know, was established in 1978, but became violent in, you know, different dates, but about 1984. But if you take the 1978, what are we 40 years of this group? And I would say at year 40 it is now the strongest it’s ever been. And so when the Turks say, why is it the strongest it’s ever been, they’ll look here, just down the road that way I guess, and they’ll say that it’s an outgrowth of the collapse of regional order. The collapse of internal governance in Syria, but also in Iraq.
I mean, a lot of the dynamics that we see how driving tensions between the U.S. and Turkey were prevalent in 2007 between the U.S. – between the U.S. and Turkey and Iraq. Demands by the Turkish government to secure the border so cross-border attacks cannot happen from the PKK. The U.S. government officials sort of being a little lackadaisical in their messaging, saying not really our mandate. And then ultimately you get a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq in 2007. Albeit on a much lesser scale, you can replicate and transpose onto dynamics in 2017. And why is that?
There is an assumption that domestic political dynamics are driving Turkish decision making on the security question. I think that’s false. I think Turkey has made the assumption that the Syrian state will be in a state of collapse for the near term – same with Iraq. And I don’t think their assumptions are wrong there. So ultimately, what is their near-term objectives, from a security perspective? Which is, if you have to defeat an insurgency – now 40 years old – you cannot have it have safe haven externally. I think this is a lesson the United States has learned quite well – well, we’ve learned it many times and we relearn them every single time.
And so you can map out – if you can just visualize the map, you have to have a Turkish presence along the northern strip of the Syrian border militarily, extended across into Iraq. So if you look at Turkish military operations since, when is it, August 24th, 2016, you have the rectangle, basically from the Euphrates River, expand all the way over into Afrin. You have a U.S. presence, which the – which we can talk about in a second. And then off into Quandil, where the three states meet, and then down into Sinjar, because Sinjar is the cross-border point where the PKK runs supplies back and forth from Syria into Iraq.
You look at Erdogan’s threats to the region, Northern Aleppo, Afrin, Sinjar. Bracket this place, and then you can try and cut off the insurgency to the best of your ability. You then try and force the United States into a very difficult position by forcing a showdown over Manbij. The deal, as best as I understood it, was three parts. It was for the external – internal council that the United States supports in Manbij Military Council would be diluted first by joint patrols, second by the sharing of joint vetted lists – who was the MMC, who can Turkey bring in from its cadres, and then together they can jointly govern.
Now, I don’t think this was implementable for a number of reasons I can talk about that in the Q&A. But from a Turkish perspective, that meets your security requirements, because then you can replicate that east of the river, and you force the United States to do what you want. One of which was a quasi-buffer zone along that topline border to prevent cross movement of people. It all makes sense. And they’ve actually been quite effectively, largely because in their yelling, screaming, and forcing the potential for a showdown, they have whipped bureaucrats in our government into a frenzy, and we’re trying to figure out outcomes to appease or ameliorate an ally.
Whether or not this is a durable lasting solution, I think is unclear. But we’ve seen outcomes of it thus far, one of which is the closer relationship with Russia, which is entirely driven by the necessity to put troops across the border – security focused. There is a political component to that, the purchase of a S-400 missile system, which will invite a U.S. response across two baskets. There’s the big C consequences, which is CAATSA, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. And then there’s small C consequences, which is denial of licenses on end-user products for Turkish defense industry, both of which will have serious consequences for Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship. But whether the people in Ankara really have thought this one through I am not sure.
But as I wrap up and go into conclusion here, the dynamics for the U.S.-Turkish relationship are entirely negative. But I would say that if you’re an AK Parti politician campaigning for election now against June 24th, 2018, where you have widespread voter anger across political parties at the United States for empowering Kurdish movements across the border, fomented by a media that is entirely beholden to the ruling party, you have the dynamics for anti-Western populism in Turkey that wraps around these security concerns. And therefore, it’s a toxic mix that will probably cause problems – well, that will definitely cause problems for the U.S.-Turkish relationship. But in that broader context, also cause, I guess, some concerns, both in the Middle East and across from Europe, about what ultimately Turkish intentions are. So with that, thank you very much.
LISEL HINTZ: Good morning, everyone. I have the dubious honor of going last. So I’m going to try not to repeat anything that my colleagues have said. Thank you so much for having me. This is real pleasure to be able to speak with you.
My colleagues have done a really excellent job of outlining the security concerns underlying Turkish decision making. I think we also need to take very seriously the economic concerns, obviously related to security, but sort of the economics driving a lot of Turkish foreign policy decision making as well. When we think about the decision to move up the elections to June 24th, I think there’s a lot of different factors behind that. But I think one of the most powerful driving forces is the fact that the Turkish economy, despite having sort of seemingly demonstrated impressive growth rates, now Turkey has kind of manipulated the way that it reports its GDP findings but, you know, these impressive growth rates, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the short-term capital investments, the so-called hot money that’s being pushed in the economy, the expansion of credit is just not sustainable, and that there’s a looming economic crisis, and that the AKP is trying to get out head of that in terms of the elections.
What I want to contribute is an identity politics perspective on Turkish foreign policy decision making. And largely, Turkey’s kind of shift towards finding a much greater role for itself in the Middle East, and kind of moving away from U.S. and European entrenchment and increasing its role in the Middle East. I was very happy that my forthcoming book was flagged in the introduction. And it’s titled “Identity Politics Inside Out.” What I focus on is the intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy, and specifically how identity contestation over what it means to be Turkish spills over into the foreign policy arena.
And one of the things that I explain in the book is the rise of what I call Ottoman Islamism as an understanding of what it means to be Turkish, something that is fundamentally different from the previous prevailing understanding of Turkish national identity, which I call republican nationalism, what I would describe as sort of a pro-Western, secular, sort of modernizing understanding. Gender equality was very important in that understanding of national identity. There was always perhaps a bit of suspicion of the West. And I think this comes from the Turkish Republic’s founder’s experience of the Treaty of Sevres and the idea that there was a lot of territory that was going to be ripped apart. So there’s a suspicion of the West that came along with this understanding, but that Turkey fundamentally belonged in the West and that’s where it should be headed.
So this understanding of what it means to be Turkish had very clear foreign policy consequences, which were centered around, essentially a trans-Atlantic alliance. What we see in what I call Ottoman Islamism is an understanding of Turkishness that means that to be a good Turk you are a pious Sunni Muslim, you respect a patriarchal understanding of relations, and that Turkey’s foreign policy and its role in the region is grounded in the legitimacy of its role – and Gonul mentioned this – as kind of Muslim leader in the region, and specifically Sunni Muslim leader in the region. And that comes from Turkey’s home as – or, former home of the caliphate and the sultanate. So there’s this kind of understanding of a different role for Turkey to play in the region.
And this is gets kind of the point that Ambassador Pearson had mentioned, that Erdogan said that Turkey had wasted 200 years. This is an understanding that was kind of solidified in former Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s understanding of a strategic depth doctrine. That is, taking advantage of the cultural and historical and religious ties that Turkey has in the region that had essentially been wasted in Erdogan’s eyes, and his supporters, by trying to deny or move away or break away from Turkey’s Ottoman past and move specifically and explicitly towards the West. And so this rise of Ottoman Islamism that I see in domestic politics, that I see in Turkish pop culture – I mean, the – from television shows to advertisements for chewing gum and cellphones, you have politicians dressing up in Ottoman garb as their – sort of fake Ottoman garb – as they’re running for elections, that this something that some of the AKP followers – you know, it gives them a sense of Turkey have an importance in the region and playing a role and being a leader.
And this rise of Ottoman Islamism under the AKP has happened in a really short amount of time. And I just – I want to recall sort of just one anecdote. So, for the one-year anniversary of the coup attempt I was actually in Ankara. It was around midnight. We were waiting for Erdogan to come. He’d been giving a speech in Istanbul. He was coming to Ankara. And I was standing on the steps of the parliament, which is situated at the intersection of Inonu Street and Ataturk Boulevard – that is, Ismet Inonu and Ataturk – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the two founding fathers, military commanders, two first presidents of Turkey, founders of what I call republican nationalism. And what I saw around me was a crowd of people shouting “allahu akbar,” and the majority of the women were wearing hijab. And that was something that those two founders would have been very unhappy about. And so that’s just to say that there’s a real sort of animosity between people who share these competing understandings of identity that can help to explain some of the domestic societal polarization that we see in Turkey.
The way in which I explain this rise of Ottoman Islamism is that – very briefly – that the AKP is able to use kind of the foreign policy arena to use EU accession criteria to reduce the role, to remove the role of some of the former republican nationalist obstacles to its rise. That being the role of the military, using sort of civil-military criteria to reduce the role of the military, reconfigure the judiciary as part of the democratization process, and so that way is kind of able to remove those obstacles that had closed down or kicked out of power previous parties in that same Ottoman Islamism tradition. You know, the AKP comes to power in 2002 as proclaimedly a big-tent party. But it comes from one of the most anti-Western traditions of political Islam in Turkey.
So this is kind of trying to understand, from an identity politics perspective, why we see Turkey kind of investing itself and seeing itself and wanting to be recognized as this legitimate Sunni Muslim brother in the region. And you see this in a couple of cases in particular. And we’ve heard the details of a number of the cases. But one thing we didn’t talk about is Turkey’s support of Palestine and its extremely open declaration that Turkey should be the – sort of the brother or the father figure or the entity that can defend the Palestinian cause. We heard about this a little bit with the organization or the organizing by Erdogan of protest against the U.S.’s decision to move the embassy in Jerusalem.
And another really important sort of moment in this was the Mavi Marmara incident, where there’s a flotilla that’s sent by a Turkish NGO, something that had very close ties to the Turkish government, that attempts to break the Gaza blockade. You also see this in the sort of ramp-up of very anti-Israeli rhetoric. You saw a number of incidents. The incident at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009, for example, where Erdogan sort of interrupts the discussion and tells Shimon Peres: You know well how to kill. Sort of trying to defend the Palestinian cause and sort of attack Israel. A relatively, probably, staged public attack, and probably in response to the fact that Turkey had been brokering Syria-Israeli negotiations. And just a few days after there was a delegation in Ankara, Israel began bombing Gaza. And Erdogan saw that as kind of a personal affront, like how dare you go behind my back and do this, and attack those who I’m trying to protect?
So there’s definitely been a championing of the Palestinian cause. The sort of efforts to warm relations with Syria, actually. We think now of how incredibly anti-Assad Erdogan is, and that in fact he didn’t even want to participate in the – he didn’t want the Turkish military to participate in anti-ISIS strikes unless the U.S. would make that conditional upon Assad’s ouster as well. But we have to remember that before the Arab Spring there was a very warm relationship between Assad and Erdogan. There was sort of a bromance going on. They vacationed together in Bodrum, there was a clear warming of relations – which is actually, again, interesting from a foreign policy shift perspective. If you think that just as close as 1998 Turkey and Syria were ready to go to war with each other over Syria’s harboring of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK.
So you have a Turkey that’s very much trying to reach out to Syria, and in fact is telling the international community when the Arab Spring happens that, you know, I’m going to negotiate with Assad. Don’t worry about it. I’m going to take care of this. I’m going to make sure that he stops cracking down on his people. And then, of course, when he’s not able to achieve that and he’s expended an immense amount of political capital trying to get Assad to back down, then there’s a shift completely the other way, and there’s a resentment of Assad. And there’s a clear, you know, need to show that he is enemy number one. You see this with a lot of Erdogan’s political opponents, that they’re very close and then he can turn on them very viciously. We see it obviously with Fethullah Gulen, who was very close with the AKP.
You see this also with Qatar. And we’ve heard a little bit about this, but, you know, Turkey – again, for economic reasons. Qatar has made an immense amount of portfolio and direct investment in Turkey. That’s risen quite a bit. Turkey and Qatar have established a strategic cooperation council. Turkey provided military cooperation as well as food assistance to Qatar during the – during the blockade. And actually, Turkey tried to broker that crisis as well and was unable to do that. So as – I think it’s actually important to recognize, as much as Turkey would like to see itself as a Sunni Muslim brother in the region, who can broker crises and negotiate deals, that it’s been actually quite ineffective in doing so.
And it’s also worth noting that a lot of the Ottoman rhetoric, the famous Ottoman slap, right? If the U.S. is supporting the YPG in Syria, they should get an Ottoman slap. Probably more for domestic Turkish audiences than for the U.S., but it’s a way of kind of slapping back, literally. But that not all of this is historically accurate. This is an idealized sort of version of what it means to be – to be Ottoman. But it is something that, you know, directs or shapes a lot of the rhetoric. And it’s something that plays well to a lot of his domestic political audiences. And I think that’s actually something really important to understand.
When it comes to Erdogan’s rhetoric, whether it’s anti-U.S. rhetoric, whether it is anti – as we heard – you know, calling Germans Nazis or calling the Dutch fascists – you have to always look at the timing of when that rhetoric is being said, and whether there’s an election coming up. And there have been a lot of elections in Turkey recently. And so as a result, you see a lot of this anti-Western rhetoric, that plays very well to his domestic political base. This also makes any kind of – as was mentioned earlier – efforts to resolve crises incredibly difficult, because that anti-Western sentiment is so popular at the polls. So that’s something that I think that we should keep in mind.
Whether or not there’s going to be a change in the playing field after the elections, whether – you know, when there’s no need to continue campaigning if Erdogan, as I think most people expect, is elected president in this very consolidated executive presidency, will there be more room for negotiation because he doesn’t have to whip up that anti-Western sentiment, is something to consider. Although, it’s also I think important to consider that following the referendum last April, where we thought there might be sort of an easing of this anti-Western rhetoric, we didn’t really see that. But then again, that’s because more elections are always coming.
So, again, that sort of domestic-foreign policy interplay I think is really important in understanding Turkey’s role in the Middle East, in understanding why it has had such difficult tensions with the U.S. and with the EU. Gonul mentioned Andrew Brunson. Turkey’s also been engaging in what some scholars, Aykan Erdemir for example, has called hostage diplomacy – taking hostage Greek soldiers, taking hostage German journalists, and then trying to negotiate for their return. So, again, we have a Turkey that is a very troubled ally, one that is, at least under this particular party, continued to a continued presence in the Middle East, committed to trying to demonstrate that it is this Sunni Muslim brother in the region – no matter how that is kind of received by those particular countries.
And so I think, again, you know, considering that this is something that the AKP views as its intended role, from an identity politics perspective – yes, shaped by security concerns, shaped by economic concerns – but that there is a sense that Turkey’s role is in the Middle East is something important to consider in terms of thinking about AKP future foreign policy. So I’ll stop there. Thank you.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you very much to the speakers.
I think I’d like to start by noting that I heard just a little more explanation of why Turkey is doing what it’s doing from the last two speakers. And so let me ask Ambassador Pearson and Dr. Tol. Let’s say that I were – wanted to be devil’s advocate for a minute and say: Turkey advised us not to invade Iraq. Let’s see what else. As Lisel said, they tried to mediate an Israeli-Syrian agreement. They tried with Brazil to negotiate some kind of agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. They were engaged for at least two years in peace talks with the PKK recently. They’ve taken a lot of Syrian refugees. And they acquiesced – if I understand correctly, they acquiesced in the initial cooperation between the U.S. and the YPG based – is this mic not working?
OK, I was just saying, as a devil’s advocate, I’m pointing out Iraq opposed our invasion – Turkey opposed our invasion of Iraq, attempted to mediate an agreement between Israel and Syria, attempted with Brazil to mediate some agreement between Iran and the Western powers over Iran’s nuclear program, engaged in peace talks with the PKK, has taken a lot of Syrian refugees and has suffered a lot of disruption and expense because of it, and acquiesced in early U.S. cooperation with the YPG based on some understandings they had with the United States about how we would take weapons away from them and move them east of the Euphrates River.
So the question is – you know, and you’ll hear this in the Gulf a lot – that American policy since the invasion of Iraq has undermined the security of those states. They don’t think they can rely on our judgement the way they thought they could before those events. And they feel they need to be – they feel they need to take more responsibility for their own foreign policy, rather than wait for us to be their ally and partner. Is there any merit in the argument that we’ve maybe put them in a position where they’ve had to do some of these things that now seem not to be in our interests, counterproductive, or at least have unintended consequences for both of us? And, Ambassador Pearson, you were there during these years. You can probably give us some first-hand knowledge of discussions with us at that time. And how they felt about what we would doing and what it would mean for them.
MR. PEARSON: I’d be happy to. You know, I can’t, unfortunately, spend three hours explaining it all, so I’m going to do it very quickly. The Turks, with respect to Afghanistan, were incredibly helpful to us. And I publicly and privately thanked them a number of times because of their connection with Afghanistan, and their understanding of what was happening there and what needed to be done.
The Turks were actually pretty happy with Saddam Hussein having his thumb on the Kurds. They resented the American free-fly zone and chafed at it insisting on having their intelligence officers in the same room with Americans as things took place and so on. So they were – had a fundamentally different approach to those two countries. And the approach they had to Iraq was that they were really kind of OK with the way Saddam Hussein was running the country.
I completely agree that the Israelis pulled the rug out from under the Turks in the attempts that Erdogan was making. It was obvious that they humiliated him within days of having a serious meeting with him about how to achieve progress. And I even, to this day, except for the military secrecy aspect of it, I do not understand why the Israelis tossed him overboard with such a cavalier approach.
On Brazil and Iran, the Turks, in the American view, go ahead of their brief. It’s like if Rex Tillerson announced that he had reached agreement on the Korean nuclear issue without actually sending the telegram back to tell Donald Trump that it was done. And so the failure of the Turks to communicate with the Americans about where they were, and the famous photograph of smiles, handshakes, whatever passes for champagne, was an incredible shock, since the Americans has not been informed.
I don’t know that the Turks agreed with the original YGP-U.S. relationship. The part that’s always missing in the narrative is that when ISIS surged into Syria, the Americans and the Turks tried to come to agreement about working on it. And the Turks, in response to the American invitation, said no. The Yazidis are Kurds, and their women were being sold into sex slavery and their children were being recruited into ISIS armies. So no one was there to help them. And the U.S. agreed to do that.
And we all remember Kobane, a city of 50,000 people more or less, under siege by ISIS for four or five months. And if ISIS had won that battle, it would have been an enormous plus for their campaign for control of the caliphate they were trying to establish. And unfortunately, we all remember the photographs of the Turkish tanks on the hillside across the border, doing nothing. So it’s unfair for Turkey to have claimed that the U.S. embraced a terrorist organization as if that was our role in the world. We were trying to help people who actually had a right of self-defense.
So I’ll finish. In diplomacy two things are important. One is, get your facts right, however unpleasant. That’s often a conversation you have with your capital. The second thing is, then choose your policy. So, in choosing your policy, you have to take into account the other person’s interest. Not whether you think they’re right or wrong, but how can you balance what you would like to have done with what they would like to have done? I personally think that there is room for considerable collaboration between the United States and Turkey, even today. And I think the U.S. has made its own share of mistakes – the low-level announcement of a 30,000-person border defense force being one of the most obvious and most recent.
But the – I like the idea that Aaron raised, even though it is perilous, that there might be room for some sort of joint action in Manbij and along that southern border, because we’ve done that before and we know how to do that with the Turks, if the Turks are willing to take that move. And that is a domestic opinion for them. I’ll leave peace talks with the PKK alone. I know Gonul has very good expertise there, and Syrian refugees as well. Thank you.
MS. TOL: Well, I completely agree with Ambassador Pearson. From U.S. perspective, it was Turkey’s reluctance to do its part in the fight against ISIS that drove them towards this close partnership with YPG. And I also – I disagree with what Aaron said, that these domestic politics didn’t play a real role. I think it’s all about domestic politics. Erdogan – we always argued that Erdogan was a very pragmatic leader, especially when it came to the Kurdish peace process. He launched two Kurdish peace processes before. And yet, because of domestic calculations, the minute he realized that this was going to be electorally costly for him, he changed his mind – in a matter of 24 hours. So just if you look at two different Kurdish openings that he launched, you realize that domestic politics and electoral considerations played a huge part.
So I agree with – so, again, I have to – I want to repeat what I said before. I think Turkey’s fear of Kurdish separatism is the main driver of Turkey’s regional policy. And that’s become the major headache for Washington. And I think that the Syrian conflict really complicated what Erdogan could have done with the Kurds. And yet, it was all about, I think, domestic politics in 2015. He launched the second Kurdish opening in 2012, largely as a response to what was happening in Syria. He felt quite vulnerable after the Assad regime gave a free hand to the Kurds in the north. And he thought that if Turkey failed to fix its own Kurdish problem it would always remain vulnerable to what Assad was doing. So that was the rationale. And it worked.
There was an agreement between the government and the PKK. And there was a ceasefire going on. And when did that break? Only after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in 2015. So that’s why I think that obviously U.S. cooperation with the YPG hurt the prospects for the Kurdish peace process, but that was not the main factor. It was his domestic calculations.
MR. MATTAIR: Aaron.
MR. STEIN: Yeah. Maybe I was too strident. I didn’t mean to say that there wasn’t domestic calculations in driving Turkish decision making, but the operation in Afrin, I think, was more out of, you know, security planning that was then wrapped into a domestic narrative, that I completely agree with, that stems from a remilitarization of the Kurdish issue inside of Turkey. You had peace talks between the AKP – you know, it’s basically one long arc between 2006 and into 2015, broken up between 2009 and 2012. And in the first iteration there was two external mediators, I think from Norway and the U.K. That broke down. But then it reignited in 2012, largely because of the Syrian crisis. I agree with that.
And it broke down in 2015 because Erdogan’s – first, because Erdogan’s rhetoric building into the June 2015 election. I think internally now with the benefit of hindsight, he was looking at his party’s opinion poll numbers go down, whereas the opinion polls rising for the HDP, a Kurdish party. Not very high on the Kurdish party side, just into the 13 percent range, but with the way votes are counted in Turkey, crossing a certain threshold, 10 percent but even slightly over 10 percent, and the way votes are reallocated meant that there would be an extraordinary impact on the AKP’s standing within parliament. And we saw that in June 2015.
I also think internal to Turkey, within their own bureaucracy, the security bureaucracy in general was chomping at the bit to go smash what was in January 2015, and the slightly before that with Kobane, clear that PKK youth cadres were really solidifying – were becoming more overt in their internal control over southeastern Kurdish-majority cities inside of Turkey. And so you have these push-and-pull factors that ultimately leads to the collapse of the peace process.
And that collapse of the peace process was also helped along by the Islamic State, who decided to set off a bomb in Suruc that killed 33 people, linked to the HDP. And because the PKK blames the AKP for sponsoring ISIS, the PKK or an affiliate, may or may not acting on the direct orders of the leadership, killed two police officers. So you’ve set in motion this cycle that becomes politically advantageous to Erdogan because his pathway to consolidate authoritarian power looked remote when they lost a parliamentary majority and the HDP itself said that they wouldn’t support the drafting of a new constitution. So he had to recalibrate his approach. So, yeah.
MS. HINTZ: As critical as I can be of Turkey, I really like this devil’s advocate question, because, you know, Ambassador Pearson is saying it’s never our fault. It’s always someone else’s fault. But in a sense, I think that the U.S., the EU, and other players haven’t necessarily been completely fair in their treatment of Turkey either. And so I mentioned that Turkey even under the republican nationalists had a suspicion of the West, stemming from the Treaty of Sevres, but also from, you know, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lack of support in 1974 of the Cyprus invasion, and the Operation Provide Comfort that – following the 1990-91 Gulf War, that set up the sort of no-fly zone and safe haven for Kurds. I think all of these are seen by Turkey as the U.S. not necessarily be a reliable ally.
In terms of the EU-Turkey negotiation, Turkey sees the EU as being very hypocritical of allowing countries to enter quite rapidly. They look at Croatia and they say: We signed an agreement with you in 1966. Like, how is this happening? How are these countries entering so quickly? They look at rhetoric like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel saying that, you know, Turkey will never be a full member, that there’s this sort of idea of a Christian club and so forth. So there’s a lot of frustration and suspicion within Turkey as well, and I think rightly so.
When we look at the failed – I would say failed EU-Turkey accession process, I think that there is a – there’s sort of fault on both sides. And I think that also in – to touch on the refugee question – you know, the EU-Turkey refugee agreement is a very transactional one. And it’s very much aimed at making sure that Turkey continues to bear the immense brunt of hosting as many Syrian refugees as they do, which at this point is about 3.5 million. And the EU balked at, you know, a million refugees within an entity that is 500 million people. And that’s about the same number of refugees that are in Lebanon, which is the – you know, a country of almost more refugees than not at this point, and a very tiny one.
You know, Turkey has, for the most part, actually, borne this burden very well and has provided a lot of aid to the refugees. Of course, that comes in conjunction with the EU-Turkey refugee deal, which was supposed to provide 6 billion euro in aid. Only about 3 billion of that has been allocated so far. That’s actually a sticking point with Turkish-EU relations right now. They’re saying: Why aren’t you giving us more of that money? As well as the fact that that that money is not being given to – or put into Turkish coffers, but rather being distributed throughout aid agencies within Turkey. And Turkey would like more control over that money.
That being said, and, you know, there are some health benefits and employment benefits and so forth that Syrian refugees are getting. I would say that there are two aspects that if we abandon the devil’s advocate standpoint and kind of go back to being a bit critical of Turkey, one is that, you know, there was, again, this kind of Sunni Muslim brother in the region. There was an effort in Turkey to try to appear to the international community as the country that was being welcoming, that was not rejecting these refugees, that this was the role that Turkey should play, and that the great majority of those who were coming through were Sunni Muslims.
The other element of that – and so, Turkey was kind of touting its moral superiority, shall we say, a little bit on in the international scene. The other element of that is that we have to consider that Turkey is at least slightly complicit in causing the refugee problem in the first place, in terms of turning a blind eye to ISIS, allowing ISIS fighters to flow through the Turkish border, not necessarily, you know, rooting out ISIS cells. So the Syrian civil war is such a complex and sticky one, as the U.S. is increasingly realizing.
But a lot of Turkey’s policies towards Syria – and I think particularly, you know, not necessarily being proactive in fighting against ISIS, until ISIS became a real threat within Turkish territory, by the way. That’s when Turkey kind of switches its policy and closes the border at the end of 2015. But that, you know, Turkey has played a lot of domestic politics in Syria. And I think that that is one of the reasons that we do see such an immense Syrian refugee crisis.
MR. MATTAIR: Thank you. You know, what I was trying to drive at was their security concerns and motivations since 2002. But that’s when the AKP came to power also. So still trying to understand motivations, how do you compare these security concerns with them with this Ottoman Islamist identity, with maybe an identity justification for undoing the Treaty of Severe and the Treaty of Lausanne? You know, I use that, you know, in a loose way – undoing it. And their support for the Muslim Brotherhood. How much does that explain their foreign policy since 2002, compared to their security concerns? Anybody, yes.
MS. HINTZ: Well, since you mentioned specifically Ottoman Islamism, I guess I’ll jump in. So the way in which I think of an identity is that an understanding of identity shapes what you see as a security concern, shapes who you see as a threat, shapes who you believe can be a trustworthy ally. And so, with an Ottoman Islamist understanding of identity, there is not necessarily this need to see the Middle East as somewhere where we don’t want to get entangled, where we don’t want to get drawn into that, we see our interests in the West. And so this opens up possibility for much deeper security cooperation, military cooperation, economic cooperation, as well as a sort of soft power influence within the Middle East, that we didn’t see under previous governments.
And I think the timing of this is actually quite important, because the AKP comes into power in 2002, but it’s not able to pursue an active Middle East policy right away. It – and in my argument, that’s because it had to kind of defang or reduce the role of some of those republican nationalist institutions. And so by doing so, then we start to see in the middle of the 2000s a much more active sort of Middle East policy, along with the strategic depth doctrine. And actually, in order to be able to make that possible – that is, how do we take advantages of this cultural and historical and religious ties in the region – was this zero problems with neighbors policy and trying to resolve the conflicts on Turkey’s borders.
But if you think about, like, you know, Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, that’s a lot of neighbors to try to resolve problems with. And particularly when you push on one, that is trying to normalize ties with Armenia, Azerbaijan pushes back. So there’s a lot of different kind of moving parts in that. So, in terms of security concerns, I think that from an identity politics perspective Turkey has, under the AKP – and I should say – not Turkey. I should say, the AKP’s Turkey or the AKP in power just has a very different understanding of who can be trusted, who it wants to partner with.
And I should qualify – and this goes back to the Iran-Brazil deal – is that, yes, there is this kind of Sunni Muslim understanding of identity, but this can also be relatively flexible. And it can be kind of upgraded to a Muslim understanding overall. And we did see some of the rhetoric in Turkey’s negotiations with Iran. When we start to see it hardening into more of, like, a Sunni narrative is when you see a lot of the sectarian fights back and forth, particularly with Maliki – with al-Maliki in Iraq.
MS. TOL: Just briefly. I think up until the Arab uprisings –
MR. MATTAIR: I didn’t hear that?
MS. TOL: Sorry. Up until the Arab uprisings, I think that neo-Ottoman ideology played an important role in Turkey’s regional policy. So at the time Turkey really expanded is soft power in the region. And Turkey was seen – if you look at the people of the region, Turkey was seen as a country that was, on the one hand seeking EU membership, a NATO member, but on the other hand a Muslim country. So AKP was, in a way, seen as a model. So the region itself was receptive to Turkey’s expanding soft power. But of course, the Syrian conflict especially, particularly, dealt a blow to that image.
So I don’t think right now Turkey – I don’t know if they have that at heart still, that neo-Ottoman ideology. But if they have, it’s not realistic. Obviously, Turkey is very isolated. And the region now is – I mean, many countries in the region and seeing Turkey, and they are really – they are very uncomfortable with that idea of neo-Ottomanism. And we see that in Syria. We see that in Iraq. And even the Sunnis of Iraq, for instance. Even the Turkmen, who are ethnically linked to Turks, and Turkey often pitches itself as their – the supporters, as the country that protects the Turkmen minority. Even they are saying that we are first Iraqis. So they are very uncomfortable with that idea, with that neo-Ottoman agenda. So it – I think that ended with the Syrian conflict.
MR. MATTAIR: Yes.
MR. PEARSON: I think a lot of what we’ve been saying I completely agree with. I think a lot of it is the fact-finding part of diplomacy, OK, which is to know – (laughs) – what actually is the state of the facts, and to listen very carefully to what the other side’s articulation of their interest will be. And you have to take that into account. So I don’t have any objection with fully comprehending and understanding and appreciating the point of view of Turkey on any issue. That’s part of the solution, actually, not part of the problem.
And the Ottoman Empire was being manipulated by European powers for centuries before World War I. And it developed an ingrown attitude about being manipulated. And the U.S. and Turkey, in a way, were accidental allies after World War II. We ended up holding the European portfolio, and they ended up being under threat from the Soviet Union. So we were slotted into a stereotype that had been created centuries before we ever arrived. So I think that what I’m hearing is that there is a lot of room where Turkey and the United States could accommodate their interest, which is what negotiations are about, and we should look for ways to do that. Again, it’s not about who’s right or wrong. It’s about how can you balance you interests. And it seems to me that there is plenty of room for us to be able to do that.
MR. STEIN: So much of the neo-Ottoman – it’s all wrapped up in Ahmet Davutoglu’s book, which if you can actually read is entirely incoherent. And his Ph.D. thesis –
MS. HINTZ: And factually inaccurate.
MR. STEIN: His Ph.D. thesis is in English. And went I lived in Turkey I went and sought it out. I actually had it on CD, just ready to hand out to people. That’s also incoherent. I don’t know how that passed dissertation review, but it did. But at the crux of the argument is that boundaries in the Middle East were artificial because they were drawn by European powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and they were based upon this idea of false ethnic nationalism. And this nationalism, Baathism – it’s mostly Baathism, but, you know, sort of monarchism in the Middle East, is incongruent to the region’s ideology. And therefore, it’s far more receptive to going back to this idea that people have cross – have more in common than they have differences because these nationalism ideologies are a European import and are pushed down on people.
And that the United States, as the post-1945 guarantor of security in the region has said, first – to use Davutoglu’s words – first via the vehicle of anti-communism then the vehicle of anti-Islamism – has set up a security architecture that has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. And he talks about that through Cairo and talks about that through the Israeli prism of justifying Israel’s security via the peace agreements with Jordan in Egypt. And therefore the U.S. has a vested interest in ensuring that autocracy lives – and this is why he talks about Egypt so much, and Egypt – and this is why they’re so adamant against the coup and why they think the U.S. was supportive of the coup in Egypt.
And therefore, to get the region to a place where Turkey can have zero problems with neighbors, all of this vested nationalism has to go away. And the only way to do that is to vis-à-vis travel. Istanbul, Turkish airlines, is the center of a regional hub. Free trade agreements, you know? And going back to diplomacy and getting your facts right – I mean, this is entirely ridiculous. (Laughs.) I mean, I was – I gave the Turkish argument up there. His understanding of regional history is fictionalized. It’s just made up. It is the best case – and Davutoglu also based a lot of this on German philosophers, I think because he can speak German. He went to a German boy’s school – he went to the German school in Turkey growing up. So he can speak English and he can speak German. So his philosophies that underpin his dissertation are Islamist, German, and American. If he spoke French, maybe he’d be slightly different, you know?
And so, you know, he was cast off as prime minister in this very unceremonious way. You know, he’s still an MP, poor guy. But Erdogan still has that. It’s still driving so much of what they talk about, you know? But it’s failed. They’re hemmed in around the region because they’ve gotten too bit in terms of locally, you know, to the point where they’ve pushed the regional states to take up anti-Turkish positions in ways that they were not in in 2007. And so you look around – they have trouble with everybody. If you look at Olive Branch, it’s a very small military operation. I mean, just – it’s very small. It’s 20 by 20. It’s just this tiny little thing. It has consequences for the U.S., but not many other people.
But everybody condemned it. Why?
MS. TOL: Including the Arab League.
MR. STEIN: Including the Arab League. Everybody condemned it – every European parliament, the United States, the Arab League. Nobody supported them. And it’s because they’ve gotten too far over their ski tips.
MR. MATTAIR: Well, maybe we could get into some specific areas of what we should ask Turkey to do now, or what they should ask us to do. But before we do that, just to set it up, here’s a question for the audience. And I can ask a different question. Somebody from the audience is asking about the possibility of expelling Turkey from NATO. So, you know, is the – is the breach between us so grave that that is something that we would want to do now, or if Erdogan takes another step too far? Is there anything that could spark that? And I would like to ask a question that flips it over a little bit. Who – does Turkey need the United States more, or does the United States need Turkey more in the region?
MR. PEARSON: I’ll start, and I will give people plenty of room to disagree with me. So there is no kickout clause in the NATO Treaty. You cannot expel a member. So let’s put that one to rest. Then there’s the policy issue. It would be terrible to mount a campaign to try to exclude Turkey from Europe and the United States in a relationship that means a great deal to the Turks. I believe that Aaron did a study recently with some graphs that showed that 47 percent of the Turkish population today views the relationship with NATO as important. So that’s a huge asset. And it’s an asset for Turkey and it’s an asset for us because it gives us a forum to talk within. So I think with – I understand the emotion behind the question. And I’m not going to disparage the emotion behind the question. But I think that the relationship within NATO serves our purposes very well. And I hope that it is strengthened.
On the second question, I’ve often said to people: Please don’t ask that question, because it just encourages someone to pull out their account book and start writing in things on the left side of the ledger and on the right side of the ledger. If Turkey and the United States cooperate, stability in the northern tier of the Middle East is almost assured. If they don’t cooperate, it is almost always at peril. And so I think that I’ve heard commentators go both ways on this, but it’s not a negotiating point. And it provides no leverage on a solution. So I would just say keep in mind that we actually need each other, and then let’s see where that leads us.
MS. HINTZ: I think another question that could have been asked – and this is circulated in, you know, Turkish pro-government media – is: Should Turkey pull out of NATO? And not, you know, can it be expelled, but does it want to remain a member anymore? And this, again, is, you know, something that’s directed at fueling anti-Western rhetoric for potential voters. The Turkish government, unless they’re – you know, Turkish leaders, unless they are extraordinarily irrational, and Erdogan may come across as erratic, but he’s not irrational. He’s a very pragmatic calculator.
And, you know, Turkey may bluster and use a lot of this rhetoric, and it may be purchasing a missile defense system from Russia. It tried or was sort of making gestures about buying one from China as well. But I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that Turkey does not see Russia as a trustworthy ally. They may partner, they may cooperate, but there’s no sort of entrenched alliance between Russia and Turkey that Turkey envisions or sees as possible. I think that they know that they’re acting with Russia’s cooperation or, like, allowing – there’s almost like a parental kind of a dynamic to that relationship. But it’s not the case that Turkey believes that Russia is a trustworthy ally.
And I think that there’s also an institutional view of Russia as a threat, a historical view of Russia as a threat. So I think Turkey actually values its NATO membership quite a bit. I think it does push back against it and it kind of behaves in naughty ways and is not necessarily following the rules. But I don’t think that government leaders would see Turkey out of NATO as a better solution than the status quo.
MR. MATTAIR: And what do other people think about Turkey’s views on Russia, and Russia’s reliability as an ally, an also Iran? I mean, do they – do they think that Iran is a partner that can be trusted in the region?
MS. TOL: Well, I agree with Lisel. I think there is a – there is a lack of trust between Russia and Turkey. I think that the Turkish officials cannot possibly think that Russians are a better partner than the U.S. Remember 2015, and that was the year when Russians decided to intervene militarily in Syria. And that was a very difficult year for Turkey. Turkey constantly appealed to its NATO partners not to withdraw Patriot missiles from Turkey, because Turkey felt so threatened by the Russian military presence in Syria. And yet, the Patriot missiles were withdrawn. So that was – that was – so in a way I think Turkey pursued S-400 out of desperation. And there are some other arguments that are saying that, well, actually, Erdogan is seeking S-400 as a response to another potential coup. So there are different arguments.
But I believe that there is lack of trust between Turkey and Russia. And yet you might – you might ask, then why is he deepening that cooperation if he’s that vulnerable. Yes, he’s very vulnerable. And we’ve seen that vulnerability in 2008 during Georgia War, when Russia used trade as a weapon against Turkey. And we used that vulnerability even more in 2015, after Turkey downed the Russian jet. Putin slapped sanctions that hurt Turkish economy a lot. So I think at the end of the day, Erdogan concluded that he was the weaker partner in the relationship. And deepening that partnership was his way of keeping the enemy closer, I believe. But on the other hand, it’s not wise for him to be putting all his eggs in Russian basket.
And when it comes to Iran, there are similar – there are problems there as well. And we’ve recently see that. Although they have this joint fear of Kurdish separatism, and that’s why they coordinated their actions in the region after the KRG independence referendum and in Syria against the YPG. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that Turkey trusts Iran either. For instance, they had – there was a summit in Ankara between Ankara, Russia, and Iran. And right after the summit, Rouhani said that they would really want Turkey to withdraw from Afrin, and hand over whatever the captured to the regime. And a week after that, after the chemical weapons attack, on that Monday Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the same thing.
So Turkey’s quite vulnerable. And it knows that if it wants to keep a military presence there, it needs the Russian consent, the Iranian consent – less so, maybe, but the Iranians can make that very, very difficult. But on the other hand, Turkey is dependent on these two countries for its energy needs. So it’s a very complicated relationship, but it’s always been a complicated relationship. There has always been competition. But especially with Iran, they managed to compartmentalize that relationship not with Russia. I think that compartmentalization ended when Russia decided to use that trade partnership in order to extract political concessions from Turkey in 2008 and 2015.
So I don’t think maybe – going back to your first question, which country needs the other more – I would argue that Turkey needs – Turkey really values its NATO membership and needs the U.S. more. And if you look at what the U.S. interests are, Turkey is a critical country in the fight against the Islamic State. And American officials really value having access to Incirlik. But that’s not irreplaceable. And there’s ready a debate going on. So I think, in that regard, U.S. interests are narrower. So what U.S. wants from Turkey is basically not to spoil things on the ground.
MR. MATTAIR: Mmm hmm. So, if they withdrew from these areas inside Syria that they hold, would that spoil things on the ground, in the sense that they would revert to Assad and the Iranians?
MS. TOL: Well, I think –
MR. MATTAIR: So what do want from Turkey in Syria?
MS. TOL: Well, of course, if you don’t have a Syria strategy, if you’re not planning to stay in Syria, the obvious is that you don’t actually care what’s happening in Syria, because leaving –
MR. MATTAIR: But say we want – say we want to contain Iran and the Arab world?
MS. TOL: Well, that’s not –
MR. MATTAIR: That’s not a strategy.
MS. TOL: That’s not – (laughs) – well, how are you going to do that if you withdraw from –
MR. MATTAIR: Right.
MS. TOL: If you think that Turkey will contain the Iranian influence, I’m not quite sure about that. I mean, who is going to contain the Iranian influence in the region? So it’s – I think it’s – I don’t understand that logic. But Turkey welcomed the U.S. decision that Trump announced that he would like to pull out. Turkish officials said that they welcomed the decision. But I think it would undermine Turkish interests there too, because if – the reason why the Russians gave a greenlight to Turkish military incursion has been the U.S. presence there. Obviously, Russians are trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey. And I believe that Russians are encouraging the Turks to mount an attack, to attack Manbij, because that would really complicate things for the Americans and that would make bilateral relations between the Turkey and the U.S. worse.
So if the U.S. is out of the picture, that means that the Russians and Iranians will be less sympathetic to Turkish concerns about the YPG. And I was talking to an American official who said that in meetings with the Turkish officials they said: Well, the Kurdish forces will be under someone’s control. And trust us, you would rather – you wouldn’t want the Russians to have full control over the YPG. So it’s better that we control the YPG. And I kind of agree with that. So if there is closer cooperation between the YPG and Russians, that makes Turkey even more vulnerable.
MR. MATTAIR: Do the others agree? I mean, should Turkey welcome the U.S. withdrawal?
MR. PEARSON: Can I just approach it from a slightly different perspective, going east to west? I think the one of the things we haven’t discussed very much is Iraq, which is already under considerable influence. And applaud the Saudis for trying to get a wedge in there to begin to improve the relationship with Iraq. Turkey should be very concerned if Iraq really falls under severe Iranian control, because that’s Turkey’s backdoor. The Iranians have already started signing oil deals with Kurdish companies. The Kurds will take the best bidder. And so for that reason alone, Turkey and the U.S. have important interest in bolstering Iraq. And from there I think – although I haven’t said before – is Turkey going to conquer all of eastern Syria, really? And if not, are they going to ask the Iranians to conquer all of eastern Syria, and subjugate the Kurds, really? And if not, the Russians, or Damascus?
And all of those are things that actually – the first would put an enormous burden on Turkey, if it could be accomplished, and all of the other three are threats to Turkey. Gonul’s good point, somebody should watch over these people. And why not let somebody you can talk to do that? Plus, the Iranians are building that southern corridor to Lebanon. We know that Hezbollah’s armed equipment array was much great than it was before. The Israelis are now in this war. The French and the Brits have now joined this war. China has said that it backs Russia. So it really is time for an American presence to be felt. And the first step in that presence is to make peace with the Turks. And that’s all I have to say about it.
MR. MATTAIR: OK. Well, you know, what we’ve been most interested in is the battle against ISIS. What they’ve been most interested in is the Kurdish separatism and that threat. What can we do right now – I mean, I come back to what we said to them. We – I think they acquiesced in us moving the YPG from the east of Euphrates to the west of Euphrates, to – and then we promised to take the arms away from the YPG after these battles in the north. And there is – there is a difference inside the American government between the military, which wants to continue working with YPG, some others who don’t. I mean, is there a way for us to stay, but not be so close to the YPG, as a way of ameliorating Turkish concerns about us and what they see as their biggest threat? Practically speaking, can we – can we do that and still keep ISIS at bay and still keep YPG out of Russian hands?
MS. TOL: If you put boots on the ground.
MR. MATTAIR: Hmm?
MS. TOL: Yeah, if you put boots on the ground, yes, you can. But not without.
MR. MATTAIR: More boots on the ground.
MS. TOL: Yeah, more, of course.
MR. MATTAIR: More boots on the ground.
MS. TOL: A lot more boots on the ground.
MS. HINTZ: And that, I think, is the main concern, that precisely the reason that the U.S. chose to arm the YPG, once Turkey didn’t seem enthusiastic about cooperating, was because it was trying to avoid putting boots on the ground. And the Kurdish militias, whether it’s the Peshmerga or the YPG, are incredibly effective fighting forces. And the U.S. has at repeated points throughout history used the Kurds to try to achieve its own military objectives. So I don’t know that the U.S. is willing to commit to that. And so that’s exactly why they chose the YPG.
I think another aspect to throw in here that’s a little bit even more complicated is that Turkey has also partnered with other Salafi jihadist groups in Syria, and has – I don’t want to use the word cooperate – but has collaborated with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in terms of getting through Syria, and has shown – and has in the past armed what was at the time Al-Nusra in the fight against – in the fight against trying to oust Bashar al-Assad. So turkey’s willingness to partner with some of these groups in the region I think is another area of concern for U.S. policymakers.
MR. PEARSON: Just one halfway step that might avoid a tremendous discussion in the U.S. Congress about putting in large numbers of American troops into a war that has been very difficult would be, if we can work with the Turks to resolve joint efforts along the border to the satisfaction of both countries, to seal the border to prevent arms transfers, I think that there is a possibility for something along those lines to be done. And then we withdraw from Manbij. And that would be a step that would start us on the way to a genuine process of negotiation that would not sacrifice any core strategic interest of ours.
MR. MATTAIR: It’s almost noon. Are there any final thoughts? Anybody want to make a last comment?
OK. Well, thank you very much. I think it was a very good discussion. I appreciate it. And thank you for coming. (Applause.) We will be publishing the transcript in the next issue of the journal. And you can watch the video of this conference on our website in about two days, I think. Certainly, by Monday you can watch it, if you like. Thank you!
Former Ambassador to Turkey
Non-resident scholar, Middle East Institute
Founding Director, Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies
Adjunct Professor, George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies
Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council
Assistant Professor, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)
Amb. Richard J. Schmierer
Chairman and President, Middle East Policy Council
Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman
Dr. Thomas R. Mattair
Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
The Middle East Policy Council convened its 92nd Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 20th. Following recent U.S. military action against targets of the Assad regime in Syria, the panelists for “Turkey’s Emerging Role in the Middle East” explained Turkey’s involvement in the conflict, the concept of “Ottoman Islamism” and what this means for U.S. national interests and the balance of power in the Middle East.
Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included W. Robert Pearson (Former U.S. Ambassador, Turkey); Gonul Tol (Founding Director, Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies); Aaron Stein (Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council); and Lisel Hintz (Assistant Professor, International Relations, Johns Hopkins University, SAIS).
Amb. Pearson reviewed how Turkey’s position in the international and regional order is evolving. He cited Erdogan’s reservations about the “sacred” Treaty of Lausanne and his bemoaning the territory lost since the Ottoman Empire as examples of a Turkish desire for a more dominant role. Turkey’s more robust defensive posture and military bases in Qatar and Somalia reinforce this observation. While alarmed by instability on its border with Syria, Turkish leadership may not mind continued chaos and weakness in Syria as it presents one opportunity for more Turkish regional influence, Amb. Pearson said. He concluded by urging the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria, believing that the closer the U.S. and Turkey are there, the higher the likelihood for peace in the long-term.
Dr. Tol noted that Kurdish separatism and support for the Muslim Brotherhood are the two defining aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy. These two factors explain why Turkish foreign policy is often so contradictory, and at odds with allies like the United States. While the U.S. military has cooperated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization, leading to tensions with the U.S. in northern Syria. This is further complicated by Turkey’s dependency on Russian and Iranian support there. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has had significant repercussions for its regional ties. Their support for Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, siding with Qatar in the GCC dispute, and their perception that Saudi Arabia is supporting the YPG have degraded Turkish ties to Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dr. Tol concluded by underlining the confused nature of the U.S. relationship with Turkey, as the two countries work through these overlapping but contradictory interests.
Dr. Stein argued that the Turkish viewpoint has two components: it is security-focused nearby and transformative further afield. The attempted coup in July 2016 was a horrible experience in Ankara, he recalled. This insecurity is exacerbated by the political instability and simmering populism in the region, factors that Turkey views as continual threats to the state. As a response to this, Turkey is attempting to forge a political identity that is democratic, but rigid enough to protect against internal dissent. In terms of the broader region, Turkey sees a collapsing regional order and increased opportunities for PKK safe havens and support. With the continuity of the Assad regime far from certain, Turkey’s presence in northern Syria is critical to maintaining a buffer against a PKK insurgency. This is amplified by the fact that the PKK is the strongest it has been since being founded in 1978.
Dr. Hintz analyzed Turkey’s foreign policy through the lens of Ottoman Islamism. Different from the republican nationalism that proceeded, Ottoman Islamism imagines a broader role for Turkey in the region through alignment with political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. This new self-image emerged from a feeling that Turkey has “wasted time” after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and sought too close a relationship with the West. Ms. Hintz explained how you see this new self-image in Turkish popular culture, through Erdogan’s consolidation of power over the military and judiciary, and through Turkey’s outspoken support for Palestine (and highly publicized criticisms of Israel). Despite the emergence of Ottoman Islamism as a guiding force in Turkey’s foreign policy, this has not translated to successes in diplomacy, most notably in President Erdogan’s failure to exert meaningful influence over the Assad regime at the beginning of the Syrian civil war.