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September 20, 2012, Thursday

Messed up opportunities in ‘zero problems’

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is under increasing pressure these days. It is no surprise that he has become more defensive, perhaps also nervous and strained.

In recent days, he has been busy giving interviews to major newspapers, attempting to stave off a barrage of criticism which, in a blend of sharp analysis, rejection, mockery and cynicism, seems to come at him from every direction, at home and abroad.

Certainly, Syria was the triggering factor. But some of the bullets he has been trying to dodge, it will be understood later, are misdirected. If the “zero problems with neighbors” policy does not work well -- and indeed, in terms of concrete results, it has not -- who truly is responsible? But does Davutoğlu really call the shots? In some cases, obviously yes; but in others, he does not appear to be.

If he is right that with Iran, Iraq and Syria, it was the neighbors that added to the problems, then some of the other neighbors demand our focus. A quick revisit of the policies with three of Turkey’s neighbors -- Greece, Armenia and Israel -- tells us that Davutoğlu’s vision did not harmonize, not to say “clashed,” with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s. It would therefore be an exaggeration to say that the architect of the policy has been its prime executor.

Turkey has 12 neighbors and the less problematic ones -- disregarding Cyprus as a sui generis case -- are certainly the non-Muslim ones. With Greece, there is only one crucial and easy issue: the re-opening of the Halki Seminary and the recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The general perception among pundits is that if it were up to the foreign minister, the issue would have been resolved. Obstruction, in that case, is somewhere in Ankara, but certainly not below him.

The second situation is the protocol process with Armenia. When a special envoy of President Abdullah Gül arrived three days before the famous football match in Yerevan in September 2008, he had a Turkish proposal which had no reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and had been approved. The conflict later became a precondition by Erdoğan, demolishing all the work, energy and hopes of a normalization process, which would today be very helpful to a strained Turkey. The fate of relations between the two neighbors now fully depends on whether Erdoğan changes his mind. It does not appear very likely.

The situation with Israel, in the neighborhood domain because of its traditional ties, its kinship through history and democracy and its overlapping regional interests, also has similar undertones of who runs what parts of Turkey’s foreign policy. Yes, both sides since Operation Cast Lead have made a mess out of their relations, but the question is whether or not the path in Turkey was also mainly taken over by Erdoğan, sidelining Davutoğlu and his team who would have reconsidered acting in a different manner, particularly after the eruption of hell in Syria. A realistic presumption, stemming from some officials, is that he would have.

One source told me that the media had not done enough scrutiny of the “ties” between some figures of the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), which organized the Gaza flotilla, and some parts of the Iran regime. His analysis was that Iran looks to be responsible, killing two birds with one stone with the incident: Israeli-Turkey relations are at all-time low and Israel, after the massacre in international waters, put itself in a very bad position.

But as a speaker in a recent conference put it: Regarding Israeli-Turkish intelligence cooperation, the downed jet incident could have been avoided, or played out much more in favor of Turkey, if their relations had been repaired.

So, take a step back. What we see is that by mismanaging these three non-Muslim neighborhood issues, Ankara managed to glue three strong lobbies (Greek, Armenian and Israeli) in Washington, D.C., to each other.

Reports now insist that Israel is ready to apologize for the Mavi Marmara incident. It may also be prepared to pay compensation for the killings. What will Davutoğlu do if the apology falls short of Erdoğan’s condition that Israel’s blockade of Palestine is not lifted, even if Israel can be persuaded to open an airstrip in Gaza?

In a sharp warning brief, Sylvia Tiryaki of Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) issued a heads up: “…Turkey’s insistence on lifting of the Gaza blockage will hardly be enough to turn the tables in Gaza, at least not as of now. Turkey might gain some ‘persuasive leverage’ however, when [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime in Syria is defeated, with the clear Turkish support. Without foreseeing whether Israel really apologizes, Turkey should be ready for such a scenario. Bilateral relations between countries are never only bilateral. They always contain regional and even global dimension. If Israel satisfies two of three Turkey’s preconditions, few countries will be seeing the blockage of Gaza as an obstacle to the normalization of the relations between the two countries. In other words, we in Turkey might find ourselves with the ball in our court.”

Let us see whether such an opportunity will be won -- or messed up further.

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