Analyst Bacik says Ankara’s active stance would please Arabs who expect more from Turkey

Gökhan Bacık

March 28, 2011, Monday/ 17:50:00

Taking a pacifist stance with regard to Libya would not be in Turkey’s best interests, nor would it favor the Libyan people in the long term, said analyst Gökhan Bacık, answering our questions for Monday Talk.

“An interventionist and active policy would raise Turkey’s position within NATO, and it is indeed a correct decision. Things should be analyzed carefully: Respect for the Libyan people is one thing, being part of a NATO initiative is another. There is a potential trap for Turkey here. If Turkey remains radically silent, this attitude might be also upsetting for all of the Arab people who expect more from Turkey,” said Bacık who heads the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Zirve University in Gaziantep.

Turkey has supported the Arab League’s call for a no-fly zone and wants the Libyan people’s demands for change to be met, but Turkish leaders initially expressed opposition to foreign military intervention, particularly an intervention by NATO in Libya, arguing that military solutions would not help Libya solve its problems.

‘The Turkish effect in the Arab world is a fact. However, Turkey should also prove that it is capable of problem-solving during times of crisis. Otherwise, Turkey may paradoxically produce a pacifist image for the public. This image would indicate that Turkey is obsessed with trade interests but prefers to be silent during difficult times’ explains Gökhan Bacık who heads the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Zirve University in Gaziantep

NATO, which is now planning to take control of all United Nations-mandated military operations against Libya, completely replacing the United States-led coalition that has carried out airstrikes so far, will use its base in the Turkish city of İzmir to oversee its aerial mission as part of the operation. As NATO moves closer to taking the lead for the entire operation, Turkey wants to be able to use its NATO veto to limit the alliance’s operations against the country’s infrastructure and avoid casualties among Muslim civilians that it fears could be the result of bombing raids.

Bacık elaborated on the issue while he answered our questions.

What is your evaluation of Turkey’s decision to send four frigates, one submarine and an auxiliary warship for the NATO mission that will enforce the arms embargo on Libya?

Taking a pacifist stance on Libya would not be good for Turkey, nor would it be good for the Libyan people in the long term. A pacifist stance would also cause a loss of credibility for Turkey in the region. Thus, an interventionist and active policy would raise Turkey’s position within NATO, and it is indeed a correct decision. Things should be analyzed carefully: Respect for the Libyan people is one thing, being part of the NATO initiative is another. There is a potential trap for Turkey here. If Turkey remains radically silent, this attitude might upset all of the Arab people who expect more from Turkey. Turkey should also prove that it is ready to take responsibility and leadership during times of crisis, including war. It is clear that Turkey should advance its position within NATO to guarantee its long-term effect in the region.

What kind of “effect” do you think that Turkey should guarantee? Would you elaborate?

The Turkish effect in the Arab world is a fact. However, Turkey should also prove that it is capable of problem-solving during times of crisis. Otherwise, Turkey may paradoxically develop a pacifist image for the public. This image would indicate that Turkey is obsessed with trade interests but prefers to be silent during difficult times. Moreover, such an image would negatively affect Western states. Turkey, particularly for the West, should demonstrate that crises do not hinder its power in the Arab world. Serious states in the West believe Turkey lacks the needed soft and hard power to be active in regional tensions and crises.

Turkey has been insisting on a narrow military mandate for a NATO role in the military operation in Libya and assurances that no occupation of Libya will ensue. How do you think Turkey reached the point of making the largest contribution to the NATO mission?

Turkey should not be blamed for inconsistency. In foreign policy, you update your stance according to each situation individually and make decisions on a case-by-case basis. The setting ex ante [expectations of what will happen in the future have an effect on planning] was different and the present situation after NATO’s decisions is totally different. What Turkey is trying to do is to adapt itself to the new setting. I think Turkey has calculated that her total exclusion from the process would create more serious costs for both Turkey and the region. Moreover, some European actors, such as France, were previously of the opinion that Turkey would be totally out of the scene. Turkey’s recent activism is also critical in the face of such naïve expectations -- that Turkey would remain passive.

‘The clash in Libya is about keeping Gaddafi or toppling him’

Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, called on Muammar Gaddafi to step down as soon as possible, saying that would help stop the bloodshed. Additionally, when Gül said that such a move would also “deny the opportunity to others to plunder” their country, he apparently pointed out a concern. Are there signs that the operation in Libya will be different to the operation in Iraq?

Mr. Gül’s comments are of course important for referring to the most important shortcut to stopping unwanted developments in Libyan territory. However, we are all aware of the negative record of Gaddafi. When it comes to the Iraq analogy, I believe there are both similarities and differences. To begin with, the ethnic composition in Libya is very different. The present separation is not about ethnicity, it is political. It is the political differences that have separated Benghazi from Tripoli. Libya is a multiethnic society, it is true, but the difference with regard to Benghazi does not originate from that ethnic map. A little Berber group lives in the Western part of Gharyan -- very close to Tripoli -- however, such points are just details. Thus, the Iraq analogy does not seem correct with regard to ethnic clashes.

You say the present separation is not about ethnicity but that it is political. What is the characteristic of this political stance?

Generally, the Libyan public is divided on the idea of wanting/hating the Gaddafi regime. However, most of the people in Benghazi who hate the current regime do not act in this way because they are of specific ethnic or tribal identity. Thus, the main characteristic of the political scene is very clear: The clash in Libya is about keeping Gaddafi or toppling him.

Intervention by Western forces has been criticized by some Turkish observers -- from both the left and the right -- but this is an intervention asked for by the Arab League as the Gaddafi forces are determined to kill anybody who opposes his rule. Would the Arabs be able to develop a strategy to deal with Gaddafi while he persists in killing?

This is a very critical question. It has been a routine thing to criticize the West on moral bases. A typical and early reaction has always been like that. However, I believe moral criticism of the West is a waste of time. Indeed, the West is morally corrupt on major issues of foreign policy. However, the Muslim world should first question its incapacity to solve such “domestic” issues without foreign intervention. No doubt, had the West not intervened, Gaddafi would have continued his move to the east to slaughter his own citizens.

Turkey has previously participated in interventions in Korea, Kosovo and Somalia. What is different now that makes an intervention so doubtful?

Like all other states, Turkey has her own selective doctrine of intervention. We should remember that NATO’s Kosovo operation was put into action without any UN resolution. It was a perfect unilateral action by NATO, including Turkey. Turkey was in Somalia, but that operation was put into action with a UN resolution. This question is mainly about the moral profile of the Turkish public. We are always ready to give ourselves approval quickly on moral bases, whereas when it comes to foreign countries, we are ready to be critical of their actions.

Gaddafi seems to be resisting and holding onto power. What do you think will happen if he continues to do so?

The international agenda -- no fly zone, air attacks, etc. -- will continue; Gaddafi’s zone of influence will be gradually reduced. I think the international coalition will first try to weaken Gaddafi as much as they can, and they will wait for a domestic reaction to topple Gaddafi. Meanwhile, there is a considerable amount of time for the Western alliance to update their new doctrine in the region. Most probably, the new Middle Eastern doctrine of the West is being shaped according to the outcome of the present crisis in Libya.

‘Instability in Egypt is more than a crisis in one country’

In one of your articles, you stated that if the Egyptian regime falls, then a different process on a larger scale will begin in the region, and countries like Jordan will not be able to stand in its way. Would you elaborate on that idea?

I think to some extent recent developments have confirmed my thesis. The Western-oriented sub-regional Middle Eastern system was created on several pillars. In this model, Egypt was a model. The instability in Egypt is thus more than a crisis in one country; instead it symbolizes the crisis in the whole system. When compared to Egypt, other countries such as Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait etc. are much weaker with regard to having the needed instruments of modern statehood. Thus, their capacity to resist such challenges and crises is very weak. At least 55 percent of the people who live in Kuwait do not hold Kuwaiti citizenship. So, how is it possible to generate substantial instruments of statehood such as citizenship and legitimacy in such a context? The major pillar that has kept these societies together is the combination of authoritarianism-foreign support-petrodollars. The collapse of the Egyptian model may trigger the collapse of the foreign aspect that will be very critical indeed.

Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, says that he can step down but only to hand over power “to capable, responsible hands.” What does that mean and do you see a looming civil war in Yemen?

Unlike Libya, Yemen is the place where we should be very sensitive of ethnic balances. Yemen is the weakest state in the region in terms of having modern institutions of statehood. Instead, it seems more like tribal alliances. Thus, chaos in Yemen may incite serious bloody street fights and endless tribal struggles. One should not forget, Yemen has experienced splits and separations in the past. The major mechanism that does legitimize Saleh and his regime is mainly the ethno-tribal balances. Thus, Yemen is more prone to ethno-tribal chaos.

And Syria… Do you think President Bashar al-Assad’s recently announced reforms will address the demands of Syrians? Will the protests die down?

So far, Daraa has been the epicenter of the opposition. It is important because Daraa is the gateway to regional trade with Jordan. Now, the real epicenter of the oppositional tension is not this city, but northern cities such as Homs. And recently, people also started protesting the regime in other cities, too. Syria has a record of inciting similar protests. The regime should move quickly and do something in cooperation with the international community. However, I am not sure about this state’s capacity to deal with the international community properly.

‘Israel should be normalized’

In its latest briefing, “Gaza: The Next Israeli-Palestinian War?” the International Crisis Group [ICG] examined the sharp deterioration of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the recent past and it said that the situation has been aggravated by broader regional instability. Do you think a new Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza is at the door?

There is one simple fact: All traditional balances we know of in the region are evaporating. Thus, the Middle East is now a perfect arena for domino-style developments, including a region-wide war. Events may even trigger many other worse situations. So far, we have tried to solve the problems within national boundaries. No one knows what will happen if transnational actions start to take place. No one knows what will happen, for instance, if Iran decides to protect the Shiite minority in Bahrain. Indeed, the regional situation is affecting the Israel-Palestinian problem; however, we need some time to observe how this plays out.

What is at stake for Israel in a changing Middle East?

Israel should be normalized and “learn” how to live in the region with the Arabs. Although the present turbulence in the Arab world won’t create perfect democracies, it should lead to new political regimes that are more open to sociological dynamics. Thus, the new regional profile will be very different in regard to Israel. Moreover, recent developments will indeed force Israel to fix its relations with Turkey.

Why do you think Israel has to fix its relations with Turkey?

The collapse of the historic sub-regional order in the Middle East is a major threat for Israel. This collapsing system was also organized according to Israel’s security. If more pluralistic regimes arise in the region, Israel would have serious difficulty protecting its former position. Thus, comparatively, the value of Turkey has increased for Israel. But I should say that the opposite is equally true.

‘There is tension in Iran’

There have been uprisings in Iran recently, but they have never reached the level of regime change as in Tunisia. What do you think are the reasons for this?

There is indeed tension within Iran. Since the last presidential elections, the Iranian opposition has faced serious constraints. However, at the regional level the Iranian regime is gaining new leverage due to the turbulence in several Gulf states, such as Bahrain. Faced with domestic opposition, I expect that Iran may come up with a new face of “moderate” Iran, reminiscent of former President Mohammad Khatami. If not, an authoritarian mandate may even challenge Iran.

‘Putin’s reaction perfect case study’

Abstaining from the UNSC [UN Security Council] vote, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared the United Nations resolution approving the military operation to “a call for a crusade.” How do you evaluate Putin’s comment?

Putin’s statement is a perfect use of discourse to pacify a potential Muslim reaction. It is also a perfect case study to be included in to the syllabuses of political science courses. Putin is thinking of two issues: The first is the upcoming Russian elections, the other is the Muslim public. But surprisingly, even the Turkish media seems to be fascinated by what Putin said.

Gökhan Bacık

An associate professor of international relations at Zirve University in the eastern province of Gaziantep since 2009, he previously taught at Fatih University in İstanbul and in various European universities as an Erasmus visiting professor. He has published articles in such academic journals as Middle East Policy, Foreign Affairs, International Review of Sociology, The Muslim World, Arab Studies Quarterly and the Peace Review. He is the author of “September 11 and World Politics” (2004) and “Modern Uluslararası Sistem” (Modern International System: Genealogy, Teleology and the Expansion, 2007). His latest book is “Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East” (2008). Bacık currently heads the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Zirve University.

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