These remarks were prepared for delivery at The Middle East Institute’s First Annual Conference on Turkey on June 18, 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great delight to be back at the Middle East Institute, as I spoke here a couple of weeks ago. It is a true pleasure to see that, despite the heavy agenda in this city, a large crowd continues to talk about Turkey and the Middle East today. It is also a great pleasure for me to see my former instructors from Bilkent University, and others. Allow me to show my appreciation for their services, lectures, and wisdom that have benefited us over the years and that allow us to be here at this stage today. I am going to speak for about fifteen minutes, as I am told that previous speakers did not allow for Q&A, so I will make sure that you have at least fifteen minutes for that.
I would have wished to have been on this upcoming panel because I have a specific interest in Russia, the Caucasus, and the former Soviet areas, but we live in an age – and Turkey lives in an era – where our foreign policy is much more diversified, where it includes and involves a much more diversified region than it did in the past.
Standing here ten years ago, this conference would likely not have taken place in the first place, or there would have been only ten or twelve devoted Turkey followers in the room. They would all know what I would have to say, and I would have known what their reactions would be. But, as we are engaging with our American friends throughout the week here in Washington, it is in one way gratifying, but also puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Turkish decision makers – the geographic extent and the functional extent, the diversification of areas and interests that we grapple with.
Let me move on from this point to our “Neighborhood” policy, and then specifically the Middle East and then the two issues I know you have the most interest in. Since 2002, since the AKP came into power, Turkey has started to implement a multidimensional foreign policy that basically, instead of putting Turkey at the edge of Europe, or as a country that was defending the southeast corner of NATO, situated Turkey mentally at the center of five intersecting regions: the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucuses, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, then an adviser to Prime Minister Erdoğan and now our Foreign Minister, articulated for the first time this concept called “strategic depth” and commonly now dubbed the “Zero Problems with Neighbors” approach. I prefer to call it “Turkish Neighborhood Policy” and that’s how I will refer to it.
But since 2002, for five consecutive years the Turkish economy grew on average by 7.5%, Foreign Direct Investment grew from $ 1.1 billion dollars to reach $22 billion per year in 2008. Turkish “soft power” has increased in all those regions that I’ve listed. Turkey is seen as a young, dynamic, growing country – Turkey in the meantime has become a member of the UN Security Council, a founding member of the G22, Secretary General of the Islamic Conference Organization, and has started to negotiate with the European Union.
Now, when we started the Neighborhood policy, I think that there were many quarters that didn’t take us seriously. When we started to articulate what we were after in 2002-2003, there were many who were very skeptical. Up to 2006, I would say, I know many prominent Turkish columnists who were laughing at us when we said that we intended to be an actor in the Middle East. “No one will take you seriously,” that’s what was said – the Arabs don’t like Turks, or Turks don’t like Arabs – it isn’t true. We know that now. In 2006, those were the common lines of the internal Turkish intellectual discourse.
By the time it came to 2007-2008, those same people began to say that Turkey is playing an important role in the Middle East. I think that recent events demonstrate once again that Turkey will continue to be an actor in the Middle East. When the charges, especially after the Gaza war, intensified about Turkey’s orientation being shifted from West to East – this famous “axis change” discourse erupted – we kept underlining, and I will do it again for you today, although for some people this will be repetition, that Turkey’s engagement with the East, North, or South, is not at the expense of its Western allies. On the contrary, it is complementary to them. A Turkey that has good relations with its neighbors, that trades with its neighbors, that engages with them and facilities people-to-people with its neighbors is a more valuable ally to the United States, and to the European Union – and I think we should acknowledge that.
Unfortunately, the” axis debate” or the “orientation debate” is fully enmeshed with the domestic Turkish ideological confrontation in our country. And therefore, it cannot be discussed neutrally. But let me assure you, when we sit in Ankara and look from Ankara to events around the region, we never think that despite our grievances and disappointments with the EU, or some of the differences we have with the US, that we should turn our back and engage with the Middle East in reaction to it. Our Neighborhood policy is correcting an anomaly of the cold war years – namely, the perception that everyone out there was an enemy, and those who know Turkey very well know that for many decades we were brought up with the perception that Turkey had numerous internal and external enemies, which facilitated a more security elite dominated state. We changed that, we said no – it is possible to engage with our neighbors, it is possible to engage and have a cordial relationship with Greece, with Bulgaria, with Russia – with whom we had a very bitter history, fought 14 wars and lost 12 of them. We have a relationship with Syria, with whom we were in 1998 almost going to war with because of the presence of the PKK leader in Damascus, and the freedom of movement allowed to the PKK in Syria. As difficult as it is, we have a relationship with Iran and others also. I think that events over the last couple of years have proven that we were right.
We have deepened out political dialogue with our neighbors, we have increased our trade with our neighbors, and we have encouraged direct people-to-people with our neighbors, in the form of sports, culture, and tourism. We have lifted the visa regimes with many of our neighbors, including Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Russian citizens are now allowed up to 30 days without a visa, Georgia up to 6 months, and recently Greece – up to 3 days without a visa. We believe, and some may call us naïve, that what France and Germany succeeded in doing in Western Europe, that we can facilitate a geographical space in the Middle East, in the Caucasus, or in the Balkans, where the free movement of people, ideas, and goods is possible.
Now, I do not deny that our neighbors are not in the same nature as those in Western Europe, and there are certain challenges and difficulties. But we have a dream – we want to pacify, moderate, stabilize, and transform our neighborhood into a predictable environment. I think that Turks, Azeris, Georgians Armenians, Iraqis, and Iranians deserve the stability and the predictability that many Western Europeans have come to enjoy.
Let me come then now to our no vote at the UN Security Council, and also the flotilla incident, which have now captured the attention and the imagination, particularly here in this city.
The United Nations Security Council vote, Turkey’s no vote, is a direct result of a process that started almost a year ago between Brazil and Turkey, with the knowledge and support of the US and our European allies. I was here with the Prime Minister in April, mid-April, when the nuclear summit took place here in Washington, and when President Lula and Prime Minister Erdoğan presented a paper to President Obama. It is now public knowledge that the letter that was sent by President Obama to President Lula and Prime Minister Erdoğan, for those that do not know, encourages, in detail, a deal and a diplomatic track with Iran on the nuclear issue. Not only this letter, there was constant communication between the capitals. But to our dismay, the 17th of May when the deal was signed, the next day it was announced that the button was pushed for the sanctions track. We were confused, and perplexed, because we thought we were acting in line with the expectations and consultations that we had made with our allies. Then of course came the letter from the Vienna Group, which refused to provide the 120 kg of high-enriched uranium to Iran and of course the vote.
But our fundamental difference with the US is not about the objective to achieve. We along with the United States, do not want a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran would force the region into a nuclear arms race and would be a huge waste of resources that the region could use for many other better causes. Rather, we differ on the method – how to get there. Turkey continues to favor a diplomatic track and I think that the Tehran agreement, announced the 17th of May, is a good confidence building measure. It takes close to 60% of Iran’s low-enriched uranium to Turkey. What was encouraging, and at some times might seem contradictory to many of you, that the speech made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the vote, which encouraged Brazil and Turkey to continue on the diplomatic track. Since then, consultations and talks between our countries clearly indicate that there is a strong interest by our allies, the P5 + 1, that Turkey continues on a diplomatic track on the nuclear question.
Make no mistake; Turkey is not claiming that it has a magical stick that will solve the question wholly. We know that the Tehran agreement addresses a particular aspect of the nuclear question and that more needs to be done, but the Tehran agreement says that the P5 + 1 is mandated to deal with the rest, with the more weighty issues, such as the continuation of the production of uranium.
Let me switch to the flotilla incident. I think you’ve heard this morning form our chairman, Ömer Çelik, but I will reiterate. The flotilla attack in international waters is an illegal act, which resulted in the deaths of eight of our citizens and one American citizen. Furkan Dogan, 19 years old, a senior in high school in Kayseri, Turkey, had four bullets in his head, and one in his chest. The ballistics reports that we received yesterday indicate that he was shot at 20 cm distance. I am a former military air force officer, and I have some understanding of security. This does not seem to be a defensive act. But, of course, there are numerous claims on all sides, and therefore we urge the international community, including the US, to support us in the formation of an independent impartial commission to investigate the events, as was suggested by the UN Secretary General. We are fully transparent, that the investigation should extend into the identity of the NGO in question, how the ship was funded, whether there was government support in the formation of the flotilla … we are fully open for an investigation and transparent about the whole incident from the beginning, how the flotilla was formed, who was on the ship, and how we got to the point where eight of our citizens were killed.
Unfortunately, the announcement of the Israeli government of a commission with two non-Israelis will not satisfy Turkey. Turkey demands an apology and an impartial, credible, independent commission to investigate the events.
Let me conclude…we are aware that these are difficult time. We have been talking to congressmen from both sides of the House, think tanks, the White House, the State Department … we understand the disappointment on the Iran nuclear issue on the American side. But what must be registered is that Turkey’s no vote is not some sort of expression of religious solidarity, or a regional getting-together. There are genuine Turkish interests in seeing a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue. Turkey imports close to 20% of its natural gas from Iran, Turkey is a neighbor to Iran, and trades with Iran. Iran should be seen in the context of the overall neighborhood approach that I tried to outline at the beginning of my speech. Turkey and the United States will be able to overcome this – we’ve lived through first, March of 2003 – there was all the doom and gloom then that the relationship was over – but we will, because it is in both the US and Turkey’s interest that our relationship maintains on a fast and solid track.
I think, however, that our American friends need to recognize that Turkey is no longer the country of the 70s and 80s that was the cold war satellite state and was compliant with every American request during those times. Turkey is now a regional power that has its own interests, and sometimes we may see that our interests and your interests do not converge. But I think that there are enough smart people on both sides to make this relationship workable, and identify the areas where we can work together. Thank you.
Q & A Session:
I have a two part question for you: one, there has been a lot of talk about the danger of Iran being a nuclear state in the region. Right now, Israel is not a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Do you see that if they were to comply, or sign on to that – would that help release the tension in the area? The second part of the question is with regards to the flotilla: Israel knew that the flotilla was an international aid delivery going towards Gaza, and Israel knows that Turkey is an ally of the US and of Israel. Why was it, then, if it was confirmed that the ship had some arms, that they did not board the ship on land, in Istanbul, and be allowed to escort it if they were concerned that something would happen in between? For future events, would Turkey consider inviting Israel for another flotilla that might be going over there – or, do you think that Israel might have had different reasons, and it was just an excuse, as far as the arms were concerned? Maybe they did not want to see a democratically elected Gaza become strong by having any kind of humanitarian or building material?
Prime Minister Erdoğan is on record, a number of times, saying that we want a nuclear-free Middle East, and that includes Israel. We feel that not signing up to the NPT should not allow any country to escape international scrutiny. That said, we also recognize Israel’s legitimate interests, security interests, that they have in the region. However, I have a feeling, not being an expert on nuclear technology, that the NPT regime is increasingly going to force countries to be more open to international inspection. There is, I think, one added value of the Iranian nuclear issue – it has brought forward, globally, the issue of who possesses nuclear weapons and who is a part of the NPT or not, and who escapes international scrutiny and for what reasons. So I think that the recent conference that took place, the nuclear conference, had some commitment from Israel – or called on Israel – to be more transparent about any nuclear weapons that they have by 2012.
On the flotilla issues, let me underline that the NGO in question – it is an NGO, that organized the flotilla with many other NGOs abroad, including nationals from 32 other countries, two German parliamentarians, a holocaust survivor, many journalists, and people from all over the place: Irish, Greeks, and others. All we could do is that we inspected the ships and also searched everyone physically before they boarded the ships. We made sure that there were no weapons or anything beyond what could be described as humanitarian aid on board those ships. There were no weapons or anything else on board those ships when they left the Turkish port.
Thank you for your presentation. I’m David Mack from the Middle East Institute, and I’d like to get you a little bit away from the flotilla incident, and would like for you to give us your thoughts about how the US and Turkey might work together in partnership to deal with the basic, fundamental problems that have led to this – that is, the absence of a meaningful peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and Syria/Lebanon. I understand that nationalist sentiments are running very high in Turkey … my understanding is that they are running pretty high in Israel as well. Will it be a problem for the Turkish government to join with us in a full partnership on trying to revitalize the peace process?
Thank you, that is a very good question. Prime Minister Erdoğan, four days before the Gaza war, met with then-Prime Minister Olmert for six hours in his private mansion. They discussed the next round of Syrian-Israeli talks, which almost 95% had been concluded – there were some differences on a few sentences and words. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Olmert then indicated that he would get back to us very soon after he returned to Israel … Turkey offered, including mediation between Hamas and Israel on the release of Gilad Shalit, and including and facilitating a peace process that would bring actors like Hamas and others into a more moderate position so that an engagement could be possible. But unfortunately, we never heard from Prime Minster Olmert … four days later we woke up to the news that the war in Gaza had started.
Turkey has brought Pakistan and Israel together … they had no relations whatsoever – Turkey facilitated four rounds of talks between Israel and Syria. Turkey continues to talk to both Hamas and Fatah to bring them together, as difficult as that may be, and we continue to offer our good offices and services, if there is a request, to be a mediator, a dialogue facilitator, a party that could be influencing the process constructively, if the sides agree to it. Let’s make no mistake – Turkey doesn’t get sleepless over whether X and Y countries invite us to mediate their conflicts. We have enough issues on our plate. We can only be useful and are interested in mediating when the two sides of the conflict would like Turkey to be there. We know Syria wants Turkey to mediate between them and Israel, and if Israel wants Turkey to continue to revive those talks, they would be happy to continue. But as we said, the prerequisite for those is that the two sides agree that Turkey should be involved.
In terms of the World Cup … I would say that Turkey has given a red card to Israel, and they probably deserved it. The question is why – in Washington, and in Israel – is why was Israel singled out for the red card when there are all kinds of bad guys in the Middle East who violate all kinds of treaties, human rights, whatever … so the question is, why did Turkey single out Israel?
Turkey and the speakers this morning have described this very special balancing role that Turkey has been in position to play. Yet it seems that the reason that many people, perhaps, in the US are wondering whether Turkey has moved to one side of the balance has a lot to do with language and atmospherics. For example, right after the Iranian elections, when Prime Minister Erdoğan embraced President Ahmadinejad when the victory was under question and when massive human rights violations were going on at home. Or, some of the very strong language that has been used about Israel with Nazi comparisons or swastikas … these buzzwords. Whatever mistakes Israel may have committed, the language seems to indicate a line crossed that goes beyond this very serious issue of whether Israel breached international law. Can you comment on the language used by Prime Minister Erdoğan, and the appearance that Turkey is choosing sides rather than simply trying to keep peace in the neighborhood?
Let’s start with the World Cup question: I don’t think we gave Israel a red card, we gave them a yellow card. Israel needs to understand that the world has changed. We no longer live in the 70s, when you can hide things. We live in a world where you can watch live wars on TV from CNN or Al Jazeera International. You see Israeli planes over Gaza, bombing places, while Israeli citizens are picnicking on the outskirts, watching it. This is the kind of world we live in. Global public opinion in a globalized world is as significant as the policies and the concrete outcomes of your actions. I’ve been many times to Israel, I have friends in Israel, and when we heard about the news about the Gaza war … this could be a short-term victory for Israel. But in the long term, we felt that Israel’s security had been reduced after the Gaza war. We don’t think the war served Israel’s long term security needs, nor did it serve the region’s security needs. I’ve been to Sderot, the town where the rockets were sent from Gaza, I’ve seen it … I haven’t been to Gaza, but one day I’m sure we will.
Our Israeli friends need to understand that neither their security nor regional security needs are solved by solving everything by force. I think Amos Oz is a famous Israeli author who complains about that very eloquently in Haaretz. We know that there are a lot of very smart people in Israel who understand how detrimental their current government’s policies are to Israel’s security – so it is a yellow card, and we hope that the players shape up, and ensure that they can remain in the game. If we play our game, there is no reason that we can’t enjoy the prosperity, stability, and predictability that many in Western Europe have come to enjoy for decades.
On your question … let me tell you that Prime Minister Erdoğan is a very emotional man. He is a very sincere and genuine man. When you look into his face, you know whether he is angry or happy. He is not one of those diplomats who tell you one thing, and when you walk out the door say something different. He is very genuine. I have seen him many times speaking to American congressmen, Israelis, Germans, whatever. I think he is the interlocutor that you would like – because you see what you get.
Now, he is a human being. When he sees people injured, burned, in hospitals in Gaza, he is impacted. I was also impacted when I met the twenty or so injured people from the flotilla incident in Ankara. We happen to be human, and we feel. I agree that our neighborhood policy in the Middle East will continue to be on a morally and ethically high ground. Turkey may not be able to mediate in a number of conflicts anymore, because it will be seen as taking sides, but as a Turkish Parliamentarian, I feel that it is more important for us to be on the right side of history than to be able to mediate between conflicts.
I hope you will see, I hope our lifetimes allow it, that Turkey’s current stand will be in the interests of the Arabs and of Israelis in the region. Turkey will continue to articulate at the highest level – our Prime Minister, our Foreign Minister, and our President, for as long as we are in government – the same statements and policies that have been articulated so far.
Thank you very much.
About this Transcript:
Assertions and opinions in this Transcript are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.
Dr. Suat Kınıklıoğlu is the Deputy Chairman of External Affairs Justice and Development Party (AKP)