Soner Çağaptay

The battle for Turkey's future: Liberals vs. neo-liberals

6 Mayıs 2009
As Turkey continues its soul search on what it means to be a liberal democracy, Turkish liberals have come to a crossroads. They threw their support behind the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2002 when it came to power.

At that time, the AKP renounced its illiberal Islamist roots, promising to consolidate Turkey’s liberal democracy.  Seven years later, that promise awaits fulfillment, and the liberals have to decide where to go.

The liberal camp is split between liberals who see the AKP as not interested in furthering Turkey’s evolution towards a more liberal society, and neo-liberals who continue supporting the AKP in hope of throwing out the old Turkey and creating an entirely new liberal society. Which of these visions will move Turkey forward?

Initially after 2002, all liberals supported the AKP when the party pushed for European Union accession. Turkey’s EU accession is today stalled. To be fair, this problem is as much due to French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s veto against Turkish membership as it is due to the AKP’s loss of appetite for the EU. Still, just as Turkey began membership talks with the EU in October 2005, the party's drive for European membership waned. Populist instincts led the AKP to shy away from unpopular economic and social reforms needed to enter the EU. 

More importantly, the AKP was upset by the European Court of Human Rights' November 2005 decision to uphold Turkey's ban on Islamic style headscarves on college campuses. The party had hoped that Europe would help it recalibrate Turkey's secularism, but the decision signaled that Europe was content with the status quo.

Though Turkey theoretically moved closer to the EU after 2005 by negotiating chapters on some technical issues like scientific research, it actually slipped away from European values including gender equality and freedom. According to the U.N.'s Development Programme gender empowerment index, in 2002 Turkey was ranked 63rd in the world. In 2008, it slipped to 90th place. Meanwhile, Freedom House, an independent U.S. non-governmental organization which campaigns for the spread of democracy, lowered Turkey’s ranking in its annual index measuring freedom of the press from 100th in 2002 to 103rd in 2008.

The liberal camp’s frustration with the AKP has been fed by the party’s harsh attitude to media criticism of its performance. This disenchantment reached new levels in April 2008, when several liberals, including women who promote education for poor girls, were arrested as part of the Ergenekon case, an alleged ultra-nationalist coup plot against the government.

Liberals now seem to be abandoning the AKP, though neo-liberals continue to support it. This split stems from divergent views that liberals and neo-liberals have on Turkey’s founding ideology, Kemalism. An old sage once said that liberals want to transform Kemalism because they love it, while neo-liberals want to destroy it because they hate it.

Liberals see Kemalism as a mixed bag.  It has authoritarian and narodnik (for the people, despite the people) tendencies, yet it also promotes secular government, parliamentary democracy, and gender equality. Subsequently, the liberal take on Kemalism is akin to home-improvement: get rid of what cannot be fixed, improve what is outdated, cherish what is essential, and add what is needed. Liberals want to lose Kemalism’s authoritarianism, improve its democratic principles, cherish its secularism, and add liberalism to it. Today, the liberals feel that the AKP, which has problems with liberal values and democratic checks and balances such as media freedom, will not liberalize Kemalism. The liberal exodus from the AKP will continue unless and until the party reverts back to its 2001-2004 ideological antecedents.

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The Caucasus energy circle

29 Nisan 2009
Turkey and Armenia are getting closer and that is great. Washington has long wanted the two countries to overcome their differences, open their closed border and establish diplomatic ties Ğ and if all that happens, it would be wonderful news. Euphoria over Turkish-Armenian rapprochement should not, however, obfuscate the big strategic picture in the Caucasian energy circle. The thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations should not come at the expense of the East-West energy corridor, that is, the pipelines running from Azerbaijan to Turkey, which are a crucial strategic tool for Washington to decrease the West’s dependence on Middle East oil and gas by connecting the energy-rich Caspian basin and the Mediterranean.

Here is how the Caucasian energy circle works: The Caspian Sea countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are rich in oil and gas. Azerbaijan, lying to the west of the Caspian Sea, is the starting point for any energy lines emanating from the Caspian basin. Russia, to the north, wants to be the only buyer of oil and gas from the Caspian basin, so it can also be the only seller of these resources to the Western markets. Azerbaijan has so far worked not with Russia, but with the West to build pipelines. Turkey, lying to the west, closes the energy circle, providing an alternative to Russia for getting the Caspian region’s energy to Western markets.

In the 1990s, the United States joined the Caucasian circle, supporting the building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, successfully bypassing Russia.

The BTC is anathema to Russia, as it and its sister gas pipeline are the only ones that run from the Caspian basin to the West without going through Russia. The BTC was built in the 1990s when Russia was weak and ruled by the politically impotent President Boris Yeltsin. Today, Russia is a muscular country ruled by the politically savvy Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. If Putin had a magic wand, the first thing he would do is make the BTC go away.

Washington, for its part, wants to see the BTC flourish and to extend it eastward to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and westward towards Europe with new pipeline projects, including the Nabucco gas pipeline that would carry Caspian gas to Austria and the rest of Western Europe. In this endeavor, Turkey is a crucial transit country. However, Azerbaijan is the key country since it is where the pipelines begin. Azerbaijan connects the Caspian basin to the West, and without Azerbaijan, there could be no BTC or Nabucco. The East-West corridor would be a pipedream.

This is where the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement comes in. Azerbaijan has had a dispute with Armenia over the latter’s occupation of Azeri territory, including the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, since 1992. Turkey has long supported Azerbaijan, a fellow Turkic country, against the Armenian occupation, keeping its border with Armenia closed to force Yerevan to pull out of Azeri territory. This stance bonded Turkey and Azerbaijan in the 1990s and allowed the United States to work with both nations to make the BTC a reality.

Since summer 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia with little or no criticism from the West, Baku has already been feeling abandoned by the West. Azerbaijan is increasingly intimidated by Russia’s emergence as the region’s new bully. Abandoned by the West, and now by Turkey, Azerbaijan would certainly turn toward Russia as its new patron. And that would be the death knoll of the East-West corridor.

The United States can have its cake and eat it, too. The trick is to normalize Turkish-Armenian ties while keeping Turkey and Azerbaijan aligned. An Azerbaijani-Armenian-Turkish axis would a dream situation for Washington in the Caucasian circle. But such a dream would only become reality if the ongoing Turkish-Armenian rapprochement were accompanied by a guarantee from Armenia that it is ready to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Washington should join the Caucasian circle in order to achieve this strategic end.

Turkey and Armenia have to move ahead and Washington should support this process. However, it would be sad if the United States won Armenia, but lost Azerbaijan. For then, the Caucasian energy circle between Azerbaijan and Turkey would be broken, and the United States would hit a dead-end in the Caucasus, losing an entire region and its energy resources to the circle’s new owner, Russia.

Soner Cağaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author of the 2006 book "Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?". This article was originally published at
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How much will the US change under Obama?

23 Nisan 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama’s pre-election promise for change has galvanized public opinion around the world, including in Turkey. To what extent will he transform the United States domestically and revolutionize American foreign policy? And, what does Obama’s promise of change hold for Turkey? A study of Obama’s Cabinet members and close White House advisers casts light on how much America will change and where such change is likely to be most dramatic. Obama, in fact, has crafted two Cabinets: a "national security Cabinet" representing continuity and a "domestic issues Cabinet" composed of new faces and ideas in politics.

The domestic issues Cabinet, with fresh-faced 40somethings, is likely to introduce major change in American politics. This cabinet includes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius, and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan. Members of the domestic issues Cabinet hail from outside the Washington beltway. Bringing expertise from outside of Washington’s circles, Obama has signaled that this portfolio of secretaries, namely housing, health, environment, education and labor, will witness dramatic change in the Obama administration.

Already Obama has supported these staffing decisions with policy changes. A first sign is his proposal for universal socialized health coverage for all Americans, a revolutionary proposal in the free enterprise and every-man-for-himself world of American politics. Other items at the top of this Cabinet’s agenda include Green America, bridging the gap between high-quality and low-quality education in American schools, and fighting poverty. Obama faces counter-veiling forces deeply rooted in America’s founding ethos of frontier mentality and individualism. Still, if he succeeds, America would be transformed significantly.

While the domestic issues Cabinet will be ushering in dramatic change, on the foreign policy side the trend seems to be evolution, not revolution. The national security Cabinet includes, among others, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Jim Jones, chief adviser on the National Security Council. This is an establishment crowd is in their 60s and boasts extensive experience in foreign affairs and Washington politics.

The policy tools and methods of the Obama national security Cabinet will differ from that of the Bush administration. However, long-standing U.S. goals, such as preventing Iran’s nuclearization, watching Russia, disarming North Korea, establishing Arab-Israeli peace, achieving stability in Iraq, and gaining the upper hand against al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain Washington’s cardinal foreign policy objectives. In other words, expect many new openings and gestures, but no revolutions in American foreign policy in the Obama age.

The openings will be rooted in multilateralism and dialogue. The United States has already started to extend olive branches to many countries, including Cuba, and will engage others, such as Iran. If not the goals, the tenor of American foreign policy will change in the Obama age.

Even bigger change will come in gestures: A challenge for the United States is winning hearts and minds, not just in Turkey, but also in leftist Europe and neo-leftist Latin America, as well as in Muslim Middle East and Africa. In this regard, Obama’s personal history is promising.

The new United States president has multiple identities that he carries with ease; he is black and white in the American context. This helps him bridge the racial divide in the United States but also around the world, including in Latin America Ğ no wonder Obama was received with open arms at the Summit of the Americas that was held in multi-racial Trinidad and Tobago on April 19.

Obama bridges global gaps as well. His parents are Swedish and Kenyan, making him a Southerner and a Northerner in the global context. What is more, Obama can bridge the Atlantic, charming Europeans and Americans alike with his left-leaning, yet pragmatic politics.

Last but not least, Obama has many faiths in his family, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as he highlighted it in his inauguration speech on Jan. 20, providing proof that religions co-exist.

At home in Washington, Nairobi, Port of Spain, Stockholm and Istanbul alike, Obama is America’s messenger to the world. This is good news for Turkey; like Obama, Turkey is a country with multiple identities. Since Sept. 11, Turkey has a hard time simultaneously being a European, Western and Muslim nation. It was almost as if Washington picked one of these identities to the detriment of the others.

Turkey can now flourish as a European country in the West that happens to be Muslim. Obama has already emphasized this vision in his speech to the Turkish parliament on April 6. This is indeed the biggest change the Obama administration has ushered for Turkey.

Soner Çagaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Center of the earth

15 Nisan 2009
If U.S. President Barack Obama were using Google Earth to zoom into various geographic locations mentioned during his daily morning briefings on the state of world affairs, he is probably not zeroing into villages in Iraq’s Anbar province. Until recently considered to be the center of the geostrategic earth, Washington's foreign policy focus has shifted to the Durand Line, the tumultuous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A new, versatile term in Washington for these two countries, AfPak, demonstrates the interwoven nature of the United States’ challenges, namely persistent al-Qaeda operatives, resurgent Taliban, and instability in Kabul and Islamabad along the Durand Line. AfPak occupies most of Washington’s energy and is the new center of its geostrategic earth.

In his recent trip to Turkey, Obama highlighted areas of cooperation between Turkey and the United States. In Ankara’s view, maintaining stability in Iraq would appear to be the critical goal of Turkish-U.S. cooperation. As important as this issue is, it pales in immediacy to Washington’s most pressing concern: success in AfPak. Combating al-Qaeda and Taliban presence in the Pashtun highlands along the Durand Line, while achieving stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is the center of the earth in American foreign policy.

As such, in it lies the real opportunity for Turkish-U.S. cooperation.

In the Obama age, Turkey has much to benefit from a close relationship with the United States. From cooperation along the East-West energy corridor to Washington’s ability to move Turkey’s European Union train along the accession tracks, a strong relationship with the U.S. is vital to Turkey. Even before Obama’s trip to Turkey, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government suggested that "U.S. and Turkish foreign policy agendas overlap completely." In this regard, if Turkish assistance to the United States to help withdraw troops from Iraq would win Ankara brownie points in Washington, then Turkish-U.S. cooperation in AfPak would take the cake.

There are three avenues for Turkish-U.S. cooperation in AfPak. First, Turkey can share with the United States its insight into fighting terror with velvet gloves in AfPak. For al-Qaeda and the Taliban to be defeated along the Durand Line, the Pashtun peasants there must be swayed away from supporting both organizations. In the hierarchy-driven and feudal Pashtun lands, such a shift will not occur unless the Pashtun elders decide in that direction.

This effort requires incentives for the elders, as well as benefits such as improved services and security that they can transfer to their peasants, and finally, trust-based communication with the elders. NATO can provide these incentives, improved services and security. As NATO’s only Muslim-majority country, not counting smaller Albania, which has just joined the alliance, Turkey could provide the communication bridge between NATO and the Pashtun elders.

Even if it were to win the Pashtun elders and peasants, NATO would still have to fight some al-Qaeda and Taliban elements, especially those who have come to the region from outside and are invested in these organizations’ political goals more than the local peasants.

The use of Turkish troops to support the United States in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban is a tricky business. This will happen only if Turkey feels that its own terror threat emanating from Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, presence in northern Iraq has abated. Lately, there have been several promising signs in this regard: The Iraqi Kurds seem more willing than before to help Turkey fight the PKK as they did in the 1990s when Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds together brought the PKK to its knees.

If the United States can align the Iraqi Kurds with Turkey toward paralyzing the PKK, and it should be mentioned that Washington is already giving Turkey intelligence to this end, this would alleviate Turkey’s threat concerns about PKK terrorism. Only then would Turkey consider increasing its troop presence in Afghanistan. At the moment, there are around 1,200 Turkish soldiers in the country. The key to NATO’s success in Kandahar perhaps goes through Erbil.

The third area of Turkish-U.S. cooperation would be through Ankara’s promotion of ties between ties Kabul and Islamabad who are, more often than not, at odds with each other. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey has followed an activist foreign policy in the Middle East, suggesting that it has the power to bring together countries in conflict such as Israel and Syria. That has not happened because Turkey is not always seen as an honest broker in Middle East issues.

However, in AfPak, Turkey is viewed an honest broker. Ankara has maintained historically good and close ties with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, and common Afghanis and Pakistanis have only nice things to say about Turks. To illustrate, there is an old saying that if a Turk were blindfolded and walked through the Middle East toward South Asia, he would know when he had arrived in Afghanistan or Pakistan when anti-Turkish jokes would end and he started to hear people praising the Turks.

Turkey has already taken steps toward acting as a bridge between Afghanistan and Pakistan through the initiative started by President Abdullah Gül to iron out the differences between the two countries. This initiative could be further promoted through the inclusion of the common Afghanis and Pakistanis. The Durand Line, drawn in the late 19th century, was named after Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of the British Indian government.

Sir Durand had probably no idea that one day his name would stand for ground zero of American foreign policy. If I were in Ankara, I would zoom into the Durand Line; this is where Obama looks every morning.

Soner Cağaptay is a senior fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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Alliance of Civilizations: A misplaced union

4 Nisan 2009
At first glance, the Alliance of Civilizations, or AoC, founded by Turkey and Spain in 2005, seems like a sensible and strategic undertaking. In the post-Sept. 11 world, it boldly promises to bring two clashing civilizations peacefully together. But this is a fundamentally incorrect assumption. In fact, Turkey and Spain belong not to opposing civilizations, but to the same one Ğ Western civilization. While the two countries have different religions, in the 21st century, civilizations are not about religions but shared values and institutions. The two nations share Western values such as liberal democracy, free markets, gender equality, secularism and rule of law.

Turkey and Spain are both members of many Western institutions, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

They are allies in the foremost Western security club, NATO, and part of the European Union family, as Spain is a member and Turkey is in accession talks with EU.

The AoC, which will hold a summit in Istanbul on April 6 and 7, is a misplaced entity. It represents a view of the modern world distorted by religion, as it suggests that Turkey and Spain cannot belong to the same civilization due to their different faiths.

The AoC, which was established on the initiative of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, implies that Turkey does not belong to the West. This is not a good way of promoting Turkey’s EU membership. Simply put, a Turkey that does not see itself as Western cannot hope to join the EU.

Ever since the AKP’s ascension to power, some analysts have suggested that Turkey’s rapprochement with Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah and Sudan is guided by Islamist motives. Others have disputed this claim, saying the AKP is loyal to Turkey’s Western orientations. The AoC, however, suggests otherwise, offering a glimpse into the AKP mindset; according to this party, Turkey is not a member of the West.

United States President Barack Obama will visit Turkey during the AoC summit in Istanbul. Obama is traveling to Turkey as part of a European visit, stopping in Istanbul after attending NATO and EU summits. With this visit, the U.S. president hopes to counter Turkey’s alienation from the West by emphasizing the country’s Western inclinations.

Obama will tell the Turks that they belong to Europe and the West, while the ongoing AoC summit will suggest otherwise. By purporting that Spain and Turkey belong to different civilizations it suggests that the United States and Turkey do too.

In its current form, the AoC runs counter to Obama’s message of a Western Turkey. Turkey and Spain both belong in the Alliance for Europe.

Soner Çağaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
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Lessons from the Annals of Counterterrorism **

17 Aralık 2008
Recent talks between the Turkish government and Massoud Barzani, representing the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, in northern Iraq are a positive development in many respects. These talks bridge the gap between two potential pro-western allies. Moreover, they offer an opportunity for Turkey to deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, terror threat emanating from northern Iraq. If Turkey and the KRG can devise a common strategy to tackle the PKK, a confidence would be constructed between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, creating a strategic partnership in a greatly necessary sphere. However, if this strategy fails, Turkish-KRG relations may become damaged beyond repair. The annals of counter-terrorism teach both sides lessons to avoid failure while successfully tackling the PKK.

A lesson in pitfalls, namely the debilitating effect terrorism can have on continuing negotiations; can be learnt from the past. The Oslo process exemplifies this extremely detrimental effect. Palestinian suicide attacks in 2000 during the apogee of the Oslo talks between the Israelis and Palestinians shattered the Israelis’ faith in negotiations. In due course, the bilateral talks collapsed irrevocably. The PKK violence now, when the KRG is negotiating with Turkey on the PKK issue, would provide a similar drawback in negotiations. More so, such violence would cast the PKK as a tool of the KRG. It would also portray the PKK and the KRG as parties deceptively interested in peace, creating resistance in Turkey against further talks with the KRG on the PKK issue, or any issue for that matter. Last but not least, unabated PKK violence would likely force the Turkish government to take the matter in its own hands, responding to the PKK presence in northern Iraq with an iron fist.

There is a great deal that the Iraqi Kurds and Barzani can do to inhibit such developments. Barzani holds influence over the PKK, as demonstrated by his ability to end the PKK violence when it rose in June 2007. Amid great concern that Turkey was to enter northern Iraq, the base of PKK operations, Barzani’s actions thwarted this potential escalation. Barzani holds the key today, as well. If he can prevent PKK violence, he will win Turkey’s friendship. If not, Turkey would view new PKK violence as Barzani’s doing, and Turkish-KRG relations would deteriorate beyond recognition.

The second lesson from the annals of counter-terrorism can be drawn from French cooperation with Spain against Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, presence in their country. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Spain and France successfully dealt with the ETA presence in France as a segway to tackling the ETA in Spain. The PKK is Turkey’s problem and Turkey needs to implement military as well as non-military measures domestically against this organization. However, PKK bases in northern Iraq support the group’s attacks on Turkey across the border. Therefore, as it deals with the PKK problem at home, Turkey must neutralize the PKK threat from northern Iraq. Just as Spain defused the ETA in southern France as a precursor to the marginalization of the ETA in Spain, if Turkey can tackle the PKK in northern Iraq, it can hope to marginalize the PKK in Turkey.

Until the 1980s, the ETA used bases in southern France to support attacks inside Spain. The French government was oblivious to the ETA’s presence in its territory and the ETA inflicted significant damage on Spain from France. After much Spanish insistence in 1980, Paris started to help Madrid combat the ETA, and between 1983-1987, Spanish Antiterrorist Liberation Groups, or GAL, became active in southern France against ETA’s members. Subsequently, ETA-caused casualties dropped significantly from 94 in 1980 to 18 in 1987. In 1992, France arrested the entire leadership of ETA in Bidart, France, causing the organization to become a marginal force and ETA-caused casualties dropped down to 2 in 2006.

Turkey can marginalize the PKK in the same fashion. Taking a note from Franco-Spanish strategy, KRG-Turkish cooperation in denying the PKK refuge in Iraq would open the path for the PKK’s marginalization in Turkey. Of course, the PKK would not disappear; rather, the extent of its threat would diminish, as the power of the ETA did following the French crackdown on their presence in its territory. To counter the PKK effectively, Turkey must continue to carry out domestic measures, in order to diminish the strength of the PKK from every angle. One such angle, and a pivotal piece to this strategy, would be the building and strengthening of a relationship between the Turkey and the KRG. Between this strategic partnership and its use of lessons from the annals of counter-terrorism, the threat of the PKK can be marginalized. and that would be the best thing to happen in the Middle East in a long time.

* Soner Çağaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, would like to thank Merve Demirel for her assistance with this article.

** The article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
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