on the silk road


Gaza a Tool for Turkey’s Great Game in Middle East

Prime Minister Erdogan gets a heroes welcome at the Istanbul Ataturk airport.

BY ALLEN YEKIKAN

For some time now, Turkey has been posturing for a more influential role in the geopolitics of its region, step by step working to recreate the Ottoman Legacy by mediating conflicts in the Middle East and establishing footholds in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

To advance its image among the Arab world and carve for itself a new and larger role in the region, Turkey has taken up the mantle of the Palestinian Cause, damning Israel at every turn for its human rights violations in Gaza.

Until recently Turkey had, by and large, tried to portray itself as a neutral arbiter of peace between Israel and Hamas, ostensibly working for the interests of regional stability. Lately, however, Turkey has taken a sharp turn from its previous position, accusing Israel of war crimes and using it to bolster its already strong diplomatic position in the region.

The latest and harshest jab at Israel’s dismal human right’s record by Turkey came Thursday when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed at the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, during a televised panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Erodgan blasted the Israeli President with a lengthy and prepared condemnation for his government’s inhumanity.

“I find it very sad that people applaud what you said. There have been many people killed. And I think that it is very wrong and it is not humanitarian,” Erdogan said, responding to a lengthy monologue by Peres defending Israel’s operations in Gaza. “You know very well how to kill people.”

Erdogan’s harsh criticism at Davos follows weeks of similar denunciations in which he has accused Israel of “savagery”  and “crimes against humanity.” Many analysts are predicting Erdogan’s verbal jabs have strained relations between Turkey and Israel, two countries who have close diplomatic and military ties and a long history of working together to lobby the US government against recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Sure enough, the influential American Jewish Committee slammed Erdogan on Friday for his remarks, saying his behavior was “a public disgrace that may well encourage further outrages against Israel and Jews.”

Earlier, on January 23, five major Jewish organizations called on the Turkish prime minister to “urgently address” the wave of anti-Semitism in his country manifesting through anti-israel protests. The organizations warned that Turkey’s recent condemnation of Israel will make it difficult to continue supporting Turkey’s attempts to prevent US recognition of the Armenian Genocide in the US congress.

But while some analysts predict that Turkey may have torpedoed its strategic alliance with Israel and thus the west, as well as burned its bridges with its allies in the Israeli Lobby, others see Turkey’s geopolitical position as having actually benefited from its harsh criticism of Israel.

“Turkey’s international profile has risen as a result of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Israel in the wake of the conflict in Gaza,” said Stratfor, a Texas based Private Intelligence agency. “Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party are making use of the Gaza crisis to further their goals of reasserting Turkey’s leadership of the Arab Middle East, and of the wider Muslim world.”

With a seat on the UN Security and a lock on the regions energy supply, Turkey is begining to weild the same crafty politics that built the Ottoman Empire, using the shrewed diplomacy of the Sultans to exploit the vacuum being left in the region by the slowly departing US Army.

On the international level, Erdogan’s condemnation of Israel may harm Turkish foreign policy positions, but in the streets of the Arab world Erdogan is becoming a ‘new Nasser’,” The Jamestown analysis noted, adding that a Turkish TV channel has reported Palestinians are planning to organize rallies after Friday prayers to show their appreciation for Erdogan’s comments.

According to Stratfor, Erdogan is “gaining tremendous respect and appreciation” in the Arab world for his recent condemnations of Israel, especially “at a time when the Arab masses perceive their leaders as either actively supporting Israel or at least doing nothing to stop it.”

With its continued survival dependent on Muslim divisivness, Israel would not be keen on having to deal with a Middle East united behind Turkey against Israel.  Peres was quick to nip any speculation Friday that Turkish-Israeli relations had tanked, saying that Turkey is an ally and that the public argument with Erdogan at the World Economic Forum will neither affect the relationship between Israel and Turkey nor between Peres and Erdogan, The Associated Press reported.

Aside from the diplomatic gambit this move may have given Turkey in its dealings with the regional players, Erdogan seems to also have benefited domestically as well, arriving in Turkey Friday to a hero’s welcome from thousands of Turks gathered at Istanbul’s Atatruk Airport waving Palestinian and Turkish flags while chanting slogans in support of the prime minister. Banners proclaimed Erdogan the “delegate of the oppressed.”  The passions, the New York Times reported Friday, reflected widespread anger about the Gaza war spreading throughoutTurkey, a secular nation whose population is mostly Muslim.

“I only know that I’m responsible for protecting the honor of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish nation from A to Z,” Erdogan was quoted by the Times as saying as he returned to Istanbul in the early hours of Friday. “I am not a leader of a tribe. I am the prime minister of the Republic of Turkey. I do whatever I need to, so I did it, and will continue to do so. This is my character. This is my identity.”

Where Turkish-Israeli relations will go from here is unknown, according to the Jamestown Foundation, which said Friday that Erdogan’s risky move in Davos has made him a hero to Turkey’s masses, assuring him “victory in the municipal elections in March.”

According to Hurriyet, it has been revealed that the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to arrive in Turkey on Feb. 7 at Ankara’s request. No further details have been made clear.

Turkey occupies some of the most valuable real estate on the planet, according to Stratfor. “It sits astride the land routes connecting Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East–not to mention the straits connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,” a January 30 report by the intelligence agency said. “It is the only country in the world that is positioned to project influence readily into all of these regions.”

“Any time in human history that the Anatolian Peninsula has not been a leading force in geopolitics has been an aberration,” Stratfor aptly noted in its analysis. “And although the direction of its movement remains up for debate, Turkey–after more than 90 years of quiescence–is moving again.”

Related Articles:


Advertisements


Museum of Tolerance Hosts Azeri Press Conference, Stifles Reporter’s Questions

LOS ANGELES–A press conference by Azeri parliamentarians at the Museum of Tolerance on the Georgian conflict and its threat to western oil pipelines in the Caucasus was cut short Friday when this reporter was censored after asking about Azerbaijan’s growing belligerence towards Armenia.

The media briefing on the South Caucasus was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at its Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. It featured a 5-member parliamentary delegation from Azerbaijan, as well as a member from the Consulate of Georgia. Azerbaijan’s Consul General in Los Angeles was also in attendance.

When a question was asked by this Asbarez reporter regarding an August 8 statement by the Azeri Foreign Ministry saying Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia served as a precedent for resolving ethnic conflicts in the region, he was silenced, not only by members of the audience and the Azeri consular staff, which denied the incident, but also by Rabbi Cooper who prematurely ended the conference (others were slated to speak) to take a tour of the museum.

Incidentally, the Republic of Armenia’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Armen Liloyan, was not invited to the press briefing. “We have never received such an invitation,” he said, when asked why a representative from Armenia, a US partner in the Caucasus, sharing warm relations and strong ties to both the United States and the west as well as Russia, was not invited.

Asbarez contacted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for comments on the Center’s failure to invite a representative from the Republic of Armenia to the briefing. But Cooper could not be reached for comment and did not return calls.

Though the event was publicized as a briefing about the “implications of the Russian invasion of Georgia for the region and for oil and gas supplies globally,” it was more rhetoric than information. Throughout the briefing, one common theme was conveyed to the audience–that the conflict in Georgia was actually between Russia and the West.

“This is an offensive against the United States, American interests, and values,” remarked Asim Mollazada, the Azeri parliamentarian giving the first and only briefing.

“We said we would like to be a reliable ally of the United States,” he said, underscoring Azerbaijan’s centrality to US interests in the region.

Rabbi Cooper, who moderated the press conference, echoed most of Mollazada’s remarks in his praise for the two former soviet republics. Azerbaijan and Georgia, he boasted, were model republics in the region with their impeccable democratic track records

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Asim Mollazada, Member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, showing the location of the pipeline as Rabbi Abraham Cooper, SWC associate dean, looks on.

Mollazada, who is also the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Democratic Reform Party and a member of its parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Russia’s advance into Georgia and the PKK sabotage of a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline are “evil” forces that threaten to derail the democratic progress of Azerbaijan and Georgia.

According to international human rights watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Boarders, and Amnesty International, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan has proven to be a model of democracy in the region.

On January 6, tens of thousands of Georgians, claiming fraud and demanding a recount, took to the streets to protest the election victory of American-allied President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili called for snap elections in November after he imposed a state of emergency following a brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for his resignation. Saakashvili, whose government was criticized by Human Rights Watch for “crossing the line” in November, is now being accused of having enacted policies of ethnic cleansing in its breakaway province of South Ossetia, which it devastated in a bombing campaign that began on August 7th.

Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties.

According to Amnesty International, journalists in Azerbaijan “striving to expose the misuse of government power are increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death…[and] are only free to express opinions that fall in line with government directives. Anyone daring to voice criticism of the authorities or to expose Azerbaijan’s enduring corruption problem faces an uncertain future.”

Furthermore, the BTC pipeline, which Mollazada emphasized was as an agent of stability and democratic development in the region, has allowed Aliyev to strengthen his heavy-handed grip over Azerbaijan’s government. In preparation for his reelection in October, Aliyev has been establishing a cult of personality by propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Despite the reality on the ground, Mollazada insisted that the region’s oil pipelines “solve problems.”

“[The BTC pipeline] is a system of transferring ideas of liberty…our goal, our priority is to create a system of liberty and human rights,” he remarked. “If evil wins in Georgia, the system will go to the middle ages.”

During the truncated question and answer session, an inquiry was made regarding the effect the conflict would have on the world oil market. Mollazada took advantage of the opportunity to frame the message in a way where American interests were being held hostage to Russian aggression in the region.

“Now oil is not pumping and immediately you will see prices will jump,” Mollazada said, stating that American, European, and Israeli interests would only be secured if Azerbaijan was supported. “It is vitally important to the energy security of Israel and Europe.”

But Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate Armenia from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of the region and harmed US and western interests in the South Caucasus.

In spite of the windfall profits from the US–and the west–facilitated by the BTC project, Azerbaijan continues to lobby the United States for foreign aid rather than using its oil-generated wealth to better humanitarian and infrastructural problems it faces. Instead it uses these profits to bolster its blockade of Armenia, increasing the need for US humanitarian support to that country, a US partner in the region and diplomatic bridge between the West and Russia as well as Iran.

Although the tense status quo in Karabakh has by and large held, Aliyev has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up the country’s military, purchasing armaments and vehicles from France, the United States and the former Warsaw Pact countries. The tremendous new oil wealth has allowed Aliyev to increase defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to $2 billion in 2008. According to a Stratfor analysis, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994 and de facto independence for Karabakh.

Last month, Rabbi Cooper visited Azerbaijan to meet with the Foreign Minister and a leading Muslim religious leader, according to an Azeri Press Agency report cited by Day.az on July 22. During his meeting with the Azeri cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pasha-zade, who two years ago called on Azerbaijani’s to prepare for a “jihad” against Armenians, Cooper reportedly described Azerbaijan as “a tolerant country, where everyone can practice his religion without any restrictions.” His remarks, published the next day in a Day.az interview, were in reference to the Jewish community in Baku.

In the interview, Rabbi Cooper went on to say that Azerbaijan should do more to “inform the US community in details about their country and especially about [the Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict. The United States are mostly well informed about the ‘genocide of Armenians.’ It would be good if Azerbaijanis held work for informing Americans about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.”

In 2003, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles was embroiled in controversy over its refusal to establish a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide. Despite a six-day hunger strike by 14 young human rights activists, calls from thousands of Armenian Americans nationwide, a major story in the Los Angeles Times, and growing interest on the part of local, state, and federal lawmakers, the Museum of Tolerance only agreed to include references to the Armenian Genocide in various exhibits at the museum. The Museum still does not have a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide.