Strange goings on in Turkey

Two recent decisions by Turkish prime minister Erdoğan make it look as though he is losing his grip.

With all the disputes and controversies swirling around the Geneva agreement between the G5+1 countries and Iran, it's easy to lose sight of other significant events taking place in the region, such as two very strange decisions made in recent days by the Erdoğan government in Turkey.

In the first place, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision to close the preparatory schools. A very large portion of these schools is operated by members of the Gulen community, followers of the Turkish Sunni sect leader Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the United States. The Gulenists were initially strong supporters of Erdogan, but recently have loosened their ties, as he has taken steps they don't like. This measure, however, goes to the heart of the movement, since it is in the prep schools that the Gulenists fashion the future leaders they diligently insert into the government, the armed forces and the private sector.

As such, closing the schools is an open declaration of war by Erdoğan on the Gulenists, at a time when he is already confronting a large and powerful informal opposition alliance, including the secular urban middle class, the trade unions and the alevis (a large, ancient Sunni sect). His efforts to reach an agreement with the Kurds through negotiations with their imprisoned leader, have been stalled, giving rise to the possibility of adding the millions of Kurds in eastern Anatolia to the opposition alliance.

Which brings us to strange decision number two. The Turkish government has signed an agreement with the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan to import oil from Kurdistan by pipeline. This has understandably infuriated the central government in Baghdad, since Kurdistan has no constitutional right or standing in international law to sign agreements with any foreign country. The motivation of the Kurds is obvious--if the deal stands, it will represent (1) implicit recognition of at least economic sovereignty and (2) a source of income from an export that will not pass through any other part of Iraq.

But what do the Turks get out of it? Turkey has no problem getting all the oil it needs from many different sources. Making agreements with Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of the fully predictable opposition of the Iraqi central government is at the very least an unfriendly act and is being taken as such by Baghdad. Finally, to empower Iraqi Kurdistan in this way may well encourage the other large Kurdish communities to demand ever-greater autonomy or even independence. Certainly this is true of the Syrian Kurds, who are already in full control of their region, having defeated the Islamists in open battle, but one would think that Turkey would be particularly concerned about the effect of such an agreement on its own Kurds.

In summary, Erdoğan, who operated for years very adroitly in the murky waters of Turkish politics and society, even defanging the fearsome Turkish armed forces, seems not only to have lost his touch, but to have become positively suicidal in political terms.

For Israel, the implications are obvious. Maintaining friendly relations with Turkey was long a cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy in the Near East. If Erdoğan's AKP government falls, either through elections or by some sort of Egyptian-style popular coup, it is very likely that the new government would restore friendly relations, because it would make great economic sense, and because Erdoğan's dreams of a neo-Ottoman sphere of influence have collapsed.

Should this take place, the chaos which has followed the "Arab Spring" could end up with Israel having friendly relations with almost all of its neighbors, however unlikely that would have seemed a short time ago.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on December 8, 2013

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2013

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