All Roads Lead to Istanbul

Turkey is more popular now than it has been since the Ottoman Empire. But can it please all of its new friends at the same time?




ANKARA, Turkey – It’s great to be Turkey just now. The economy, barely scathed by the global recession, grew 11.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and 10.3 percent in the second.  Like the Ottoman Empire reborn, Turkey has sponsored a visa-free zone with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and is moving toward creating a free trade zone as well. And Turkey is a force not just in its neighborhood but, increasingly, in the world. It’s the next president of the Council of Europe, an observer of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a new friend of ASEAN and Mercosur. 


And the world is beating a path to its doorstep: When I was in Ankara this week, the Sudanese foreign minister was in town; the French, the Austrians, and the Poles had just visited. Senior Iraqi politicians were making regular pilgrimages. Turkey has become a net exporter of diplomatic services.


“For the first time,” says Selim Yenel, the highly Americanized deputy undersecretary of foreign affairs responsible for relations with Washington, “they’re asking us for advice.”


Like its fellow emerging powers Brazil and South Africa, Turkey was once a right-wing state that the West could safely pocket during the Cold War. And like these countries, the Turks now have the self-confidence to feel that they no longer need belong to anyone. Such states are now a force unto themselves, as Turkey and Brazil demonstrated — to Washington’s chagrin — when they reached a deal with Iran this past May to ensure that Tehran would not produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. Intriguingly, Turkey, Brazil, and Nigeria currently serve on the U.N. Security Council, and South Africa and India will next year — a murderers’ row of emerging powers, and a glimpse of a post-hegemonic, polycentric world.


But diplomatically, Turkey matters more than the others do. Among them, only Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim and located in the Middle East, within hailing distance of practically every crisis zone on the planet. And thus the question of what kind of force Turkey will be matters more as well. Turkish diplomats, well aware that the eyes of the world are on them, are quick to give assurances that they are a liberal, secular, and, above all, responsible influence in their neighborhood and beyond.


The question arises, of course, because of the events of this past spring, when, in dismayingly rapid succession, Turkey delivered the unwanted gift of the Iranian deal and voted against a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution to impose sanctions on Iran — and then erupted in outrage when Israeli commandos, determined to stop a flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza, killed eight Turkish citizens in the course of a terribly botched operation. The accident of timing left the toxic impression that Turkey viewed Iran as a friend and Israel as an enemy. Turkey’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” seemed to mean that it was prepared to alienate its old friends in the West in order to mollify countries in its own backyard, including the worst among them. The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman wrote that Turkey seems intent on “joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel.”


I think that’s a bum rap. On Israel, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to here, including harsh critics of the ruling AKP, has said that popular opinion was so outraged by the event — the first time since the Ottomans, as one is constantly told, that Turkish civilians had ever been killed by a foreign army — that no government could have preserved its popular legitimacy without demanding an apology (though whether leading figures had to describe the incident as state terrorism is another matter). Turkey is still waiting for that apology. As for Iran, it’s clear that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his team really did believe that the West would welcome the deal they struck, by which Iran would agree to transfer 1,200 kilograms of uranium out of the country to be enriched for civilian purposes. The fact that they were wrong probably says as much about U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambivalence about engaging Iran as it does about Turkish tone-deafness or disingenuousness.   


Still, Turkish officials recognize that they’ve jeopardized their emerging brand identity and have some serious repair work to do. “We’ve got to find something flashy,” Yenel told me. Maybe Turkey could persuade Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, the kidnapped Israeli soldier? (Good luck with that.) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed off on his apparent obsession with Gaza and Israel’s perfidy, and a U.N. investigative panel may deliver a definitive judgment on the flotilla incident in early 2011 (compelling an Israeli apology, Turkey hopes).


It’s a caricature to say that Turkey has chosen the Middle East, or Islam, over the West. Turkey’s aspiration for full membership in the club of the West, including the European Union, is still a driving force. But Turkey aspires to many things, and some may contradict each other. The country wants to be a regional power in a region deeply suspicious of the West, of Israel, and of the United States; a Sunni power acting as a broker for Sunnis in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere; a charter member of the new nexus of emerging powers around the world; and a dependable ally of the West. When Turkey is forced to choose among these roles, the neighborhood tends to win out, and that’s when you get votes against sanctions on Iran. At this week’s NATO summit in Brussels, for instance, Davutoglu has expressed skepticism about missile defense, because any such system would be aimed at countries like Iran and Syria, which Turkey declines to characterize as threats.


Turkish officials insist that they embrace the “universal values” that drive public discourse, if not necessarily policy, in the West. But they seem to give their Muslim brothers a pass on human rights. Erdogan notoriously exonerated Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir by saying “A Muslim can never commit genocide.” Erdogan also publicly congratulated Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his victory in the 2009 election, widely condemned elsewhere as grossly rigged. Turkish diplomats say that they use tough language in private — but autocratic regimes shrug off private recriminations.


Unlike China or even India, Turkey does not resort to the language of “sovereignty” when defending abusive regimes — it takes the “Western” view of international law. Rather, its dilemma has to do with its neighborhood: You can’t be a regional leader in the Middle East if you take human rights too seriously. But the problem might also have to do with the unresolved state of Turkey’s own democracy. Eight years after Erdogan gained power, secular Turks continue to doubt his commitment, and that of the ruling AKP, to human rights, tolerance, and the rule of law. Although many of the people I spoke to saw the country’s recent constitutional referendum — which among other things reduced the power of the army over the judiciary — as a further consolidation of Turkish democracy, plenty of others viewed it as a dangerous ploy by the AKP to increase its control over the state. Secular Turks fear that the country is becoming steadily more conservative — certainly in the Anatolian heartland, if not yet in the big cities.


From the time of Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has been committed to its “European vocation.” But Ataturk was a modernizer, not a liberal; one of his slogans was “For the people, despite the people.” And if Kemalist secularism was not a formula for European-style liberal individualism, it’s scarcely clear that the AKP’s market-oriented moderate Islamic restoration is, either. Turkey’s democracy is not yet “consolidated,” as political scientists put it.


Turkey is a success story that the West has every reason to welcome. The image of moderation and tolerant cosmopolitanism that it offers to Middle Eastern audiences contributes not only to Turkish soft power but to global peace and security, at least in the long run. That’s already a pretty solid record. But Turkey is not content with being the brightest star in its benighted neighborhood; it wants to play on the world stage. And that ambition may force Turkey to find a new balance among its competing identities.


James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda. “Terms of Engagement,” his column for, runs weekly.

Foreign Policy, Washington   –   15 Oct 10

A pipeline to fuel Mid-East energy security

Editor’s Choice

25 August 2010
A pipeline to fuel Mid-East energy security
By Mary E. Stonaker
NOT many people outside the energy industry know much of it, but the Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) is quietly shaping up to be an important player in regional and even global energy security.
This is a submarine and overland pipeline that carries natural gas throughout the Middle East. There are plans to connect the pipeline to Europe, a move that will make Middle East gas resources more accessible to European countries.
The AGP began as a Memorandum of Understanding between Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in 2001. This outlined the route of the AGP network through Al-Arish and Taba in Egypt; Aqaba, Amman and Damascus in Jordan; and Hims in Syria.
The pipeline exports mainly Egyptian natural gas. Egypt possesses the third highest estimated natural gas reserves in Africa at 58.5 Tcf (trillion cubic feet), after Nigeria (185 Tcf) and Algeria (159 Tcf).
It is a net exporter of natural gas, producing approximately 1.9 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) while consuming 1.1 Tcf in 2008. In 2009, Egypt exported 646 billion cubic feet (bcf), 30 per cent of this through pipelines, 70 per cent as Liquefied Natural Gas).
The AGP thus helps Egypt secure markets for its natural gas exports in the Middle East and possibly Europe. At the same time, Egypt like other Middle Eastern countries, face increasing domestic demand for gas resources and continually monitors export volume to ensure the domestic markets are sufficiently supplied.
There is still excess capacity in the AGP, with the current volume of gas flowing through the AGP standing at 4 billion cubic metres per year (bcm/y) while its capacity is 10 bcm/y.
This provides tremendous opportunities for the expanding AGP to spur exports to other Middle Eastern countries. This is important in a region known for its conflicts and helps secure regional energy security by offering Egypt’s natural gas resources to its neighbours in a stable and relatively low-cost and manner. Experts have said that it is shared energy insecurity that “provides an incentive for regional collaboration on renewable energy”.
Despite having 40% of the world’s remaining natural gas reserves, Middle Eastern countries are struggling to become exporters. This is due to growing domestic demand, as well as obstacles in developing the export market due to low prices, poor bill collection systems, and uneven distribution. Only with improved and increased infrastructure will the Middle East be able to reverse this trend, meet domestic demand and become net exporters of natural gas.
As the AGP expands its footprint, countries currently tied to it for natural gas resources will need to develop domestic infrastructure in order to reap the greatest benefits from participation in the AGP project. This has the salutary effect of spurring the development of regional energy infrastructure, which allows the whole region to be well-positioned for eventual integration into European markets.
Global gas demands are predicted to grow by about 2% per year for the next several decades. Natural gas demand is set to rise from the present 3.1 trillion cubic metres (tcm) to 4.5 tcm by 2030, a rise of nearly 50 per cent. Most of that demand will come from electricity, as it is a clean (low CO2 emissions), affordable way to power the region and the world. The Arab Gas Pipeline (AGP) will play a pivotal role in securing access to natural gas in the region and beyond.
Already, the signs are good that the AGP will see additional extensions of its pipeline into Turkey, Iran, Iraq and possibly the European Union. It will do so by linking into existing or planned natural gas pipelines in these areas. If fully successful, the AGP would carry a total volume of gas of 14,000 million cubic metres per years (MCM/y).
Examples of extension: In 2006, the original signees (Egypt, Jordan and Syria and Lebanon) agreed with Turkey to build an extension from Hims, Syria across the Turkish border. They also agreed to allow Iraq’s natural gas access to the Arab Gas Pipeline and, in turn, access to the EU market if plans to tap into the Nabucco pipeline succeed. This pipeline is currently under construction and will run from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria to Turkey.
The AGP is by no means the only regional gas pipeline of significance. Middle Eastern nations have been accessing collective and individual energy security policies to create regional cooperation and, ensure greater regional stability. There have been other natural gas pipeline projects in the region, most notably the pipelines connecting Algeria with European markets.
Algeria is the fourth-largest supplier to the EU after Russia, Norway and the Netherlands. There are now two main natural gas pipelines  from Algeria, with a third expected to be From Algeria, there are two main natural gas pipelines: the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) and the Maghreb-Europe Gas (MEG). A third major line, Medgaz, will connect Beni Saf, Algeria to Almería, Spain and is expected to be with a third expected to be fully operational mid-2010. Connectors to French and other European natural gas transmission networks are expected to be completed no earlier than 2013-2015.
Other pipelines are also being planned for the Middle East region.
The AGP is a commendable effort of four nations (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) to streamline exports and allow greater ease of access for Arabs to natural gas. It acts as a spur to regional development of gas infrastructure. It is also far-sighted in foreseeing the export potential of extending the AGP into Israel and Turkey, as well connecting to other regional pipelines, such as lines originating in Iraq and Iran.
Plugging itself into this network of pipelines, the AGP will play an important role to stabilize the region’s energy security, at least in regards to natural gas.
The writer is with the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She may be contacted at

The Straits Times, August 25, 2010

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A Grim Year for the Middle East

For internal circulation
4 Jan 10
The furore after polls in Iran, the snub delivered to America by Israel and the continuing war in Iraq hint at a new year full of problems from the past

By Patrick Seale

The year 2009, which began with Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, has been one of great torment and much misery in the Middle East. Even the ascent last January of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring a semblance of peace to a profoundly troubled region.

At first, Obama’s arrival seemed like a gift from paradise. Here was a highly unusual, brilliantly eloquent leader who promised to reinvent America, and heal the ravages of the Bush years. But the immense hopes he aroused — especially in the Arab and Muslim world — have not yet been fully realised. But one must not despair: Obama’s mandate still has three years to run.

In spite of Obama’s efforts so far, the situation remains unsettled and potentially explosive in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bearing witness to the enduring nature of the crises in these countries, but also to the inability of an enfeebled US to impose its will.

For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet empire that followed, the US seemed to be the world’s unchallenged superpower, able to dictate terms to friends and enemies alike. One of the striking lessons of 2009 is how fast this supremacy has been eroded.

Several factors have contributed to it. The following must be counted among them: the enraged response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks; the lamentable influence of pro-Israeli neo-cons on America’s Middle East policy; the catastrophic Iraq war; the ill-judged “Global War on Terror”, widely seen as a war on Islam; the grave international financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s unbridled greed; and, not least, the rise of China — a shift in the global balance of power, which the splendour of the Beijing Olympic Games brought home by television to every living-room across the world.

Nothing illustrates the decline of American power better than the defiant rejection of American wishes by both Israel and Iran, as well as the evident reluctance of European allies to contribute more than token forces to the war in Afghanistan.

It would seem that Obama’s unenviable task will be to manage the US decline as best he can.

In Iraq, Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement, bringing Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to a close. But this has not brought peace to that shattered country. Terrorist explosions, each with its terrible toll of dead and wounded, continue to rock Baghdad and other cities.

The region will have to suffer the consequences of Iraq’s destruction for many years to come. Among these consequences are the unfortunate sharpening of Sunni-Shiite tensions and the overturning of the balance of power in the Gulf to Iran’s advantage. History will no doubt judge the invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the great crimes of our time.

One of the most spectacular developments this year has been the explosion of protest in the Islamic Republic of Iran which followed last June’s rigged elections. President Ahmadinejad — and indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei as well — are being challenged not only by repeated mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but also by a split in the ruling elite. Severe repression has failed to deter this growing opposition. The result has been to reveal to the world a picture of another Iran — brave, youthful, educated, aspiring for real democracy, while remaining true to Islamic values. It remains to be seen whether this movement will be crushed, or whether it will eventually shape Iran’s future.

Meanwhile, Iran has forged ahead with uranium enrichment, a programme driven as much by prickly nationalism as by the need to acquire a deterrent against military attack.

Neither negotiations nor sanctions have persuaded Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor even the threat of a military strike by Israel and/or the US. The world may, after all, have to live with an Iranian bomb. The consequence may not be as bad as some fear. It may even contribute to peace by establishing a regional balance of power.

The war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly President Obama’s biggest challenge. He has bowed (possibly against his will) to the request of his military commanders to send more troops. But very few observers believe this will ensure victory. A negotiation with the Taliban — and especially with the powerful Pashtun tribes that live astride the Afghan-Pakistan border — will eventually be necessary if the nine-year war is ever to be brought to an end.

Crises and myopia

What of the long-stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict? Determined to resolve it, Obama sprang into action in the very first hours of his presidency, naming the veteran negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy. But after much frustration the one success so far has been to wring out of Israel’s reluctant Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a partial, 10-month colony freeze, which excludes Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel continues to colonise.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continue their interminable feud, as if indifferent to the damage this does to their cause.

Tolerably good news has come this year from those squabbling twins, Syria and Lebanon. With help from France, Qatar, Turkey and other well-wishers, Syria has emerged from the isolation in which the Bush administration had attempted to confine it. The young President Bashar Al Assad is attempting with some success to build a modern state, but his efforts — and his country’s image — have been marred by human rights abuses and a crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, having elected its former army chief, General Michel Sulaiman, as president in 2008, has now, after endless months of sterile bargaining, a new government under the majority leader Sa’ad Hariri.

He was able to reach a compromise with Hezbollah — the most robust element of the opposition — under which the Shiite movement will retain its weapons to defend the country against any future Israeli assault.

In spite of the domestic and regional turmoil, Lebanese banks have continued to prosper, while the irrepressible Lebanese — or at least the affluent middle classes among them — have continued to enjoy themselves, as only the Lebanese know how to.

To complete the picture, mention should perhaps be made of Yemen, afflicted by serious disturbances both in the north and the south of the country; of Egypt, obsessed by the unresolved question of the succession to the long-serving President Mubarak.

I have two choices for the winners in 2009: they are Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

These two powerful states have emerged as the stable and sensible “big brothers” of the region. Turkey — led by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davudoglu — has won the admiration of the world by its active diplomacy, aimed at spreading peace, prosperity and good neighbourliness across the region.

Turkey may not yet have joined the European Union — as it deserves to do — but it has rapidly forged friendly political and economic ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other countries, including its old adversary Armenia.

It has even taken cautious steps towards settling its quarrel with its Kurdish population, although these efforts received a setback in December when riots broke out following the dissolution by the constitutional court of the main Kurdish political party.

Saudi Arabia has this year consolidated its position as the Arab world’s leading country, distinguished by its great wealth, by the size and varied talents of its ruling elite (both royal and non-royal), and by the consensus-seeking style of government and reformist policies of King Abdullah. The Allegiance Council (Al haya’ Al baya’) the king created in 2006 is well-placed to ensure the continuity of good governance in the future.

Among King Abdullah’s many achievements in 2009 were the benign influence he has exerted within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the curbing of radical and often obscurantist clerics at home, and the launch of KAUST, which is the long-awaited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate centre of scientific excellence.

Pointers to the king’s reformist vision are the fact that the campus of this new university is co-educational — the first in the kingdom — as well as the appointment, for the first time, of a woman, Noora Al Fayez, to the post of deputy minister for women’s education.

These are highly positive developments, but they cannot obscure the sad truth that the Middle East, plagued by many unresolved conflicts, remains at the centre of the world crisis.  

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
Gulf News, Dubai  –  1 Jan 10