Tag Archives: Israel

Erdoğan’s Anti-Israel Remarks Reflect Broader Anti-Semitism in Turkey

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

22 August 2013

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A famous Turkic figure blasts Jews and Israel for their pernicious influence around the world. Americans respond in shock. Those who know the story are (somewhat nervously) giggling because they’ve seen it before. Our hero is not Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who just blamed Israel for orchestrating the 3 July coup in Egypt.

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Barın Kayaoğlu, a visiting fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University, is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Unpleasant Options in Syria

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

27 February 2012

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“Syrian blood” kicked around by foreign countries. The international community should be careful to prevent that image from becoming a reality.

In the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, many Western countries and their Middle Eastern allies are looking for new ways to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Tunisia last week aimed to remake the Syrian National Council – a coalition comprising dozens of different opposition groups – into a more cohesive front. Foreign governments are probably laying the groundwork to recognize the Council as a “government-in-exile” in the near future. But Syria’s friends have a long way to go before they have a shot at ousting Assad.

Beyond giving political backing to the Syrian National Council, arming the Free Syrian Army seems as a more realistic option. The FSA, a militia group primarily composed of soldiers who have deserted Assad’s army, is already using Turkish territory for its activities. Thus, the Turkish government’s threats against Assad that “all options are on the table” should be read as an intention to establish “safe areas” and perhaps more.

There is no question that the international community has to do something about the tragedy in Syria. It’s been a year and over 8,000 dead Syrians since the uprisings have begun. But the countries backing anti-Assad forces in Syria would be fooling themselves if they think “safe areas” or giving more arms and ammo to the FSA will accomplish anything. Humanitarian missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s amply demonstrated that “safe areas” are half-hearted attempts that do not succeed. More important, the absence of a strong international force only emboldens the aggressor to kill more – something that the international community is supposed to prevent.

The international community should also think whether it should and could make peace through a full-scale military intervention in Syria because talking the talk of military intervention is easier than walking the walk. Russia and China have already demonstrated that they do not want Western countries, Turkey, and the Arab League in Syria. It is almost certain that Iran will mobilize its resources and assets (read: Hezbollah) to shore up its allies in Damascus. It is also certain that public opinion in the West, Turkey, and Arab countries will not support military action against Syria.

If the anti-Assad groups and their international supporters are really determined to overthrow the Baath regime, they have to see the biggest risk about post-Assad Syria: given its multi-confessional nature, foreign intervention may very well exacerbate religious discord (à la Iraq). That will put the people of Syria in a situation even worse than the present.

Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But military action does not look like the answer either.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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The Paradox of Iranian and Western Paranoia

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

15 December 2011

Turkey Shooting?

Things are going badly for the Middle East these days.

Last month, a high-ranking general in Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned that, if the United States and and/or Israel attack Iran, they would retaliate against NATO’s missile defense radar in Turkey. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the IRGC’s ballistic missiles, said the following: “If any [attack] is staged against Iran, we will target NATO’s missile shield in Turkey and will then attack other targets.”

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, calmly urged Turkey to refrain from deploying the missile shield. But Member of Parliament (MP) Hossein Ebrahimi, who is Mr. Boroujerdi’s deputy in the commission, followed General Hajizadeh’s line by arguing that Iran has a “natural right” to hit targets in Turkey.

Although Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried to downplay the hostile remarks yesterday, it is doubtful whether Iran can put the genie back in the bottle.

Putting Oneself in Iran’s Shoes

In order to make sense of Iran’s foreign policy behavior, we need to understand the psychological trauma of three invasions in the twentieth century – the most recent and bloodiest at the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iran-Iraq War, which started in 1980 and ended 8 years and nearly 800,000 dead Iranians later, is a constant reminder to Iranians that they cannot take their security for granted. When Saddam attacked in 1980, the United Nations did not condemn the aggression. When Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranian military throughout the war, the world simply watched.

Today, as far as the Iranians are concerned, there is nothing to protect them from a similar fate. That is the primary reason why Tehran may develop nuclear weapons at some point. That is also the reason why Iranians do not want Turkey to station a missile defense that could neutralize their still-conventional missiles.

But whatever gains that Iranian leaders are trying to achieve, threatening Turkey only worsens their already fragile position. Just as international threats and sanctions have only intensified Iranian resolve to continue with the nuclear program, threats against Turkey will have a similar effect. While Turkish people and their leaders have repudiated claims that NATO’s missile shield would help to protect Israel, Iranian threats might force them to reconsider their position and keep the missile defense.

Iran, Israel, Turkey, United States: The Four-Way Mexican Standoff

If threatening Turkey is so foolish, then why are Iranian leaders doing it? Much of it has to do with Syria, Iran’s erstwhile ally. While Ankara supports the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Tehran is throwing its weight behind the Syrian President. Geopolitics is the pure and simple reason: Without Syria, Iran would have significant logistical difficulties in supporting Hezbollah and HAMAS, its most effective deterrents against Israel. But with the NATO shield in Turkey keeping watch over its missiles, a weakened Hezbollah and HAMAS would diminish Iran’s leverage against Israel. And such a development may make an American and/or Israeli attack against Iran more feasible.

The scene resembles a Western movie with Israel, the United States, and Iran pointing guns at each other’s heads. Turkey, for its part, looks like the semi-puzzled cowboy that would rather walk away from this mess. With millions of lives in danger, that is really the only smart option.

But how can the standoff be defused? The first thing to do is to understand the respective parties’ insecurities. With nearly 150 thousand U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, and NATO bases in Turkey, it would be hard to convince Iran that it is not surrounded by hostile countries. Nevertheless, and despite the negative effects of recent allegations that Iranian agents tried to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, the Obama administration needs to signal to the Iranian government that it has no interest in escalating the current situation (assuming, of course, that cooler heads still prevail in Washington).

Iran should also understand the other side’s concerns and refrain from brinksmanship. Although the recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program is not the damning document that spells doom-and-gloom (as some media outlets purport it to be), the parts on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program is worrisome. For the sake of peace, Iran has to come clean with its nuclear program sooner rather than later.

Most important, Iranian leaders should stop jeopardizing their country by forcing Turkey to the Western side. Attacking Turkey would only give the United States and/or Israel the pretext that they need to strike at Iran. While a unilateral Israeli attack would not have the desired effect, a sustained U.S.-led NATO action would be extremely hurtful to Iran. And although Iranian threats to shut down oil shipments from the Persian Gulf would also be extremely destructive for the world economy, Iran would emerge from such a scenario in the worst possible way.

To paraphrase an old saying about paranoia, just because Iran, the United States, Israel, and Turkey are paranoid does not mean they should start shooting at each other. In fact, it would be best if they could all slowly holster their guns and step away from each other before they cause irreparable damage to the world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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Notice to Egypt: Don’t Listen to Turkey, Iran, or Israel

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

February 8, 2011

Opinion-makers and political leaders in Turkey and Iran are suggesting that Egypt should somehow be inspired by their regimes and foreign policies for its new political order. Turkey appears to be a successful case of a secular democracy in a Muslim-majority country. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called upon Egyptian President Mubarak to heed the voice of his people. The subtext: Egypt should join in Ankara’s promotion of open borders and free trade in the Middle East, coupled with a new foreign policy free from Western influence.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran, celebrating its Revolution this week, hints at the same idea with a twist: The new regime in Egypt should stop acting like a “puppet” of the West, heed the voice of its people, and take a firm stand against Israel as it had during the Cold War. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has done just that. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei argues that the “Islamic movement” in Egypt may be following Iran’s revolution. Egypt is joining in, or so the idea.

Looking at the situation, the Israeli government is concerned that a government hostile to Israel might come out of the current turmoil. Jerusalem almost sounds as if it prefers everything in Egypt to stay as it is.

The new Egyptian government, to be formed once President Mubarak steps down, is well-advised to be extremely careful about the Turkish, Iranian, and Israeli positions.

For one thing, it would be extremely hard to replicate Turkey’s secularism or Iran’s religious guardianship. And the bigger problem with Turkey and Iran these days is the two governments’ prevalent authoritarianism. It’s a much bigger problem in Iran since the controversial presidential elections of 2009.

Of course, Turkey is not doing substantially better. Mr. Erdoğan takes a “holier-than-thou” attitude but his recent policies aren’t that impressive. For one thing, Mr. Erdoğan is doing his best to secure the support of religiously conservative Turks by deepening the religious-secular divide in Turkey. Furthermore, the Prime Minister has turned to be just as incompetent as any previous Turkish leader when it comes to solving the Kurdish question. Why would Egyptians want to replace one political regime producing an incompetent autocrat for other regimes that produce incompetent autocrats?

As for Israeli concerns, while Egyptian mediation between the Jewish state and HAMAS is a noble undertaking, the new government in Cairo should stop acting like an enabler for Israel’s excesses in Palestine. This is not to suggest (unlike Mr. Khamenei) that Egypt should start saber-rattling with Israel at the earliest convenience. On the contrary, doing the Arab and Muslim world’s bidding against Israel during the Cold War was just as futile as doing Israel’s bidding in the Arab and Muslim world today. Egypt has no use for either alternative.

In the final analysis, in transitioning to a new political order, Egyptian leaders should take nothing into consideration except their country’s advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, the motor of Egypt’s current transition is a non-violent populace. Furthermore, the opposition boasts internationally respected figures such as Amr Mousa and Mohammed El-Baradei. Finally, the increase in foreign direct investment in the past few years (it almost reached $10 billion last year) means that international entrepreneurs consider Egypt to be a good place to do business.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s structural weaknesses far outweigh its strengths: state control over the economy; a corrupt bureaucracy (a natural result of the previous problem); lack of upward social mobility (Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak had all come from humble backgrounds and had risen in society through education – no Egyptian born to modest circumstances has similar prospects today); 60 years of authoritarian government and lack of experience in democracy.

Addressing these problems should be at the top of the new Egyptian government’s agenda. Not the concerns of Turkey, Iran, or Israel. If Ankara, Tehran, and Jerusalem want to help Egypt, they can do so by minding their own business.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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The Protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

By BARIN KAYAOĞLU

January 31, 2011

The recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate this simple truth: Authoritarian governments that promise socioeconomic development at the expense of democracy become neither developed nor democratic. Some observers (especially former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) point to Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Singapore as successful cases where prioritizing political stability over freedom for the sake of economic growth has worked. But this approach also overlooks closed regimes’ structural problems such as waste, corruption, and poor decision-making in the absence of an effective opposition. For every Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore (which are reasonably democratic today and continue to grow economically), one can point to authoritarian countries that are still underdeveloped: Myanmar, Pakistan, and yes, Tunisia and Egypt.

In the absence of democracy, social turmoil can reverse authoritarian governments’ economic gains. When avenues to express legitimate grievances are closed off (especially free elections), citizens tend to express their anger more violently than they would in a democracy. Furthermore, restricting the opposition actually works against decision-makers in developing countries because it isolates them from much needed feedback, which could lead them to make poor decisions. Thus, democratic processes act as safety valves: if one political party fails to fulfill the people’s expectations, another party can step up to the plate.

Having said all that, how should we see the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt and the future of democracy in the Middle East? Some commentators remain skeptical – even cynical – about the likelihood of real political change coming to the region. Others seem cautiously optimistic, arguing that the protests may be the birth pangs of popular democracies in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, leaders in the region and around the world have interpreted the Tunisian and Egyptian protests to fit their own needs. Iranian officials have likened the protests to their Islamic Revolution, which is approaching its 32nd anniversary. The Iranian opposition, for its part, compares the events in Tunisia and Egypt to the protests that broke out in the aftermath of Iran’s controversial presidential elections in 2009. Juggling between his desire to protect a close U.S. ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and peaceful citizens demanding freedom and prosperity, U.S. President Barack Obama called upon the Egyptian government not to use force against the protestors.

Looking at this picture, we need to be realistic about the prospects of democratization in the Middle East. Current democracies in the region (Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey) have too many problems to address. Lebanon and Iraq still cannot overcome sectarian factionalism. Israel, for its part, continues to disenfranchise the nearly 5 million Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. And Turkey’s problems with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of the press are all too well-known.

None of this is to argue that there’s anything inherently undemocratic about Middle Eastern societies. But it is a fact that the struggle for democracy has been reversed in some Middle Eastern countries. Iran is a case in point. In others, such as Turkey, even after sixty years of free elections, democracy can still produce authoritarian governments without genuinely liberal alternatives.

Thus, the only thing we can do is to hope for the best for Tunisia, Egypt, and the Middle East while staying put for less-than-ideal scenarios.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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