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Brussels’ Secret Weapon in Cyprus Talks: Halloumi Cheese

Written by Simon Marks and Sara Stefanini.
Read the original article on Politico.
Image credit: Politico.


Salty, grillable halloumi cheese from Cyprus is the unlikely star player in the country’s reunification process.

The European Commission is weighing whether to award a special legal protection to the rubbery delicacy on account of the centuries-old techniques used to make it on the divided island. With talks on reunification expected to resume later this month, Brussels’ decision on awarding halloumi a so-called geographical indication turned into an unexpected point of EU leverage in bringing the Greek and Turkish communities together.

While designating protected food names in the EU, from Cognac to Roquefort, is normally left to middle-ranking agricultural officials, the halloumi dossier went right to the highest political echelons of the Commission.

Two senior sources involved in the talks on reunification and halloumi said questions about the cheese are being handled by the cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has grasped its geopolitical significance and believes halloumi has the potential to help reunite the island. The big idea is that the Greek Cypriots could finally be pressured into a deal thanks to the potential dividends of a lucrative GI designation as a reward. No deal, no GI.

If there is one thing that both the Greek and Turkish communities can agree on, it’s the financial boost that would come with a geographical indication for the cheese, putting their product into the same elite group as Bordeaux and Cava wines.

Officials close to the file say even the tiniest of movements on the GI authorization for halloumi — from dealing with statements of objections to holding consultations — are being micro-managed by Juncker’s cabinet.

This infuriates Cypriot officials who want to see politics taken out of the decision.

“It’s the political point of view that has been put forward and put in front of the legal one,” said Sozos-Christos Theodoulou, first vice president of the European Communities Trademark Association, which is providing legal advice to producers of halloumi. “The Commission is instrumentalizing the issue. There is no reason to stall the examination of any application.”

“As long as this application is not approved then there are disadvantages to everyone concerned … Things are being stalled in a financially damaging way for Cypriots,” he added.

Divided for more than four decades, talks in recent years to unify the two sides have stalled over matters such as exploration rights for oil and gas off the island’s coast. Other stumbling blocks include the national curriculum and the security and guarantees system that gives Turkey, Greece and the U.K. the power to intervene to protect the island’s independence.

For the Commission, reunifying Cyprus would represent a major coup for the EU project at a moment when further integration and and expansion is being halted by stern resistance among large parts of the population for more Europe and decision-making from Brussels.

Asked if halloumi’s protected status was being used as a carrot in the talks on reunification, a Commission spokesperson said that the “application process for the registration of the names ‘halloumi’/’hellim’ as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is following its normal course.”

A protected label would give halloumi producers power to demand a greater premium for their wares and mount legal challenges against what they see as inferior imitations. They could, for example, block non-Cypriot producers in the U.K. and Denmark from marketing halloumi.

Producers from Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state recognized only by Turkey, would win access to the European market as long as they meet Europe’s health and safety standards. They are now limited to selling only to Turkey. GI status for halloumi would apply to producers all over the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus first applied to protect the status of halloumi in 2015 and included the Turkish name for the cheese, hellim, in the application in an effort to officially recognize producers in the north.

In the North, halloumi represents 24 percent of exports, amounting to roughly €30 million per year. The cheese business also employs 16.5 percent of the workforce, thanks to domestic demand as well as exports to Turkey.

Cyprus’ permanent representation to the EU declined to comment.

Fikri Toros, president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, said the decision on the GI has been complicated by an attempt by the Greek side of the island to make sure that any Turkish hellim is exported through ports in the south. Such demands “are not acceptable to Turkish Cypriots,” he said.

The Greek side, however, says it is essential that halloumi produced in the north is properly cleared for health and safety standards.

How to Hate Each Other Peacefully in a Democracy

Written by Shadi Hamid.
Read the original article on the Atlantic.

Photo Credit: the Atlantic


It is difficult to imagine it now, but continental Europe struggled with foundational divides—with periodic warnings of civil war—as recently as the 1950s. Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands were divided into ideologically opposed subcultures, sometimes called “spiritual families” or “pillars.” These countries became models of “consensual democracy,” where the subcultures agreed to share power through creative political arrangements.

If we have learned anything, though, it is that lessons learned in Europe are not easily applied to the Middle East. Consensual democracy works best when there are multiple centers of power in society, none of which is strong enough to dominate on its own. While this more or less holds true in Lebanon, and even then precariously, it is not applicable in much of the region. In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and to a lesser extent Tunisia, the perception that Islamists are too strong and secularists too weak makes polarization significantly worse than it might otherwise be.

In continental Europe, the lines were also drawn more clearly. In Belgium, for instance, there were distinct groups of Flemish and Walloon that could be plainly identified. Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, however, relatively homogenous. More homogeneity is almost always viewed as a positive factor in forging national identity, but it can also have its drawbacks. Islamists and non-Islamists are different, but not different enough. They live in the same cities, go to the same schools, visit each other on holidays, and sit together at family dinners. This can make it better. It can also make it worse.

Despite this surface-level homogeneity, the underlying principles of consensual democracy—that power should be shared, dispersed, and restrained—can still be useful. A “pure” parliamentary system with only a ceremonial president could have helped alter Egypt’s course. But this is not what Egypt had. From independence onwards, the Egyptian president had always been a towering figure in the country’s politics, casting a shadow on everything else. As the first elected, civilian president in 2012, Morsi was, in fact, weaker than all of his predecessors, yet he still enjoyed disproportionate powers in Egypt’s centralized, top-heavy system. Not surprisingly, then, he became a lightning rod for the opposition. The fact that presidential contests are all or nothing—only one person, after all, can win –heightened the existential tenor of political competition. These dynamics allowed the military to capitalize on the anger that had coalesced around the person of President Morsi.

A parliamentary system, on the other hand, would have put power in the hands of a strong prime minister, who could have more easily been replaced, without necessitating a rejection of the democratic process Egyptians had agreed to less than a year prior. Early elections and no-confidence votes are regular features of parliamentary democracy. Presidents, on the other hand, are generally difficult to impeach, requiring voters to wait four years or longer to express their buyers’ remorse. Despite their claims to the contrary, presidents invariably represent one party—their own. A prime minister is more likely to govern in coalition with other parties, making him accountable to a larger number of stakeholders. All other things being equal, parliamentary systems also make coups against elected leaders less likely. Of course, coups can and will still happen, but here, too, parliamentarism is the better option. Ousted parties can more easily reconstitute themselves in parliamentary systems, as Turkey’s recurring cycle of military intervention followed by Islamist success suggests.

“Designing” better political systems can only take you so far, however. At some point, parties and politicians must work in good faith to lower the political stakes. There are any number of creative possibilities. Parties, for example, can agree to “postpone” debates on the divisive issues that are likely to fracture the unsteady, diverse coalitions that toppled the authoritarian regimes in the first place. This, though, is anathema to how we like to think about democracy’s development. After 30 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, it was only natural to expect Egyptians to want to debate anything and everything among themselves; discussions over the role of religion had been suppressed for far too long.

But by instituting an “interim period” before contending with the most divisive issues, democratic competition can be regularized—both sides could, potentially, gain enough trust in each other. Of course, the ideological polarization—over perennial touchstones like alcohol consumption, sex segregation, women’s rights, and educational curricula—would still inevitably come. At least then, though, Egyptians would have had a fighting chance.

* * *

One way to address foundational divides is to build “liberal vetoes” into the political system from the beginning. The most effective way to do this is through permanent guarantees in the constitution. The U.S. Bill of Rights is, in this respect, a towering achievement, imposing clear limits on the desires of the majority. If members of Congress wanted to issue legislation prohibiting Muslims from holding cabinet positions, for instance, they wouldn’t be able to, however large their majority. The constitution wouldn’t allow it. But this raises its own set of difficult questions. After a revolution, who gets to write the constitution?

There are two main possibilities. Historically, elite commissions and committees often drafted constitutions, the most notable example being the United States in 1787. The post-war Japanese constitution, meanwhile, was commissioned by General Douglas MacArthur and drafted by “approximately two dozen Americans during Japan’s postwar occupation, with relatively minor revisions made by Japanese government officials and virtually no public consultation,” writes the legal scholar Alicia Bannon. When Corazon Aquino, Asia’s first female president, led the Philippines’ democratic transition in the 1980s, she appointed a fifty-member commission which drafted a constitution that continues to govern the Philippines to this day. Such top-down approaches have generally fallen out of favor.

Today, the most common approach, adopted by both Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, is to do it democratically. Tunisia directly elected a parliament which doubled as a constituent assembly, while in Egypt, the elected parliament selected the 100 men and women whose sole job was to draft a new constitution. This is the most obvious—and I would argue fair—approach. To the extent that societies should be able to chart their own course, why shouldn’t the population have a say on the basic framework of their political system-to-be? To shut ordinary citizens out is to undermine the legitimacy of any constitutional document, particularly in polarized societies where one group is likely to dominate any appointed body to the exclusion of others. There is simply no way to achieve “fair” representation except through some kind of democratic selection process (which is precisely why we have democracy in the first place). To appoint, rather than elect, a committee also raises the question of who exactly is doing the appointing.Tunisia and Egypt’s constitution-drafting processes were reflective of the international consensus around the need for popular participation and buy-in. The democratic approach to constitution-drafting, however, is problematic for the same reasons that democracy is problematic—it can lead to illiberal outcomes in societies where a large portion, perhaps even a majority, of the population espouse illiberal beliefs and attitudes. If Egypt had directly elected its constituent assembly, close to 75 percent of the members would have been Islamist. As it turned out, 50 percent were—nearly 25 percent less than their actual electoral weight would have suggested. But while Islamists may have seen this as a “concession,” liberals, rightly, saw the constituent assembly as what it still was: an Islamist-dominated body.

In her study of Kenya’s early-2000s constitution drafting process, Alicia Bannon labels the presumed need for broad participation “the participation myth.” Certain conditions, she argues, can “make broad participation either helpful or undesirable in light of an individual country’s circumstances.” While also citing negative experiences in Nicaragua and Chad, Bannon notes that the broadly participatory process in Kenya was not only expensive, in terms of “expense, time, and opportunity cost,” but also divisive, leading to “ethnic pandering and polarization.”

Lastly, instituting a democratic selection process while, at the same time, agreeing on a limited number of “supraconstitutional principles” is a third, alternative path. Islamists and secularists, however, are unlikely to agree on nonnegotiables. (If they could, then the ideological divide wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is.) In the end, something—or someone—has to give. Either Islamists voluntarily concede some of their preferences, agreeing for example to include only mildly Islamic language, or a supreme body, perhaps one where Islamists are underrepresented, formulates something resembling a “bill of rights” binding on all participants.

This third way would loosely mirror the constitution-drafting process in post-apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress initially wanted to elect a constituent assembly to draft the constitution but gave in to the objections of F.W. de Klerk’s National Party, which feared a new constitution would not adequately protect the white population. In 1993, 26 parties negotiated a set of supra-constitutional principles, similar to the United States’ Bill of Rights, before directly electing a constituent assembly. Mandela and de Klerk soon shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

Practicality aside, the South African model—in part because we know, after the fact, that it was successful—sounds appealing. I should include a major caveat here, however. As a “small-d” democrat, I am deeply uncomfortable with non-democratic solutions that circumscribe self-determination. Democracy is about representing and reflecting the popular will, and to limit or subvert that on something as fundamental as a constitution sets a troubling precedent. Why shouldn’t Egyptians, Jordanians, or Turks have the right to try out an alternative ideological project outside the confines of liberal democracy, however much we might disagree with it? That should be their choice, not anyone else’s. That conversation, however, is moot if democracy fails to take hold in the first place. A democratic approach to constitution drafting in Egypt ended up fueling polarization and pushed liberals to consider—and then support—extra-legal regime change. If we wish to prioritize the survival of democracy in hostile conditions, then some things, at least in the short run, will need to be prioritized over others. These are necessary evils.

Erdogan-Putin: Ready to settle scores with the US and the West

Huffington Post
Raghida Dergham


When the tsar Vladimir Putin meets with the sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week in Moscow in the latter’s first foreign visit following the failed coup attempt, the Russian president will feel like a vindicated peacock before a cowering turkey. But they are both apprehensive men, concerned for their repressive authorities and powers. They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures. Aleppo will be present at the summit. The battle for the city is a fateful one and its outcome will be contingent in part upon the putative deal between the two enemies, now turned friends of necessity. The battle for Aleppo also has implications for Iran and her militias, the regime in Damascus, and Gulf capitals and their options after Erdogan’s about face on Russia amid continued American reluctance to offer serious support for Syrian rebels to survive the battle. Aleppo, a major Sunni city, is of invaluable importance for all players in Syria. But capturing it is no easy feat and may well become a predicament that exhausts the might of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps the goal is to turn gains on the ground into bargaining chips for the negotiating table and it is possible that these gains have been made easier by Erdogan’s coming concessions to Putin in Syria. However, there are tensions between the US and Russia at present, resulting from Moscow’s alleged meddling in US presidential elections and Moscow’s circumvention of john Kerry’s ambiguous understandings with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the Syrian issue. Washington is also apprehensive about Moscow’s cooptation of the new Erdogan and sees it as a loss of a major card in the equation with Russia: Namely, Turkey’s membership of NATO which Washington wanted to use in negotiations on Syria. Today some equations may have changed yet some strategies remain the same and Aleppo is in the heart of all of them.

In February, I quoted in this column high level Russian sources as stressing Moscow’s insistence on the importance of winning in Aleppo, no matter the cost in favor of the regime axis. That is, Russia will not ease its airstrikes and support for the pro-regime ground offensive until victory is secured in Aleppo and the rebel supply lines to Turkey are cut off. Moscow believes that a full regime victory in Aleppo will boost its morale and allow it to resume the Russian-led fight against Islamic groups there Moscow designates as terrorists.

It was clear from the start of the year that Aleppo will be a vital milestone for Russian strategy, and that Russia will not stop its bombardment there for anything, be it the Russian-midwifed Vienna process, European reaction over more waves of refugees, or US reaction to the Russian ploy Washington is now sensing.

Some have strongly claimed that Iran is the key power behind the Aleppo offensive rather than Russia and that it was Tehran that persuaded Moscow of fighting the battle to advance its strategic objectives.

What is new here is the Turkish U-turn and its impact on Syria in general and the battle for Aleppo in general. There is even talk of a new tripartite axis as a result of Erdogan’s new course which started with him apologizing to Putin before the failed coup, and which is culminating with the visit to Moscow.

Indeed, in addition to this landmark visit, the Turkish FM has met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif this week in what appears to be the precursors of the emergence of a Turkish Russian Iranian axis. Erdogan has changed the equation in Syria: in that he could concede Syria in return for consolidating his power in Turkey. He is also prepared to settle scores with the US and Europe through the Russian gateway.

In other words, Erdogan is prepared to offer Putin his ‘revengeful services’, mostly through Syria: by cutting off supply routes to the Syrian rebels; by joining the Russian-Iranian axis in Aleppo; and by reaching a deal on keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey had long insisted — but no more — must step down.

Furthermore, Turkey can use the refugee card to destabilize Europe, especially if Turkey’s doors are opened without restrictions or checks on who is a refugee and who could be a terrorist claiming to be one. Turkey could escalate against the US and end cooperating with the coalition it leads against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And there are many more ways Erdogan will not hesitate to deploy to secure his hold over power

Yet Erdogan, despite his heavy handed response to the coup and his assault on the constitution, the army, journalists, and judges, is a worried man. He is now facing a real coup of his own making. In truth, it may be too late now for him to save himself from inevitable revenge.

Yet until the summit takes place, all stakeholders impacted by Erdogan’s about turn must revisit their strategies especially in Iraq and Syria. This concerns the Gulf countries first and foremost; for if a Russian Turkish Iranian axis emerges in Syria, the matter will have grave consequences for them.

Some believe the fate of Assad is merely a bargaining chip for Russia. That the fate of Erdogan is fragile and his regional ambitions over. Or that Iran and her militias can never recover from the battle of Aleppo no matter the outcome. Regardless, however, what is happening in Aleppo and Syria is a fateful fork in the road for the country and all parties involved.

To be sure the cost of the war is too high even for the Russian army, now for the first time fighting against a major Sunni Arab force an open war on the latter’s own turf. This investment will be costly especially if the battle becomes protracted urban showdown.
Iran will also pay a heavy price in Aleppo if perceived as a Shia Persian force invading a major Sunni Arab city amid massacres with cover from its sectarian militias. The cost is too high whether an inconclusive victory or a protracted quagmire are the outcome.

Naturally Russia’s weight far surpasses Iran’s in the battle for Aleppo. But they have different goals there. Iran wants total victory, a goal linked to its expansionist strategy in Iraq Syria and Lebanon. But Russia may want different things: It may seek to shore up the regime with a limited victory as a negotiating tactic to impose its vision for a solution in Syria. With Erdogan’s U-turn, Russia may be in a position to impose a strategic blockade in Syria with implications for relations with the US.

These are all questions that are the key to understanding what is about to happen in Syria especially Aleppo. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow will shed some light but it is the duty of Gulf leaders to radically take stock of the Turkish developments and consider their options to avoid becoming de facto partners in the plots being woven at their expense, that is unless they want to be deliberately absent from their historic responsibility vis a vis Aleppo and Syria.

Erdogan’s real opportunity after the failed coup in Turkey

Kemal Kirisci

Kemal Kirisci


The history of Turkish politics is littered with coups and coup attempts that have occurred in roughly ten-year intervals. It is almost a genetic defect.

  • The nascent Turkish democracy experienced its first coup in 1960 when it was barely into its tenth year—led by a group of left-wing “young officers,” who had also forced the General Staff into its ranks. Administrative authority was returned to civilians in October 1961, after having cost the lives of the then-Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, and the Minister of Finance, Hasan Polatkan.
  • The second military intervention took place in 1971 against the government of Süleyman Demirel—this time around, though, through a “coup by memorandum.” The military issued to the prime minister an ultimatum—to step aside and be replaced by a technocratic cabinet.
  • Less than ten years later, in the midst of endemic violence between left- and right-wing radical groups, the military’s top brass carried out another intervention. This was bloodier than the previous two interventions, costing hundreds of lives and leading to massive human-rights violations. After rubberstamping a suffocating constitution on the country, the military handed the government over to a semblance of a democratically-elected government in 1983.
  • Surprisingly, Turkey broke this pattern of ten-yearly military interventions, and civilian authority continued until 1997, when there was what was termed a “post-modern coup.” The army rolled out a convoy of tanks into the streets of Ankara, and in a repeat of the coup of 1971, demanded the resignation of the coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan.
  • The next coup occurred a decade later (almost to the day) in April 2007, when the Chief of Staff staged an “e-coup” by posting a set of demands on its website. The coup was a reaction against a long list of democratic reforms that were introduced as a part of the leadership’s pro-EU agenda and were seen as a departure from the staunchly secularist, restrictive mode of governance. Bolstered by the public support for these reforms, however, the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now the current president of Turkey, successfully withstood the “e-coup,” and for the first time, pushed the military back “into the barracks”.

The latest coup attempt—which took place on Friday, July 15—has widely been attributed to a large Gülenist faction within the military and the judiciary that circumvented the established chain of command and held the high command hostage. Gülenists are the followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who leads a worldwide movement that claims to advocate a moderate form of Sunni Islam with an emphasis on tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Formerly allies with Erdoğan, the Gülenists were blamed for spearheading the corruption scandal in December 2013 that engulfed several government officials, ministers and people in Erdoğan’s intimate circle. Since then, Gülen and Erdoğan have been locked in a power struggle.

Back from the brink

Turkish democracy survived a major test, and Turkey turned from the edge of a precipice. The credit for the coup’s defeat goes to the Turkish people, who heeded Erdoğan’s call to resist this intervention “by any means possible and necessary” and filled the squares. TV reports were filled with eye-to-eye, tense, agitated confrontations between civilians and armed soldiers on the two bridges that connect the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. Public restraint and sobriety helped to prevent escalation of violence. There were nevertheless senseless causalities resulting from fire opened by the mutineers and especially attacks mounted on the parliament building as well as the Headquarters of the General Staff. It could have been a lot worse.

Erdoğan needs to rise above a majoritarian understanding of democracy and do justice to the aspirations of a public that heeded his call by pouring into the streets and squares to defeat the coup attempt.

Clearly, Turkey’s democracy has taken a severe blow—cushioned only by the unequivocal stance of the opposition leaders and the media against the coup. Once again, the nation managed to break this pattern of ten-year coups. This offers the country a matchless opportunity for reconciliation. Granted, Erdoğan has had an exceptionally rough weekend and his frustration with those responsible for or implicated in the coup is understandable. He is correct in calling “for their punishment under the full force of the law of the land.” It will, however, now be critical that he ensure that the rule of law is upheld and rises to the challenge of winning the hearts and minds across a deeply polarized nation. He has the tools for it in his repertoire and had successfully wielded them in the past—especially between 2003 and 2011, when he served as prime minister. In hindsight, this period is often referred to as AKP’s “golden age,” when the economy boomed, democracy excelled, and Turkey was touted as a model for those Muslim-majority countries aspiring to transform themselves into liberal democracies.

As he steers the country from the brink of civil war, Erdoğan needs to rise above a majoritarian understanding of democracy and do justice to the aspirations of a public that heeded his call by pouring into the streets and squares to defeat the coup attempt. This is the least that the Turkish public deserves. This would also be a move in the right direction for Turkey’s neighborhood, which desperately needs a respite from the turmoil resulting from the war in Syria, the instability in Iraq, Russia’s territorial ambitions and now Brexit. This is the moment when a stable, democratic, transparent, accountable and prosperous Turkey needs to come to the fore on the world-stage. The United States needs it too. As much as the White House declared its faith in the strength of Turkey’s democracy and its support for the elected leadership, there is a clear chance for forging closer cooperation between the two countries. The first step in cooperation should be in bringing to justice the perpetrators of this coup, followed by measures to enhance Turkey’s capacity to address and manage the many challenges facing Turkey and its neighborhood.

Voices from Turkey: Turkey-Iran Relations

Bülent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar


Simplistic binary readings generally fail to explain the trajectory of Turkish-Iranian relations. The geostrategic rivalry between these two regional powers has deep historical roots, is subject to long-term patterns, and is amenable to realignments as a result of shifts in regional and international balances of power. For these reasons, assessing Turkish-Iranian relations requires a broader understanding than the prevalent narrow topical analysis provides.

Historical patterns in Turkish-Iranian relations

Historically, Turkey and Iran have been mirror images of one another, rarely seeing eye to eye but unable to part ways due to their geographical proximity. Turks were exposed to Persian culture on their move westward and inherited indelible political and religious legacies. Iran is home to a large Turkic minority, and historically, Persia was ruled by Turkish royal families such as the Safavids and the Qajars from the early 16th century, when they accepted Twelver Shiism, until the Pahlavi era in the 20th century.

The Ottoman-Safavi split was essentially a rivalry of two Turkic dynasties, which respectively carried the banners of orthodox Sunni Islam and Shia Sufism. The modern histories of Turkey and Iran have followed a similar path: Their early attempts at Westernization sowed the seeds of later estrangement from that process because of both countries’ inability to fulfill their national ambitions in purely Western terms. Turkey’s break with Westernization took the distinct form of Turkish conservatism, which allowed for pragmatic cooperation with the West, while Iran embraced revolutionary zeal with a strong anti-Western tone.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran attempted to use an Islamic approach to overcome its traditional Shia isolation in the wider Muslim world. Without organic links with the Sunni world, Iran’s initial civilizational call for Islamic revolution failed to resonate in the wider region. Iran was left to pursue revolution in one country, which nonetheless set the stage for limited Iranian leadership in much of the Shia world. Similarly, Turkey responded to its post-Cold War identity crisis with a multidimensional approach that focused on opening up to and building ties with traditional zones of influence from the Balkans to the Caucasus. Thus, in broad terms, pro-Western Turkey and anti-Western Iran competed in the post-Cold War era not only in the Middle East but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia, the Gulf, and even the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.

The shadow of the Iraq War

The 2003 American invasion of Iraq provided a watershed moment through which to assess Ankara’s and Tehran’s regional policies. First, both countries opposed the American invasion and occupation, which they feared could restrict their room for maneuver in their historical sphere of influence. Second, they were suspicious that America would support Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq and were wary of the invasion’s broader impact on the Sunni-Shia balance in the region.

Despite its initial opposition to the invasion, Ankara stood closer to Washington in pursuit of Turkey’s regional goals. This was largely because, first, Turkey did not want to see Iraq collapse into disunity—with possible domestic and regional spillover effects—and, second, its national interests would have been broadly undermined if the United States had been humiliated and had withdrawn from Iraq without putting into place a new political order that could ensure a sustainable Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish coexistence. In removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, however, Washington had put itself in a paradoxical situation in which it required Iran’s cooperation to stabilize Iraq, given Iran’s close bonds with the Shia majority, while simultaneously, pro-Iranian Shia militias were increasingly targeting U.S. troops in Iraq.

Thus, aiming to contain the chaos in Iraq, boost its regional and international clout, and prevent any escalation in the U.S.-Iranian conflict, Turkey positioned itself as a possible mediator between Iran and the United States. The most famous Turkish attempt to bridge the U.S.-Iranian gap came in May 2010 when, hoping to head off a new round of international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey and Brazil persuaded the Iranian administration to sign a declaration agreeing to limits on its nuclear program. While the deal was rejected by the United States and never implemented, Turkey’s mediatory role fit its policy of minimizing the prospects of escalation between the United States and Iran. It also fit Iran’s conventional approach of seeking Turkey’s cooperation and minimizing competition at times of international isolation. While Turkey and Iran continued to compete from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and from the Gulf to Afghanistan, the two countries were able to compartmentalize their growing energy and commercial relations, which increased to historical highs due to the international sanctions on Iran that cut it off from many other markets. Ankara and Tehran also appeared to reach a tacit understanding on the common fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and its Iranian arm, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan.

The Arab uprisings ended this semblance of harmony. The Syrian conflict and Turkey and Iran’s divergent policy choices became deal-breakers for the two rival regional powers. While Turkey framed the growing conflict as a humanitarian issue and an opportunity to enhance its regional clout, Iran saw the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a critical threat. This was because the Iranian establishment considered Syria to be a firewall that would block the disruptive impact of the Arab Spring from toppling regimes friendly to Iran or from reaching its own borders. Turkey worked through proxies but refrained from directly embroiling itself militarily, while Iran employed more direct proxies such as Hezbollah and later deployed its own paramilitary assets to prevent the fall of Damascus. Iran did not hesitate to use the sectarian card in the conflict, employing Shia militias in Syria and Iraq against what it called the forces of extremism, which included not only Al Qaeda and its offshoots—including the Islamic State—but also almost all Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria.

On the Turkish side, the initial thought was that Assad’s days were numbered and that the war would therefore cause minimal damage to Turkish interests. Ankara also believed that Tehran could be convinced of the need for a political transition that would remove Assad but co-opt elements of the regime to avoid total disintegration.

Despite occasional outbursts against Turkish policy in Syria from leading figures in the Iranian establishment, Iran generally chose to limit tensions with Ankara until the summer of 2013 due to the crippling economic effects of international sanctions and the lame duck administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This approach also fit Turkish interests but proved unsustainable, as Ankara was unable to decisively turn the tide in Syria without greater support from its Western partners, nor was it able to persuade Iran to support a negotiated end to the Syrian crisis. Therefore, following the election of President Hassan Rouhani and the disclosure of direct talks between the United States and Iran, Tehran felt it had a freer hand to pursue its interests in Syria—and thereby undermine Turkish interests—thanks to the diplomatic cover provided by the talks. It became evident that the United States would not decisively counter Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq, particularly after the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 emphasized long-standing fears among U.S. policymakers that the terrorist group or other radical groups could take over Syria if the Assad regime collapsed.

While Iran aggressively pursued its goals—emphasizing the fight against what it regarded as Sunni extremism—the marginalization of Sunni interests drove Turkey and Saudi Arabia to set aside their ideological differences to stand together against Iranian expansionism. Alienated by the United States’ unwillingness to intervene decisively in Syria, Ankara and Riyadh together escalated their military support for the anti-Assad rebels in Syria—support which accelerated after Saudi King Salman ascended to the throne in January 2015 and brought a new activism to Saudi foreign affairs. But the ensuing Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebel offensives, in turn, precipitated Russian military intervention in Syria to rescue the Assad regime beginning in September 2015 and put Turkey and Russia on a collision course over their competing agendas in Syria, which culminated in Turkish fighters downing a Russian jet after it strayed into Turkish airspace. Iran’s approach to Syria has therefore hurt Turkey’s interests but has also prevented Tehran from capitalizing on the diplomatic opportunities presented by the historic 2015 nuclear accord that it concluded with Western powers, China, and Russia.

The prospective panorama of relations

The interaction between the sectarianism stoked by both the Sunni and Shia elements involved in the Syrian civil war and escalating Iranian-Arab and Turkish-Kurdish confrontations is shaking the foundations of the regional order and undermining security and stability. Iran has successfully employed the sectarian card as part of its outer defense in the Levant, particularly in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. But Iran is surrounded by Sunni-majority countries and can only hope to realize its domestic and regional goals in cooperation—or at least coexistence—with the rest of the neighborhood. For Turkey, its official discourse against sectarianism does not change the fact that it is now seen as a pro-Sunni power and, in general, has alienated Shia actors in the region. This does not bode well for Turkey’s broader aims of regional integration nor its internal dynamics given its large Alawite and Kurdish populations, who feel threatened by the Islamic State and remain suspicious of the growing Turkish affinity with Sunni causes.

Obviously, neither Iran nor Turkey can eliminate the sectarian tensions unleashed over the past five years; nobody can put the genie back in the bottle. The Gulf monarchies are apprehensive about Iranian encroachment in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. In response, they are relying on a military buildup and the power of religious orthodoxy to help deter and roll back Iranian intrusion into what they regard as a rightfully Sunni Arab sphere of influence. This combination of geostrategic rivalry with sectarianism and ethnic solidarity, whereby the Arab powers aim to crowd out non-Arab claimants—Turkey and Iran—for regional leadership, creates a volatile regional setting that is not conducive to stabilization efforts. Even worse, Ankara and Tehran do not seem interested in finding a middle ground or stopping the current cycle of conflict—the necessary first step to stabilizing the region and shaping a new, sustainable regional order in accordance with their national interests.

Despite these difficulties, against the convenient backdrop of American retrenchment, there are strong reasons for both Ankara and Tehran to explore opportunities for détente and seek possible avenues for cooperation. The Syrian crisis has pitted Iran and Turkey against one another, but whether through the current stalemate or after some future settlement, the two countries share and will continue to share common challenges. Looking several moves ahead, it will be important to set the parameters for cooperation now in order to address three main challenges.

First, Kurdish separatism is a real possibility in both Syria and Iraq and is a more distant—if just as divisive—threat in Turkey and Iran. The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq enjoys strong U.S. support and continues to flirt with the idea of independence. Syrian Kurdish fighters are building de facto autonomy on the ground and enjoy military support from both the United States and Russia, though this is likely to dry up once the Islamic State is defeated. In Turkey, the PKK has resumed its terror campaign against the Turkish state. Iran will be watching these developments closely, nervous about its own Kurdish minority and well aware that the PKK seeks to overturn the existing state order in both Turkey and Iran. Indeed, the PKK and its offshoots’ continued threat to Iran’s national unity was again demonstrated by the recent clashes in northwestern Iran.

Second, the Russian attempts to fill American shoes through military activism in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq are a medium- to long-term threat to both Turkey’s and Iran’s regional objectives. Russia has previously worked to counter Turkish and Iranian efforts to build influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and Moscow has now carried its destabilizing influence right into Syria and Iraq—the traditional spheres of influence for Turkey and Iran. Moreover, the recent flare-up in the Azeri-Armenian conflict carries the risk of undoing Turkish regional designs, including energy pipelines, as well as Iran’s internal balances with its large Azeri minority. Thus, beyond short-term concerns about the future of Damascus, Iran is likely to find itself in a similar position to Turkey, with its regional interests undermined by Russia and eventually forced to confront Moscow’s meddling.

Third, extremism is a common threat that requires a joint response. Iran has been willing to instrumentalize the Islamic State to legitimize its regional claims, pointing to Arab promotion of religious orthodoxy as vindication of Iran’s association of Sunnism with terrorism. Turkey, on the other hand, faces a multifaceted dilemma in that it feels the need to confront the Islamic State as a security threat but has broader qualms about the transition to a post-Islamic State order that could maximize Iranian clout, bring Kurdish autonomy or independence to its southern border, and further tip the Sunni-Shia balances in both Iraq and Syria in Iran’s favor.

The more responsible course for Iran and Turkey would be to fight terrorism—separate from its sectarian alignment—as a broader strategy and try to respect traditional Sunni-Shia balances in the region. This might help to stabilize a disintegrating region. Yet both countries are far from abandoning their claims in the broader geostrategic competition. Indeed, Turkish moves to deepen ties with Saudi Arabia and its recent rapprochement with Israel might remove any remaining ground for cooperation with Iran.

Both Turkey and Iran, for different reasons, have recently sought Europe as a partner in overcoming their specific problems—the influx of refugees in Turkey’s case and economic isolation in Iran’s case. Progress in these areas might pave the way for further cooperation, provided that the European Union comes out with a strategic vision to enlist both countries against what it perceives as the twin threats of terrorism and immigration. In this vein, a Turkey-EU deal backed up by Turkish-Iranian cooperation in Syria could have positive humanitarian effects while also addressing the European Union’s perceived threats, essentially serving to keep the Syrian people in Syria.

Iran is also well situated to emerge as an alternative energy supplier for both the European Union and Turkey and is desperate for European investments to start accruing the economic benefits of the nuclear deal. Turkey has been willing to facilitate the transfer of Iranian gas to the Western markets and sees a commercial opportunity in helping Iran to overcome the adverse effects of international sanctions, given that both Turkey and Iran need alternative modalities for economic growth.

Conclusion

This complex background defines both countries’ geostrategic options. It will take political leadership to define areas of cooperation and to limit the destructive effects of confrontation in today’s highly charged and competitive regional context. Only by finding common ground can Turkey and Iran contribute to a mutual goal of secure and stable regional order. Events since 2011 have proven that the alternative is disorder, humanitarian suffering, and spillover effects that threaten both nations’ respective domestic balances.

Berlin calls Erdogan’s bluff on refugees

Politico

MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG & TOM MCTAGUE

 

Angela Merkel’s top adviser on Europe dismissed threats by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to pull out of the EU’s refugee deal with Ankara as “bluster,” according to leaked British diplomatic cables.

Erdoğan, who has vowed to upend the refugee pact if the EU doesn’t make good on its promise to grant Turks visa-free travel, has a greater interest in keeping the deal alive than allowing it to collapse, Merkel adviser Uwe Corsepius told a senior British diplomat in Berlin, according to the diplomatic cables seen by POLITICO.

“Uwe Corsepius told me today that the EU should remain calm,” the British diplomat reported back to London on May 13. “While Erdoğan still had the ability, in theory, to generate a surge in the refugee flow, his threats were just bluster. It was in Erdoğan’s strategic interest to keep the relationship with the EU working.”

The Corsepius cable was signed WOOD, suggesting it was written by Sebastian Wood, the British ambassador to Berlin.

Europe cut a deal with Ankara in March to provide billions of euros in aid, and grant Turkish citizens a visa waiver as early as this summer, in exchange for Turkey’s commitment to reduce the flow of refugees heading to Europe.

Since then, Turkey has signaled it wouldn’t accept a European requirement to reform its controversial anti-terror laws, sparking a heated back-and-forth between Ankara and European capitals.

Though little known outside of official circles, Corsepius — who previously served the senior-most civil servant at the Council of the European Union in Brussels — plays a key role in shaping Merkel’s European policies and has been deeply involved in negotiations with Turkey.

The Corsepius cable was written before recent tensions emerged this month between Berlin and Ankara over the German parliament’s decision to declare the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide.

Nonetheless, the communication helps explain Merkel’s tempered response to Ankara’s persistent taunts. The cable suggests Berlin has concluded that Erdoğan needs Europe just as much as Europe needs Turkey.

“EU accession and visa liberalization remained strategic goals for Turkey,” the diplomat paraphrases Corsepius as saying.

Berlin’s strategy is to draw the process out, in part to allow the tempers on both sides to calm. “We can keep this under control,” Corsepius adds, according to the cable.

Georg Streiter, a spokesperson for the German government, told POLITICO that he was not familiar with the cables in question.

Refugee numbers down

“Absolutely nothing has changed regarding the German position,” Streiter said, referring to the EU-Turkey deal.

Indeed, despite the heated rhetoric, Turkey has continued to honor its end of the bargain. The number of refugees crossing the Aegean to Greece has declined sharply in recent months.

To keep the deal alive, Berlin would likely be willing to grant Turkey further concessions, the British diplomatic cable concludes.

“Despite the tough public line, there are straws in the wind to suggest that in extremis the Germans would compromise further to preserve the EU/Turkey deal,” the cable says. “Officials have shown some interest, behind the scenes, in thinking about possible compromise formulations on the anti-terror law.”

The batch of cables, which include a detailed analysis of how the U.K. should position itself on the Turkey question, offer a rare, unfiltered glimpse of the behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuverings between Europe’s capitals. A spokesman for the U.K. foreign office said the telegrams were “reports from our diplomatic posts, not statements of British government policy.”

One of the cables, sent from the British embassy in Ankara on May 5, sparked controversy in the U.K. after being leaked to the Sunday Times.

The telegram suggested that to keep Erdoğan on-side, the U.K. government should consider setting up its own visa-free scheme, dropping travel restrictions for Turkish “special passport” holders. About 1.5 million Turks currently have such passports, which are supposed to be for officials, civil servants, teachers and their families, the paper said.

The suggestion was jumped on by the Brexit campaign as evidence of secret negotiations to open the U.K.’s borders to Turks — an allegation furiously rejected by Downing Street.

Karnitschnig reported from Berlin and McTague from London. Janosch Delcker contributed to this article.