U nder the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP), Turkey’s foreign policy has been associated with the prescriptions and efforts of three men: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Davutoğlu, a former international relations professor, has been the most articulate exponent of the troika’s ideas,
penning perhaps the most authoritative summary of its worldview in his 2001 Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth) and coining its foremost article of faith: a “zero-problems policy” with Turkey’s neighbors because Ankara “wants to eliminate all the problems from her relations with neighbors or at least to minimize them as much as possible.”
This might all be well and good if such words were supported by actions. But Davutoğlu has also described Turkey as a “heavyweight wrestler,” hinting that it may use “the maximum of its abilities” when dealing with its neighboring “middleweight wrestlers.” A survey of Ankara’s relations with these “middleweight wrestlers” reveals its “zero problems policy” to be little more than a cover for the AKP’s reasserted “neo-Ottoman” ambitions.
The Eastern Mediterranean
Achieving a zero problems status with Greece and Cyprus would seem to be the most difficult goal for Ankara to attain, given both countries’ painful history with Turkey.
Even if one could put aside the long and tortuous past—from the Greek war of independence of the 1820s, to the 1923 uprooting of Greeks from Asia Minor, to sporadic crises over Aegean islands (1976, 1987, 1996), to the continuing standoff over air space and territorial waters—the AKP’s rise to power has exacerbated, not allayed, tensions.
Far from following a zero problems policy with Greece, Turkey maintains existing problems and adds new ones: It has made alleged violations of the Muslim minority’s rights in Western Thrace an item on the Islamic Conference’s agenda and has muddied the waters over what constitutes Greece’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by questioning the role of the Greek island of Kastelorizo (one mile off Turkey’s coast) in determining that EEZ. And Davutoğlu’s ambitions did not stop here:
The security of the Balkans is increasingly identified with the security considerations of Turkey’s western border. The security zone that has been established in eastern Thrace during the Cold War should be extended to the west with multilateral and bilateral agreements which should be made on a Balkan level.
These are not mere words. Ankara has recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Albania, allowing docking privileges for Turkish warships at Durës, thereby marking the return of the Turkish navy to the Adriatic Sea after centuries. The press has reported that Turkey is responsible for the cancellation of an agreement between Athens and Tirana over the delimitation of maritime zones, and Turkey has also initiated major programs of military assistance to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a state with which Greece is in dispute over the use of the name “Macedonia.” Finally, Turkey continues to flood Greece and the European Union with tens of thousands of mostly Muslim illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, the already fraught relations with Cyprus have worsened. Turkey not only works against ending the continued and illegal occupation of the northern half of the island but seems bent on increasing problems. Such behavior is not all that surprising considering Davutoğlu’s belief:
It is not possible for a country that neglects Cyprus to have a decisive say in the global and regional politics … Even if there was not one Muslim Turk there, Turkey had to maintain a Cyprus issue. No country can stay indifferent toward such an island, located in the heart of its very own vital space … Turkey needs to see the strategic advantage which it obtained … in the 1970s, not as the component of a Cyprus defense policy, directed toward maintaining the status quo, but as one of the diplomatic main supports of an aggressive maritime strategy.
Small wonder, therefore, that Ankara reacted to the discovery of new energy resources in the Cypriot EEZ in a heavy-handed manner, stating that it too had rights and interests in the region and warning that support for the Republic of Cyprus on this issue would have consequences in future negotiations with Nikosia. It attempted to stop Cyprus and Noble Energy, which planned to drill for natural gas off southern Cyprus’s coast, from proceeding, then signed an agreement delimiting the continental shelf between itself and the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (recognized by no one except Ankara), so as to carry out its own energy exploration in the area. This culminated in Ankara dispatching a research vessel into the Cypriot EEZ to protect its “national interests,” simultaneously ignoring U.S. and EU entreaties and alarming Israel.
Notwithstanding claims about zero problems then, Turkish behavior in the eastern Mediterranean remains impenitent, bordering on the aggressive, and seemingly indifferent to the consequences it may have for any possible future with the rest of Europe.
Former Soviet Republics of the Caucasus
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the resulting independence of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, Turkey perceived a power vacuum in the region and attempted to expand its presence into areas of former Soviet influence in both the Caucasus and Central Asia. But its current zero problems policy is being tested in a region of past enmities, fractious ethnic interests, lucrative energy resources, and a resurgent Russian presence.
Due to historical, cultural, and linguistic ties, relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan seem to offer the best prospects, despite their religious differences (Sunni and Shiite, respectively). The benefits for Turkey could be substantial due to proximity, trade links and especially Azerbaijan’s energy resources. Unfortunately, such relations do not exist in a vacuum, and in its effort to improve relations with other neighbors, Ankara has sometimes acted in a way that threatens its relationship with Baku.
Take for example, the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in which both Turks and Azerbaijanis assert that Armenia is illegally occupying the area. This meeting of minds was set back when Ankara attempted to improve relations with Armenia, leading to Azeri assertions that such contemplated agreements would undermine regional peace and security. Nor did Ankara take into account Azerbaijan’s interests when it recognized Kosovo, which had seceded from Serbia. For Azerbaijanis, recognition of such a breakaway republic (similar in this way to Nagorno-Karabakh) was far from reassuring.
In addition, Ankara’s on-again off-again relations with Tehran bear on its relationship with Baku. Iran threatens that it will explore for hydrocarbons in parts of the Caspian Sea claimed by Azerbaijan while not allowing the latter to do the same. Concurrently, there is growing restiveness among Azeri-speaking Iranians against perceived suppression of their heritage and language by the mullahs and even talk of some form of union with Azerbaijan. On these topics, Ankara is apparently silent, leading some Azerbaijanis to wonder about the true intentions of their “friend.”
Armenia, of course, presents its own set of problems with the Turks, largely due to the genocide of Turkish Armenians in 1915, which Ankara refuses to recognize. These differences were exacerbated by the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh; and in 1993, Turkey closed its land border with Armenia in support of Azerbaijan’s claims over the territory.
In 2008-09, there was an effort to improve relations between the governments of Turkey and Armenia centering, in part, on the possibility of Armenian participation in the long-planned Nabucco pipeline project. The two countries drafted the so-called “Zurich protocols,” but when Turkey tried to link ratification with its position on the Armenian genocide and Nagorno-Karabakh, the initiative floundered. Relations between the two countries remain problematic; from time to time they worsen, especially when third parties attempt to recognize the Armenian genocide officially as France did in 2001. While Davutoğlu may assert that Turkey “rejects the concept of freezing problems with her neighbors,” relations with Yerevan have barely begun to thaw.
Likewise, while Davutoğlu has claimed that Ankara aims “to solve problems in line with a win-win approach,” its behavior vis-à-vis another Caucasian neighbor, Georgia, belies that assertion. This is largely due to an unspoken recognition that its neo-Ottoman efforts run up against its old nemesis from actual Ottoman days—Russia.
In the immediate post-Cold War period, when Turkey’s orientation was still largely pro-Western, Ankara was eager to recognize Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union. In 2011, the two countries signed and ratified a protocol, according to which their citizens could travel in both countries without travel documents. According to the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs, Turkey is Georgia’s largest trading partner (with a positive balance in Turkey’s favor) and cooperates with it in the field of energy pipelines.
But these good relations are clouded by Ankara’s two-faced approach to the questions surrounding the breakaway Russian-backed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.As a NATO member, Ankara feels bound to follow, at least in word, the Western line defending Georgia’s territorial integrity. Its actions, however, are more equivocal. Turkish officials have visited Abkhazia while there have been cases where ships, under a Turkish flag, have unsuccessfully tried to break the sea blockade the Georgians have imposed on Abkhazia or to strengthen the latter in any way they can. Likewise, regarding South Ossetia, whose independence only Russia recognizes, Turkey has taken a more moderate stance than that of its Western allies; it tried to broker a distinct compromise of its own, which “got a cold reception in the United States, a close ally of Turkey, where officials complained they had not been informed in advance and criticized the initiative for failing to include Western nations.” According to the Jerusalem Post, Erdoğan’s Caucasus proposal was met with “disbelief in both Georgia and Azerbaijan, since it effectively promised to freeze all territorial disputes in the region, including legitimizing Russia’s recent territorial grab in Georgia.” Finally, Turkey, by using the Montreux Treaty, delayed allowing Western ships to cross the Bosphorus.
This ambivalence has a number of root causes. Abkhazia is home to a small Turkish population over which Ankara may feel protective; at the same time, there are Abkhazians in Turkey who actively promote Abkhaz interests. Further, Turkey’s interests in Georgia, regardless of trade ties, are naturally better served with a weakened neighbor to the north. A weakened Georgia is also what Turkey’s more northerly neighbor craves; and for all its imperial pretensions, Ankara is not ready or willing to provoke the Russians and will thus follow a policy ranging from appeasement to the freezing of problems. Notwithstanding Davutoğlu’s claims, zero problems are only for selected neighbors.
Northern Middle East Neighbors
Syria and Iraq, according to Davutoğlu, form both the “northern Middle East” region and the Mesopotamia-Persian Gulf “axis.” In his view, Ankara is “obliged to act in these regions not simply as a NATO member but also as a regional power, defending its own national strategies.” With such an admission, it is hardly surprising that the policy of zero problems has come up hard against a regional reality that is, to say the least, transitional and turbulent.
Turning first to Syria, it must be acknowledged that there is a long and difficult history between the two nations, revolving around issues of territorial integrity (e.g., Alexandretta), control of water resources (the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates), Ottoman behavior toward its former Arab subjects, and most importantly, the Kurdish problem.
Turkish-Syrian relations began to improve with the signing of the Protocol of Adana on October 20, 1998, under which Syria expelled from its territory Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party—Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan), and his Kurdish rebels. Under Erdoğan, these relations continued to improve with mutual visits at the highest level, Turkish support for Syria during the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and a 2007 memorandum of understanding between the two countries creating conditions for cooperation in the fields of politics, security, economics, energy, and water resources. In 2009, the two countries met, along with Iraqi representatives, to resolve issues related to control of the Tigris and Euphrates water resources. Turkish-Syrian relations were further strengthened after Ankara’s condemnation of Israel’s incursion into Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 and formalized in early 2011 when the Turks signed an agreement to train Syrian armed forces (simultaneously raising questions within NATO.)
With the emergence of serious domestic opposition to the Assad dynasty in 2011, Turkish leaders sensed an opportunity for increasing the country’s influence and dramatically changed their behavior toward Damascus. After an initial delay, Ankara froze relations with Syria, began to criticize the regime, and lobbied for greater participation by Sunni Muslims in Bashar al-Assad’s government, and when that failed, raised the banner of democratization and human rights, pressuring Assad to step down.
At present Ankara is pursuing multiple goals in Syria, some of which are mutually exclusive. It seeks first and foremost to overthrow Assad and to help accomplish this, obtain the assistance of Masoud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurd leader, as well as incite the sizable Kurdish population in Syria to join the opposition against Assad. This must not, in Ankara’s eyes, evolve into the creation of a separate Kurdish enclave should Syria disintegrate, thereby igniting the aspirations of its own restive and autonomy-seeking Kurdish population. Turkey also seeks to limit the influence of Iran and Russia in the Syrian crisis, a task made all the more difficult by Moscow’s clear stake in keeping the Assad regime in power: Syria is an important purchaser of Russian equipment, and Tartus is the only naval facility open to Russia in the Mediterranean. For its part, Iran’s only state alliance in the region has long been Syria, which has also served as a transit point for arming Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
Like Syrian relations, Turkish-Iraqi relations are colored by a past history of Ottoman rule as well as the Sunni-Shiite divide. Although Ankara antagonized both its NATO allies and Iraq’s nascent post-Saddam regime by denying use of its territory for the 2003 coalition invasion, it has over the past five years made efforts to promote its interests in Iraq though these efforts have hardly fostered zero problems.
One of Ankara’s highest priorities has been to exclude the PKK from operating in Iraq.At the same time, it seeks, for various reasons, to improve relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Most importantly, it wants to play a major role in the transfer of the landlocked oil deposits from northern Iraq to the West via either Kirkuk-Ceyhan or Nabucco pipelines. As such, it signed an agreement in May 2012 with the Kurdish Barzani government to build a new pipeline for transporting crude oil. In doing so, Turkey has adopted a tactic of momentarily forgetting its opposition to an independent Kurdistan but without abandoning previous declared positions or practices of military intervention when it so chooses.
While Turkey has officially declared its support for the territorial integrity and national unity of Iraq, its actions have contributed to the forces that threaten to tear the country apart. Much of this instability has its origins in Shiite-Sunni antagonism: Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is considered too close to Iran while Iraqi vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, is close to Turkey, the Arab countries, and the Regional Government of Kurdistan.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011 has increased centrifugal forces in Iraq. When a governmental crisis erupted around an arrest warrant issued for Hashemi, Ankara quickly reacted, siding with the Sunnis and criticizing the policies of the prime minister. Maliki’s reaction was unusually strong by diplomatic standards, excoriating the Turks for interference in the internal affairs of his country “as if Iraq is controlled or run by them.” Having fled to Turkey, Hashemi was sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. Erdoğan gave his full support to the exiled leader, declaring, despite Interpol’s “red notice,” that Turkey would host Hashemi for “as long as he wants,” and that it “will not hand him over” to Iraqi authorities.
Further, Ankara sought to obtain a non-Kurdish status for the oil-rich Kirkuk area in northern Iraq after the fall of Saddam and supported its “cousin” Turkmens in their claims to the area, thus creating a tool of leverage within Iraq against the Kurds and the Iraqi government.
In sum, Ankara seeks its own interests in Syria and Iraq, which, while often contradictory, are clearly independent of the interests of both states. Whether supporting an insurgency in Syria or encouraging the Kurds of northern Iraq, Turkey’s behavior cannot be characterized as that of a good neighbor. And while Ankara may reap some short term gains, notably the transfer of Iraqi Kurdish oil through its territory, it also risks losing its land access to the Arabian Peninsula by angering Baghdad. It remains to be seen whether all these Turkish actions will bear long-term fruit.
Iran has been a Turkish rival in some form or another at least since the days of the old Ottoman and Safavid empires, and the AKP Erdoğan government has vacillated between drawing closer to Tehran and confronting it over various issues.
Some analysts consider Ankara’s outreach to Tehran as being purely economic in origin. Certainly trade with Iran has increased significantly from $1 billion at the beginning of the decade to $10 billion in 2009, to $16 billion in 2011. It is Iran, however, that mostly benefits from these trade relations while simultaneously using its Turkish connection to break out of its international isolation.
Erdoğan seems happy to oblige the ayatollahs and has repeatedly acted as an apologist for Iranian behavior. His congratulations to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his fraudulent reelection in 2009 outraged many in the West. He has argued that Tehran is unjustly accused by outsiders and has characterized discussions regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program as “gossip,” deriding any potential military operation against it as “crazy.” While serving as a non-permanent Security Council member, Ankara voted against U.N. Security Council resolution 1929 of June 2010, which imposed serious sanctions on Tehran in various spheres. In opposition to the wishes of its NATO partners, Turkey joined in a trilateral meeting with Iran and Brazil, the upshot of which was an agreement for Iran to send 1200 kilograms of uranium for enrichment to Turkey and receive, in exchange, nuclear fuel for its reactor. To Ankara’s deep embarrassment, Iran almost immediately reneged on the agreement, vowing to continue its efforts to enrich uranium.
Ankara has further distanced itself from its NATO allies by embracing Tehran’s positions regarding a proposed missile shield to be installed on Turkish soil to safeguard against Iranian threats. When it failed to convince its partners not to install the antimissile shield, Turkey worked to ensure that Iran would not be named its target and has assured the Iranians that no non-NATO country (i.e., Israel) would have access to the radar’s data.
True, there are areas of disagreement between Ankara and Tehran. The Turks would like to see better conditions for their Iranian Azeri “cousins” while the Iranians want Turkey to stay out of its internal affairs and to keep neighboring Azerbaijan from inflaming this issue. While both states reject an independent Kurdistan, neither is above playing the Kurdish card with each other’s minority group. And the two governments have starkly divergent positions vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war where Turkey has thrown its support behind the rebels while Tehran sends arms and soldiers to bolster the Assad regime. Is this behavior a successful example of zero problems? For all its bluster, Ankara’s choices may merely reflect recognition that Tehran has dangerous military capabilities that must be blunted.
Turkey and Israel
Significantly, Turkish policies toward Iran are also potentially damaging Ankara’s standing with the West and its closer neighbor—and former ally—Israel. Turkish overtures to Iran have often come at the expense of Israel, which has borne the brunt of Ankara’s revived imperial ambitions, coupled with an Islamist disdain for the Jewish state.
Until the rise of the AKP, relations between Ankara and Jerusalem had ranged from good to excellent. Not only did the two countries not compete, but during the Cold War, they benefited from U.S. as well as British foreign policy imperatives. In the post-Cold War era, as two regional Western strongholds in a turbulent area, the governments cooperated on addressing common risks such as terrorism, strengthening their relationship in all areas.
Under Erdoğan, this has changed dramatically. By way of reasserting its leading regional role and winning over the Arab world, Ankara has progressively distanced itself from Israel and the West. In 2004, Erdoğan accused Israel of practicing “state terrorism;” in 2006, his wife publicly endorsed the Valley of the Wolves, an anti-American and anti-Semitic movie; also in 2006, instead of inviting extremists to renounce violence, Erdoğan personally received Hamas leader Khaled Mashal after the militant Islamist group won the Palestinian elections.
Matters worsened in late 2008 and early 2009 when Israel, reacting to years of rocket and missile attacks against its southern citizens, launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. In January, Erdoğan publicly railed against longtime dove and Israeli president Shimon Peres at an international conference in Davos, Switzerland. In April, Turkey conducted joint military exercises with Syria, and in October, excluded Israel from the “Anatolian Eagle” military exercise, in which the latter had participated in every year since 2001.
Turkish hostility to Israel reached its zenith on May 31, 2010, when the Mavi Marmara boat, under Turkish flag, attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza under the pretence of transferring aid to the Palestinians. According to Turkish press reports, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in contact with the organizers of the operation despite claims to the contrary. When Israeli troops boarding the ship were met with violence, which resulted in the death of nine people, Ankara downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel and cancelled all military cooperation with Jerusalem. Despite Israeli offers of compensation for the victims’ families, Turkey continues to spurn any efforts at reconciliation. Most recently, it announced the intention to sell uncensored images of Israel when it launches the GokTurk satellite, something that could damage Israeli security interests and has threatened Israeli and Cypriot energy explorations in the eastern Mediterranean.
While Israel may not border Turkey directly, it is the only true democracy in the region and a country with which Turkey not only had zero problems for decades but also the closest of relations. In an effort to woo the neighboring Arabs by being seen as a champion of the Palestinians and, to some degree, of Islam, Turkey has initiated a cold war with the Jewish state. At the same time, it seems that Iran has earned more from Ankara’s policy of rapprochement while Israel accumulates the costs.
Thanks to continuous Western support, the end of the Cold War found Turkey stronger, both militarily and economically, and with a power vacuum to its immediate east. Within this context, the AKP’s foreign policy decisions demonstrate the insincerity of its “zero problems with neighbors” claims. Rather than solve problems, Ankara is, at best, freezing them, in the hope of building better commercial relations to satisfy its growth needs. In many instances, it is worsening them at its neighbors’ expense.
The Turkish government’s insincerity manifests itself in an attempt to mask its expansionist ambitions and an attitude that can be described as “what applies to others does not apply to me.” Thus, Erdoğan accuses foreign leaders of “killing children” while fighting against the recognition of past genocides (Armenians, Greeks of Pontus, and Assyrians). It exploits the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in which nine Turks were killed while downplaying its far more numerous killings of Kurdish civilians in Iraqi territory. It accuses Israel of occupying Palestinian territories while illegally occupying northern Cyprus, claims the right to invade Iraq with impunity, and frequently violates its neighbors’ airspace. It accuses others of terrorism while facilitating the transfer of weapons to terror organizations. It participates in and benefits from NATO while obstructing the organization’s policies as in the case of Iraq in 2003, Lebanon in 2005, Georgia in 2007, and Iran.
Initial improvements with the Arab world have stalled. Despite statements to the contrary from its minister of economics, Turkey has lost the Syrian market. It risks losing access to the energy resources of the Arabian Peninsula through Iraqi or Syrian pipelines and is desperately trying to replace this route with shipping routes from Mersin to Port Said, Egypt. Due to its policies toward its Western-oriented neighbors—Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, and Israel—the AKP has also undermined Ankara’s relations with the West, particularly those nations who were contemplating its joining the EU.
The policy of zero problems appears to be operative with only two states: Iran and Russia. In contrast to their behavior toward Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iraq, which have at various times either been threatened with violence or have been attacked, the Turks remain conspicuously silent toward Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia where Russian armed forces are present. Similarly, Ankara behaves toward Iran as if it were not a member of NATO, excusing Tehran’s nuclear program and delaying the installation of a NATO missile shield system. Since both Russia and Iran are stronger than Turkey, Ankara seems, for the most part, to be doing its utmost to avoid upsetting their regional interests, but this has nothing to do with neighborly solicitude.
The zero problems policy has not failed, as has been suggested, because it was tested against authoritarian governments: Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, and Israel are hardly governed by dictators, and Iraq, for all its failings, has not descended to this level. The policy has failed because it was a tool for neo-Ottoman ambitions and global aspirations that have now become all too obvious.
The unvarnished truth is that Ankara acts, to use Davutoğlu’s metaphor, like a heavyweight wrestler seeking to intimidate its middleweight neighbors. As such, “zero problems with neighbors” may turn into the country’s zero hour as Ankara finds itself increasingly considered an unreliable partner by its allies and a regional bully by its neighbors.
Ilias I. Kouskouvelis is Professor of International Relations at the University of Macedonia, Greece, and Director of the Laboratory of International Relations and European Integration. The author thanks Nikolaos Raptopoulos, Alexander Koutsoukis, and Revecca Pedi for their incisive comments.
 Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik. Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001).
 “Policy of Zero Problems with Our Neighbors,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
 Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, p. 147.
 See, for example, “On the situation of the Turkish Muslim Minority in Western Thrace, Greece,” res. 3/33-M, 33rd Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), Baku, June 19-21, 2006; “On the Situation of the Turkish Muslim Minority of Western Thrace, Greece,” res. 3/34-MM, 34th ICFM, Islamabad, May 15-17, 2007.
 Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, p. 124.
 The Sofia (Bulgaria) Echo, June 3, 2010.
 SKAI TV (Greece), accessed Oct. 1, 2012.
 See “Annual Risk Analysis 2012,” Frontex, European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, Warsaw, Apr. 2012.
 Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, pp. 176-80.
 Hurriyet (Istanbul), Dec. 17, 2010, Jan. 5, 2011.
 Ibid., Aug. 5, 2011, Sept. 21, 27, 2011.
 “National Security,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995), chap. 5.
 BBC News (London), Oct. 11, 2009; Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), Dec. 26, 2011.
 “Azerbaijan,” The World Factbook 2002, CIA, Mar. 19, 2003.
 “Background note: Armenia,” U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C., Mar. 22, 2012.
 Eurasia Insight (New York), Eurasianet.org, Sept. 29, 2008.
 New Caucasus (Armenia), Jan. 29, 2011.
 See, Génocide arménien, Assemblée Nationale, Paris, Jan. 30, 2001. For Turkish reactions to French actions, see Today’s Zaman, Jan. 23, 2012, Reuters, Jan. 23, 2012.
 “Policy of Zero Problems with Our Neighbors,” accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
 “Relations between Turkey and Georgia,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
 Today’s Zaman, Apr. 28, 2010.
 Georgia Times (Tbilisi), June 11, 2006.
 Today’s Zaman, Aug. 15, 2008.
 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 5, 2008.
 The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 14, 2009.
 Radikal (Istanbul), Sept. 20, 2008.
 See Mitat Çelikpala, “From immigrants to diaspora: Influence of the North Caucasian diaspora in Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies, 3 (2006): 423-46.
 Igor Torbakov, “The Georgia Crisis and Russia-Turkey Relations,” The Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., 2008.
 Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik, pp. 397-405.
 “Syria,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995).
 CNN World, Sept. 3, 2009.
 See, for example, “Latest Developments,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, Sept. 21, 2012.
 “Syria Economic and Trade Relations,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, accessed Sept. 21, 2012.
 CNN World, Sept. 3, 2009.
 Ibid., Sept. 3, 2009.
 Ibid., Dec. 14, 2010.
 CNSnews (Alexandria, Va.), Feb. 11, 2011.
 BBC News, Nov. 30, 2011.
 Today’s Zaman, Dec. 18, 2011; United Press International (Washington, D.C.), Jan. 12, 2012.
 “Latest Developments,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, Ankara, Dec. 15, 2011.
 United Press International, Dec. 22, 2011.
 Southeast European Times Türkiye (U.S. European Command), June 21, 2012.
 Today’s Zaman, Aug. 10, 2012.
 CNN News, Dec. 30, 2011.
 BBC News, Dec. 22, 2011.
 Today’s Zaman, Jan. 14, 2012.
 BBC News, Sept, 10, 2012.
 Today’s Zaman, May 8, 2012; Reuters, Sept. 11, 2012.
 AEI Irantracker, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C., June 24, 2010; CNN World, Sept. 7, 2011; Tehran Times, Mar. 28, 2012.
 Today’s Zaman, Jan. 25, 2012.
 Eurasia Daily Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C., Mar. 3, 2009.
 CNSnews, Feb. 11, 2011.
 BBC News, Oct. 26, 2009.
 Ibid., May 17, 2010.
 CNN World, May 17, 2010.
 Today’s Zaman, Mar. 30. 2012.
 “Iran,” Country Studies, Turkey (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, Jan. 1995).
 The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 27, 2012.
 BBC News, June 3, 2004.
 Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo), Feb. 23-Mar. 1, 2006.
 BBC News, Oct. 11, 2009.
 Milliyet (Istanbul), June 5, 2010.
 The New York Times, May 31, 2010.
 CNN World, Sept. 6, 2011.
 The Guardian (London), May 24, 2012.
 Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Mar. 10, 2011.
 CNN World, June 6, 2011.
 The Guardian, Dec. 29, 2011; The Sofia Echo, Aug. 19, 2009.
 See, for example, Voice of America, Aug. 24, 2012; Hurriyet, Sept. 18, 2012; The Guardian, Sept. 27, 2012 .
 Reuters, Dec. 7, 2011.
 Today’s Zaman, June 4, 2012.
 O Fileleftheros (Cyprus), Jan. 11, Dec. 9, 2011; Hurriyet, Sept. 28, 2011.
 Damla Aras, “Turkish-Syrian Relations Go Downhill,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2012, pp. 41-50.
 Piotr Zalewski, “The Self-Appointed Superpower: Turkey Goes It Alone,” World Policy Journal, Dec. 2010, 27, pp. 97-102.
The role of spin doctors in the Eastern Ghouta crisis
When it comes to war, it is exceedingly important to get all the facts straight: always remember there are—at least—two sides to every story and be careful to distinguish reality from propaganda.
Many words have been spoken about the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ghouta: the Damascus district, in fact, is paying the price of the umpteenth conflict between pro-Syrian government forces and rebels.
The protests against President Bashar al-Assad have been going on in the area since 2011 and the next year the rebel fighters managed to establish their control over the territory.
The initial tensions rapidly developed into a full-blown war that did not spared civilians—including a large percentage of children—from being a target.
In the last few weeks, a global campaign of solidarity—#IAmStillAlive—has been launched on social media platforms to support the children trapped in the rebel-held enclave, where there is almost no food left, nor medical supplies and humanitarian access has been completely cut off.
In this regard, it is necessary to remember that international aid convoys have been regularly delivered from the United Nations, the Syrian government, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Russia. It became known, anyway, that the supplies do not always reach civilians falling, instead, directly in the hands of the rebels.
But who are exactly the so-called “rebels”?
Numerous groups are active inside the besieged region and, despite being in opposition to each other, they stand together against the Syrian Arab Army.
Jaysh al-Islam represents the largest factionwith an estimated 10-15,000 members. Formerly allied with Al-Nusra Front—al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria— they conducted several deadly attacks, such as the infamous “Adra massacre”.
The Syrian Military claimed that in last December 2013 over 80 people were executed in the city of Adra and, during the following days, dozens of others were kidnapped and use as human shields.
Geopolitical analyst Patrick Henningsen believes that the foreign encouragement of rebel forces was to blame for that tragedy; in an interview with RT he goes even further, claiming that “there is involvement by the Western intelligence agencies that have links to some of those radical jihadist groups.”
The Hay’-at Tharir al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman—which is also affiliated to the Free Syrian Army—organizations are linked to al-Qaeda and they are responsible for a huge amount of atrocities, including the heinous attack that took place on 16 December 2016 in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus, when jihadi-father Abu Nimr al-Suri sent his two daughters to die in a suicide-bombing attack against the police station.
The Ahrar al-Sham coalition is probably the biggest terrorist group in Syria and it is currently aligned with Jaysh al-Islam against al-Nusra Front.
The criminal organizations above—some more than others—aim at the extermination of Syrian religious minorities, proving themselves to be nothing but terrorist groups.
Furthermore, they are said to have received “donations” from Saudi Arabia, Qatar ,Turkey and the US, although they rejected those claims.
The Western Media seemed initially reluctant to highlight the Tafkiri-Jihadi inspired nature of the rebels, depicting them as “moderate rebels” or “freedom fighters”.
Once again, it is necessary to check the accuracy of sources of information and report on solid facts exclusively.
It can be quite tricky, since much of the country is inaccessible to journalists on the ground and news coming out is often filtered through “media activists” or unofficial outlets.
Every major newspaper and outlet gleaned the information from the often quoted Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group—actually a one-man band—run by Rami Abdul Rahman.
According to the New York Times “military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war,” as well as providing mainstream media with daily updates about the Syrian crisis.
In the same article from the NYT, he admitted to receive “small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify.”
Mr. Abdul Rahman—born Osama Suleiman—is a three-term convicted criminal in Syria, due to his years of activism against the Assad regime.
He fled to the United Kingdom eighteen years ago and the government relocated him to Coventry, in the West Midlands region; he has not returned to his home country ever since.
In the UK, he has had direct access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where has been documented meeting with the former Foreign Secretary William Hague.
Both Hague and current Foreign Minister Tobias Ellwood endorse Rahman’s political position.
Among Rahman’s network of contacts there is Rafid al-Janabi, better known as “Curveball”. The Iraqi defector played a crucial role in the 2003 Iraq War, falsely accusing Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction and pushing the US and its allies into launching offensive.
In 2011 he eventually admitted that he “had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime,” and spread the fake information that became the centerpiece of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s pro-intervention speech at the United Nations.
It is hard to believe that the Western press never considered to examine its main source’s political connections and background before using hisnot-necessarily-objective reports.
Funded in 2013 by ex-military officerJames Le Mesurier, the White Helmets NGO aims to rescue civilian survivors trapped in bombed buildings and the people who volunteer for the corps are hailed as some sort of heroes in the West.
The Netflix heart-breaking Oscar-winning documentary (“The White Helmets”, 2016) focuses indeed on the “perilous work of volunteers who brave falling bombs to rescue civilians from the carnage of Syria’s civil war.”
They present themselves as an unarmed, non-governmental and neutralorganization, yet they have had a leading role in various controversial events.
Although they claim to be apolitical, they actually actively campaign for a no-fly zone and they are largely funded by Western governments which advocate for regime change.Their principal funder is, in fact, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with the UK, and Europe.
They work exclusively in rebel-controlled areas, which raised doubts about the independence of their reports; in addition, some volunteers happened to be photographed while assisting in terrorist executions.
In 2016 members of the group were caught staging a rescue scene, later justified as their version of the popular ‘mannequin challenge,’ in which people were supposed to freeze for the camera. They apologized for the fact calling it an “error of judgment,” but the footage has been subject of harsh criticism on social media.
This does not mean that their effort as rescue workers is unappreciated, but it truly indicates the need to examine whatever information they provide with a critical eye.
In order to understand the reasons that could lead media to distort information, we have to introduce the concept of “spin”.
Spin is a form of propaganda used by public relations agencies—referred as “spin doctors” in this case—which provide a biased interpretation of facts and data to influence public perception on significant matters.
Cited as an invaluable source of information by Western media outlets, the Syria Campaign is a public relations and marketing company that, among other operations, branded and promoted the White Helmets to the international public.
The agency presents itself as impartial and non-political, yet they not only called for a no-fly zone, but also pushed for military intervention in several occasions.
They even attacked the UN’s work in Syria by publishing a 50-page report on a dedicated website that used a UN logo soaked in blood.
Ironically, among the supporters of their anti-UN campaign was the previously mentioned Ahrar Al-Sham.
The supposed most-reliable media outlets feed us altered and even fake news sometimes.
The majority of information we have about the Syria’s war do not come from disinterested observers: citizen journalists and activists, in fact, are either pro-rebel or pro-regime, which is no guarantee of objectivity.
In conclusion, we have a duty to question where the news is coming from, whether it has been manipulated or whether there is an intentional attempt to shape our own opinion.
Three Years of Saudi Heinous Crimes in Yemen
Yemen a miserable isolated Arab country has been devastated by an ongoing Saudi bloody war. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies (GCC) have launched a vicious military campaign against Yemen to reinstall its former government. Recently, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK has refocused attention on this silent conflict.
The collation has imposed a blockade on the port of Hodeida city, the main entry point for food and medicines and has been repeatedly accused of unlawful airstrikes on civilian targets which amount to war crimes. Obviously, the U.K., U.S. and other Western governments back, supply weapons and provides training to the GCC soldiers.
Amid the global silent and the mainstream media hypocrisy, the criminal collation systematically targets residential areas, claiming it would control arms transfer to the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia regards the Houthis as Iranian proxies and intervened to check their advance. These heinous massacres have prompted accusations by some Western opposition MPs and human rights groups of significant responsibility for civilian casualties. Thousands of Yemenis have been killed and the infrastructure has been thoroughly pulverized.
The GCC collation has imposed a blockade on Yemen’s air, sea and land borders in November 2017 in response to Huthis firing missiles towards Riyadh airport, closing an aid lifeline to tens of thousands of starving Yemenis. The U.K. government denies that its forces are advising the Saudis on specific targets, though they admit that, after a raid, British officers can give advice on future targeting policy.
A UN panel of experts that reviewed 10 Saudi airstrikes found Saudi denials of involvement in these specific airstrikes were implausible, and individuals responsible for planning, authorising or executing the strikes would meet the standard for the imposition of UN sanctions. The panel reported early in January, “even if the Saudi Arabia-led coalition had targeted legitimate military objectives … it is highly unlikely that the principles of international humanitarian law of proportionality and precautions in attack were respected.”
At the end of February, Russia vetoed a UK draft resolution that included a condemnation of Iran for violating the UN arms embargo in Yemen over claims that it supplied the missiles used by the Houthis that were fired towards Riyadh.The ongoing war has witnessed heinous atrocities, which emphasizes the urgent need of taking all necessary and possible steps to stop the war, bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure impunity.
Since the beginning of the military campaign, the coalition has targeted numerous facilities including schools, hospitals, airports, ports, universities, water and electric utilities, roads, bridges. Although international conventions grant full protection for civilian installations, the Saudi warplanes have systematically targeted civil facilities using several internationally forbidden weapons, during the systemic raids over densely populated areas.
Medics have voiced alarm over the raging spread of the cholera epidemic in the impoverished country, saying that one child is infected every minute. Malnourished children, who number more than two million in Yemen, are greatly susceptible. Yemeni Health Ministry says that the Saudi aerial embargo has prevented patients from travelling abroad for treatment, and the entry of medicine into the country has been blocked. Over the following three years, the war has engulfed the entire country causing unbearable suffering for civilians. Due to the relentless bombardment, many civilians have been killed or injured, and a humanitarian crisis has spiraled, while the world ignores this raging war and hears little about its devastating consequences.
Various hospitals were shut because of the bombarding, and the insufficient medical teams. Further, vaccinations of major infectious diseases have been banned, amid the growth of the indicators of child malnutrition, and the spread of epidemics. In addition, more than 95% of doctors, nurses and consultants have been killed or fled the country. The lack of medicines has caused the deaths of many with Thalassemia and Anemia who need a monthly blood transfusion. Dialysis centres have made an SOS to save the lives of more than 6 thousand patients with Renal failure by providing them with necessary medical supplies, pointing out that the number of deaths of patients with renal failure exceeded 17 deaths in every 8 months.
The blockade imposed by the coalition has left more than 12,000 people killed, 49,000 injured and around 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. It has also created the world’s largest food security emergency. Human Rights Watch has accused the Saudi-led coalition of committing war crimes, saying its air raids killed 39 civilians, including 26 children, in two months. Additionally, The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the number of suspected cholera cases in war-torn Yemen has hit one million. More than eight million Yemenis are on the verge of starvation, making Yemen the scene of, what the United Nations calls, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.The Saudi regime has launched his war to eliminate the Houthis movement and to reinstall a Riyadh-friendly regime in Yemen.
However, the collation has failed to achieve its geopolitical and ideological objectives regardless of spending billions of dollars and enlisting the cooperation of its vassal states as well as some Western countries. The world’s largest humanitarian crisis caused by Saudi prolonged military onslaught has pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation. Unfortunately, the UN has not yet taken any effective measures to halt the humanitarian tragedy for the sake of the ultimate objective that Saudi Arabia is pursuing in the country, which is eliminating the threat of the Houthis. Obviously, the Saudis have not achieved their basic goals; hence, they are seeking revenge on the innocent Yemenis through their aimless bombardment.
West using JCPOA as lever to pressurize Iran
Recently, Reuters claimed European countries had commenced negotiations with Iran over the country’s role in the region in order to ease U.S. President Donald Trump’s concerns over the Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Reuters alleges that the talks got off the ground on the fringes of the Munich security conference, with Yemen and certain regional issues taking center stage, and that the negotiations are going to continue in the future.
“European powers and Iran have started talks over Tehran’s role in the Middle East and will meet again this month in Italy as part of efforts to prove to U.S. President Donald Trump that they are meeting his concerns over the 2015 nuclear deal,” wrote Reuters.
What is worth mentioning about the Reuters’ report is that the news agency claims the talks between Iran and Europe on regional issues conducted is phased. Reuters says the first round of the negotiations were held on the sidelines of the Munich security conference with the Yemen war top of the agenda, and that the Europeans hope to discuss the role of the groups supporting Iran in Lebanon and Syria. A few points need to be taken into account in this regard.
First, regional talks with Iran has been one of the common demands of the U.S. and the European Union following the conclusion of the JCPOA. When the nuclear deal was signed in July 2015, many analysts unanimously believed that Washington and the European Troika intended to use the JCPOA as a springboard for regional talks with Tehran.
Efforts by Germany, Britain and France to hold regional talks with Iran can be analyzed accordingly. Here, France seeks to play the role of a leading player. The trip to Iran by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian comes within the same framework. Paris has promised Washington to spare no effort to hold negotiations with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. Accordingly, Germany and Britain have got on board with France, too.
The second point is that while the general meeting of the UN General Assembly was underway in New York last summer, key talks were held between U.S. President Donald Trump and senior European officials over Iran’s regional policies and their connection with the JCPOA. In the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron promised his U.S. counterpart to channel and manage missile and regional talks with Iran. This comes as the fundamental principles of Iran’s foreign policy will remain unchanged. The principles include Iran’s backing for resistance groups, and above all, the country’s firmly dealing with the regional threats made by the U.S. and its allies and cronies. This firm approach by Iran will shatter the U.S. and Europe’s hope for regional talks with Iran. Still, the European officials believe the commencement of regional negotiations with Iran (even if unofficial), per se, can serve as a starting point to curtail Iran’s power and influence in the region. Thirdly, the Iranian diplomacy apparatus’ insistence on the unchangeable and general strategies of the country’s foreign policy, namely support for resistance groups, promotion of the resistance discourse, and fighting Takfiri terrorism will play a key role in foiling the ploys adopted by the U.S. and the European Union for talks.
One should bear in mind that the European Troika are channeling the talks on behalf of the U.S. and in coordination with the Trump administration. What Iran will employ to counter the joint game launched by Washington, Paris, London and Berlin will be the determination to safeguard the country’s strategic and behavioral principles in the region. It goes without saying that with this firm and prudent defense, the U.S. and the European Troika will not achieve any of their objectives in restricting Iran’s maneuvering power in the region. And lastly, the U.S. and the European Union are using the JCPOA as a lever to channel regional talks with Iran and pressure Tehran into giving in to Washington’s regional demands. In other words, Instead of serving its function as an independent legal document, the JCPOA has turned into a political tool to exert pressure on Iran. Here, too, the Iranian diplomacy and foreign policy apparatus should act very prudently and consider “safeguarding Iran’s regional power” as its red line, not “safeguarding the JCPOA.” Obviously, Washington and the European Troika should get to understand the definitive principle that Iran will not compromise on its fundamental strategies in the region.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
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