Victory for US President Barack Obama in last week’s presidential election means the United States is likely to continue its retreat from the Middle East, opening up a need for a partnership with Turkey, according to a former diplomat, who says Turkish-US cooperation has gained importance with the Arab Spring
The United States is turning its attention elsewhere from the Middle East, providing a chance for Turkey to step up and assume a greater role in the region, former diplomat Özden Sanberk has said.
“[The U.S.] needs a partner. An area of positive and constructive cooperation is emerging in the region,” Sanberk recently told the Daily News. “The transition in the region will be less troublesome if the U.S. works with Turkey.”
Many in Turkey rejoiced when [Barack] Obama won [last week’s U.S. elections]. Is this due to an appreciation of Obama or a fear of [Republican challenger Mitt] Romney?
Whether it is Obama or Romney, Turkish-U.S. relations will never come to the point of a breakup. There is an alliance. Turkey knows Obama, he is not an unknown quantity, and there is an experience of the past four years.
What does this experience tell us? Have relations come to the necessary point?
They are above average, but I can’t say they are where they should be. Despite cooperation on the fight against terrorism, there is still frustration on the Turkish side. We think the U.S. can deliver more. Looking from the U.S. perspective, it doesn’t deliver because it is not in its interest. The U.S. could have taken military cooperation much further before it withdrew from Iraq.
What is holding up Washington?
There is a dimension that does not fit its interest. It is also not clear whether this [increased cooperation] meshes with its strategy, which is to disengage from the Middle East. The U.S. will not totally pull out from the region; it will have a political presence. But the period of military operation is over with Obama.
So, will the U.S. shift its attention to the Asia-Pacific?
Yes, but the radicalism that came to the agenda after Sept. 11 is not an issue that will go away easily. And, actually, it gained a new dimension with the Arab Spring. On the one hand, there is the perspective of cooperation that emerged with the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood and, on the other, there is the issue of tackling the more radical groups like Salafis. As long as this threat perception continues – and despite the fact that the U.S.’ priority will shift to the Asia-Pacific – the U.S.’ active interest in the Middle East, where the threat perception is emanating from, will continue.
There comes the importance of Turkey. There is a convergence of interests since we are also against radical tendencies. The cooperation that started with Sept. 11 will continue since we have areas of common interest. And we should feel no complex about it. We will work together with the U.S.
wherever we have joint interests. Even though the U.S. is disengaging from the Middle East, there is a brand-new area for U.S.-Turkish cooperation. We will try to bring our policies closer. The importance of Turkish-U.S. cooperation has increased with the Arab Spring.
What kind of a new area of cooperation are you talking about? Turkey and the U.S. have always worked together in the past in the Middle East.
Yes, but the brand-new area comes with the Arab awakening. The U.S. was not directly involved in the Arab awakening due to its strategy of leading from behind. It managed the developments in a rather ambiguous way. But on the road ahead, it will develop policies that will encourage the democratic transition and transformation. Actually, Turkey had started to do that; but when the Syrian issue came to the current point, [the policies] stagnated. Both the U.S. and Turkey need to overcome that.
So you believe that there is a convergence of interests for Turkey and the U.S. to work together for a transition in the Middle East.
The evolution of the Middle East in the direction of the people’s wishes will be encouraged. Now when you say that, it sounds like Great Middle East Project [a former U.S. strategy]. And this raises suspicions in Turkey and the Middle East. But I don’t see it that way. When I talk about encouragement, I talk about supporting this process, through economic cooperation, or through many other ways. But I am not talking at all about military ways. The U.S. will be more active in the Middle East, but this activity will be non-military.
So are you saying that while disengaging militarily from the Middle East, it might need to rely on an ally like Turkey to manage the transition process in the region.
It needs a partner. An area of positive and constructive cooperation is emerging in the region. The transition will be less troublesome if the U.S. works with Turkey.
But as you mentioned, Syria remains a big challenge.
Yes, there is a stalemate no one seems able to overcome.
Turkey was unable to properly use its influence in Syria. We tried to convince the regime [to enact] reforms and when we failed, we pulled back and got angry. We thought the regime would fall much faster. We thought the international community would be more active in speeding up the fall of the regime. So we had some misjudgments. Actually, other countries made some misjudgments as well and, at one stage, they easily changed their policies. But we took our policy to the point of no return.
At the beginning, we used to say we could talk to anyone in the region, even with non-state actors. But we ourselves broke off our dialogue with the most important actor [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad], thinking he would go. But it did not work out like that, and it is becoming apparent that it will not work out like that.
Foreign policy is the area that you feel the most frustrated in failing to do what you want to achieve. In the past few years, due to success, we took it for granted and thought we could achieve whatever we want. But we were [only] able to fill the sails with soft power when the seas were calm. But there is now a storm and we can’t fill our sails with soft power. When it comes to resorting to hard power, neither our capabilities nor our experience is sufficient because, at the end of the day, Turkey is a peace-seeking country. The seas are now stormy independent of us, and we had to adjust our policies accordingly. Now what is important is to do the diplomatic groundwork with the U.S., Europe, as well as Arab partners, to handle the Syrian issue so that it does not harm the transformation in the region.
Many believed that the new U.S. initiative on the opposition has shown the divergence of views between Ankara and Washington.
I don’t see it like that. Turkey gave its consent to that initiative without any complex.
Turkey is criticized for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood too much.
There is this perception. What needs to be done is to break this perception. I do not believe that Turkey is pursuing a sectarian policy. Turkey never had a sectarian policy and we witnessed action that showed that the Justice and Development Party [AKP] did not pursue a sectarian policy. The prime minister visited Najaf [an Iraqi city considered holy by Shiites]; he called for secularism while in Egypt. Turkey’s greatest advantage is that it can stay out of sectarian conflicts in the region due to its democratic and secular state structure. A state that has such a capability cannot pursue a policy that seeks Sunni leadership. But sometimes perceptions are more important than reality, and Turkey needs to change that perception. Perhaps we need strong public diplomacy for that.
What are your expectations about the Syrian crisis?
It is difficult to say. But it is obvious that there won’t be U.S. military action, and Turkey needs to operate from that premise. Turkey also needs to change the perception that it is a Turkish-Syrian issue. Turkey will need to come up with creative, non-military proposals.
WHO IS ÖZDEM SANBERK ?
Özdem Sanberk is a graduate of Istanbul University’s Law Faculty. As a career diplomat, he served in several diplomatic posts before becoming Turkish ambassador and permanent representative to the European Union in Brussels in 1987.
From 1991 to 1995 he was the permanent secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry before becoming the ambassador to London.
Following his retirement in 2000, he was named the director of the Turkish Economic and Social Foundation (TESEV) in Istanbul, holding the post until September 2003. He is a board member of Kadir Has University in Istanbul and works with several Turkish think tanks.
Sanberk is the author of articles about foreign policy and a commentator and broadcaster for the written and audiovisual press.
Sanberk is currently the director of the International Strategic Research Institute (USAK). He was also a member of a U.N. panel on the Mavi Marmara flotilla raid.