|This column has long endorsed the notion that if Turkey’s neighborhood policy (we can forget the zero problem level for the time being) is ever to bring its problematic issues in its region to a reasonable level, it should focus primarily on Armenia, Israel and Cyprus.|
|If there is any agreement on — let’s not say failures, but rather complete non-advancement – in Turkey’s foreign policy, it is on the failures in these three areas. And if it was not clear before to the designers of the rather worn-out policies, it should be now.
In all three, perhaps to a lesser degree with Cyprus, we can see the fingerprints of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. No matter how beneficial the ideas, or how meticulous the diplomatic preparation, it has always been his unexpected, last-minute interventions that have caused damage and delays.
Improved relations with Armenia have been put on hold and left to increasing Russian influence, and nobody knows how Ankara and Yerevan will deal with the rubble of the protocols.
The civil war and carnage in Syria has also helped Russia and Iran to advance their influence, now putting Lebanon at higher risk, and bringing to the foreground the vital issue of security and cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean.
In this context, the urgent question of settlements with Israel and Cyprus are part of the same problem. It has become an obvious fact that without overcoming these issues, the conflict in the region will simply spread further, inviting more instability.
The picture seen in Nicosia is apparently the same. “Cyprus is in the throes of an economic depression and oil and gas have been discovered but cannot yet be fully exploited to get the island out from under the troika’s yoke. Regionally, Turkey’s EU accession has stalled and its relationship with Israel has become intertwined in growing ties between Nicosia and Tel Aviv, and the US is showing a greater interest in the eastern Mediterranean and, by extension, the Cyprus issue,” commented Jean Christou in Cyprus Mail.
We understand that Turkey and Israel have had a long way to go lately to deal with the problems caused by Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara incident. “There has recently been momentum and a new approach in compensation talks. We could say that most of the differences have been removed recently in these discussions,” Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said in an interview.
But, just as hopes were raised again by reports that the two sides had come closer to an agreement over compensation to the victims’ families, Erdoğan once again entered the situation.
He told press on Tuesday that a “written protocol” is needed for reconciliation with Israel and that Turkey will not proceed with Israel over rapprochement until Israel lifts its embargo on the Gaza Strip.
This unexpected statement was not welcomed by Israel. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu has begun to stall the rapprochement, as the Israeli authorities issued a blank refusal of Erdoğan’s demands.
If Erdoğan means to appease his nationalist and conservative voters with the statement, it may serve him, but definitely not Turkey. One can only feel sympathy if Davutoğlu and his team of diplomats see a growing number of fires to extinguish. They should tell the boss that the international community, not to say the U.S. Congress, interprets these extra demands differently, and is not in the mood for praise.
New rounds of Cyprus talks, however, deliver a slightly stronger ray of hope. As Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for International Crisis Group, puts it, “There are a few new elements: a surprising American role, an open-minded Greek Cypriot leader, possible direct Turkey-Greek Cypriot contacts — but no miracle leap yet expected in the Sisyphean search for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federal settlement.”
The new American role will be key. But also, as the analyst Liona Mullen emphasizes, this time there are more carrots than sticks — oil and gas for both (and for Israel). A deal could be “Varosha for gas” or Cyprus unblocking chapters, easing Turkey’s path towards EU membership. (Furthermore, the political and social mood in Greek Cyprus is less negative than previously, with more awareness of possible solutions.)
The most unpredictable player in the triangle seems to be Erdoğan. Much depends on whether he will go on being a part of the problem, or become part of the solution.