“The protests come at an awkward time for the US, which is trying to convince the international community that governments in Syria and Iran do not respect the rights of their citizens while the Turkish-backed rebels in Syria represent a more democratic alternative.” This comment, appearing in a distressing report (The Guardian, June 4, 2013) on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s totally undemocratic and ferocious reaction to public protests in Istanbul and elsewhere in his country, is on the mark but addresses just one of the possible consequences of that reaction. That fact was surely on the mind of both Secretary of State John Kerry and White House spokesman Jay Carney when they publicly and rightly expressed concern.
The past several months have seen multiple developments opening hope for solutions to an array of extremely difficult problems all of which both require Turkish cooperation and are of more than marginal importance to U.S. national security. For starters, the resolution of the long and bloody conflict in Syria in favor of the emergence of a democratic regime cannot but help strengthen and advance the “Arab Spring”, and the role of a democratic Turkey in such an outcome cannot be exaggerated, given its actions thus far in helping and protecting Assad’s opponents and victims and its vast superiority, both economic and military, in the region.
Without suggesting any order of priority or predicting final outcomes, one cannot under-estimate the importance of the seeming end of the sharp deterioration of relations between Turkey and Israel that began with their 2009 confrontation at sea. Any chance for a meaningful resolution of differences between these two key allies of the U.S. depends on democratic policies on the part of both, particularly with respect to treatment of minorities, be they religious, ethnic or cultural. The reigning governments in both countries have far to go, with Erdogan posing the greatest threat with his latest words and actions.
Likewise, hopes for an end to the decades-old Turkish armed occupation of a large part of Cyprus will surely fade should the dictatorial methods employed by Erdogan place one more weapon – in addition to religious and cultural prejudice – in the hands of those Europeans opposed to Turkish membership in the European Union. In any case, peaceful settlement of the Cyprus issue of course remains the sine qua non with respect to Turkish entry, with EU member Cyprus having a full vote. And settlement of the Cyprus issue surely must precede exploitation of apparently very rich off-shore oil resources in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone, in which both Israel, Lebanon and the U.S. are heavily involved, notwithstanding the start of exploratory drilling by the American firm Noble Energy.
One further complication: Russia, while continuing to flirt with Syria’s President Assad, has seemingly freed herself from dependence upon a Syrian port, until now her only Mediterranean haven for warships, with the recent announcement that three such vessels will lay over in the Cypriot port of Limassol in the near future. This public display of support for the Cypriot Republic, already recognized by Moscow and every nation on earth other than Turkey, gives the Turks one more thing to think about.
There was a ray of hope in the public apology for the heavy crack-down on protesters in Istanbul and elsewhere offered by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister on June 4 as his boss took a quick leave of absence elsewhere, and President Gul has made clear his own unhappiness over Erdogan’s actions. Erdogan, however, has shown no sign of backing down. Nevertheless, given the multiple issues raised by the events in Turkey briefly summarized above, the U.S. must continue to play an active diplomatic role in the interests of protecting its own national security.