September 2012

Summary: Almost two years on from the start of the Arab Spring, the situation across the Middle East and the Mediterranean continues to produce worrisome security challenges for Turkey and Ankara’s transatlantic partners. Amid these destabilizing changes, three scenarios stand out, and could prove transformative for the security environment in and around Turkey, with no less important implications for Europe and the United States. First, Syria’s civil war could drag on for as long as a decade, further destabilizing an already fragile neighborhood. Second, Iran could develop, or come close to developing, a nuclear weapon. Finally, tensions in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean could escalate from a simmer to a boil.

Three Troubling Scenarios for Turkey and Transatlantic Partners
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser

Almost two years on from the start of the Arab Spring, the situation across the Middle East and the Mediterranean continues to produce worrisome security challenges for Turkey and Ankara’s transatlantic partners. After a decade of relatively benign conditions in Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighborhood, in which Turkey’s foreign and economic policy has flourished, the strategic environment in the region is looking increasingly grim. In key places, the revolutionary moment in Arab world is giving rise to prolonged turmoil and chaos. Longstanding elements of stability on the security scene — stable, at least, by the standards of this troubled region — are crumbling, with little in the way of new security architecture to replace them. Amid these destabilizing changes, three scenarios stand out, and could prove transformative for the security environment in and around Turkey, with no less important implications for Ankara’s transatlantic partners.

OffiCes Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara Bucharest • Warsaw

A Decade of Turmoil Turkey and its Western partners have rightly felt the need to be on

the correct side of history in relation to the political upheavals in the Arab world. The pace and scope of national responses to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria have varied. But, overall, there has been little nostalgia about the passing, or impending passage, of the old regimes. Only in Tunisia, where the political culture is more tolerant and the outcome is less consequential in geopolitical terms, has there been a relatively stable and promising transition. In Libya, the political order remains unconsolidated, with the very real threat of renewed civil war and disintegration. For all of the intense debate over the international intervention in Libya, the country is, arguably, marginal to the strategic future of the Middle East. Egypt, a country central to the future of the region, faces a continuing struggle over civil military relations and other questions. Moreover, the country has emerged as the leading test case for the role of political Islam in domestic and international policy. Since the end of the Algerian conflict in the late 1990s, the Islamism debate has been in abeyance among Western policymakers, a reality that has also influenced European and U.S. views of developments in Turkey.

Events make it clear that the Islamism debate has returned to the center of strategic discourse. One result could be a livelier — and unpredictable — international discussion about the lessons of the Turkish experience. Syria is, in many respects, the most troubling case. The regime is highly abusive, the human costs of the civil war are large and mounting, sectarian divisions are at the core of the conflict, and the arsenal at the disposal of the Bashar al-Assad regime (with its Iranian, Russian, and Chinese ties) suggests that it can fight on for some time to come. The myriad armed opposition groups, with their international patrons, and the sheer complexity of the Syrian equation, points to the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, of a decade of chaos in Syria. Unlike Tunisia and Libya, Syria matters. A continuing conflict in Syria will have repercussions over a large region, from the Eastern Mediterranean and Lebanon, to Iran and the Gulf. The large Syrian diaspora, and Syria’s traditional international connections, could give Syrian turmoil wide geopolitical reach, not unlike the successive conflicts in the Balkans. With Lebanon, Turkey is the society most exposed to the consequences of protracted conflict and chaos in Syria. The threat posed by the re-establishment of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) camps in Syria, may be the most prominent threat to Turkish security. But there are many others. From the refugee crisis to the threat of violent spillovers, possibly involving armed jihadist groups, Ankara faces a growing security challenge from this quarter. At the “high end” the potential for an outright clash with Syrian forces cannot be dismissed, especially if Turkey (and others?) opt to create safe-havens — and a cordon sanitaire — inside Syrian territory. A hard-pressed Syrian regime is surely in no position to challenge Turkey in conventional military terms. But the Assad regime is certainly capable of fomenting terrorism inside Turkey, and in an extreme case, employing its extensive short and medium range ballistic missiles against Turkish populations centers. Under these conditions, Turkey’s NATO connection would assume paramount importance. Indeed, the prospect of extended chaos and confrontation on the Syrian front should, in principle, be a leading driver of ever-closer Turkish-Western security cooperation. A Nuclear, or Near-Nuclear Iran The clock is clearly ticking with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S., European, and Israeli response. The latest assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency and others point to an acceleration of the Iranian enrichment program, and there is now a “not if, but when” quality to the Western debate about a military riposte. To be sure, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations is not inevitable — there are strong counter-arguments to be made, even by the most concerned Israeli and U.S. strategists. Sanctions and covert action may succeed in setting back the clock, and Iran may yet find skillful ways of deflecting international action. The most likely scenario may still be that of a near nuclear or “nuclear ready” Iran, with the regime going right up to the threshold of nuclear breakout, forestalling an overt military response. But this is a dangerous game, and would depend on accurate intelligence, and a high degree of confidence in Western warning. What will Turkey do? Public opinion research suggests that Turks lag well behind Western partners in their judgments about the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat, and above all, the options for preventing Iranian proliferation.1 Ankara, too, has been relatively reserved in its approach to the Iranian nuclear issue; clearly opposed to the emergence of a nuclear Iran, but unenthusiastic about sanctions and hardly among the “hawks” on Iran policy among NATO allies. That said, Tehran’s increasingly strident, even threatening rhetoric on Turkey, is making many informed Turks think twice. The implications of Iranian nuclear (and ballistic missile) proliferation may seem very different against a backdrop of widespread instability and sharper geopolitical competition around the region. To be sure, Turkey is still unlikely to play an active role in a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, through overt base access and over-flight. But this could change, especially if Turkish-Iranian relations continue to deteriorate over Syria.
1 See Transatlantic Trends: Key Findings 2012, German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Compagnia di San Paolo.

The Assad regime is certainly capable of fomenting terrorism inside Turkey.

In the meantime, Ankara’s participation in NATO’s new theater missile defense architecture is looking like a more valuable hedge. The Eastern Mediterranean, Again A decade of Turkish activism in a relatively stable Middle East has been paralleled by an equally significant détente in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. As the curtain closes on the benign “commercial era” in Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighborhood, Ankara and its transatlantic partners may face another troubling scenario involving the fraying of Turkish-Greek détente, continued Turkish friction with Israel, and the return of security issues as a key component of the Cyprus problem. Against a backdrop of generally heightened tensions in the Levant, the re-emergence of the eastern Mediterranean as a maritime flashpoint would be a highly negative and transforming development, with wide strategic implications. To understand the potential significance of this transformation, it is worth recalling the extent to which tensions over the Aegean and Cyprus dominated transatlantic security debates over virtually the entire period from the 1950s through the late 1990s. Crisis management in the Eastern Mediterranean essentially drove the Turkey policies of successive U.S. administrations, and also played a role in the transatlantic calculus in the Balkans. Leaving aside the troubled state of Turkey’s EU candidacy, in all likelihood Turkey would not have become a candidate for membership in the first place if not for détente with Athens. Disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean have hardly been resolved, but the security dimension of these disputes has been progressively marginalized over the past 10 to 15 years. This transition from military confrontation to political argument — with a good deal of commercial activity in parallel — has been broadly beneficial for transatlantic interests, and has also positively affected the development of the Balkans and the Black Sea. Unfortunately, there is now a very real risk that Eastern Mediterranean détente will erode and be replaced by new forms of competition and new flashpoints for military conflict. Much has been said about the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, and the lasting legacy of the Mavi Marmara incident. Almost certainly, the conditions that encouraged the Turkish-Israeli strategic relationship in the late 1990s will not return. The domestic atmosphere on both sides is now very different, and the regional context is profoundly changed. Turkish-Israeli relations may well be brought back into a stable equilibrium, but the conditions for active strategic cooperation have probably disappeared. With Athens, the desire for a stable relationship remains — Turkey faces bigger challenges, and Greece is hardly in a position to engage in a costly military competition. But the emergence of a new geometry of economic, political, and security cooperation among Greece, Israel, and Cyprus — if durable — is certain to complicate relations with Turkey over the coming years. Energy geopolitics may now trump more traditional considerations in regional security dynamics.2 Large new oil and gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean are at the center of this development. There are many open questions about the distribution, future development, and control of these resources. But the broader issue of whether the development of these resources will emerge as a source of enhanced regional cooperation, or become a new source of contention in an already troubled area, is sure to be a key driver of the strategic environment in the Eastern Mediterranean over the next decade. The economic and security stakes are multi-national, trans-regional, and will affect the interests of Europe, the United States, and others. In short, crisis management and the reinforcement of multiple détentes in the Eastern Mediterranean are set to be increasingly central concerns for Turkey and transatlantic partners.

Energy geopolitics may now trump more traditional considerations in regional security dynamics.

2 See the recent series of reports from GMF’s ongoing Eastern Mediterranean energy project led by Sir Michael Leigh.


No Time for Unilateral Strategies Some years ago, Soli Ozel wrote a very perceptive piece exploring Turkey’s Middle Eastern strategy, entitled “Of Not Being a Lone Wolf.”3 The implication of the title is obvious, and the point may be even more relevant today — and equally applicable to Ankara’s transatlantic partners. The three scenarios discussed here are especially troubling precisely because they would have transforming and durable consequences for the security environment. Forestalling these developments, and hedging against the consequences if they occur, can hardly be contemplated in strictly national terms. Certainly, Turkey cannot manage the crisis in Syria, the prospect of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran, and broader issues of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean without the active cooperation of transatlantic allies. From a U.S. and European perspective, the prospects for successful management of these challenges will be much reduced in the absence of Turkish cooperation. In the Syrian case, Turkish cooperation is literally indispensable. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara is a leading actor and stakeholder. Even in the case of Iran, the United States and allies may be capable of acting without Turkish support, but Turkish support would make a difference (and Ankara will surely want a seat at the table, whatever the strategy). The sheer complexity of these security challenges, and the natural differences in perspective among powers whose interests range from the global to the local in varying measures, mean that Turkey, Europe, and the United States cannot be expected to agree in detail on strategy toward each of these flashpoints. But some priorities for cooperation with Ankara are clear. The short list should include a collaborative approach to securing the Turkish-Syrian border and reassurance that a serious Syrian threat to Turkey is treated as a NATO contingency; rapid development of the missile defense capability for both Iranian and Syrian contingencies; and a new emphasis on maritime security and confidence building in the Eastern Mediterranean. Beyond these immediate priorities, Turkey and its transatlantic partners face a harder debate about the political future of the Middle East writ large. Do Ankara, Brussels, and Washington want the same thing? Do they have
3 Soli Ozel, “Of Not Being a Lone Wolf: Geography, Domestic Plays and Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East,” in G. Kemp and J. Stein, eds., Powder Keg in the Middle East: The Struggle for Gulf Security (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).

the same views on what is possible, and what is to be done? These are difficult, open questions, to be sure, but increasingly pressing questions for Turkish-Western relations in the face of some highly disturbing scenarios.

About the Author
Dr. Ian O. Lesser is executive director of the Transatlantic Center, the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The opinions expressed here are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of GMF.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.


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