Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East with a focus on: the Syrian revolution and the international and regional conflict associated with it; The role of Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey in the Middle East; the consequences of US, EU and Russia engagement in the region; Jihad and jihadist organizations and Greek-Turkish relations. Koulouriotis held several positions at the European Union of Women (EUW), was Vice-President of the Greek Section from its inception and was most recently appointed interim president of the newly established Culture Commission of the International EUW Council. Before that, she worked for various public and private organizations in several countries with a focus on business organization, development and strategic planning. From a young age she worked for the political party New Democracy in Greece. Koulouriotis has contributed to a range of Greek and international media outlets including Al-Quds Al-Arabi, the New Arab, Al-Sharq Qatar, Annahar, Orient News, Arab News, Huffington Post Greece, the Greek weekly Paraskinio and RT. She is the founder of the Athena Forum for Peace and Security, an international think tank for politics, and the cultural movement “Ginomai Politis” (becoming a citizen). Eva can be found on Twitter @evacool_.
Where do you see the most exciting research / debate in your field?
The Middle East in general is the main part of my study, but the Syrian crisis is of particular interest because to understand it one must also understand the international balance of power. And not only that. If you study Syria, you have to study jihadist groups, which interests me very much. You need to study the international powers, including the differences that appear in them (e.g., between the Obama and Trump times) and between them (like between Russia and the United States) and how they address problems in Syria react. You can also see how the countries of the Middle East interact with each other, for example relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been poor and then improved, how this affects the Syria conflict and how this is noticeable on the ground. As a result, the Syrian crisis is like a mirror of larger international geopolitical problems. That’s why I’m watching it closely.
How has the way you understand the world changed over time and what (or who) has triggered the most important changes in your thinking?
I’ve been involved in politics since I was a child. My family, especially my father, was actively involved and had deep political thinking and historical knowledge, which he instilled in me by regularly providing me with history books. I worked abroad for a long time, so I had the opportunity to get in touch with many peoples and cultures. At first, because of my involvement in the New Democracy Party, I focused on European issues. However, when I was in Ukraine and then Kosovo as head of missions of Greek Doctors of the World, my interest in international affairs grew. Then, during and after the 2003 Iraq War, I turned to the Middle East and began to study it more closely because I realized that I needed to pay more attention to that region to understand the bigger picture. But it wasn’t easy. It took me a long time to travel, talk to, read, monitor and research before I felt mature enough to speak and analyze what was happening in the Middle East. I didn’t want to rush without having a deep and integrated knowledge of the subjects.
Turkey’s foreign policy and its role in the Middle East and throughout the region have been key topics of your research and writing. Can you identify certain factors that led to your interest in this topic? What are some of the main challenges you have faced, especially in terms of understanding “Of The Field”?
As a Greek, all my life I have known the tension between Greece and Turkey, which is a reality. Second, the first thing we learn in school, along with the alphabet, is that there is a problem with Turkey. The same thing happens in higher education, in the army, in politics, and in our daily lives. However, I was fortunate to have two well-educated and cultured parents who helped me deal with things completely different from childhood. Despite the fact that my maternal grandfather was born in Istanbul and fled to Greece, he never instilled hatred of Turkey on his children, and consequently on me. Instead, my family tried to understand Turkey from a different, more objective perspective.
Greco-Turkish relations in general were tense, with their ups and downs. But if I want to be a political analyst who understands what is happening in Tora Bora in Afghanistan or in the ideological conflict between different Islamic organizations, I also need to be able to understand what is happening between Greece and Turkey on and under the table or behind closed doors no matter how complicated. It is for this reason that I have looked for serious and mature answers to the Greek-Turkish relations, spoken to Turks and Greeks who come from or live in Turkey and, I think, slowly found an objective approach. Obviously, objectivity is not always good in this case, because if you are talking about Turkey in a purely analytical and not emotional way, the Greeks will consider you a traitor and you will not love your country. This is especially the case when, as I often do, you criticize the Greek Government for its foreign policy and point out its mistakes. This is the biggest challenge for me, but I think I have reached a sufficient level of maturity in analysis that I completely eliminate personal emotions when I talk about geopolitics.
In regional conflicts from Syria to Libya, Turkey and Russia have supported opposing factions. Still, there are an increasing number of areas that these two countries are in cooperate and the perception that Turkey is getting closer to Russia at the expense of the West. How would you describe the current state of relations between Turkey and Russia and what are they like? Contradictions best understood?
I’m used to saying that in politics there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just common or conflicting interests that change from one moment to the next. There have been numerous wars between Russia and Turkey throughout history. But when countries get to the point where they understand the reality very well, they separate economic issues from politics. This happened between Russia and Turkey when Erdogan came to power and trade relations between the two countries developed significantly. This does not mean that since Turkey is a member of NATO, they are not enemies and that they disagree on various issues. But they can also agree, as was the case in the Iraq war, where both Russia and Turkey opposed the US invasion because both had interests there, or US sanctions against Iran, with which both have important trade ties .
However, when the revolution against the Assad regime broke out in Syria, things changed given Turkey’s geopolitical position and the fact that Syria became Russia’s last foothold in the Mediterranean after the fall of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and Egypt’s rapprochement with the United States was. Russia’s need for Syria and Obama’s vague strategy for the crisis that has broken out gave Moscow the green light to intervene. On the other hand, Turkey’s long border with Syria was enough to put it in the middle of the fire. First, Erdogan tried to contact Assad to change his mind. Their economic ties were particularly good, especially from 2007 to 2011, and citizens of both countries were able to switch between them without even needing a passport. When the revolution in Egypt was successful, Turkey considered it certain that the same would happen in Syria and decided that it had to choose the “right side” – the opposition. Despite the different attitudes of Russia and Turkey in the Syrian crisis, business continued as usual.
The turning point came when a Russian military plane was shot down by Turkey in 2015. The unsupportive stance of the Turkish allies in this crisis caused damage and changed Turkey’s view of both NATO countries and Russia. Then came the failed coup in 2016, which Turkey accused its allies of despite not calling it, which marked a significant change in Turkey’s relations with Russia and the West. Turkey began to lean more towards Russia politically. Erdogan’s first visit abroad after the failed coup was in Moscow. Then Putin visited Istanbul and, as part of his understanding, supported Russia with his air force for the Turkish Operation Euphrates Shield by bombing ISIS in front of Turkish troops. Then began the circle of Astana talks on the Syrian crisis, in which the two countries had the upper hand over Iran until they reached the current level of cooperation in northern Syria.
Erdogan has managed to convey the following message since 2016: “If Russia or the West want me on their side, they should satisfy me”. Neither side wants to lose Turkey. It’s a risky strategy, but so far it has worked very well. He has very good relations with Russia and Putin does not see him as an enemy of NATO. We saw in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan the mutual respect that exists between the two leaders. At the same time, Erdogan creates a feeling in the West that if they put a lot of pressure on him, he will turn even more to Moscow, so they have to be careful how they treat him. Hence the recent superficial sanctions in response to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. In my opinion, where Turkey will be in the long term depends on the next four years of a Biden presidency. That is, whether it will bring it closer to the west or push it further east.
During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it was reported that Turkey provided extensive support to Azerbaijan, including the deployment of Turks Fighters from Syria. What are Turkey’s main interests in the region and does Turkish engagement fit into a broader pattern of interventionism in other regions?
It is a fact that Turkey intervened not only by sending Syrian opposition forces, but also Turkish special forces and Turkish-made weapons, which were instrumental in Azerbaijan’s victory. It is certain that this is part of Turkey’s larger plan and that the Nagorno-Karabakh intervention cannot be separated from it. This plan began after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, which aimed to make Turkey a strong country by taking advantage of its geopolitical position and dynamism. After the country stabilized economically, it took advantage of these advantages by intervening and trying to exert its influence outside of its borders, as other powerful countries around the world are doing. In this context, Turkey got involved in Syria, northern Iraq, Libya and most recently in Nagorno-Karabakh. There is also a Turkish military presence in Qatar and Somalia, a country of great strategic importance, where the Somali army is being trained.
There is a huge amount of propaganda that speaks of “neo-Ottomanism”, attempts to revive the Ottoman Empire and cause conflict in different countries. Indeed, Turkey’s presence outside its borders has nothing to do with religious or nationalist motives. It is simply a country whose government is trying to find the best ways to advance its interests. It took the opportunity to interfere in the Libya conflict, as Libya is a very important country due to its strategic position and energy generation resources. Turkey was given the go-ahead to intervene in Libya from the United States, as it did in Syria, where Turkey has had and continues to have European and American support to maintain its presence in Idlib and northern Syria.
In Azerbaijan, Turkey’s interests obviously differ from those in other regions. Each region has its own characteristics. In northern Syria, Turkey is trying to prevent terrorist attacks in connection with the presence of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and to stand at the negotiating table for a political solution to the Syrian crisis. In northern Iraq she wants to deter the PKK again and also to participate in the oil companies operating there. For Turkey, Libya is the entry point into the African continent and an opportunity to generate energy. Finally, Turkey recently signed an agreement with Azerbaijan for the construction of houses in Nagorno-Karabakh by a Turkish company worth US $ 5 billion. Bilateral relations are very warm as Azerbaijan realizes that Turkey was the country that contributed most to its victory against Armenia. My sources have informed me that there will be more agreements in the future, for example on the construction of a gas pipeline to the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Turkey, and it goes without saying that the price of Azerbaijani gas will be much more advantageous for us it. Another important benefit that Turkey is securing with this victory is the way that countries in the region that have a common origin perceive Turkey as a trusted friend and protector. This will translate into economic returns, as we saw from Uzbekistan’s decision to stop buying Chinese drones and buy Turkish drones instead.
In summary, each country must represent its own interests. Some countries have governments that know how to take the right steps at the right time and place, while others don’t. This is what Turkey does, with the best of luck, of course, and for the best results. However, this does not mean that Turkey has expansionist aspirations. The affixing of such labels is a feature of media propaganda. According to this logic, we should call Macron the new Napoleon because of the enormous French presence in Central Africa, and Russia because of its influence in the countries of the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa the new Soviet Union. Everything is related to the prism through which we see it. For the Syrian opposition, for example, Turkey’s participation was beneficial. For me as a political analyst, Turkey is a country that is looking for new markets for its products, new sources of energy, and economic and political empowerment, which is good for its people. Some other countries will suffer, but that is the nature of geopolitics.
In recent months, tensions between Turkey and other NATO alliance countries, particularly Greece and France, have increased. How do you expect Turkey’s role within NATO to evolve in the future?
Given the context, it is certain that we have entered a new era in which the position of the United States is no longer what it was in the late 1990s, largely due to the rise of China’s economy. Recent cyberattacks show it is vulnerable, and the pandemic has made that weakness more apparent. After the Cold War ended, the United States was a superpower without NATO, so the Allies followed suit. But now he realizes that he needs to get closer to his allies again to stay strong. Now more than ever it has to be a member of NATO. We will see this during the Biden administration. He will try to close the rifts Trump created, especially with his European allies, mainly France and Germany.
In this context, the US will try to keep Turkey, which owns NATO’s second largest army, as part of the NATO alliance. As mentioned above, Turkey has clearly turned to China and Russia on various issues for a variety of reasons, such as the Turkish Stream pipeline, the Syrian crisis and Libya, where communication with Moscow is close. Moreover, the tensions in the Mediterranean and the rift that Greece is creating in Europe with its “either with me or against me” stance are not as bad for Turkey as they are for the West. If Turkey chooses the other side, it will open up a huge market in China and Central Asia, while in a possible currency war it could trade the national currencies, the Turkish lira and the yuan. So it is not Turkey that needs the West as much as the West needs Turkey.
Nevertheless, Turkey remains close to the west. Erdogan does not want to leave the West, which is why he suddenly raised the question of EU membership. He believes that the west is preferable to the east. But the recent tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the attitude of France, which I believe is behind those tensions, are undermining the cohesion between the EU and NATO. In recent articles I explain Macron’s role and how he uses Greece for this purpose. This is mainly because Turkey is involved in African countries such as Libya, Mali, Chad and Niger, which France wants to keep to itself, but also because Macron has to lead personally. The US will not be happy when two alliance members meet. If it takes the side of Greece, a western country that poses the “either me or Turkey” dilemma, Turkey will turn east.
These case studies are useful to highlight the following point. As long as there is a controversial plan from Paris, backed by a number of UAE-led countries and using Greece as a front against Turkey, there will be tensions that are bad for both Greece and Turkey, even if they are France are good. France is selling planes to Greece, sales that obviously would not take place in other circumstances, and France is using this as a negotiating basis for Libya.
Whether Turkey’s international presence and tensions with Greece will affect their role in NATO’s future is clearly in the hands of the Americans. If Biden follows in Obama’s footsteps and Turkey pushes into the arms of Russia, the gap with NATO could widen. If Biden is more rational – and I think he will be mainly because of his close co-workers, who understand that the US needs Turkey to face Russia, which he sees as the number one enemy – then the problems will be solved . An agreement will be reached that America’s concerns about Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system will be allayed and tensions will be eased. Biden can also ease Greek-Turkish tensions. France will withdraw from the US.
You have argued that there will be a cautious calm in the eastern Mediterranean following Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. What have been the main sources of current tension in the Eastern Mediterranean and what role, if any, should the US play as a mediator?
Indeed, the eastern Mediterranean is quiet that began before the US elections. Both sides understand that America’s future is important to the future of the region. Until Biden clarifies his foreign policy, the situation will stagnate. That’s why the EU won’t impose stricter sanctions on Turkey until March 2021 as it wants to see how Biden will move first. Whether Biden takes a hard line or the opposite, the EU will follow suit. It is certain that France will put a lot of pressure on Biden to draw a tough line, but the White House has the upper hand. As I said above, despite Obama’s role in a number of crises, Biden will be reasonable in dealing with Turkey and disappoint those who expect the opposite.
In addition to your work as a political analyst, you have worked intensively with the European Union of Women. How does the organization work towards its goal of strengthening peace “on the basis of justice and free cooperation between peoples”? What challenges do you face in your work with the Culture Commission?
As a member of the New Democracy Party, I started working in the party’s international relations department at an early age. In this context I was committed to the European Union of Women. The EUW is a Europe-wide organization with 17 member countries and was founded in 1953 before the Treaty of Rome in 1957. It was founded by European women who work for peace, justice and cooperation between European countries, which they believed possible only achieved by increasing the influence of women. In order to achieve these goals, working commissions have been set up to deal with different issues in different policy areas. It has an advisory role for the Council of Europe and a special advisory role for the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC). Through the work of the commissions, the organization also contributes to the work of the European Parliament through the Women’s Department of the European People’s Party (EPPW) and the national parliamentarians. One of the working commissions is the newly formed Cultural Committee, the chair of which I have appointed the International Council to chair until the next elections.
Culture is a very broad and multifaceted concept. It is particularly interesting that in all European languages the word “culture” (cultivation) is used in place of the word civilization, which expresses a broader social concept. In the Greek language we use the same word for both concepts: “civilization” (Politism). And that’s because in ancient Greece the citizen (politis) was the center of society: “City” (polis) – “civilian” (politis) – “civilization” (Politism). I become a citizen, that is, a unit integrated into the city (Polis) so that I derive the rights from democracy. Politismos (Culture) implies refined morality, spiritual development, high-level behavior between people, and aesthetic expression developed without nihilism. Culture is everything we are: politics, social behavior, food, language, family and friendship, business ethics, religion, clothing, music, literature, cinema, design and architecture.
The task of the Culture Commission is to promote the concept of culture and to take into account the preservation of cultural heritage, cultural exchange and artistic creation in the countries of the European Union and beyond. There is concern about whether women have access to, participate in, and contribute to all aspects of life. This includes our right to actively participate in the identification and interpretation of cultural heritage. Decide which cultural traditions, values or practices to maintain, realign, modify or discard; Promotion of intercultural dialogue, mutual respect and recognition of differences and common values, as well as definition and implementation of proposals to promote the integration of the cultural dimension of EEA members.
What is the most important advice you can give to international relations scholars?
First, if you want to analyze international politics, you have to be able to separate yourself from your emotions as an individual and as a citizen of a particular country. For example, a Palestinian who has seen the loss of a family member due to Israeli actions is likely to hate Israel and vice versa. When analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they will not be able to be impartial.
Second, the biggest mistake Western analysts make is to talk about a region that is completely unknown in terms of culture, traditions, customs and mentality. Therefore, anyone dealing with different countries should be well aware of the traditions of these societies, their religions, and the way they think and live. They should chat and socialize with the people in the area and finally read their story without awakening their feelings about peoples and religions. You should face the problems without prejudice, dogmatism, political beliefs, or personal preference. If this succeeds, after speaking to many people and reading their history in detail, they can try to study the politics of the region. One has to have the ability to perceive the reality there precisely so that they can carry out correct analyzes and lead to the correct conclusions and not spread errors.
Objectivity, impartiality, absence of emotion, and serenity are the hallmarks of a good analyst. Let us build a generation of self-respecting scholars for international relations who will not be the obedient tools of their employers. Only in this case will they not be able to change their stance if the media they work with changes their position on a country. That way, they maintain their self-esteem, gain the respect of others, and have a clear conscience that they haven’t lied to anyone.
Further reading on E-International Relations