MIDDLE ISRAEL: Turkey's deepening entanglement in Middle East chaos

Regional events have conspired to leave Turkey with little choice but to pursue rapprochement with Israel.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘The Turks have no hours to mark the time, and no milestones to mark distances,” reported an amused Austrian ambassador from the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1554.
Today’s Turkey has plenty of clocks and milestones, but they indicate that the border is cracking and time is running out.
Never since the abolition of the caliphate 92 years ago next month has Turkey’s international situation been nearly as chaotic and explosive as it has become in recent weeks. This week, as if the conflicts with seven neighbors and one superpower were not enough, even the United Nations joined Ankara’s list of adversaries.
It is against this backdrop that Ankara’s rapprochement with Jerusalem is steadily heading toward an improbably happy end, even while the Islamist government’s grip on power remains ironclad.
Turkey has come a long way since the Mavi Marmara Affair in spring 2010, when nine Turkish nationals were killed in a clash with IDF naval commandos.
Back then, half-a-year before the outbreak of the Arab civil wars, Turkey was allied with Syria, building bridges to the rest of the Arab world, friendly with Iran, and harmonizing with all superpowers.
That was then. Now Bashar Assad is Turkey’s sworn enemy, relations with Russia, Israel, Egypt and the Vatican are ruined, the conflicts with Cyprus and Armenia remain intractable, and the peace Ankara began building with its Kurdish minority has given way to a new cycle of violence.
Worse, the latest developments in the Syrian battlefield are decidedly against Turkey, in the most profound strategic sense.
LESS THAN half-a-year since it was detected, the Russian aerial buildup in western Syria has matured, and is now spreading from Latakia to the opposite end of the Turkish-Syrian border, to Qamishli, near the Iraqi border.
The reported arrival this week in that town of Russian engineers assigned with expanding a local airstrip means that Turkey’s southeastern underbelly, already bubbling with restive Kurds and displaced Arabs, is now also laced with what it sees as imperialist Russians.
Worse, the Russian army’s four-month-old intervention is showing results, and experts now believe that after five years of retreats and defeats, the tide is turning in Assad’s favor. Aleppo, prewar Syria’s commercial heartbeat, this week came almost fully under siege, with local opposition militias showing signs of exhaustion and civilians fleeing in droves.
If Aleppo falls in their lap, Assad and his allies will have consolidated their grip over all of western Syria. Within that, Syria’s entire coastal strip will be a de facto Russian protectorate.
Already now there are sizable areas between Russia’s naval base in Tartus and its air base outside Latakia where ordinary Syrians cannot set foot. All this is happening on Turkey’s doorstep, a situation Ankara has not faced since the Cold War, when it bordered on the Soviet Union where it now borders Armenia and Georgia.
Worse, Syria is casting an Iranian shadow, as Ankara finds Tehran on the winning side of the war, in which Turkey is on the losing side.
And worst of all, the intensified fighting around Aleppo is sending new waves of refugees to the Turkish border. Now, with a siege psychosis sweeping northwestern Syria, Turkey took the drastic measure of building tent cities on the Syrian side of the border, effectively occupying Syrian land.
This is what the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees William Spindler this week decried, making Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sound like an Israeli diplomat when he called the UN “two-faced” for failing to condemn Russia’s bombardments of civilians, while ignoring Turkey’s admission of 2.6 million refugees, in Davutoglu’s count.
The Russians, meanwhile, seem to be teasing Turkey as a matter of policy, following the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter bomber 10 weeks ago.
After having imposed trade sanctions on Turkey, Moscow this week loudly disparaged the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Syria, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed Turkey was making such preparations, and called those plans “crazy.” That statement, and his assessment that Ankara’s American ally will “not allow it” to invade Syria, were his boss Vladimir Putin’s way of challenging President Recep Erdogan to a duel.
Turkey responded by rattling its own saber, as Davutoglu warned Russia this week that it will leave Syria as defeated as the USSR left Afghanistan.
Turkey, in sum, is seeing its neo-Ottoman quest to build bridges across the Middle East unravel: In Syria, its archenemy is prevailing; on its southern border, a hostile superpower is sinking roots; north of there, Turkey is challenged by massive refugee pressure; north of there, it is fighting a Kurdish insurgency; and south of all this, it is at loggerheads with Egypt’s powerful President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, openly siding with his Islamist archenemies.
On top of all this, Turkey feels that Washington has abandoned it to Russia’s devices, and also failed to back it in its war with the Kurds.
Accusing America’s passivity as the cause of regional bloodshed, Erdogan this week asked: “What kind of a relationship is this?” Turkish foreign affairs, in short, are one big mess, and Ankara is scrambling to trim the broad front along which its multiple crises sprawl. The most convenient place to start this process is Israel.
OF ALL the rifts in which Turkey is embroiled, the least natural is the one with the Jewish state.
Turkey’s tensions with Russia follow centuries of imperial wars between the two, its conflict with Cyprus and Greece is underpinned by bloody wars before, during, and after the Ottoman downfall, Arab hostility follows 400 years of Turkish subjugation, and tensions with Iran are fueled by a historic antagonism underpinned by religious rivalry.
There is no equivalent to any of this in Turkish-Israeli relations.
Moreover, Erdogan’s hope to impress the Arab world with anti-Israeli broadsides never delivered the intended results. At the same time, Israel can deliver to Turkey the gas it currently buys in Moscow, a strategic supplier Ankara no longer trusts.
Turkey followed closely last week’s unprecedented summit in Nicosia between the leaders of Israel, Cyprus and Greece. The agreement there to jointly exploit Mediterranean gas constituted yet another setback for Turkish diplomacy, which now saw its victims fall in each other’s arms.
That is why a cool calculation of Ankara’s regional situation begs mending fences with Israel.
Compared with what it faces elsewhere, a rapprochement with Jerusalem is cheap. The two countries share no border and Israel has no dog in the fights on both sides of Turkey’s borders.
This week signs have grown that Ankara has already taken the decision to reconcile with Jerusalem, as Erdogan hosted a 20-person delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s confidant Malcolm Hoenlein.
Normalization talks between the two states have been held for nearly half a decade, when the contours of a deal boiled down to payments for the families of the flotilla incident’s fatalities, which Israel has agreed to make; an apology, which Israel has already made; lifting of charges against IDF officers in Turkish courts; restoration of full diplomatic ties; and some kind of change in Gaza, where Turkey wants to play savior.
That was before Turkey found itself boxing with Russia, fending off refugees and thirsting for gas.
Now Israel is in a position to make new demands, like Hamas’s eviction from Turkey and the return from Gaza of fallen soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul’s remains, before striking the deal that will lead pipelines from Israel’s Mediterranean gas fields into Asia Minor.
Talks between Turkish and Israeli representatives were reportedly held this week in Geneva, and diplomats are confident a deal is imminent.
The best indication of this was Erdogan’s recent pronouncement that “normalizing ties with Israel will benefit the entire region.”
The worst, then, is already behind the Turkish-Israeli relationship.
Back in summer 2010, with Turkey, Egypt and Iran led by Erdogan, Mohamed Morsi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel faced simultaneously, for the first time since its establishment, hostile governments in Ankara, Cairo and Tehran.
Now the isolated country is Turkey, which is up to its neck in the region’s multiple conflicts. Israel, at the same time, is emerging as an island of neutrality in a Mideast that is bending under the weight of tribal, ethnic and religious wars while craving politically impartial trade.
Curiously, Turkish-Israeli bilateral trade remained brisk even while diplomatic relations soured. Lost were only the military dimension and tourism. The former is not expected to be restored anytime soon, but Israeli tourists will soon be returning to Turkey, and in due course a pipeline transporting Israeli gas will stretch under their flight routes. The Turkish effort to domineer Israel, the pipeline will attest, has failed.