August 24, 2011 Leave a comment
There are a few major events happening in the Middle East, which are to shape the region politically and economically for the foreseeable future. The first event is the revolution in Egypt, which despite the removal and humiliation of Mubarak has not been completely put out. The second event is the revolution in Libya, which is currently unfolding as rebels assisted by the ally forces are drawing closer to toppling Gaddafi. The third and perhaps most interesting development is the Turkey – Syria relationship, in light of the violent depression of the Syrian revolution.
The mainstream media has, as usual, focused on the death toll and key developments in the conflict as they unfold. However there is a much more interesting story behind the developments, which has a more serious impact on the West and was started in 2009.
Following ‘Cast Lead’ operation in Gaza at the end of December 2008, Turkey’s government expressed its indignation at the operation and their dismay at the stealth move by Israel, while they were mediating the negotiations between Israel and Syria. One of the most famous public displays was Erdogan storming off the stage in a conference in Davos after accusing Israeli President Shimon Peres of killing civilians.
The Davos display was followed by a few more public criticism of Israel, however at the time, many interpreters explained the situation as the AKPs winning strategy for the elections as well as an attempt to establish their status as political leaders in the region, especially after getting nowhere with their application to join the EU. Israel, which still has diplomatic ties with Turkey, saw this as a hurdle in the relationship, partly due to Erdogan’s Islamic nature and partly due to a power game between Turkey, the EU and the US, however other signals such as the fact that Turkey did not withdraw their ambassador to Israel or demand that Israel do the same, gave Israel assurance that things are still at hand.
The biggest turning point in the equation wasn’t when Turkey cancelled the regular military drill it holds with Israel, rather, when they decided to hold the drill with Syria. Israel could not ignore this move, as Turkey has been a partner in economic trade but more important a recipient of advanced Israeli military capabilities. Israel was involved in updating the Turkish air fleet as well as providing them with advance tank arming technologies, rockets and surveillance equipment. Transferring these capabilities to countries Israel is in conflict with, would put Israel in a great disadvantage and Israel couldn’t ignore this risk and the impact in its potential future conflicts.
In 2010 by the time the first flotilla incident happened, in which a group of ships sailed to Israel from Turkey with the blessing of the Turkish government to break the naval blockade on Gaza, it was obvious that the relationship between the two countries was in fast decline and was not about to improve. One of the ships in the flotilla was the Mavi Marmara, which later proved to contain a group of men prepared for violence, ending in the death of 9 Turkish citizens as a result of resistance to the Israeli commando takeover.
Turkey’s change in foreign policy broke two unofficial core rules. The first rule is the move away from the West, despite being mainly Muslim Turkey has always managed to stay secular and West-facing . The second rule was to openly criticize Israel over the treatment of the Palestinian, indirectly opening the door to criticism about its own treatment of ethnic groups such as the Kurds. Considering the two norms in place and their repercussions on Turkey, it is reasonable to believe that this shift in behaviour is not a reflection of one man ideals or a different management style, rather a government’s new foreign policy strategy.
Part of the new foreign policy was also to take a more lenient line towards Iran and establish closer ties to Syria. So far the latter part has already blown up in Turkey’s face, as Syria was also infected by the Arab Spring and the only way Asad could protect his throne is by violently killing the demonstrators in the hope that the rebel leaders would be removed from the equation and the rest would prefer not to risk their lives. Under the bloody circumstances, Turkey could not be seen to support the killing of so many civilians (over 1500 civilians have already been killed a number that far exceeds for example the number of civilians killed in the 3 weeks Gaza war). Nor does Turkey see kindly the thousands of Syrians fleeing into its borders, which is causing a humanitarian crisis or even worse inflaming Turkey’s own ethnic groups seeking a change of government. There have also been reports about Turkey making it very clear to Asad that cross-border operations, targeting the opposition forming on the Turkish side, would not be tolerated and could prompt military retaliation. The worst part, however, has been the Turkish realization that they still have limited influence in the region and with the EU sanctions on Syria, they may need to change their economic strategy.
The other part of the changed foreign policy was the leniency towards Iran, this has already damaged the Turkish American relationship, however, not enough to have a major impact yet. Turkey should not ignore this development though, as all the intelligence reports are indicating that Iran is using the turmoil in the Middle East to quietly get on with their nuclear plan, hence the increased rate of dead nuclear scientists bodies turning up in the Iranian morgue. Apparently Iran is not far from making the nuclear breakthrough (increasing the uranium enhancing rate, essentially creating enough raw material for a nuclear bomb). There is no doubt that if Iran achieves its purpose, this development would become common knowledge shortly after and cause a complete shift of power and alliance in the region and possibly the world.
Turkey’s government has been playing a very dangerous game, turning its back on old friends and agreements and seeking new ones, which do not have the best reputation. One gamble has already proved wrong and another doesn’t look too promising either. The question is whether the government would be able to find ways to sustain the economic growth, which would secure it another win and prevent a coup. No doubt the Turkish government should be following every toppled regime in the Middle East and recalculating their strategy accordingly.