Posted by: sean | October 26, 2009

Turkey and Israel and Syria

assad and erdoganMy friend Elias highlights a post over at Syria Comment on Syria’s “four seas strategy,” which has Syria at the center of an alliance with Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Presumably, one of the aims of this strategy would be to further isolate Israel in the region.

Now, I don’t know if I buy this strategy, as I don’t really see the strategic connection between such a hodgepodge of countries, except of course, that Syria is kind of roughly at the center of the bunch. But what the idea does underline is the souring of relations between Turkey and Israel, while the former gets cozier and cozier with Syria.

This ranges from the Turkish cancellation of NATO exercises in which Israel was to play a role and Erdogan’s outspoken criticism of the war in Gaza to the  lifting of visa requirements between Syria and Turkey and the announcement of future joint military exercises.

So what’s going on here? While it’s clear why Damascus would like to strengthen ties with Ankara, it’s not evident what Turkey has to gain in the exchange. Theories that I’ve heard range from the revival of Turkish influence in a neo-Ottoman alliance to a general souring of relations with the west because of European resistance to Turkey’s entry into the EU. Some others claim, often breathlessly, that this is a logical consequence of Ankara being ruled by an ostensibly Islamist government.

None of these ideas is particularly convincing to me on its own. It is likely a combination of several things. First of all, Turkey might be hedging its bets in case its bid for EU membership never comes through, and domestically speaking, Erdogan has nothing to lose and everything to gain by criticizing the war in Gaza and putting some distance between Israel and Turkey. Furthermore, in general, Israel needs Turkey more than the other way around. While Ankara does buy weapons from the Israelis,  as a NATO member state, Turkey is never in danger of a dearth of weaponry. Also, Israel has been weakened from an international standpoint by its conduct in Gaza and Lebanon, so pushing on the Jewish state is really a zero-cost course of action. Erdogan is able to shore up support at home and in the region at large without really risking much.

The increasingly cordial relations with Syria (and to a lesser extent Iran), I think, follow roughly the same logic. With both Damascus and Tehran leaning toward the possibility of improved relations with the US and consequently the rest of the West, Ankara doesn’t really risk much by improving relations with them, especially if the Turks keep a low, neutral profile when it comes to things like the Iranian nuclear program and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Furthermore, by having friendly relations with Syria and Iran, Turkey can do its best to preemptively head off any Kurdish plans for independence, since all three countries share a desire to not have their Kurdish minorities lured to an independent Kurdistan, broken away from Iraq. So as long as Washington and Brussels continue to flirt with Damascus, Ankara doesn’t really risk upsetting anyone except the Israelis. And like I’ve said, the Israelis aren’t really in a position these days to dictate terms to one of the only Muslim countries that even recognizes them. So the Turks can strengthen their role in the region while getting in on the financial opening of Syria with little to no cost to relations with the West: again, win-win for Ankara.

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