Friday, May 31, 2013

Turkey, Israel, and Syria: Why Things are Going Wrong

By Barry Rubin

I was interviewed by Radikal, possibly the best Turkish newspaper today.
  • What is your assessment of the current state of relations between Turkey and Israel?
Relations will remain bad because Prime Minister Erdogan wants it to be that way. No matter what Israel does—as we have just seen—he will find excuses to do so.
  • Are relations as tense as they seem or both parties play the tough guy before the cameras whereas they enjoy better relations behind the scenes?
Relations are as tense as they seem because Israel DID compromise before the cameras and Erdogan—for domestic reasons—is still playing tough guy both in public and behind the scenes.
  • --Have you followed Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent visit to the US? Does it seem to you that Erdogan has been convinced by President Obama and will adopt a more multilateralist and moderate stance on Syria?
 I’m not sure what this question means. If Obama becomes more multilateralist that means he will go to the UN and Russia will veto any action. So being more multilateralist  means nothing will happen and that’s not what Erdogan wants.

As for “moderate” what does that mean? Does Erdogan want to give less aid and support to the rebels? I don’t think so.
  • While Turkish officials were having talks with their American counterparts, the CIA Chief John Brennan has visited Israel. Is there any connection between these two visits? Could we say that Turkey, Israel and the US have already or may in the near future start coordinating their efforts towards Syria?
They have already been coordinating their efforts but because of Israeli interests in not taking either side in the civil war that doesn’t mean a huge amount. The coordination has been mainly over sharing assessments and Israeli attacks to ensure that the Syrian regime’s advanced weapons do not get sent to Hizballah in Lebanon.
  • What is the current Israeli policy on Syria?
Neutrality. Defending itself against the transfer to Lebanon of advanced arms by the Syrian government. Israel will 100 percent definitely not get involved in the war on either side.
  • Do the developments in Syria bring Turkey and Israel closer or take them further apart?
Israel and Turkey share a common interest in that they do not want al-Qaida to take over Syria. It is not clear whether they agree on the radical Salafists not taking power. They both do not want to see a wider area destabilized. But Erdogan wants the Muslim Brotherhood to win and perhaps doesn’t care about the Salafists winning also. Israel simply doesn’t want to be attacked from Syria by the regime or the rebels. The answer is it should bring them closer together but Erdogan doesn’t want that and has announced he won’t even consult with Israel on Syria. As far as I can see that statement is true.

 Turkey, though, is in great danger for not only is it involved in a proxy war with Iran, which supports the regime, but also now with Russia which is escalating its support for the regime. The Turkish government’s “no enemies” policy is clearly gone since it has now made three major enemies by its own choice: Iran, Israel, and Russia, to which could be added Hizballah, a group that Erdogan courted.

But there is more than that regarding the problems for Turkey. What few people recognize is that the “Arab Spring” means the end of the regime’s regional ambitions. Whatever people think within Turkey the Sunni Islamists, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, don’t want Turkish influence because Turks are not Arabs. In addition they think they don’t need Turkey anymore. True, Erdogan became briefly popular in the Arab world when they didn’t have anyone else to turn to but now they have their own new revolutions.  Do you really think that a radical Islamist government in Syria will be friendly toward Turkey? And now, remarkably, the Turkish government has helped install a PKK regime on its border in northeastern Syria!
This policy is not working very well.
  • Do you think Israel and Turkey may have started coordinating their efforts on Syria?
Definitely not.
  • If Israel suspects that Hezbollah received advanced weapons from Syria, will it intervene into Lebanon again?
 Definitely yes.
  • Is there any solution to the Syrian quagmire in the near future?
 No. There is no real diplomatic solution. People can hold conferences and give speeches but the only way this will be settled is by one side’s victory over the other and that is not likely to happen in less than two years and perhaps not even then.
  • Is it coincidence that the Israeli air attacks on Syria and the Israeli apology to Turkey have overlapped during the first half of this year?
 Yes it is a coincidence.
  • Why do you think Israel apologized from Turkey?
 Because President Obama asked it to do so; because Israel’s action was what the Turkish government had been offered by it for two years, because Israel wants good relations with Turkey. And finally because Israel didn't apologize--despite the media spin--but expressed regrtet and made a deal on the basis of the same terms it had been offering the Turkish government for about two years.
  • Do the Israeli decision-makers trust Erdogan and Davutoglu?
 No, especially now after the rejection of attempted conciliation.
  • There were reports in the Turkish media some time ago that Israeli intelligence officials were uneasy with the appointment of Hakan Fidan to the post of the head of Turkish intelligence agency, MIT, as they feared that Fidan may be too close to some anti-Israeli players in the region. Is there any truth in these speculations?
What’s important is Turkish government policy, not personnel. With the current government in Ankara’s policy, it doesn’t matter who the officials are.
  • What does the Israeli government think about Erdogan’s visit to Palestine?
Actually, remember this. If Erdogan was going to the West Bank to visit the Palestinian Authority nobody would be annoyed. Israel would probably be pleased. But he has never supported the Palestinian Authority because he has backed Islamist Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is as angry as Israel is and has said so publicly. Instead of backing Palestine, Erdogan is helping a rebel area which openly seeks genocide against Jews and the destruction of Israel, a group that has also killed members of the ruling group in the Palestinian Authority, Fatah.
  • Does Israel want Turkey to reconcile Hamas and El Fatah?
I don’t think that’s what he is doing. He is supporting Hamas against Fatah and everyone in Fatah knows it.
  • Last week Sunday Times published some remarks of an unnamed Israeli official who said that Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were forming a Sunni block in the Middle East and Israel would actually like to be a part of this partnership. What do think about such scenarios?
Never believe anything that appears in the Sunday Times. I’m not joking as it has a record of making stuff up and all their `scoops' never materialize. Obviously, Israel will not be part of this partnership. Inasmuch as Israel views Iran as its main enemy, defeats for Iran by a Sunni bloc are viewed as positive. But Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are not delivering a moderate government in Syria but a revolutionary Islamist one. They may all mourn the day they made that error. They could have supported more moderate forces, got rid of Bashar al-Assad, and enjoyed far more Western help in doing so.
  • Put simply, who are the friends of Israel in the region and who are the foes?
Israel would like to have Turkey as a friend, as happened for many years. The foes are Iran, the current Lebanese government (led by Syrian puppets and Hizballah) and the current Syrian government, as well as Hamas. The potential foes are the Muslim Brotherhood regimes—Egypt, Tunisia, and a rebel-ruled Syria. The rest are neither. Even Egypt has been cautious in practice despite its harsh rhetoric. Any Arab factor that wants to can become a neutral party simply by not attacking Israel.
  • What are the chances for Israel to strike Iran in the near future? If Israel activates such a scenario what role would it expect Turkey to play?
 No and no.
  • Do you think there will be any changes after the elections in Iran?
 No because even if the rhetoric is cooler the regime will be controlled by the same faction, that of Supreme Guide Khamenei, and it will continue efforts to achieve nuclear weapons.
  • When government officials talk about the present process with the PKK, they keep emphasizing that if Turkey reconciles with her Kurds she will become greater. Some suspect that these statements refer to quasi-irredentist motivations. How do you read such statements?
I understand that this is a difficult issue to solve and it is an internal Turkish matter.
  • --Would Israel support the creation of an independent Kurdistan? There are many conspiracy theories in Turkey around this question. Many people believe that Israel would support such a Kurdish state as it would be yet another actor against Iran.
Well, it isn’t true. I don’t think even the Kurds aim at an independent Kurdistan. In Iraq and Syria they have the benefits of independence without stirring massive Turkish and Iranian opposition. Turkey is getting along well with the Iraqi Kurds. Why should the Kurds take such a tremendous risk? I think they understand the situation. I know there are many conspiracy theories but they aren’t true. Remember this: In a previous term of office, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared the PKK a terrorist group at Turkey’s request! This involved a real risk of Israel—that the PKK might launch terrorist attacks against it—and some loss of potential freedom of action. It might be good to remember such cooperation, including cooperation against Armenian terrorism, mutual economic benefits of the bilateral relationship, and aid during the earthquake.

Israel is not   Turkey's enemy though, regrettably, Islamist Turkish politicians are Israel's enemies, and perhaps a democratic and free Turkey's enemy as well.

Here is an article by me on Turkish-Israel relations that might be of interest.

 This article is published on PJMedia. 

See also this on Sharia and this and this on anti-government demonstrations.

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