Saturday, October 24, 2009

The moral dilemma of those who cozy-up to the immoral, utterly corrupt and criminal "western" powers only to discover Contrasting Middle East visions.

The moral dilemma of those who cozy-up to the immoral, utterly corrupt and criminal "western" powers only to discover Contrasting Middle East visions ....

When the strategic love affair between Israel and Turkey was made public in March of 1996, Turkey had conflictual relations with six of its nine neighbors. Earlier in the year, Turkey and Greece came very close to war over the uninhabited twin islets of Imia/Kardak in the Aegean Sea. Syria was hosting Turkey's public enemy number one, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

An attempt by Greek Cypriots to buy S-300 missiles from Russia provoked a strong and belligerent reaction from the Turkish military. Iran was accused of complicity in terrorist activities inside Turkey. The PKK itself used the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq to stage its terrorist attacks against Turkey. Last but not least, Turkey had no diplomatic relations with Armenia.

Domestically, the military's grip over civilian politics increased considerably in the wake of President Turgut Ozal's untimely death. A succession of ineffectual, mostly corrupt and incompetent coalition governments kept on postponing necessary economic, political and administrative reforms. As the establishment parties steadily lost their grip on a disenchanted electorate, the Islamists gained ground and in December of 1995 emerged from the general elections as the largest party in the country.

Within its alliance system, Turkey was nearly a pariah state. It was unable to get technological and material support or buy required weapons from its allies in its fight against terrorism because of egregious human rights violations, particularly in the southeast of the country where most of its Kurdish citizens lived. In the United States, the country was battered by two powerful lobbies in Congress. Both the Greek and Armenian lobbies at the time were venomous in their approach to all matters Turkish.

The "strategic alignment" with Israel occurred under such circumstances. It was masterminded by the military and aimed at breaking Turkey's isolation internationally, sending a strong message to its hostile neighbors and reminding the traditionally Israel-averse Islamists who the master was.

Even if they exacerbated the Arabs' ingrained suspicions of Turkey, Turkish-Israeli relations served both countries' interests well. Within three years, Turkey's relations with Greece ameliorated, as did relations with Iran. The Turkish military gained confidence and ground in its fight against the PKK, with the help of intelligence from Israel as well as technology and materiel. Ankara put Syria on notice and forced Damascus to let Ocalan go. (He would later be apprehended in Kenya after having been hosted by the Greek ambassador and delivered to Turkish intelligence by the Americans.)

Israel broke its isolation in the Middle East and benefited economically from these relations. Israeli citizens felt welcome in Istanbul and Antalya. Militarily, the opportunity for the Israel Air Force to train in the skies over the vast Konya valley was greatly appreciated. Ankara also received precious support from the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to stave off "genocide" resolutions in the US Congress and developed a close relationship with some Jewish organizations.

These relations made sense strategically and were mutually beneficial. But from the Turkish perspective there was a catch. The legitimacy of these intimate relations depended on the existence of a viable and credible Israel-Arab peace process. The Turkish public was historically pro-Palestinian and strongly favored an independent Palestinian state. Therefore, as relations between Israel and the Palestinians deteriorated and there was no longer a peace process to speak of, the moral basis of the alignment eroded.

In the meantime Turkey changed. An introverted, hard-core militarist Turkey gradually gave way to a Turkey that was opening up and preparing itself for European Union membership. Its economy expanded. Long-postponed administrative and political reforms took place thanks to the EU accession process under the rule of a political party, the AKP, that had its roots in the traditionally anti-western Islamist movement. A major power shift began to take place. The military's hold over Turkish politics was finally on the wane and new elites began to replace the old ones economically, socially and politically. Turkey's periphery, historically excluded from its political space, moved to the center.

In foreign policy, Turkey simultaneously pursued EU accession and engagement with its neighboring regions. Although the AKP did not invent this policy of rapprochement it certainly deepened it. In the wake of the war in Iraq, and particularly as Washington's colossal failures became ever more visible, Turkey's interest and involvement in the region increased considerably. Not only did the credibility of the country hit new heights because of parliament's refusal to allow the deployment of American troops to open a northern front against Iraq, but this political stance endeared it to the publics of the Middle East.

No longer considered a threat, a Turkey that relied heavily on hard power, shunned the Middle East and where the military called all the important shots--segued into a Turkey that was capable of deploying soft power. It set an example of a country that could integrate its Islamists into the political system, continue on the democratic path and show impressive economic growth. Arabs discovered Turkey in ever-growing numbers as Turkish TV series started to dominate prime-time airwaves throughout the region.

In its foreign policy as well, the AKP committed itself to the principle of "zero problems" with the neighbors. It moved in to fill the vacuum created by the United States and volunteered its good offices for mediation in the long-standing conflicts of the region, particularly those that involved Israel. No wonder then that under such a transformed environment and domestic set-up relations with Israel were being relativized.

Turkish foreign policy was thus designed to create zones of stability around the country, avoid confrontation and prepare the conditions for economic expansion. The sine qua non of this vision and the design it wished to configure was comprehensive peace in the region. To that end, Ankara took many risks and even tried to engage with Hamas after the latter's election in Palestine in 2006. Since conditions in the region and Turkey's domestic and foreign political profiles were changing so radically, it was only a matter of time before conflict arose with an Israel that appeared to be stuck in a time warp. Whereas Turkey prioritized peaceful engagement and stability for the entire region, Tel Aviv appeared incapable of changing its ways and seriously trying for a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.

Tel Aviv saw Iran as an existential threat, wished to isolate the Islamic Republic and even threatened to bomb it to abort its nuclear ambitions. Ankara had no desire for a nuclear-armed Iran either, but vehemently opposed military action against its neighbor. In short, as Israel continued to be hardheaded about its security and favored military action for all its problems, increasingly Turkey preferred the diplomatic route and grew averse to the deployment of military power.

The Lebanon and Gaza operations of 2006 and 2009 therefore brought forth the inherent tensions in the alignment. The AKP's reaction was more a reflection of a structural conflict than an ideological predisposition, however passionate and at times offensive the Turkish prime minister's rhetoric may have been during the Gaza operation and in its aftermath.

As things stand, Turkey and Israel appear to have two contrasting visions of engagement with the Middle East. At a time when the strategic framework that allowed Israel to pursue its foreign policy as it saw fit is no longer extant, Tel Aviv's usual approach will not gain support even from the American administration. Ankara, on the other hand, because of its newfound emphasis on stability, peace and economic integration in the region, is adamantly against the use of force and letting the Palestinian problem fester. It is quite obvious that this is part of the reason why Washington so values Turkey's partnership these days.

So long as these two incompatible positions do not change, there will be ever more conflicts and public displays of anger between the two erstwhile allies....

Opposite trajectories...

Syria could not be more ecstatic at the row that has recently developed between Turkey and Israel. Turkey, once among Israel's staunchest allies, now sees eye-to-eye with Syria regarding the difficulties in dealing with Israel and Israel's abusive treatment of Palestinians.

Turkey began to feel uneasy with Israel when, following four promising rounds of Turkish-mediated indirect peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008, Israel went on a rampage in Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who personally intervened between the two conflicting parties to try and seal a peace deal between Syria and Israel, is said to have felt stabbed in the back when, on the eve of the fifth round, Israel launched its murderous war on Gaza, effectively killing the Syria-Israel talks.

But even before Israel's Gaza adventure, Erdogan is said to have been miffed at the gruesome images of an entire Palestinian family mowed down by Israeli fire while picnicking on a Gaza beach in June 2006. The mark this massacre left on Erdogan was deep enough for him to cite it in his public rebuke of Israeli violence toward Palestinians during the January 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos. To further show Turkey's displeasure with Israel, Erdogan's government cancelled Israel's participation during this October's "Anatolian Eagle" exercise--a joint NATO air force war game in Turkish skies.

Israeli practices explain Turkey's displeasure, but only in part. After all, Israel's continued occupation of Arab territories, its foot-dragging on peace and its brutality against the Palestinians are nothing new. The other part is the product of a shift in the foreign policies of both Turkey and Israel. With regard to Turkey, two dynamics seem to be at work: the end of Turkey's role as a pillar in the post-Cold War era western alliance on the one hand, combined with European insistence on the democratization of Turkish politics as one pre-condition for EU membership on the other. These have weakened the Turkish army's stranglehold on Turkey's domestic and foreign policies, strengthening mainstream political parties in the process.

The second dynamic has to do with the EU's foot-dragging on Turkey's bid for EU membership--a catalyst in cementing Turkish national identity and pride. Even the most Europeanized among Turks have come to revile the condescending way in which Europe has treated them. Given Turkey's rich imperial history, along with a relatively large population of 72 million and an economy that dwarfs those of its Middle Eastern neighbors, it was only a question of time before Turkey would opt for the leading regional role it now enjoys rather than the marginal one Brussels would assign it.

With regard to Israel, once a component of the same anti-Soviet western alliance, Israel's accumulation of power across time has enabled it to act unilaterally and with impunity, so much so that Israel now defies its own superpower patron, the US, not least on the issue of the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories. In brief, Israeli jingoism is radicalizing the Middle East and, in the process, jeopardizing the regional stability Turkey seeks to promote through its "zero-problem policy"--a new Turkish regional approach in which regional rivals would now burry the hatchet. In these circumstances, the opposite trajectories that Turkey and Israel embarked on were bound to collide.

Despite Syria's elation with Turkey's snub of Israel, it would be in everyone's interest, including Syria's, for Turkey and Israel to restore some calm in their relations. Turkey has proven to be an effective mediator between Syria and Israel and, if the interrupted peace talks are to resume, Turkey must be present, like it or not, in the room and at the table alongside the US, which, as things stand, has shown itself to be no more of an impartial broker than Turkey....