Connect with us

Middle East

Playing with Fire: Israel and its problematic friends solidify ties

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Remarks at United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore, 3 October 2017

There are no nice guys in the Middle East, a region that is in the sixth year of transition. It’s a transition that is likely to take up to a quarter of a century. It’s a transition that is being exacerbated by states that are battling either one another for regional hegemony or to maintain an unsustainable status quo or to shape the region in their mould. There are no good or bad guys in this battle, at best there are bad and worse ones.

That is the playing field on which long existing relations between Israel and status quo powers, primarily in the Gulf, as well as in Jordan and Egypt, have grown far closer and more overt. Closer relations are primarily based on perceived common interests in stymying Iran as well as political change. It’s an alliance in emergence, particularly with the Gulf, that irrespective whether it results in formal diplomatic relations as already is the case with Egypt and Jordan or may soon occur with Bahrain, is likely to be fragile, not because the parties view it that way, but because far-reaching change on the Arab side is inevitable.

The parameters and dynamics of what the Middle East is experiencing and the risks Israel runs with the alliances it is cementing centre on five fundamental developments or disputes:

  • The impact of the 2011 popular Arab revolts
  • The Gulf crisis
  • The Saudi-Iranian rivalry
  • Transition in the Gulf
  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The roll back of the 2011 popular revolts by a UAE-Saudi led counterrevolution has prompted many to write off the chance for democratic change in the Middle East and to refer to the uprisings as the Arab winter. That may prove to be a short-lived analysis. For one, it’s a mistake to see the revolts as a quest for Western-style democracy. Rather, they were a quest for dignity, greater freedoms and liberation from corrupt, nepotistic regimes that, with few exceptions, had failed to deliver in terms of public goods and services. Those revolts may or may not have succeeded in the longer term but ultimately, they were prematurely defeated by domestic status quo forces backed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, whether it is the 2013 military coup in Egypt, Saudi and UAE intervention in Yemen, or UAE and Egyptian backing of General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. To be clear, Qatar was a player in this too.

The legacy of the revolts is far greater than simply defeat or failure. It has changed mentality and attitudes. The quest for change is alive and kicking. That is not to say that masses of people are about to take to the streets again – despite recent months long protests in the Rif in northern Morocco. Events in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen may by and large have for now chilled the quest for revolutionary change. So has severe repression across the Middle East. The desire for change is however alive and kicking in social media.

It is also alive in kicking in the radicalization of Arab youth, who make up the bulk of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic States is on the verge of territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria, but that only means that political violence will no longer have a central address; it will be more decentralised, more amorphous, more spread out, and probably more lethal. Political violence has been a fixture of human history, but blunting its current phase will take a lot more than military might and law enforcement. It will take economic and social policies as well as forms of governance that are inclusive rather than exclusive.

Which leads to the third legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts: the future of Middle Eastern nation states as they were known until now.  Neither Iraq nor Syria will return as nation states in the borders prior to 2011 in Syria or 2003 in Iraq when the United States invaded and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth, whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It parallels the efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Syria, or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own. It also parallels the dispute in the Gulf between Qatar and various other Gulf states.

Most conflicts in the Middle East have a pot blames the kettle quality, but no one dispute more so than that between Qatar and a UAE-Saudi-led alliance of financially and politically dependent states. At the heart of the crisis are four issues: the ability of small states to chart their own, independent course; diametrically opposed perceptions of national security threats; fundamentally different strategies for regime survival; and radically differing definitions of what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

Also at the heart of both the Gulf crisis and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry are opposing approaches to political or activist forms of Islam. We can go in question and answers into greater detail about the Gulf crisis. Qatar has the naïve belief that it can support political change anywhere in the Middle East while at the same time ringfencing itself as well as other Gulf states from the fallout. Qatari support as well as its soft power strategy has meant that it has maintained contact and/or supported a host of militant groups, in some cases with the approval of the United States, as well as Islamists. It was a policy that clashed with that of the UAE, first and foremost, which sees any form of political Islam as a threat and under the influence of the UAE with Saudi Arabia’s evolving threat perception.

Fact of the matter is that all the Gulf states have maintained and/or supported militants and Islamists; no country more so than Saudi Arabia, not only in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in a covert war for the past 40 years. It is a war that explains much of Iranian actions today. Yet, Saudi Arabia is fighting an uphill battle. Its future in the Middle East is that of a second fiddle state. There are three major powers in the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Egypt, and Israel, in certain regards. Turkey, Iran and, Egypt have what Saudi Arabia does not: large populations, huge domestic markets, industrial bases, highly educated populations, and deep-seated identities grounded in histories of empire. Iran, moreover, has resources. Saudi Arabia has oil and Mecca, not enough to compete. Saudi Arabia is a regional power because of past containment policies towards Iran. Once Iran is unfettered, it will unlikely be able to compete for long.

A major aspect of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is the ideological and religious battle that Saudi Arabia has waged for the past four decades, the fallout of which is being felt across the globe. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion to promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. To be clear, the bulk of that money did not go to militants, it went to religious, cultural and educational facilities that Saudi Arabia largely did not micro-manage or control. There are only a handful of countries where the Saudis funded violence: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Syria. Also to be clear, ultra-conservatism does not by definition breed militancy but it does create an enabling environment in conjunction with other factors, first and foremost lack of social and economic opportunity.

The blowback of ultra-conservatism is felt in the kingdom as is evident in the economic and social transition Gulf states are embarking on. To put the transition in perspective, keep in mind that every person born in the Gulf today is likely to witness the end of oil in his or her lifetime. Economic streamlining and diversification was long overdue but was made unavoidable by the drop in oil prices sparked by Saudi oil policy that focussed on market share rather than price.

Economic reform and limited social change but no political liberalization amounts to ruling families unilaterally rewriting social contracts by rolling back the cradle-to-grave-welfare state. The reforms cater to aspirations of significant segments of the youth who constitute the majority of the region’s citizenry. But they also go against the grain of vested interests and deep-seated ultra-conservatism. With few exceptions, there is little indication that the reform process is being well-managed, certainly not in terms of the gap between expectations and delivery. With other words, the jury on the reform process is still out. Moreover, nowhere in the Gulf is the legacy of the 2011 Arab revolts potentially more potent than in Saudi Arabia given its size and repressed diversity in terms of popular aspirations. It goes without saying, that what happens in the kingdom would ripple across the Gulf.

The short-term silver lining of events in the Middle East may be developments in Palestine with the reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestine Authority in the West Bank as a result of engineering by the UAE and Egypt. It will no doubt bring relief to Gaza which has effectively been blockaded by both Egypt and Israel. The decisive factor however will be the ability of the government to provide jobs and services, the outcome of elections and how Hamas fares in those polls,

For sure, in theory the deal removes a major obstacle to peace talks: the division among the Palestinians themselves. Yet, fact of the matter is, even if a peace can be negotiated, it may not be worth the paper it is written on without Hamas being part of it. The good news is that the United States and Israel have been muted in their response to the reconciliation. Nonetheless, fundamental differences between Hamas and the Palestine Authority have not been resolved, including the terms of any peace talks and a unified military command.

The bottom line of all of this is that short-term, opportunistic policies will not provide solutions unless they lead to a tackling of fundamental problems. Without that, they could exacerbate situations, meaning that ultimately the threats and problems mushroom rather than shrink. If that happens, Israel’s alliance with Gulf could shift from an asset to a liability.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

The new strategic axis between the Russian Federation and Iran

Giancarlo Elia Valori

Published

on

On February 11 last the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, arrived in Beirut, shortly after the establishment of a new Lebanese government that, although led by an old friend of Westerners, namely Hariri, is certainly one of the recent governments closest to Hezbollah.

Minister Javad Zarif offered the Iranian support to the new government – “support in all sectors”.

Besides the Foreign Minister, the Iranian delegation was composed of a select group of 30 Iranian businessmen, who met Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen.

It is the first sign of an Iranian “grip on the Lebanon” by the Shiite Republic of Iran, which will lead to many strategic, geopolitical and economic changes.

It is obvious that, at the end of clashes in Syria, Iran wants to secure a stable centre of power in the Mediterranean region, in close contact with Israel and towards the East Mediterranean gas area which – as often noted – will be very important in the future.

Nor should we forget that Zarif’s visit was scheduled precisely on the day of the 40thanniversary of Imam Khomeini’s Shite revolution – a political symbol which should certainly not be overlooked in a country with a large Shite population.

Same religion, same political leadership – this seems to be the meaning of this careful choice and coordination of dates.

Hence both Russia and Iranthink that the new stability in the Syria led by Bashar al-Assad is based above all in the Lebanon.

Both Russia and Iran, however, have indicated – at least indirectly in the case of Russia – Hezbollah, in particular, as their primary point of reference in the Lebanon.

For the Russian Ambassador to Beirut, currently only the United States can trigger a conflict with Iran, given its regional policy.

As to the probable future conflict between Israel and the Lebanon, Ambassador Zasypkyn believes that the situation is much more unstable and even more controllable.

In other words, Russia still relies on its power of political and military deterrence in Syria to avoid a clash between Hezbollah and Israel – a war that would put a strain on both its new hegemony in the Middle East and stability in Syria.

Just one day before Zarif’s visit to the Lebanon, the Russian envoy to Jerusalem had reassured the Israeli government that Hezbollah was a “stability force” throughout the region.

Probably Russia cannot yet do without Iran, both in Syria and in the Lebanon, and accepts – like it or not – that the primary link in the Lebanon is between the “Party of God” and the new government led by Hariri.

But how long can it last?

If Hezbollah decided to exert new pressure on Israel, Russia could quickly lose its grip on Southern Syria and miss its primary goal of becoming the rotating platform of the Greater Middle East.

Inter alia, the signals coming from the Lebanese Shiite military group are very clear: on February 7 last, Hassan Nasrallah openly called for the rearming of Lebanese forces (obviously) only by Iran and later made it clear that, in a possible US future attack to support Israel, Hezbollah would immediately fight on the Iranian side.

Nasrallah also asked to make the new Iranian “advanced” missiles available to the Lebanon, as well as sensor systems and tactical and signals intelligence.

It is therefore the request for a real strategic parity between Southern Lebanon and Israel.

This means that the Lebanese Shiites’ aim is to eliminate all kind of US interference in the region and later put pressure – not just at military level – on the Jewish State that, without the US support, would be forced to accept a downward and uncertain peace.

This is the first goal of both Iran and Hezbollah, but certainly not of the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, in his Lebanese meetings, Javad Zarif – who implicitly accepted Hezbollah’s request for help – also made it clear that Bavar 373 – a missile launching and air defence system very similar to the Russian S-300 – was ready for the forces of the “Party of God”, but also for the Lebanese regular army.

“Bavar” means “belief”, albeit in a strictly religious sense, while the number 373 reminds of the soldiers belonging to the final ranks of the Twelfth Imam.

Iran is full of political symbols that must always be taken into account.

Bavar 373 is a well-copied surface-to-air missile system – probably from the Russian S-300 system that appeared in Iran for the first time in 2015.

The system uses the Iran-made missile called Sayyad-4 having a range of 150 kilometres. It also uses advanced radars that – as the analysts who saw Bavar 373 at work maintain – can saturate at least sixty targets at the same time.

It is therefore obvious to imagine what will immediately happen: sooner or later Israel will have the opportunity of destroying the Iranian networks in the Lebanon with a surgical operation. In all likelihood, however, Hariri’s government will refuse Iran’s offer, thus allowing Russian weapons and, above all, the S-300 missiles to arrive in the Lebanon.

It should be recalled that the S-300 missiles will be carefully monitored both from the Russian bases in Syria, which will never be abandoned by Russia, and simultaneously from the Russian missile site.

Obviously Iran does not object to the transfer of Russian weapons to the Lebanon. Quite the reverse.

Furthermore, the Shite regime will soon maintain that, since the United States still arm and train the Kurds against the so-called Caliphate, it also regularly and lawfully arms their Hezbollah units against the same enemy, and with equivalent devices and systems.

Hence Iran’s and Russia’s primary goal is the total expulsion of the United States from Syria and from the Lebanese and Israeli Mediterranean coast.

Once completed this operation, Russia will ask Israel for a new deployment of its potentials against Hezbollah and the Palestinian jihad forces, which are also in Iran’s calculations.

And possibly, in the future, in Russia’s calculations.

However, as far as we currently know, the final US withdrawal from Syria should be completed by the end of April.

But, again, what is the reason underlying this new Russian interest in the “Party of God”?

It is already clear that Russia does not want to remain alone in Syria.

The Russian Federation, however, does not even want Iran to undermine its regional hegemony, since it believes that everything Iran can ask is the stability of its “corridor” from Iraq to the Lebanon, but only under Russia’s control.

Hence taking Hezbollah away from Iran’s hands is vital for the Russian Federation, which desperately needs strategic buffers to control Syria by isolating Iran’s primary instrument, namely Hezbollah.

As already seen, also on February 11 last, in its talks with Netanyahu’s government, Russia maintained that “Hezbollah was a peace force”.

This also makes us understand that President Putin has no interest in stopping the Israeli operations against the tunnels of the Shiite military organization.

Again, for Russia, the possible conflict between Israel and Lebanon can only break out because of the United States, considering that Hezbollah supported only the lawful government of Damascus, unlike what the United States did since the beginning of hostilities.

Hence Russia believes that the United States should tone down its attacks on Iran, with a view to reducing the Shiite Republic’s pressure on Hezbollah and the current Lebanese government.

Is this hypothesis reasonable? Both yes and no.

Certainly, if the United States wants a prolonged war (this is the sense that Iran attributes to the US statements), the most likely reaction will be an Iranian attack that will set fire to the whole “corridor” and destabilize the Golan region.

Nevertheless, is it not equally probable that the US Presidency’s brags were just a strategic “trial balloon” and boasts for internal use?

As is currently probable, it is precisely Russia that wants the “Party of God” shift from a clear Iranian dominance to a stable (and hegemonic) Russian protection.

If this happened, Russia would avoid paying too high a Syrian price to Iran. It would also have a military organization at its disposal that could well secure the East Mediterranean region and keep – again on Russia’s behalf – peace and stability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, whose Armed Forces it never liked much.

Three important considerations shall be made in this respect: the S-300 operating systems that Russia has left in Syria since last October are not yet operational.

This means that Russia has not yet decided what to do with them in Syria.

Furthermore, Iran has not yet completed the factory and has not yet started the production of “advanced” missiles on the Syrian territory.

It was, in fact, mere psyops to show to Israel and the USA a greater development stage than the real one and to underline the impending  danger of an Israeli attack.

Finally, Iran has not yet accepted the pressing Russian request to quickly move the centralized command of its forces in Syria, which operates from the Damascus International Airport area.

All Iranians are still there and they will stay there for a long time.

Therefore, in essence, Russia believes that all these post-truths are the result of an American and Israeli psywar operation, designed to clearly separate the Iranian, Russian and Lebanese interests and hence rebuild a security network in Syria and in the Lebanon.

Precisely in response to said alleged psyops, Russia is currently trying to place the whole “Party of God” movement under its wing, at a time when it knows very well that the Iranian support for Hezbollah is weak and economically unpredictable.

Hence a new Hezbollah, which would act as a watchdog in Syria and ensure the security of the coasts south of Latakia and Tartus. It would also enable Russia to have access to the wide universe of Sunni and Shite “resistance” movements opposing the Israeli expansion.

Russia wants a stable Israel, but small and less powerful than it currently is.

We have already seen important signs of this operation during the Sochi meeting between Putin, Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani held on February 14 last.

On that occasion President Putin clearly reaffirmed his support for Hezbollah, i.e. his “grip on the group”, and the possible use of this new protection for both Turkey and obviously Iran.

Probably Russia knows that Iran can no longer afford to support the very expensive “Party of God”, as well as the whole jihadist network south of Israel.

According to Russian plans, however, Iran and Turkey will never be able to use the new arrangement of the “Party of God” on their own.

In addition, Rosneft has already penetrated the complex and largely autonomous Lebanese natural gas market which, as already noted, has left the sphere of the Cairo Conference.

A twenty-year agreement between the Russian natural gas giant and the Lebanese government is already in place for a storage site in Tripoli.

As soon as the USA leaves the Middle East, Russia will immediately occupy the oil and gas sites and positions.

But it will do so on its own, without parallel agreements with Syria or Iran.

Moreover, from now on, the Lebanon explicitly wants Russia to manage the relations between the Lebanon and Syria that, as is well-known, have never been particularly peaceful.

The variable of the Lebanese real independence from Syria is the central point of Russia’s current posture and, hence, of its specific focus on Hezbollah.

The one billion US dollar agreement of military transfers from Russia to the Lebanon, which has been much discussed in Western capitals, is a first sign showing that Russia does not want Iran in the Lebanon, but can accept it among the other secondary players, above all in Syria.

The Russian-Lebanese trade has risen from 423 million in 2016 to the current 800 million, with a market dominated by Russian energy transfers to the Lebanese market.

In all likelihood, in the future Russia will support Hezbollah’s request that the Israeli deep-sea Leviathan gas field illegally acquires some of the resources of the Lebanese gas fields.

The threat is clear: if Russia fully supported the Lebanese requests, there would be the possibility of a beginning of hostilities between the “Party of God” and Israel. At the end of a short, but harsh confrontation, said hostilities would be mediated exactly by the Russian Federation.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Suicide attack in Iran frames visit to Pakistan by Saudi crown prince

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

This week’s suicide attack on Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, the second in two months, could not have come at a more awkward moment for Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan.

The assault on a bus carrying the guards back from patrols on the province’s border with the troubled Pakistani region of Balochistan killed 27 people and wounded 13 others. It occurred days before Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was scheduled to visit Pakistan as part of a tour of Asian countries.

While Baluchistan is set to figure prominently in Prince Mohammed’s talks with Mr. Khan, the attack also coincided with a US-sponsored conference in Warsaw, widely seen as an effort by the Trump administration to further isolate Iran economically and diplomatically.

Inside the conference, dubbed The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that US policy was designed to force Iran to alter its regional and defense policies and not geared towards regime change in Tehran.

Yet, US President Donald J. Trump appeared to be sending mixed messages to the Iranians as well as sceptical European governments with his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, addressing a rally outside the conference organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group believed to enjoy Saudi backing.

Mr. Giuliani told the protesters who waved Iranian flags and giant yellow balloons emblazoned with the words, “Regime Change” that “we want to see a regime change in Iran.”

Mr. Trump appeared to fuel suspicion that Mr. Giuliani represented his true sentiment by tweeting on the eve of the Warsaw conference in a reference to the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution: “40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future.”

In a statement, the Revolutionary Guards blamed the attack on “mercenaries of intelligence agencies of world arrogance and domination,” a reference to Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.

Jaish-al-Adl (the Army of Justice), a Pakistan-based splinter group that traces its roots to Saudi-backed anti-Shiite groups with a history of attacks on Iranian and Shiite targets, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group says it is not seeking Baloch secession from Iran. Instead, it wants to “force the regime of the guardianship of jurisconsult (Iran) to respect the demands of the Muslim Baloch and Sunni society alongside the other compatriots of our country.”

Militants targeted a Revolutionary Guards headquarters in December in a rare suicide bombing in Chabahar, home to Iran’s Indian-backed port on the Arabian Sea, a mere 70 kilometres from the Chinese supported port of Gwadar, a crown jewel in the Pakistani leg of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road initiative.

The attacks coupled with indications that Saudi Arabia and the United States may be contemplating covert action against Iran using Pakistani Balochistan as a launching pad, and heightened Saudi economic and commercial interest in the province, frame Prince Mohammed’s upcoming talks in Islamabad.

During his visit, Prince Mohammed is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on a framework for US$10 billion in Saudi investments.

The memorandum includes a plan by Saudi national oil company Aramco to build a refinery in Gwadar as well as Saudi investment in Baluchistan’s Reko Diq copper and gold mine.

The investments would further enhance Saudi influence in Pakistan as well as the kingdom’s foothold in Balochistan.

They would come on the back of significant Saudi aid to help Pakistan evade a financial crisis that included a US$3 billion deposit in Pakistan’s central bank to support the country’s balance of payments and another US$3 billion in deferred payments for oil imports.

Taken together, the refinery, a strategic oil reserve in Gwadar and the mine would also help Saudi Arabia in potential efforts to prevent Chabahar from emerging as a powerful Arabian Sea hub.

Saudi funds have been flowing for some time into the coffers of ultra-conservative anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim madrassahs or religious seminars in Balochistan. It remains unclear whether they originate with the Saudi government or Saudi nationals of Baloch descent and members of the two million-strong Pakistani Diaspora in the kingdom.

The funds help put in place potential building blocks for possible covert action should the kingdom and/or the United States decide to act on proposals to support irredentist activity.

The flow started at about the time that the Riyadh-based  International Institute for Iranian Studies, formerly known as the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, an allegedly Saudi government-backed think tank, published  a study that argued that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

If executed, covert action could jeopardize Indian hopes to use Chabahar to bypass Pakistan, significantly enhance its trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian nations and create an anti-dote to Gwadar.

Pakistani analysts expect an estimated US$ 5 billion in Afghan trade to flow through Chabahar after India in December started handling the port’s operations.

Iranian concerns that the attacks represent a US and/or Saudi covert effort are grounded not only in more recent US and Saudi policies, including Mr. Trump’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord and re-imposition of harsh economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.

They are also rooted in US and Saudi backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, US overtures in the last year to Iranian Kurdish insurgents, the long-standing broad spectrum of support of former and serving US officials for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and in recent years of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ex-ambassador to the United States and Britain.

Said Ali Vaez, the International Crisis Group’s Iran analyst: “The concern was never that the Trump admin would avert its eyes from Iran, but rather that is in inflicted by an unhealthy obsession with it. In hyping the threat emanating from Iran, Trump is more likely than not to mishandle it and thus further destabilize the Middle East.”

Continue Reading

Middle East

Turkey-Israel: Caught between friendship and enmity

Published

on

In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim country to recognize the State of Israel. Territorial disputes with Iraq (Ankara claims the Mosul region as Turkish territory) and with neighboring Syria (which has never recognized Alexandretta Sanjak, Hatayt vilayet’s joining Turkey after WWI) necessitated a search for a regional ally. Moreover, the long-simmering conflict with Greece and accusations of the Armenian genocide had threatened to cut off the supply of high technologies and weapons from Western countries. Therefore, Israel has from the very outset been a major supplier of such advanced technologies and weapons to Turkey.

As for Israel, ties with Turkey meant a breach in the Middle Eastern countries’ political and economic blockade of the Jewish state, and an example to follow by neighboring countries. The rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv was good news also for the United States, as it set the stage for the emergence of a pro-American alliance in the Middle East.

The agreement that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed in 1993 served as a “moral” basis for forging even closer ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv. After the Israeli intelligence services helped their Turkish colleagues to locate the whereabouts of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey and Israel signed a raft of cooperation agreements on security, on combating terrorism and on the implementation of joint agricultural projects in Central Asia.

Exchanges of visits by the two countries’ senior military officials that followed resulted in the conclusion of contracts for the supply and joint development of certain types of weapons, with Turkey making its airspace available for training flights of Israeli military aircraft as the territory of the Jewish state is too small for this.

The Free Trade Agreement that Ankara and Tel Aviv inked in 1996, effectively opened the Israeli market, and also those of the United States, Canada and Mexico for Turkish goods. However, in that very same year, relations between the two countries suffered a setback when Turkish Prime Minister Nejmettin Erbakan, the founder of “Turkish political Islam,” openly branded Israel as the “archenemy” of the Arab and Muslim world, intimidating voters with a Zionist plot against Turkey and ultimately calling for an end to all ties with the Jewish state. Before long, however, Erbakan was forced out by the then-powerful Turkish generals.

However, after the Justice and Development Party came to power in Turkey in 2002, relations between Turkey and Israel cooled again. The anti-Israeli rhetoric in Turkey has been heating up since 2004 with Turkish filmmakers contributing to this process by presenting Israel in a bad light – to a point where Israel’s Mossad agents were shown in a TV series as taking the Turkish ambassador hostage, along with his entire family. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was forced to go on record saying that “scenes similar to those shown in the series make the life of Jews in Turkey unsafe.”

This did not prevent the two countries from raising the volume of their bilateral trade and continuing military-technical cooperation though. Even faced with a situation like that, Turkey still proved itself a cool-headed realist.

Tensions between Turkey and Israel came to a head in 2009 when Ahmet Davutoglu, the author of the “neo-Ottomanism with Muslim overtones” doctrine, which became the unofficial paradigm of Ankara’s foreign policy, was appointed foreign minister. Besides, a new Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip prompted Ankara to postpone and ultimately cancel a planned drill by Turkish, US, Italian and Israeli military. And, to top it all off, incensed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed never to return to the annual gathering again.

In May 2010, Israeli forces intercepted the so-called “Freedom Flotilla” with humanitarian aid for Gaza residents. Simultaneously, passengers of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara actively attempted to thwart a landing on the ship by Israeli commandos. In the violent clash that followed nine activists were killed and 30 were injured. The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the incident, Ankara recalled its ambassador from Israel and an angry crowd hurled stones at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul. Many experts believe that the conflict was deliberately provoked. In any case, the “resistance” by the passengers of the Turkish ship and Ankara’s angry response earned it the laurels of a fighter for Muslim interests both inside the country and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Even though the UN commission investigating the incident concluded that the Israeli commandos had used force to defend themselves against “organized and armed resistance from a group of passengers.”

Alarmed by the events of the “Arab Spring” that fueled the rise of political Islam in the region amid the growing confrontation with Turkey, the Israeli leaders started building up ties with Greece and Cyprus. In 2013, Israel launched commercial development of an offshore natural gas field near  Haifa with an eye to exporting its gas to Europe via these two countries. Turkish companies, for their part, proposed building an underwater pipeline to a Turkish terminal, from where the gas could be delivered to European consumers through the Turkish pipeline system.

Wary of Moscow’s reaction to the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber over Syria, and fearing Russian sanctions, Ankara started looking for alternative trade partners. In a bid to ensure its energy security, Turkey now staked on Israeli natural gas. In a surprise move, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that peace in the Middle East was impossible without Turkey and Israel working together. Israel, meanwhile, while praising Ankara’s desire to mend fences, was still mindful of Russia’s possible backlash with then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warning that “normalization of relations with Ankara will cause serious damage to our relations with Cyprus, Greece and, of course, with Russia.”

Israel still paid compensation to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara incident, and agreed to allow Turkish humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip.

Last year’s transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in defiance of a resolution by the UN General Assembly, which condemned the move, sparked a new standoff between Turkey and Israel.  After Palestinian protests were harshly suppressed by Israel, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, recalled its own envoy from Ankara and convened an extraordinary summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. Speaking at the forum, President Erdogan said that he expected the OIC countries to “put the decision of the embargo [on trade with Israel] into practice.”

Erdogan’s hope never came true as Ankara did not actually want to cut ties with the Jewish state. Indeed, harsh as Ankara’s rhetoric was, it did not slow the pace of the trade and other economic ties between the two countries.  According to the Turkish Ministry of Commerce, in 2000, bilateral trade amounted to $1.13 billion, in 2005 – $2.27 billion, in 2010 – $3.44 billion, in 2017 – $4.91 billion and in the first 10 months of 2018 – $4.54 billion. This is what postmodern reality is all about.

Politics-wise, the future of relations between Turkey and Israel generally looks pretty bleak as Ankara is now relying on the Astana format in implementing its foreign policy goals, while Israel is gravitating towards a Saudi-led anti-Iranian bloc, which is now being established in the Middle East. Turkey refuses to recognize Bashar Assad as Syria’s legitimate president, but Israel would rather have Assad as a neighbor than religious radicals or a pro-Iranian government in Damascus.

Israel is much less concerned about the situation in northern Syria though. Turkey, whose freedom of geopolitical maneuver is much greater than what Israel can boast of, plays and will continue to play a leading role in bilateral relations. However, these relations will only be able to improve sustainably if the Turkish leaders give up on the ideology of neo-Ottomanism, where Israel is assigned a very unenviable rile. With the Turkish leaders’ ambitions extending far beyond the country’s boundaries, chances of Ankara revising its foreign policy any time soon look pretty slim. That being said, the history of the past few decades shows that rapprochement is still possible, but this will most likely have a tactical nature depending on the changing political situation. For example, if the United States abandons its doctrine of creating “controlled chaos” in the Middle East.

Russia, which is now returning to the Middle East, will avoid confrontation with any of the regional players (save for terrorists, of course) as the “above-the-fray” position allows it to act as a mediator in resolving major regional conflicts.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Continue Reading

Latest

Trending

Copyright © 2019 Modern Diplomacy