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Turkey-Israel: Caught between friendship and enmity

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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

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Middle East

Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Middle East

Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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