Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Israel's Shifting Geopolitical Security Concerns Threaten its Relationship with Turkey

By Brian Maher

One of the more notable geopolitical developments in recent years has been the maturing strategic relationship between Turkey and Israel, formalized by a 1996 accord cementing military ties between the two countries. Driven by the dissolution of the Cold War alliance system and a mutual recognition of common security interests, these states forged one of the most significant alliances in the Middle East. Both were regionally isolated, pro-Western, secular democracies fearful of the specter of radical Islamic groups, facing common enemies in Syria, Iran and, previously, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The Benefits of an Israeli-Turkish Alliance

Israel has always coveted close relations with Turkey, in part because of belief that such an alliance with a Muslim state helps dilute the religious element of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey also represented a central pillar of Israel's "periphery states" doctrine, whereby Israel sought to counter its isolation by forming alliances with more remote, non-Arab neighbors. Turkey was the first country with a Muslim majority to recognize Israel, although positive relations with Israel were not a general priority for much of that country's history.

The end of the Cold War, however, left Ankara questioning Western security commitments and seeking strong allies to compensate for its own isolation, leaving it to consider its relationship with the Jewish state anew. Given their common security concerns, some form of Israeli-Turkish accommodation seemed an almost inevitable byproduct of shifting geopolitical winds. Ankara also found in Israel a generous arms merchant, quite willing to overlook Turkey's questionable human rights record and forego the litany of restrictions that so often accompany the transfer of Western military wares. But the alliance is currently showing signs of strain, as Ankara seems to be reconsidering the value of its relationship with Israel, which is scrambling to mend fences with its Turkish neighbor.

A Fraying Alliance

With the election of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) in 2002 -- a moderate organization as far as Islamist entities go -- Ankara began to distance itself from Israel. It also began to slide away from Washington, incidentally -- as the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated quite amply. It sought to chart a more autonomous foreign policy than its predecessors, which in practical terms meant massaging relations with historical foes in Damascus and Tehran.

Eager to join the European Union, Ankara also moved to bring itself into alignment with prevailing European diplomatic opinion, which takes a generally dim view of Israeli policies, particularly with respect to the Palestinian issue. The A.K.P. has also moved to limit the traditional role of the army in Turkey's political life, in part to appease European sensibilities and prove its democratic bona fides. The army, which has long been the guarantor of Attaturk's secular vision, championed the development of strong strategic ties with Israel, and the diminution of its political influence could have a chilling effect on the future of Turkish-Israeli relations.

The new government expressed deeper sympathies with the Palestinian cause, reacting harshly to Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza, including the May 2004 attack on Rafah that left dozens dead. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has gone so far as to liken Israeli actions against the Palestinians to "state terrorism," and to equate them with those of the Spanish Inquisition. This invective is playing to Turkey's widespread anti-Israeli sentiment, fostered in no small part by a press highly critical of Israel. Domestic political considerations therefore play a substantial role in Ankara's shifting political posture, as they so often do. Given these facts, relations with Israel would naturally suffer to some degree. Taken together, they may suggest a palpable shift in Turkish foreign policy. Recent steps taken by Ankara reinforce that view.

Ankara is freezing Israeli firms out of future contracts for military hardware such as helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, for example. The officially supplied explanation is that this is necessary to bolster domestic industries. It is also probably intended to attract European firms as well, as part of an effort to curry Europe's favor. In addition, Ankara briefly recalled its ambassador for "consultations" in May 2004. Israel's deputy prime minister was also snubbed last month when he attempted to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

Israel's Shifting Geopolitical Security Concerns

However, there may be a far more immediate rationale for Ankara's volte face. After all, firm Israeli actions against Palestinian groups are not recent developments and they have not been met with such virulence. A maelstrom of controversy erupted in June 2004 over reports that Israel has been in league with Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and training Kurdish militias, reports that the Israeli leadership has repeatedly denied. If the recent reports are accurate, the Israeli government may be nurturing relations with the Kurds in order to pursue its geopolitical security interests and counter a number of potential threats to its regional power.

The first emerges from Iraq's assorted militias and their potential influence in the country. The Kurds would be an indispensable ally against these groups, particularly the Shi'a militias in the south with their Iranian support. Iran is of course a concern in other important respects. Israel is especially wary of an assertive Iran whose regional position has been fortified considerably since Saddam's dismissal from the chessboard. Also fearful of Tehran's barely concealed nuclear ambitions, Israel could employ Kurdish commandos to infiltrate Iran and provide important intelligence by monitoring nuclear facilities. The Kurds could also make trouble for Syria. Some analysts allege that Israeli intelligence played a part in a series of clashes between Syrian Kurds and government forces in March 2004 that claimed dozens of lives.

This would not be the first time that Israel has assisted Iraq's Kurds to advance its own interests. In the late 1960s, Israel, with Iranian cooperation, provided them with substantial assistance in their campaign against Baghdad. Israel has a history of supporting non-Arab minorities in the Middle East as part of a strategy to destabilize hostile regimes. All of that being said, however, one must still question whether Israel would be willing to risk one of its most important alliances in such a fashion.

The Israeli leadership would be seriously jeopardizing relations with Ankara by offering support to Iraq's Kurds. Fearful that these actions may encourage separatism among its own restive Kurdish population, Ankara would not easily suffer such an affront, especially at a time when the Kurdistan Workers' Party has stepped away from its cease-fire with Ankara and renewed attacks against the country. One practical consequence of a weakened Israeli-Turkish alliance -- very much to the negative as far as Israel is concerned -- would be a strengthened Syria. Keeping Damascus in check has long been one of Israel's central foreign policy objectives and for this a strong alliance with Ankara is vital. By so assisting Iraq's Kurds, Israel would also help steer Turkey, Syria and Iran in the same direction. This would obviously not serve Israeli interests well.

Would Israel risk undermining one of its most important alliances and court further isolation? If so, the most likely explanation would be that the Israeli leadership is skeptical of Washington's ability to bring lasting stability to Iraq. In July 2003, Israeli intelligence apparently warned American officials that Iranian agents were crossing into Iraq to foment insurrection and recruit militants to carry out attacks against U.S.-led forces. It strongly urged that the 900-mile border be sealed at whatever cost. It wasn't. The Israeli leadership may have decided that Washington was unwilling to challenge Tehran and that Iraq would remain a cauldron of instability as a result.

Quite simply, as long as Tehran wields the instruments to shape events in Iraq, the prospects for a peaceful, genuinely democratic Iraq will remain elusive. Furthermore, Washington's failure to adequately challenge Tehran means that there is real possibility that Iran's attempts at becoming more of a regional player will be realized -- a development that would threaten Israel's power in the region.

Washington, recognizing the centrality of Iraq's Shi'a community to the country's future and its relationship with Iran, is reluctant to challenge Tehran directly. Washington fears that such a threat could set in chain a series of events whereby Iran could use its influence to undermine the entire American effort in Iraq, indeed the region. Under these circumstances, direct action against Iran's nuclear program and threats of forceful regime change are fraught with considerable peril. Washington is simply not in a position to credibly threaten Iran at this time, particularly in an election year and at a time when U.S. troops are overextended.

In an ironic twist, part of Washington's purpose in invading Iraq was to bring pressure to bear on Iran, but it now quietly looks to Tehran to promote stability to Iraq. This is why the Israeli leadership would be skeptical of Washington's ability to intimidate Tehran, which must surely be emboldened by the current state of play. Israel may have therefore taken steps to advance its interests by becoming involved in Iraq, which would certainly entail the Kurds.

The leadership in Jerusalem may have decided that its alliance with Ankara was a lesser priority than seeing a divided, weak Iraq with a decentralized government. Such an entity would naturally constitute less of a threat to Israel. Turkey, on the other hand, would of course prefer a strong central government to keep a tight rein on Kurdish irredentism. Israel may also have an interest in using the Kurds to counter Tehran's support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, believing that this might give Tehran pause if it faces the risk of retaliation by Kurdish militants. These potential benefits may outweigh the value of a strong relationship with Ankara. But then again, they may not and there is no proof at this time that Israel is in fact offering material support to Iraq's Kurds. What is clear is that Israeli-Turkish relations have been growing increasingly turbulent, even before these claims surfaced, a fact that may have ramifications across the Atlantic.


Ankara's visible shift away from Israel has the potential to meaningfully alter the region's dynamics. If Turkey continues to drift from its traditional moorings towards a more European orientation, the U.S. may no longer be able to consider Turkey the staunch ally it was when facing down the Soviet Union. Turkey's snub prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq may have but prefigured a larger trend. Washington's hopes for a dramatic Middle East realignment, with a troika of pro-American democracies in Israel, Turkey and Iraq, are yet to be realized. In addition, Ankara is not pleased with the situation in Iraq and alleges that the U.S. is failing to curtail Kurdish militants in northern Iraq. The problem simply does not lend itself to easy solutions.

In the meantime, the Israeli leadership is scrambling to reassure Ankara and repair the damage done by the reports surrounding its involvement with the Kurds. Barring any major developments or the confirmation of these reports, however, Turkish-Israeli relations will not break down entirely. They simply share too many common interests, including military and economic ties, to warrant any sort of immediate rupture. Ultimately, much will depend upon Turkey's internal politics and how far they stray from Attaturk's legacy that has guided it for so long.

-The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an analysis-based publication that seeks to, as objectively as possible, provide insight into various conflicts, regions and points of interest around the globe.PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of All comments should be directed to

Published on 03 September,2004


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