29.01.2016 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Syrian Crisis ends Turkish-Israel ‘enmity’

34534534222The on-going crisis in the Middle East was bound to trigger some significant geo-political changes in the region, especially in the form of formation of major alliances and counter-alliances. While the US led coalition is clearly pitted against the Russian military campaign against Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist organizations, the Western coalition has, since the beginning of the Russian campaign, been experimenting with different tactics to damage the efficacy of Russia’s campaign. The latest twist, in this behalf, has come in the form of easing down of tension between Turkey and Israel. The reason for why this easing down of tension is important in the current context is that both of these States (Turkey and Israel) had tried to ally themselves with Russia recently, but on their own terms and conditions of war. Failing in forging an alliance with Russia thus seems to have made perfect sense for them to forge an alliance against Russia and Iran.

In a highly significant move, which is likely to have serious repercussions for the region, senior foreign policy bureaucrats from the two sides came together in Zurich in the last week and agreed on the contours of an agreement that’s expected to bring an amicable end to the long running crisis—a crisis that started as early as 2009 when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan insulted his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres during a debate on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum and stormed out of a public platform to become an instantaneous hero on the ‘Arab Street’ and it reached its climax when the infamous Gaza flotilla incident took place almost five years ago. However, as the most recent development shows, the wind has started to blow the other way.

This development, however, did not take place all of a sudden. Events leading to the December 17 meeting between diplomats do point out how the way had already been paved for that. For instance, the speaker of the Turkish President’s office, İbrahim Kalın, was reported to have said on December 9 that bi-lateral relations with Israel were getting normalized and that Turkey was prepared to take all necessary steps under the condition that Israel also plays its part too. Similarly, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, was reported on December 14 to have said that he was “hopeful that in the not too distant future Israel and Turkey would find a way to reestablish their relationship.” On the same day, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was reported to have said that “this normalization process would be good for us, Israel, Palestine and the entire region.”

How this alliance is essentially Syria-centric becomes evident when we look at the potential benefits that these states can reap from each other. For instance, as far Turkey’s war against Kurds is concerned, it can seriously benefit from the well-established Israeli intelligence in Kurdish areas, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. On the other hand, Israel does stand to gain a lot from Turkish sources of intelligence information regarding supply-lines of Iran’s military support for Hezbollah, which is channelized via Syria into Lebanon.

The Syria-centric nature of Turkish-Israel normalization process also becomes evident when we consider how both of these State’s plans with regard to Syria are coming increasingly under threat. For Turkey, of course, the emergent reality is that a Kurdish entity may form on its southern border with Syria, while Israel feels despondent that its master plan to create a buffer zone inside Syrian territory under the control of proxy groups near the Golan Heights is being rendered a pipedream status.

These possibilities have become even more ‘possible’ due the new global scenario developing with regard to Syria as both the US and Russia tacitly agree to kick-start a fresh peace initiative to resolve Syrian crisis. The recent passing of UN resolution with regard to Syria is in marked to contrast to what both Turkey and Israel had been expecting from the United States since the very beginning of the crisis in Syria.

While the resolution explicitly states the need for “peaceful” resolution, the fact of the matter is that both Turkey and Israel had been seeking since 2011 a full scale and robust US intervention—something resembling the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan— in Syria by leading its regional allies – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, etc. – in the campaign to press for  ‘regime change’ in Damascus through military force, and both feel dejected today that the Obama administration has been careful not exert itself too deep in Syria as to get sucked in the quagmire that the U.S. itself had allowed to develop into becoming what it is today.

As such, the developments taking the Syrian crisis to a new trajectory wherein both Israel and Turkey stand to gain minimum explain the underlying logic behind the on-going normalization of process and end of ‘enmity.’ Were the newly agreed peace initiative to progress in any meaningful manner, it will certainly boost up Iran’s geo-political standing in the region via-a-vis both Turkey and Syria.

It is an open secret that, speaking in strategic terms, both Turkey and Israel view with profound disquiet the resurgence of Iran as a potential regional power in near future. Both Israel and Turkey are, therefore, acutely conscious that once the US sanctions against Iran get lifted (which seems likely by January-February), and once true peace comes to develop in Syria, Tehran’s capacity to be a forceful player in regional politics will significantly strengthen. Hence, the need for disrupting the peace process by forging an alliance and revamping militant support to their erstwhile proxy groups in Syria. On the other hand, were the fresh initiative to end up in another deadlock, Turkey and Israel would be able to jointly put pressure on the U.S. to increase military engagement in Syria.

The Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is, therefore, a purely pragmatic policy step from both countries and is a response to increasing Russian and Iranian involvement in the region. Its dynamics are, therefore, most likely to be determined not by what both countries’ leaders decided but what the situation in Syria demands from them to do.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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