Tulin Daloglu for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse. March 24. – The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel on Friday [March 22] included an official apology from Israel — an attempt to make amends for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. And while some will see the apology as a clear victory for Turkey over the Jewish state, the truth is that this diplomatic development is a way to keep Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan both on the side of the United States and Israel, and in line.
Once again, Turkey is finding itself at a crossroads. Erdogan wants to change the country’s parliamentary system into a Turkish-style presidential system, and he wants a new constitution that supports his vision for a new Turkey. Doubts and uncertainty hang over the country’s future, and many questions remain unanswered about whether Turkey is leaning toward democracy or moving in the direction of constraining freedoms and silencing opposition. What is clear, however, is that Erdogan has taken a bold step in attempting to end the Kurdish armed movement that has been fighting against the state since 1984. He knows that if he achieves peace, he can write his ticket domestically for the presidency — thus, he even accepted jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan as a partner in this effort, claiming that Ocalan is the only one who can control the armed militia.
The Kurdish issue also has tremendous impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey faces enormously complicated problems with its neighbors Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of whom have Kurdish populations. Erdogan’s government supports the Iraqi Kurds in bypassing Baghdad and cutting their own hydrocarbon deals. If Iraq ends up divided between the Kurds and the Shiites, Turkey could face serious issues if the Iraqi Shiites were to sympathize with Tehran and expand Iran’s influence in the region. This potential scenario is also an issue for the United States and Israel to be concerned about.
Turkey also has significant disagreements with Iran over the Iraqi and Syrian crises. The more Tehran ties itself to Bashar al-Assad’s survival, the more Ankara pushes to oust Assad from power. And these issues are only further complicated by Iran’s nuclear weapon program.
Given the turmoil in the region and Erdogan’s domestic ambitions, Turkey needs the support of the United States. In recent remarks though, Erdogan and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have slammed the “imperialist powers” and voiced concerns that the West aims to take land from Turkey and others in the region. “Either we will unite as Turks, Kurds, Bosniaks and Arabs and walk toward our goals with a new understanding of politics, or they will try tearing us to shreds and splitting us into small pieces,” Davutoglu said on March 15. But regardless of their rhetoric, Turkey remains a NATO member country alongside the U.S. — and would be happy to turn to other NATO countries for help if the Syrian crisis spills across its borders. In fact, NATO has already deployed Patriots six battery units on the Turkey-Syrian border. The Syrian crisis played a major role in the Israeli apology to Turkey. “The fact that the Syrian crisis is constantly intensifying was a prime consideration,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. “Syria is crumbling, and its massive stockpiles of advanced weapons are starting to fall into the hands of various elements. What we fear most is that terrorist groups will get their hands on chemical weapons.”
Western powers are well aware that they are way too late in finding a peaceful ending to the Syrian crisis. The issue is now, however, not about whether Assad goes, but what will follow him. There may be a line of thinking in these western circles including Israel that Turkey can play a larger role in containment and resolution of this crisis at its doorstep.
With Turkey and Israel agreeing to take a step toward normalizing their relationship, the U.S. may calculate that it will not only safeguard the security of the Jewish State, but will also use this rapprochement to clamp down on the radical uprising in Syria and the region at large, both fighting terrorism and protecting energy supplies. It’s no coincidence that the Turkish Foreign Ministry released a written statement on Sunday [March 24], warning the Greek Cypriots to take caution before exhausting the island’s newly discovered hydrocarbon reserves.
In brief, both Israel and the United States might have decided that they could only benefit from having Erdogan on their side, given his strong credibility on the Arab street as well as with Turkey’s good economic record despite the financial turmoil in Europe and in the region. Certainly, the path ahead in the sense of really normalizing the relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem is long, and faces risks of a turn for the worse. But in such a scenario, Erdogan will have to bear the responsibility of taking America against him as well.
Tulin Daloglu is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column in Washington Times for almost four years.