The Middle East seemed to explode last week in angry protests against the Israeli action of boarding the Turkish ship and the tragic death of several activists on board the ship. This was considered to be another extremely rash, dangerous act by Israel in open defiance of international law and procedures. The other tragic error attributed to Israel was the damage to its only Muslim ally, Turkey.
Below we lay out our views about the incident and its long term.
We begin with the last statement in our first paragraph above. Turkey has been the best friend of Israel in the Middle East. Turkey has also been the most non-religious regime in the Middle East under the traditions of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The first step in our thinking is to distinguish today’s Turkey from the Turkey of the Mr. Ataturk.
The New Turkey
Today’s Turkey is ruled by an Islamist party and its leader Erdogan is a man of vision. His vision is make today’s Turkey into the successor of the Ottoman Empire of the past. He has taken steps to shed the secular and non-religious framework established by Mr. Ataturk and to openly adapt an Islamist framework.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s greatest hurdle is the Turkish Military which has been a staunchly non-religious organization. In this struggle, Mr. Erdogan used corruption charges to arrest several high-ranking officers of the military and used the popular support for such charges to extract acquiescence from the Military to his expansionist plans.
Prime Minister Erdogan has taken up Islamic causes all over the world. This is his key to enable Turkey to break out of its regional base and to be recognized as a world power. When riots broke out in China’s Xinjiang province, Turkey was the only country to condemn China. Turkey called it genocide and took up the issue in the United Nations Security Council. Their claim was that the Uighurs of Xianjiang were of Turkish descent. This venture failed because no other country wanted to offend China or get involved in a diplomatic dispute with China.
Prime Minister Erdogan then inserted Turkey in the Af-Pak situation by claiming a rightful role for itself because of the historical involvement of Turkey in Afghanistan. Turkey organized and held meetings between Afghan and Pakistani officials, perhaps with the blessing of the Obama Administration. This venture did not go anywhere either.
But now the Turkish Government seems to have found a cause, a cause that they think is perfect for their long term vision. That cause is Israel’s occupation and control of Gaza & the West Bank. For many in the world, this is today’s golden standard of a cause for morality, peace and humanitarian justice. There is no contest between the benefits to Erdogan’s Turkey in taking up the Palestinian cause vs. its old alliance with Israel.
Today’s Turkey has virtually nothing to gain and its future vision to lose by remaining friendly with Israel. The events of 2010 have removed the two major roadblocks against Turkey’s new anti-Israeli posture.
- The concept of Turkey joining the European Union is virtually dead. The EU voted against admitting Turkey and now the EU itself seems on the verge of breaking up. Even if it stays intact, there is no question of admitting Turkey into that union and Turkey probably has no interest in joining this hobbled union.
- The election of Barack Obama changed the calculus in Turkey’s favor. President Obama has anointed Turkey as his most favorite Middle Eastern country and begun relying on Turkey to play a much bigger role in the Middle East. At the same time, President Obama has essentially declared Israel as the enemy of Middle East peace by publicly calling Israel to task for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. This was partly political and short term. President Obama concluded that participation of Turkey would be invaluable to the US in its attempts to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Turkey could offer a large military, political and historical counterweight to Iran. If that were not enough, a resurgent Turkey could stem the tide of increasing Russian influence. This seemed to be an all-win and no-lose strategy for the Obama Administration.
So forget roadblocks. Turkey was virtually given a green light by the Obama Administration to exercise its ambitions. Unfortunately for the Obama Administration, this strategy has backfired and the core Obama policy in the Muslim world is now in trouble thanks to its new best friend, Turkey.
The Turkish Flotilla
The facts as reported by various newspapers seem clear. This so-called humanitarian flotilla was a Turkish idea, plan and implementation. The New York Times reports that this flotilla became a big affair because of the money of a Turkish organization. It is reported that Israel tried to work with Turkey to move this flotilla to a different path to avoid confrontation. But their attempts were unsuccessful.
We are not surprised. In our opinion, this flotilla had one and only one purpose, to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in a highly public way. Frankly, this was a beautiful setup. If Israel let the flotilla go unchallenged into Gaza, the Israeli blockade would be over. This flotilla would be followed by many many more flotillas into Gaza. If Israel chose to stop the flotilla militarily as it did, the fallout would be global and Israel would be condemned by the world as it has been this week.
Israel was put in a no-win situation by Turkey. Israel chose to stop the flotilla militarily. This was and should have been the lesser of the two evils for Israel. But Israel botched the intervention. This is not the Israel of old with flawless implementation of brilliant plans. This is a bumbling Israel that seems to botch even small operations.
Is Turkey’s Victory Real or Pyrrhic?
In the past, protests against Israel were led by Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. This time it seems as if these countries were relatively subdued while the protests by Turkey were extraordinarily loud and vociferous.
Judging from the outrage in the world, Turkey won this round. Turkey is now the country that stands up to Israel in the Middle East. In one stroke, it seems to have displaced even Iran & its fiery anti-Israel leader Ahmadinejad. Saudi Arabia and the Arab neighbors of Israel are now further sidelined as far as the Palestinians are concerned.
This was a masterstroke for Turkey because, let’s face it, the world simply does not care about Israel. England, France and rest of Western Europe are usually too happy to attack Israel verbally to solidify their pro-Arab credentials and to provide cover for their own internal repression of Muslim expression. Much of the developing world does not care either. Israel is a tiny country and trade with Israel does not benefit Africa, Asia or Latin America. So attacking the inhumanity of Israel is a no-risk proposition for much of the world.
So far so good. But if Israel continues to defend its blockade of Gaza and if Turkey is unable to translate its media gains into a concrete result, where does that leave Turkey? The aspirations of the people of Turkey have been raised. What if these aspirations go unmet? Will their frustration backfire on the Erdogan government?
In a couple of years, Turkey has managed to awaken Russia’s geo-strategic concerns and old animosity; it has managed to upset China; it has managed to provoke India by its needless and ham-handed intervention in the Af-Pak problem.
Above all, Turkey might have alienated the core Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and even Iraq. These countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, desire stability. These countries are already uneasy about the dangers from Iran. Now they might have to worry about the entry into their neighborhood of another ethnically non-Arab country that has dominated the Middle East in the past. (Those who need a quick primer should watch the DVD of the Lawrence of Arabia).
Instead of being an ally and helping the Obama Administration in the Middle East, Turkey might have created a deep sense of worry and instability in the Middle East. If Turkey is successful in its vision of being a successor to the Ottoman Empire, it might end up being America’s biggest problem in the Middle East. If Turkey is unsuccessful, then Erdogan might have sowed a whirlwind.
Turkey has its own restive minority problems. Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria & Russia can covertly turn the anti-Turkish Kurds into a well-funded, well-armed rebelion inside Turkey. In that case, Turkey might find itself on the verge of breaking up rather than expanding into a new empire.
Israel at its Most Vulnerable Stage?
Turkey would not have dared to make its flotilla play two years ago. And Israel would not have cared if Turkey had done so. Because, two years ago was like a lifetime ago for Israel. At that time, America had a President who was Israel’s most passionate supporter. Today, America has a President who is Israel’s least passionate supporter. In fact, President Obama might actually be an opponent of the role Israel has played since its inception.
Every President until Barack Obama has viewed Israel as its most important ally in the Middle East. Not President Obama. Actually, under President Obama’s policies Israel might be viewed as a problem rather than as an asset. President Obama’s major preoccupation is to improve America’s standing among the world’s Muslims. Israel is an impediment in this pursuit. This is why President Obama opened his Middle East policy by publicly rebuking Israel and instructing Israel to stop its settlements in the occupied territories. In addition, Turkey, President Obama’s anointed ally in the Middle East, has now become Israel’s new enemy.
Today, Israel finds itself in the unprecedented position of competing with Turkey for America’s support. This is why we think Israel today might be at its most vulnerable stage in its history. How will Israel react? Will Israel turn passive due to American pressure? Or will Israel stand alone if needed and defend its interests even in the face of President Obama’s opposition? If it does, it risks becoming an international outcast. If it does not, Israel might not remain Israel for long.
Future Scenarios – A long term nightmare for the USA?
This incident could prove to be the beginning of a new alignment in the Middle East. President Obama’s Middle Eastern policy was based on using Turkey as its core ally and forcing Israel to make concessions to Palestinians. This policy is in tatters. The dreams of Palestinians have been awakened again and Hamas has been strengthened. Israel with a new enemy in Turkey would be less willing to make any concessions.
As we said earlier, the core Middle Eastern countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria have been antagonized. The Middle East is now a much more unstable place with Turkey & Iran, two non-Arab ex-empires, competing for influence in the Middle East.
What does this mean for Post-America Iraq? President Obama had to contend with the possible domination of Shia Iraq by Iran? Now President Obama might have to contend with the possible domination of Sunni Iraq by Turkey. Saudi Arabia cannot tolerate the incursion of Turkey into Iraq and Israel cannot tolerate the incursion by Turkey into Syria. Syria itself has horrific memories of Turkish occupation of Syria.
So do Saudi Arabia, Egypt & Jordan covertly team up with Israel and form an alliance against both Turkey & Iran? Do they begin playing one against the other? Does this allow Russia to regain its foothold in the Middle East as a power broker or as an covert ally of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt & Syria?
If any of these post-America scenarios prove feasible let alone realistic, President Obama might have to reconsider his plans to withdraw from Iraq. Otherwise, he may find post-America Middle East to be a much more unstable region than post-America Af-Pak.
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