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Turkey between the Arabs and Israel: A balance factor


Dr. Mohamed Nor El-Din    
Director of the Centre of Strategic Studies, Beirut     

Contrary to what is said when approaching the new and increasing Turkish role in the Middle East region, Turkey, throughout the Cold War years, has not left the region and returned back.

Except in the period which witnessed the establishment of the republic, in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reign, i.e. in between the two World Wars, the first and the second, Turkey, was a direct party to the Western policies that were hostile to the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, and their extensions in the Arab world. This statement has some reservations concerning Mosul, Kirkuk and Iskenderun, and the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO and is an ally and partner of Israel. The negative Turkish role that pressured the Arab causes emerged because the Arab neighbours of Turkey, i.e. Syria and Iraq, were a part of the Soviet policies that confronted the West, and consequently confronted Turkey.

This position persisted throughout the Cold War. However, when the Cold War came to an end, the expected change in the Turkish-Arab relations did not happen, as there were several factors that kept Turkey hostile to both Syria and Iraq.

Continuous military activities of the Kurdistan Labour Party in 1999s constituted a great threat to Turkish national security and internal stability, and were a cause of Turkish tension with Syria, which was accused by Ankara of supporting the Party, and giving asylum to its leader Abdullah Oglan.
The famous military agreement between Turkey and Israel in 1996 that was considered a pressure on Syria in several issues including the Kurds and the peace process in the region was another factor to continue congestion in the relations with Syria.

The Western besiege against Iraq in 1999s and the establishment of an aviation ban in Northern Iraq, led to creation of a zone of security vacuum that was exploited by the Kurdistan Labour Party to concentrate its elements in Northern Iraq, where, at the same time, a Kurdish entity started to take shape.

That factor was a direct cause for tense relations between Turkey and Iraq that witnessed Turkish military incursions of Northern Iraq to hunt the Kurdistan Labour Party's elements, and to keep the Kurdish entity under control and surveillance. 

The intransigent Turkish secular elites did not change their approaches with Syria or even all the Arabs. There were negative historical heritages that made the Arabs responsible for the Ottoman State’s defeat in World War I. This was obviously in juxtaposition with the secular Turks who were defending an Ottoman state based on Islam, while in fact they seized every opportunity, after the declaration of the Republic 1923, up to recently, to uproot all what has to do with Islam.

That reflects the extremist racial policies of the secular Turks, not only against the Arabs, but also against all other nationalisms, including that of the Armenian and the Greek.

In spite of the Adana agreement in 1998 and the arrest of Oglan in 1999, which improved relations between Syria and Turkey that was not enough to make a change in the Turkish policies towards the region, The Turkish role towards the Middle East and the Arabs continued as it has been before. The campaign against Islamists inside Turkey increased as part of the tense scene in Turkish Arab relations, except some contacts with the Arab states or forces that have been in harmony with the American policies or signed peace agreements with the Hebrew state.

The Arab Turkish relations were influenced by Turkey’s commitments with the Western camp. Improvement in these relations during the Cold War and 1999s was the outcome of the participation of Islamic forces in authority (or leftist forces). It was a response to pressures from the Turkish street, or to pressing economic needs.  When the Justice and Development Party assumed power in 2002, there was talk of an essential transformation in the Arab Turkish relations. 

This Party’s policy since 2002 was not a result of reactions to events. For the first time in Turkey’s history, it was the outcome of a new vision of Turkey’s status and role in its regional and international sphere. The architect of this vision was the current Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who interpreted his vision of Turkey’s role in his famous book ” The Strategic Depth” which was published in 2001. He depicted the role which Turkey should assume, and gave an exceptional importance to the historical, geographical and cultural depth of Turkey, in its foreign relations. It included focusing on its relations with Arab states.

After the Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, Davutoglu became senior adviser of the Prime Minister Abdullah Ghoul and then Rajab Tayeb Erdogan. He was indeed the central adviser of all the Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East and all regional spheres of Turkey.
This policy has been crystalised within one year of the Party’s assumption of power.

1- Turkey exists in various regional spheres.
2- Turkey should get out of the axis policy and assumes a distance with axes to be a centre to attract others.
3- Turkey should be surrounded with friends not enemies.
4- It should be in good relations with all, with zero problems.
5- Turkey's good relations with an axis, is not an alternative to relations with other axes.
6- Solving problems in the regional sphere should be based on dialogue. And it should use preventive diplomacy to avoid eruption of any problem.
7- This leads to a Turkish role that sees that stability of the regional sphere of Turkey is considered stability for Turkey. That is why Turkey mediated in Balkan, the Indian peninsula, Caucasia, Sudan and Palestine.
8- This new Turkish policy leads to good neighbourhood relations and close cooperation, opening borders, integration and security, political and economic interaction.

Arabs, according to the new Turkish vision, are a cornerstone in this policy as:

1- They are more defined in the historical, geographical and cultural depth more than other neigbours, as they were united with the Ottomans for 400 years.
2- Syria and Iraq, in particular, have a special position as direct neighbours. Therefore a Council of Strategic Cooperation was established in both, and entry visas were cancelled with Syria.
3- At the same time Turkey has been keen to be in contact with all Arab states, especially the rich ones such as Saudi Arabia, Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in general, and has signed with them a treaty of strategic cooperation.
4- Palestine, especially the cause of Jerusalem, was central in the New Turkish policies. The Turkish discourse about Palestine and Jerusalem was beneficial for Turkey's relations with the Arabs and its role in the Middle East.
5- The Arab Turkish relations have achieved a record on the economic level, including exchanged trade and investments.

Thus Turkey managed to gain confidence of most of the Arab states, instead of doubts which characterised relations with the Arab world in the past.

However, Turkey did not enter the Arab world, and consequently the Middle East through historical, cultural, geographical and economic relations.
Turkish political stances concerning the Palestinian question and aggressive Israeli practices, together with Arab and Islamic issues such as American occupation of Iraq, had a great role in Turkey's access to the Arab and Islamic World.

The new Turkish policies and common challenges constituted a broad base for favourable circumstances for Turkey to be a main partner and player in the region. However, on the political dimension, in particular, the Turks in the Arab arena faced a serious challenge due to the Arab division.
One of the major factors in curbing or "trimming" the Turkish breakthrough in the region is the difference between the Turkish policies towards a great number of issues with several policies of the Arab regimes, which block the completion of the Turkish role to its final end.

Thus, that role may return back and concentrate where it can find more favourable conditions in what is called "Opposition forces", and that may take directions which are contrary to what other Arab states want, in curbing the Turkish breakthrough.

For example, the Turkish role finds in its relations with Syria the ideal arena for complete concurrence in all common issues, and that facilitates its access to the Middle East region, especially Syrian insistence on Turkey's mediation with Israel. The same happens with strategic cooperation with Iraq, with some differences.

The Turkish role, on the other hand, faces opposition or reservations or even obstruction in issues of pure political character. For instance the Turkish instance of the Gaza cause and Hamas Movement is met with apprehensions and concern by the "Moderate" states, on the top of which is Egypt. The Turkish role seems to clash with the Egyptian stand (and of course the Israeli one), and it cannot surpasses it or replaces it according to the declared stances of both sides, as the Turkish political stance has been emotionally welcome without any tangible results on the ground.             

The Turkish stance towards the Iranian Nuclear programme is another pattern of discrepancy in some Arab stances from the Turkish stance. The Turkish stance up till now is one of the factors that tends to defend the Iranian Nuclear programme and to protect it from a future strike. That is in contradiction with the desire of several Arab "Moderate" states which want to weaken Iran, not for "nuclear" reasons but for ideological and racial ones.

The challenge that Turkey's role faces by these states pushes it to be more cooperative with the states that welcome it such as Syria, Iran and Iraq that represent the first circle of continuous interest in Turkish national security. Hamas constitutes a unique case that is connected with the resistance consideration which is in harmony with the feelings of the Arab and Islamic street, which considers that the negotiation policy has not motivated Israel to offer anything for the Palestinian question.

It is natural that there are efforts to benefit of the positive Turkish role towards the Arab causes. However, it is complicated to realize that, as long as the Arab Moderate states remain as they are, concerning the issues with which they differ with the Turkish role, it is not realistic to think that the Turkish role may change. The Turkish stances at the moment are related to geographical, moral and Islamic factors, and with economic interests connected with its national security. These factors compel it to follow non-religious, non-ideological and non-racial policies. In this framework, the Turkish role will continue in the Arab arena and will be stronger, whenever it is permitted to have access. But still it remains limited and even paralysed in the states that consider that the Turkish role is in contradiction to their interests and policies.

As for the Turkish role vis-à-vis Israel in the framework of the general Turkish policy in the region, one can argue that Turkish criticism of Israel and its policies is closely connected with the determinants from which Turkey's new policies in its regional spheres have been launched. In its policy to assume the same distance with all states, obliges Turkey to maintain the best relations with the United States, the European Union and Israel. 

Rapprochement with the Arab world does not mean according to this policy, that it will be at the expense of relations with Israel or with America or the European Union. Tense relations between Turkey and Israel from time to time is only natural, because the new Turkish policy has made priorities for the historical, cultural (religious) and geographical depth, by approaching the Arab and Islamic world. Of course Turkey cannot afford to stay hand tied towards the human tragedy which the Palestinian people are exposed to in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That does not mean, at all, that matters will reach a boycott stage with Israel.

1- Turkey's policy under the Justice and Development Party does not arrive to eliminate Israel, but it is controlled by the ceiling of reaching a settlement based on international legitimacy as represented in the UN resolutions which recognized Israel's existence within secured borders.
2- Turkey seeks to establish a Palestinian state on 1967 lands, with Jerusalem as its capital, and return of refugees or compensating them, under the Arab Peace Initiative. 
3- Accordingly Turkey seeks to urge Hamas Movement to stop launching missiles against Israel, and to recognize Israel with 1967 borders, but Hamas rejected that.
4- Turkey's mediating role is one of its sources of strength and its existence in the region, and it is not possible that it may boycott Israel, because this will mean to end its role as mediator and to weaken Turkey. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria invited Turkey to keep good relations with Israel in order to continue its mediating role between Israel and Syria, and in the region.
5- Turkey has good relations with Israel on economic, security and military levels, and governments of the Justice and Development Party are in favour of continuing these relations.
6- The declared strategic target of the Party is to join the European Union. It is not possible that Turkey as an EU member can have bad relations with Israel.
7- Turkey is also a member of NATO, which constitutes the final umbrella for Israel in the future. Turkey has either to accept that orientation and remain a NATO member or get out. Turkey's option up till now is to stay.
8- As most Turkey's problems are either "Christian" or Western, such as the Armenian, Cypriot and Greek issues. As Turkey is part of the political and security stability in Balkan and Europe, it cannot have deteriorating relations with the United States and the European Union, or consequently with Israel.

Although Turkey under the Justice and Development Party has taken some actions against Israel or criticized it as a threat to peace in the region, nevertheless it has maintained its relations with it.

Increasing relations between Turkey and the Arab world could have constituted a historical turning point and a change in regional balances of power in favour of both Turkey and the Arab world. But Arab division has not allowed benefiting of this new Turkish orientation. However, the positive Turkish stance towards Arab causes is still an asset for the Arabs in case they are united, and determined to face the Israeli plans to liquidate the Palestinian question.

The Turkish stance can be a factor of deterrence and balance in inter-Arab relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It can also play the same role in Western Iranian relations and in Arab Iranian relations.

Source: Journal of Arab Affairs, issue 142
Cairo, Summer 2010
A periodical issued by the Secretariat General of the League of Arab States

Added: Friday, August 06, 2010
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