Πέμπτη, 29 Ιανουαρίου 2015

US, Turkey, Israel and new challenges in the Middle East

ROBERT OLSON


Most US media coverage of the Middle East focuses on the "war against terrorism," »»
Most US media coverage of the Middle East focuses on the "war against terrorism," the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Palestine-Israel conflict, oil and Iran's nuclear program. It must have been surprising, at least to American readers, to read during the past two weeks about the clashing of interests between two non-Arab countries -- Turkey and Israel -- both of them vital geostrategic countries for the US.
While Turkey remained neutral in World War II, it did join the UN in 1945 and NATO in 1952. It is the only non-European country in NATO with the exception of the US. More importantly it is the only Muslim country in the alliance.
Almost all analysts of Middle East politics are of the opinion that the alliance was for security reasons -- to increase the West's projection of power to the Soviet Union, including Eastern Europe, and had little to do with shared religions or cultural values.
As Greek scholar Ekavi Athanassopoulou has argued in her recent "Strategic Relations Between the US and Turkey, 1979-2000," the US-Turkey relationship was embedded in several defense cooperation agreements (DCA) from 1969 to 2000 -- the most important of which was the 1980 DCA, which led to some $20 billion in defense aid and grants in the subsequent years. This aid and grants enable Turkey to build up its defense infrastructure.
The US-Turkey relationship has remained strong to the present despite some differences and temporary disputes, particularly over Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1973. In the 1990s, Turkey was declared a "pivotal state" with the support of pro-Israel and Jewish lobbies. Turkey was thought to be instrumental for Israel to create a non-Arab periphery and, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, against Iran.
This raises the question: What has recently led to a diminishing of relations between Israel and Turkey? There are several important political and geopolitical reasons. One is that after several decades of military-dominated governments, in November 2002 an Islamist, non-military-dominated government called the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power with voting bases outside of the largely Western cities of Turkey. Two, the new government rejected joining the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Three, Turkey's not joining the US invasion allowed the US to align with the Kurds of Iraq. This further consolidated Kurds' power in northern Iraq, which has now assumed nearly independent status.
While Ankara has established decent relations with the Kurds of Iraq since 2003, it is bitter about the US invasions of 1991 and 2003, which have allowed the Kurds of Iraq a quasi-state status. The two invasions have also contributed to Turkey's Kurds striving to attain the autonomous state that their compatriots in Iraq have attained.
A second major difference between the US and Turkey involves Turkey's relations with Israel. Turkey's relations with Israel have by and large been good since 1952, when Turkey joined NATO. After the AKP came to power, relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv have remained decent but there are disagreements. Turkey, being a largely Sunni country, has sought to have good relations with the Sunni Arab countries and peoples for cultural, religious, economic and trade purposes. It has also supported the Palestinians, including Hamas. It is this support that has led to the latest vituperations between the two countries. Turkey was strongly opposed to French President François Hollande allowing Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to join the “Je suis Charlie” demonstrations on Jan. 11.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who did not attend the demonstration, stated that Netanyahu was a “person who massacred 2,500 people in Gaza.” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who did attend the demonstration, accused Netanyahu of “crimes against humanity.” Israeli spokespersons fired back that Erdoğan was an “anti-Semitic bully.”
The name-calling continued into mid-January, when there were reports that Turkey had sent arms, including missiles and rockets, to the ISIL and al-Nusra terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. This would mean that Turkey, as a member of the "US-led coalition against ISIL" was actually supporting groups carrying out terrorism.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu did state on Jan. 15 that 700 Turkish nationals were indeed fighting with ISIL forces, confirming previous reports and rumors. Trying to shore up Turkey's anti-terrorism credentials, Çavuşoğlu did state that Turkey had prevented 7,250 people from joining ISIL and has deported 1,160 foreign nationals.
Turkey, which had accused Israel of “waging state terror,” now stands to be accused by Israel that Turkey itself is a state waging terrorism.
The US State Department has condemned the anti-Semitic discourse of both Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. State Department spokespersons also emphasized that Turkey is an important US and NATO ally.
It will be interesting to observe how relations develop between the US's “unshakeable, enduring and sacrosanct” Israeli ally and its long-time geostrategic Turkish ally and NATO member.
Turkey has scheduled parliamentary elections for June. In order to strengthen its position in the polls, the ruling AKP may seek to further expand its appeal to conservative religious elements, including the Kurds, by criticizing Israel's actions against the Palestinians.
Turkey is also concerned about Israel's cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus and, by extension, Greece over the exploitation of large oil and gas deposits in the east Mediterranean. Turkey does not possess large reservoirs of oil and gas, although it is exploring potential reservoirs in the Black Sea. Notably, the major oil company exploiting the oil and gas deposits in the exclusive economic zones of Cyprus and Israel, along with Israeli companies, is Noble Energy -- an American company.
Much is at stake for all three countries.

*Robert Olson is a Middle East analyst based in Lexington, Kentucky.

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