Inevitably, Syria Pushes Turkey and Israel Closer

07/26/2012 11:14 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012
  • Yavuz Baydar Columnist, co-founder of Punto24, Contributing Commentator: The Guardian

The drama unfolding is of similar magnitude, reminiscent of a Middle East in the 1960s or 70s. This time, waves of the Arab Unrest beats the shores of the non-Arab neighborhood: with Egypt undergoing immense change, Lebanon on shaky ground and, certainly, Syria getting closer day by day to a collapse. It is the latter that concerns more than anything else, if we consider the past two years of turbulence from Maghreb all the way to Mashrek.

"What will follow is not clear, given the mixed and divided nature of the opposition. This much we know: On the fate of Syria hangs the fate of the earth's most combustible region," wrote Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian.

Combustion is ahead in the not too distant future. As opposed to the former Yugoslavia, "Syria will not implode, it will explode," to echo a commonly shared view from Washington DC. Given the devilish, murderous nature of rule tied to the Assad dynasty, its collective memory and its well proven ways of shaping policies based on horror and terror, it is only natural that many a ricochet will be scattered around its neighborhood - not if, but when it does.

People come to realize now that if the Assad clan's base shatters for real, those very deep consequences will indeed be underway.

"What began with Nasser in Egypt -- or even Atatürk in Turkey -- will end with Assad: the regime that represses local and ethnic difference in the name of nationalism centered cultishly on the leader. In its place will come at first the chaos of hundreds of new parties and an even greater number of mediocre politicians. But eventually it will pave the way for a post-dictatorship Middle East, a place where rulers stand or fall not on their ability to exploit problems as moves in a geopolitical power game, but to solve them instead," according to Freedland.

If these forecasts are true, what could be done by two key countries in the region neighboring Syria, namely Turkey and Israel, needs a good elaboration. As days go by, this question is moving into the center. It is, more than any other actors, these two which feel the increasing pressure. As they do, they come also to realize how converging their interests, as two stable democracies in the region, are.

The last days brought a new dimension that brings together two old allies and new foes, on common concerns: The collapse of the old order in Syria is real, irreversible.

If Assad is rapidly losing territorial control as it was assessed by respected analysts, (namely a loss of around 70 percent currently, after pulling back from the Kurdish northeast), what became visible in the peripheries of Syria proper needs quick, efficient thinking: No matter if Turkish intelligence data that Bashar el-Assad ordered the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) alongside the Turkish border to be equipped with weaponry is true, Turkey faces a new phase,which means that the Kurds of Syria have now moved in to declare a liberated zone. This certainly means, too, that the PKK, operational in Iraqi Kurdistan, will attempt to spread its deadly activities alongside the 910 km long Syrian-Turkish border. So, how Turkey's AKP government will manage Syrian Kurds' peaceful integration into a new Syria, by eliminating the destabilizing effect of the PKK, is a huge challenge.

Challenges of similar nature applies to Israel, with the lethal arch-enemy Hezbollah located on its northern border. No matter if Israeli intelligence data that Assad is on the brink of handing over some of his chemical weapons to that area, it is certainly alarming enough.

You could see it coming: The dissolution of the Baathist state increases the burden of Israel and Turkey, threatening their stability, but more importantly demanding a very close cooperation.

Yet, here you have two powerful, democratic, key allies that stopped talking to each other.
And, it must be said, objectively, that Israeli governments in the past five years or so, managed to prove how mistrustful, myopic and arrogant they have been towards Turkey by refusing a Turkish-sponsored deal with Syria, undermining relations badly with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and refusing to apologize for a crime committed (by killing 10 people, of which 7 were conservative Kurds from Turkey!) in international waters.

Their dispute will remain a heavy burden mainly on Israel, but also (to a much lesser degree on Turkey) if things roll out of control in the region as Assad's order collapses. Both Israel and Turkey could make a difference now. It is interesting to see, however, the big differences in how their governments judge the reality.

Concerned as it is, Ankara is aware of the fact that changes in Iraq and Syria may come to mean a change of the political status of the region's Kurds. It therefore is keen to strike a balance between the fight against the PKK terror, as it assists in the coordination of efforts to "win over other Kurds" to the side of regime changes. It therefore relies its efforts increasingly to Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its leader, Massoud Barzani, handing him a pivotal role to be part of the shaping of the new order in the post-Assad period. The AKP's voters and reformist circles all back these nuanced policies. Ankara remains - so far - closer to realism.

The mood is based on shocking şindifference in Israel, both on political and social level. Israel's public remains aloof and thinks deeply about the profound changes that take place all around them. A recent news analysis in the New York Times helped reveal the sad fact that for Israel it is still all, only about security, without the slightest need of revision of its decades old, ineffective policies.

Eyal Zisser, chairman of the Middle East and African history department at Tel Aviv University, told the NYT: "Most Israelis do not care about the grievances and the aspirations of their neighbors, democracy, justice, prosperity. They care about their own security. That's the way of the average Israeli, and as a result, his government."

But, the Israeli government now shows some rays of hope to liberate itself from its frozen mental state, stuck in the 'old order', which consists only of security concerns and nothing else. The fact that both Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, and Avigdor Lieberman, Foreign Minister, rather hastily met a group of Turkish journalists in Jerusalem is revealing enough of a new 'search mood', to be prepared for the unknown consequences of post-Assad period.

Both Israeli politicians sounded very keen to 'restore relations' with Turkey. (Deterioration in relations started at the end of 2008 when Israel, on the verge of concluding a peace agreement with Syria, with Turkey acting as the mediator, suddenly bombarded the Gaza Strip in a devastating assault, eliminating all hopes for peace with Syria. Turkey's Prime Minister felt deceived at the time and had the impression that its efforts to bring about peace were not given due respect by Israel. Then came the Davos summit in Switzerland in January 2009, where Erdoğan, feeling humiliated by Olmert then, spoke out against Shimon Peres for bombarding Gaza and walked out of the forum. Then in May 2010 came the raid by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara that led to the death of nine Turkish civilians.)

Daily Today's Zaman reported Netanyahu as saying: '"In a region where instability reigns, Israel and Turkey are two quite stable countries. I believe in [our] common interest.' Other Israeli sources maintained that, 'In our region, swift changes have been taking place. Circumstances may lead you to the national interest, and the national interest forms the will."

Netanyahu was also keen to indicate that a 'magic formula' was being sought to mend the relations. Israel is expected to apologize but stops short of that due to the national pride - or vanity. So, a magic formula may mean a proper way out of a deadlock, appeasing enough for Ankara and the Turkish public.

The restoration is highly acute and well needed. Two allies must trust and never let down each other , building a relation on honesty.

New thinking is also needed badly in these dire times.

Turkey may be criticized for its "zero problem with neighbors'' policy, but this parrot-like repeated view blocks many others from seeing that Israel stands out as insisting on maintaining a "zero neighbors without problems" policy instead of being part of the architecture of the new region. A new opening between Israel and Turkey will truly be a game changer, for the future stability of the region and the safety of its inhabitants.