The smoke screen given to the United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel has lifted. But then, no one really bought the thesis that it was a mere kiss-and-make-up visit aimed at improving Obama’s personal chemistry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that prompted the US president to jet down to the Middle East in a rare overseas trip.
The expose came dramatically at the fag end of the visit just as Obama was about to get into the presidential jet at Tel Aviv airport on Friday. Right on the tarmac, from a makeshift trailer, he dialed up Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and after a brief exchange of pleasantries, he handed the phone to Netanyahu who thereupon went on to do what he had adamantly refused to do for the past two years – render a formal apology to Turkey over the killing of nine of its nationals in 2010 who were travelling in a flotilla on a humanitarian mission to help the beleaguered Palestinians in the Gaza enclave.
The Gaza incident had ripped apart Turkish-Israeli relations and things deteriorated sharply when Tel Aviv point blank refused to render an apology and pay compensation, as Ankara demanded. This is probably the first time in its entire diplomatic history that Israel, which pays much attention to its «macho» image, went down on its knees to render a national apology to a foreign country for sins committed. But then, the breakdown in ties with Israel left Israel stranded and helpless in the region, reduced to the role of a mere spectator at a historic juncture when the region is going through an upheaval.
The alliance with Turkey is vital to Israel to safeguard its core interests. In his statement welcoming the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation, US secretary of state pointedly said that the development «will help Israel meet the many challenges it faces in the region» and a full normalization between the two counties will enable them to «work together to advance their common interests».
The telephone conversation at Tel Aviv airport didn’t happen all of a sudden. In a background story, senior Turkish editor Murat Yetkin who is a well-informed commentator in Ankara disclosed that according to «high-ranking sources», Washington had approached Ankara a few weeks ago with the demarche that Obama wished to work on a rapprochement between Erdogan and Netanyahu and hoped to utilize his Israeli visit as a mediatory mission. Yetkin wrote:
As Ankara said they could accept the good offices of the U.S. to have an agreement with Israel, based on an apology, the diplomacy started. Before the start of Obama’s visit on March 20, diplomatic drafts about the terms of a possible agreement started to go back and forth between Ankara and Jerusalem under the auspices of U.S. diplomacy.
Tell tale signs
The big question is why has Turkish-Israeli normalization become so terribly important for Obama who has his hands full with so many problem areas – and, equally, for Erdogan and Netanyahu as well? The answer is to be found in the testimony given by the head of US European Command and NATO’s top military commander Adm. James Stavridis before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last Monday on the eve of Obama’s departure from Washington for Israel.
Stavridis advised the US lawmakers that a more aggressive posture by the US and its allies could help break the stalemate in Syria. As he put it, «My personal opinion is that would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the [Syrian] regime.» The influential US senator John McCain pointedly queried Stavridis about the possible role of NATO in an intervention in Syria. Stavridis replied that the NATO is preparing for a range of contingencies. «We [NATO] are looking at a wide range of operations and we are prepared if called upon to be engaged we were in Libya,» he said.
Stavridis went on to explain that the NATO Patriot missiles now deployed in Turkey ostensibly for the sake of defending Turkish airspace has the capability also to attack Syrian air force in that country’s air space and that any such a NATO operation would be a «powerful disincentive» for the Syrian regime.
Equally significant is that the NATO warships of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 [SNMGI], which arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean in late February, visited the Turkish naval base of Aksaz (where Turkey’s Southern Task Group maintains special units such as «underwater attack») recently, en route to joining last week the US Strike Group consisting of the Aircraft Carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and escorts. The SNMGI forms part of the NATO Response Force, which is permanently activated and is held at high readiness in order to respond to security challenges.
Thus, the picture that emerges – alongside other tell tale signs lately – is that a western military intervention in Syria could be in the making. A major consideration could be the timing. Iran is preparing for a crucial presidential election in June and will be heavily preoccupied with its domestic politics for the coming several months thereafter.
Obama is moving carefully factoring in that any commitment of US troops on the ground in Syria is out of the question. The US public opinion will militate against another war. But the US and NATO (and Israel) can give valuable air cover and can launch devastating missile attacks on the Syrian government’s command centres.
The western powers would focus on eliminating President Bashar al-Assad rather than display shock and awe and physically occupy the country, as George W. Bush unwisely did in the Iraq war. However, after degrading the regime comprehensively, if ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria, Turkey can always undertake such a mission. In fact, Turkey is uniquely placed undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.
However, the crucial operational aspect will be that in order for the US-NATO-Turkish operation to be optimal, Israel also needs to be brought in. A close cooperation between Turkey and Israel at the operational level can be expected to swiftly pulverize the Syrian regime from the north and south simultaneously. Hence the diligence with which Obama moved to heal the Turkish-Israeli rift.
Turkey of course has strong motivations – historical, political, military and economic – to invade Syria with which it has ancient scores to settle. The Baa’thist regime in Damascus never accepted Turkish hegemony in the Levant and a strong and assertive Syria has been a thorn in the Turkish flesh. Besides, there are simmering territorial claims.
For Israel too, the comprehensive destruction of Syria as a major military power in the Middle East means that all three major Arab powers which could offer defiance to Israel in the past and have been the repositories of «Arabism» at one time or another – Iraq, Egypt and Syria – have been dispatched to the Stone Age.
But the revival of Turkish-Israeli strategic axis has other major implications as well for regional security. From Erdogan’s point of view, he has thoroughly milked the last ounce, politically speaking, by his grandstanding against Israel and Zionism to bolster his image in the «Arab Street» as a true Muslim leader who never lacked courage to stand up for the Arab cause.
He probably senses that Netanyahu’s «apology» will boost his standing even further as a Muslim leader who made Israel blink in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. But, having said that, as an astute politician, Erdogan also would size up that henceforth the law of diminishing returns is at work and he might as well now think of seeking some help from Israel.
The point is, Erdogan is currently pushing for a negotiated deal with the Kurdish militants belonging to the PKK. Last week, it appeared that his efforts may have met with some success. The PKK leader who is incarcerated in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan, has called for the vacation of the Kurdish militia from Turkish soil, which brings an end to the heavy bloodletting in Turkey’s eastern provinces for the past year and more.
No more pretensions
A curious detail that cannot be lost sight of is that Ocalan always kept contacts with the US operatives, while Israeli intelligence always kept a strong presence in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Quite obviously, there could be a back-to-back arrangement on the PKK problem between Washington, Ankara and Tel Aviv, which would work well for all three protagonists.
It could buy peace for Turkish armed forces from the Kurdish fighters and in turn enable them to concentrate on the forthcoming Syrian operation. Turkey has traditionally depended on Israel to provide it with actionable intelligence on the Kurdish militant groups.
At a broader level, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation will help NATO’s future role in the Middle East. The US hopes to introduce NATO on a long-term basis as the peacekeeper in the Levant – massive energy reserves have been discovered in the Levant Basin in recent years – and a prerequisite for this would be close coordination with Israel.
The NATO’s efforts in the past four to five years to bring Israel into full play in Eastern Mediterranean as a virtual member country of the alliance were proceeding well until they hit the bump of the Turkish-Israeli rift in 2010. During the past two years, Turkey has doggedly blocked NATO’s plans to integrate Israel into its partnership program. Ankara even prevented the NATO from extending invitation to Israel to attend the alliance’s sixtieth anniversary summit in Chicago in 2010.
Suffice to say, in terms of the overall strategic balance in the Middle East, NATO’s projection as a global organization capable of acting as a net provider of security for the region – with or without UN mandate – will be optimal only with Israel’s participation.
Equally, Turkish-Israeli collaboration at the security and military level has profound implications for the Iran question. Turkey sees Iran as a rival in the Middle East while Israel regards Iran as an existential threat. Both Turkey and Israel estimate that Iran’s surge as regional power poses challenge to their own long-term regional ambitions. Thus, there is a Turkish-Israeli congruence of interests at work with regard to containing Iran in the region.
The Turkish-Israeli axis can be expected to play a crucial role in the coming months if the US ever decides to attack Iran.
In sum, Obama’s mediatory mission to Israel and his stunning success in healing the Turkish-Israeli rift resets the compass of Middle Eastern politics. In a way, American regional policies are returning to their pristine moorings of perpetuating the western hegemony in the Middle East in the 21st century, no matter how.
In the process, the Palestinian problem has been relegated to the backburner; Obama didn’t even bother to hide that he feels no particular sense of urgency about the Middle East peace process. The resuscitation of the Turkish-Israeli strategic axis gives the unmistakable signal that the Obama administration is shifting gear for an outright intervention in Syria to force «regime change». Thereupon, the strong likelihood is that Iran will come in the US-Israeli-Turkish crosshairs…
Turbulent times indeed lie ahead for the Middle East and Obama’s Israel visit will be looked upon in retrospect as a defining moment in his presidency when he cast aside conclusively and openly even his residual pretensions of being a pacifist. Indeed, he can be sure of a rare consensus in the Congress applauding his mission to Israel, which could have interesting fallouts for his domestic agenda as well. Netanyahu can help ensure that.