The Iranian nuclear issue and the chain of disasters that the people of the Middle East have brought upon themselves, called the "Arab Spring," have placed Turkey in a rather bleak situation.
...Sunnis and the Shi’ites in the Middle East...are hostile to each other
- ...on one side is the Shi’ite coalition that comprises Iran, Iraq and Hizb’Allah, which support the bloody, Shi’a-aligned Alawite regime, and
- on the other side is the Sunni coalition whose members are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as a few other countries who offer background support, principally Jordan and Egypt.
Today we will focus on the Turkish-Kurdish-Egyptian triangle, in which interests trump principles...
The whole regional alignment that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu planned has collapsed on the heads of the Turks who already are not cheering for Erdoğan as if he was the Almighty’s all-powerful deputy. In his distress, he searches out new friends, but – alas – it turns out that they are beggars, desperately poor. ....
The Syrian morass is about to drown the Assad regime in blood, fire and tears, but it may also pull Turkey into its bedlam as well. It is clear to everyone that the Assad regime will fall, and the question is who will be there to grab as much as possible of what’s left of Syria....
The Kurds are the Big Winners
After the First World War, when, under European influence, the superpowers divided up the Middle East into states, the Kurds were forgotten, neglected and betrayed. They were divided up among four states: Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. No one took their national aspirations seriously, and everyone thought that the Kurds would abandon them. The fact that they suffered oppression in all of these four states, as well as having a unique language and culture, enabled them to preserve themselves as a living and viable ethnic unit with aspirations of brotherhood and independence that were expressed over the years in bloody battles for their freedom. But the sectarianism and the tribalism among the Kurds did not help them in achieving their shared goals.
The “Kurdish Spring” began twenty-two years ago, when Saddam Hussein was prohibited from flying his air force over the Kurdish district of Iraq. When the skies became free of enemies, it allowed the Kurds to develop social and political mechanisms that resulted in the creation of the independent Iraqi Kurdistan: A flag, political parties, media, elections, parliament, government, an economic system and more than anything else, the Pesh-Merga, an army that fiercely defends all that the Kurds have achieved. These are the components of independence that Iraqi Kurdistan has been enjoying for years with the protection of the United States, in spite of Turkey’s wrath. Iraqi Kurdistan has become a base for the organization, training and arming of the “Kurdish Workers’ Party”, PKK, which conducts bloody warfare against the Turkish government.
The actual independence that Iraqi Kurdistan has succeeded to establish, mainly since the downfall of Saddam in 2003, has encouraged and energized the Kurds of Turkey to struggle for independence from the yoke of the Turks. The declining efficacy of the Syrian regime since March 2011 has caused the Kurds of Syria to take up the idea of independence as well. Most Kurds in Syria live in the district of Hasaka in the Northeast section of the country, close to Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan.
In recent months many Kurds have moved from Syria to Iraq in order to train and organize fighting units in Kurdish military camps (Pesh-Merga), and then return to Syria to defend their families there. When the Syrian Kurds also realize the dream of freedom, Erdoğan will have to cope with three Kurdish fronts: Iraqi, Syrian and local. He wants Assad to be overthrown, but is not at all gratified by what is already occurring in the field: the disintegration of Syria and the development of another Kurdistan in Syria.
Turkey supports the Arabs in Syria who are rebelling against Assad, so Assad – in revenge – is helping the PKK, the Turkish Kurds who are rebelling against Erdoğan. In return, the members of this Kurdish underground help the Syrian army in the difficult battle for Aleppo, and the alliance between Assad and the PKK is anathema to the Syrian Kurds, who want to overthrow him.
The Truth Comes to Light
Since the Islamic Party of Justice and Development came to power in Turkey ten years ago, it has changed the direction of foreign relations so that it faces to the East: the connections with Syria, Iraq and Iran have flourished, and Israel has paid the price. The policy of “Zero Problems” conceived by the foreign minister, Davutoğlu, was supposed to place Turkey in the role of the “responsible adult,” the regional mediator and peacemaker, who would be able to reward those under its authority with tempting economic agreements. Turkey cancelled the need for a visa for Syrian citizens, and Erdoğan and Assad were photographed together hugging and smiling. The Turkish economy flourished and had an amazing annual growth rate of 8 percent. It was all looking good, until the end of 2010.
The Iranian nuclear issue and the chain of disasters that the people of the Middle East have brought upon themselves, called the “Arab Spring,” have placed Turkey in a rather bleak situation: Iran is running afoul of the West and suffering from sanctions, and Turkey cannot function as the peacemaker and mediator between Iran and the West. Erdoğan’s suggestions to store enriched uranium in Turkey have remained undecided. The deteriorating situation in Syria is worsening internal tensions in Turkey between Kurds and Turks and between Muslims and Alawites, and causes a burden to the Turkish economy because of the arrival of approximately one hundred thousand Syrian refugees, so far. This figure might increase in the near future.
Repeated calls for the Turkish leadership to impose upon Syria a no-fly zone over the cities are not acted upon, and no one takes them seriously. Iran threatens Turkey with attack if it gets involved in Syria, despite the fact that companies in Turkey help Iran to bypass the international sanctions that are imposed upon it. Russia backs up Iran, and the United States does not volunteer to support Turkey as long as it is ruled by the Islamist party, despite agreeing to place in the area of Turkey a radar system meant to defend Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles. The complications with Israel and its refusal to apologize for killing nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara makes the Turkish leadership look weak.
The Turkish economy is weakening, foreign investments are declining, inflation is rising, Europe, also in crisis, is buying fewer products produced in Turkey and the Arab market has disappeared. Iran supplies oil and gas to Turkey, but the tension between them endangers their economic relationship. The urgent need for energy drives the Turkish leaders to press Israel and Cypress “to take Turkey into account” regarding the apportionment of gas from the bed of the Mediterranean Sea.
Europe does not support these Turkish demands, and there are dark shadows regarding Turkish relations with NATO: Turkey still does not forget or forgive Europe for refusing to accept it into the European Union, despite the fact that this refusal would have absolved Turkey from supporting Greece and would have saved it from some of its economic difficulties. Turkey does not support NATO in the issue of Afghanistan just as it did not support the West in its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The crisis in Syria reveals the truth about the regime in Turkey, because it has placed itself in the forefront of the Sunni, anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iranian front. The slaughter of Muslims by Alawites drives Erdoğan mad; about once a week he makes radical statements against Assad and his regime. However, up until recently this talk has not been translated into direct military action, and it has been reduced to background support for Syrian opposition organizations, supply of weapons, equipment and money for the Free Syrian Army, establishment of training bases for Assad’s opposition and supplying intelligence about the movements of Assad’s army and his operational plans against them.
Turkey is being sucked into the increasing power vacuum in Syria, while on one hand it acts to overthrow the regime of Assad and the ‘Alawites, on the other hand it doesn’t want Syria to disintegrate. Erdoğan, like Netanyahu, also fears the spread of weapons of mass destruction into irresponsible hands, and the presence of Hizb’Allah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria is very troubling in this context. The Turkish parliament gave a green light to the government to go to war with the Assad regime, and Erdoğan speaks of war against Syria as if it is something that may happen at any moment. The downing of the Turkish jet in June of this year, the rumors of the execution of the pilots in cold blood, border incidents between the two states, in which civilians and military people from both sides are killed, might easily deteriorate into a wider conflict with many casualties, because in this case Assad will fight with the mindset of “Let me die with the Philistines.”
But Erdoğan has another reason to avoid an inclusive confrontation with Syria: the military.
A fairly large proportion of Turkish soldiers are Kurds, and they may refuse to fight or they may even sabotage fighting equipment and the actions of the Turkish military if they feel that Kurdish interests are endangered. The Kurdish soldiers will not fight against their brothers in Syria in order to prevent them from having a state, and in general it is not clear how much motivation the Turkish military has to go to an elective war with Syria on Syrian soil.
The opposition in Turkey accuses Erdoğan of harming relations with Syria in order to engage it in war and vanquish it, and then to go to elections in 2014 to win the presidency of Turkey. The opposition also accuses Erdoğan with intending to change the constitution in such a way as to make it into a presidential regime, which would award to the president most of the executive authorities, as in the United States or France. A war against the exhausted Syrian military would necessarily bring victory to Erdoğan, in the battle field as well as the ballot box. He of course denies that it is his intention to pit Turkey against Syria in a war, just to promote his name and his status.
The Role of Egypt
In the context of the regional chaos that Erdoğan has gotten Turkey into, he seeks friends who will consult with him and support him. Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood is a natural choice. The Turkish and Egyptian navies are holding a joint exercise these days. The exercise, which is called “The Sea of Friendship” (Bahr al-Sadaqa), is held in Egypt. The Turkish navy participates in the exercise with two frigates, a fast attack ship, a tanker, two landing crafts, two helicopters, a battalion of marine infantry and a naval commando team. This is the second time that the Egyptian and Turkish navies are training together. The declared purpose of the event is for the two fleets to develop cooperation and the capability for joint action.
A few days ago, on the 6th of October, President Mursi spoke in front of an audience of tens of thousands of military people, on the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the victory of the October War and one hundred days since Mursi assumed power. He is well aware of Egypt’s economic problems that force it to be dependent on the mercy of others and to carry out a policy that is not consistent with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. To strengthen Egypt’s independence he requested economic help from Turkey in the amount of a billion dollars, and he got it.
Mursi presented his achievements since he rose to power at the end of June as the first president of Egypt who was elected in free elections, but emphasized also the challenges that Egypt faces.
His detractors, despite this, say that Mursi is not perfect, and victory in elections is not a guarantee of proper performance. They accuse him of appointing his friends according to loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood, not according to their abilities. The event of the 6th of October, which included a military march as part of the ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of Egypt’s war with Israel in 1973, was a demonstration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power, both in Egypt and outside it.
Mursi said that he has achieved seventy percent of his goals. Egypt requested from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) a loan of almost 5 billion dollars in order to help strengthen the economy, and according to officials, the IMF demands Mursi to reorganize the system of subsidies as one of the conditions for the loan. The implication of this demand is higher prices, which may create tensions between the government and the people. Mursi prefers to receive the loan without exacting from the people a high price for basic food items. He blames Mubarak’s regime for corruption and stealing billions that belong to the people, but there is a limit as to how much Mursi will be able to blame Mubarak, because he was elected in order to cope with problems, not to whine about them.
For Mursi, Turkey is a model of success: an Islamic government, traditional society, developed economy, large and mighty military, strong international standing, friendly relations with both East and West. Between Mursi and Erdoğan there are differences of opinion regarding Syria, because Mursi claims all the time that foreign countries should not become involved with Syria, while Erdoğan calls for international involvement. Nevertheless, regarding what is happening in Syria, they see eye to eye and view with great distress and pain the horrors that are occurring there, recorded on video for all the world to see.
They are both Sunni Muslims, leaders of Sunni nations, and fear the role that Shi’ite Iran is playing in Syria particularly and in the Middle East in general. They are worried by the Iranian nuclear project, Iranian agitation, and the Iranian ability to undermine regimes from within and take over a country as happened, for example, in Lebanon and in Iraq.
Both of them control international waterways, the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles in Turkey, and they both can cause disturbances in the marine traffic of the Shi’ite coalition and its supporters, Iran and Russia, on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, to support the Syrian regime. This apparently is the reason for the fact that the Turkish-Egyptian exercise was naval, and not land-based.
It is not clear if the strengthening connection between Egypt and Turkey will change the balance of power in the region, however it definitely must be taken into account when the subject is – for example – the naval blockade that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip. What would happen if and when Mursi and Erdoğan decide to cash in on the sympathy they would earn (at the expense of Israel) by sending a shipment of “humanitarian support” to Gaza in the ships of the two navies? What would Israel do then? Would NATO do? And the United States?
*Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.