Change has come to the Middle East.
Over the past several weeks, multiple press reports indicate that Turkey is collaborating militarily with Syria in a joint campaign against the Kurds of Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Turkey is a member of NATO. It fields the Western world’s top weapons systems.
Syria is Iran’s junior partner. It is a state sponsor of multiple terrorist organizations and a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction.
Last September, as Turkey’s Islamist government escalated its anti-Israel rhetoric, Turkey and Syria signed a slew of economic and diplomatic agreements. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made clear at the time, Turkey was using those agreements as a way to forge close alliances not only with Syria, but with Iran.
“We may establish similar mechanisms with Iran and other mechanisms. We want our relationship with our neighbors to turn into maximum cooperation via the principle of zero problems,” Davutoglu proclaimed.
And now those agreements have reportedly paved the way to military cooperation. Syrian President Bashar Assad has visited Istanbul twice in the past month and then two weeks ago, on the Kurdish New Year, Syrian forces launched an operation against Kurdish population centers throughout Syria.
Wednesday Alarabiya reported that hundreds of Kurds have been killed in recent weeks. The Syrian government media claim that eleven Kurds have been killed. There are conflicting reports as well about the number of Kurds that have been arrested since the onslaught began. Kurdish sources say 630 have been arrested. The Turkish media claims four hundred Kurds have been arrested by Syrian security forces.
Alarabiya also claimed that the Syrian campaign is being supported by the Turkish military. Turkish military advisors are reportedly using the same intelligence tool for tracking Kurds in Syria as they have used against the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq: Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles.
Even if the Alarabiya report is untrue, and Turkey is not currently using Israeli-manufactured weapons in the service of Syria, the very fact that Syria has military cooperation of any kind with Turkey is dangerous for Israel. Over the past twenty years, as its alliance with Turkey expanded, Israel sold Turkey some of the most sensitive intelligence gathering systems and other weapons platforms it has developed. With Turkey’s rapid integration into the Iranian axis, Israel must now assume that if Turkey is not currently sharing those Israeli military and intelligence technologies and tools with its enemies, Ankara is likely to share them with Israel’s enemies in the future.
Obviously, the least Israel could be expected to do in this situation is cut off all military ties to Turkey. But amazingly and distressingly, Israel’s leaders seem not to have recognized this. To the contrary, Israel is scheduled to deliver four additional Heron drones to Turkey next month.
Even more discouragingly, both the statements and actions of senior officials lead to the conclusion that our leaders still embrace the delusion that all is not lost with Turkey. Speaking the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee earlier this month, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi told lawmakers, “What happens in Turkey is not always done with the agreement of the Turkish military. Relations with the Turkish army are important and they need to be preserved. I am personally in touch with the Turkish Chief of Staff.”
As Turkish columnist Abdullah Bozkurt wrote last week in Today’s Zaman, Ashkenazi’s claim that there is a distinction between Turkish government policies and Turkish military policies is “simply wishful thinking and do[es] not correspond with the hard facts on the ground.”
Bozkurt explained, “Ashkenazi may be misreading the signals based on a personal relationship he has built with outgoing Turkish military Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Babu. The force commanders are much more worried about the rise in terror in the southeastern part of the country, and pretty much occupied with the legal problems confronting them after some of their officers, including high-ranking ones, were accused of illegal activities. The last thing the top brass wants is to give an impression that they are cozying up with Israelis….”
As described by Michael Rubin in the current issue of Commentary, those “legal problems” Bozkurt referred to are part of a government campaign to crush Turkey’s secular establishment. As the constitutionally appointed guarantors of Turkey’s secular republic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government targeted the military high command for destruction.
Two years ago, a state prosecutor indicted 86 senior Turkish figures including retired generals, prominent journalists, professors and other pillars of Turkey’s former secular leadership for supposedly plotting a coup against the Islamist regime. By all accounts the 2,455-page indictment was frivolous. But its impact on Turkey’s once all-powerful military has been dramatic.
As Rubin writes, “Bashed from the religious right and the progressive left, the Turkish military is a shadow of its former self. The current generation of generals is out of touch with Turkish society and, perhaps, their own junior officers. Like frogs who fail to jump from a pot slowly brought to a boil, the Turkish general staff lost its opportunity to exercise its constitutional duties.”
And yet, rather than come to terms with this situation, and work to minimize the dangers that an Iranian- and Syrian-allied Turkey poses, Israel’s government and our senior military leaders are still trying to bring the alliance with Turkey back from the dead. Last month’s disastrous “top secret” meeting between Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Davutoglu is case in point.
Far from ameliorating the situation, these sorts of gambits only compound the damage. By denying the truth that Turkey has joined the enemy camp, Israel provides Turkey with credibility it patently does not deserve. Israel also fails to take diplomatic and other steps to minimize the threat posed by the NATO member in the Iranian axis.
Our leaders’ apparent aversion to accepting that our alliance with Turkey has ended is troubling not only for what it tells us about the government’s ability to craft policies relevant to the challenges now facing us from Turkey. It bespeaks a general difficulty with contending with harsh and unwanted change that plagues our top echelons.
Take Egypt for example. Over the past week, a number of reports were published about the approaching end of the Mubarak era. The Washington Times reported that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is terminally ill and likely will die within the year. The Economist featured a fifteen page retrospective on the Mubarak era in advance of its expected conclusion.
There are many differences between the situation in Egypt today and the situation that existed in Turkey before the Islamists took over in 2002. For instance, unlike Turkey, Egypt has never been Israel’s strategic ally. In recent years however, Egypt’s interests have converged with Israel’s regarding the threat posed by Iran and its terror proxies Hizbullah and Hamas — the Palestinian branch of Mubarak’s regime’s nemesis, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. These shared interests have paved the way for security cooperation between the two countries on several issues.
All of this is liable to change after Mubarak exits the stage. In all likelihood the Muslim Brotherhood will have greater influence and power than it enjoys today. And this means that a successor regime in Egypt will likely have closer ties to the Iranian axis. Despite the Sunni-Shiite split, joined by a common enmity of the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood has strengthened its ties to Iran and Hizbullah of late.
Recognizing the shifting winds, presidential hopefuls are cultivating ties with the Brotherhood. For instance, former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and current Egyptian presidential hopeful Muhammed el-Baradei has been wooing the Brotherhood for months. And in recent weeks they have been getting on his bandwagon. Apparently, elBaradei’s support for Iran’s nuclear program won him credibility with the jihadist group even though he is not an Islamic fanatic.
If and when the Brotherhood gains power and influence in Egypt, it is likely that Egypt will begin sponsoring the likes of Hamas, al Qaida and other terrorist organizations. And the more powerful the Brotherhood becomes in Egypt, the more likely that Egypt will abrogate its peace treaty with Israel.
It is due to that peace treaty that today Egypt fields a conventional military force armed with sophisticated US weaponry. The Egyptian military that Israel fought in four wars was armed with inferior Soviet weapons. Were Egypt to abrogate the treaty, a conventional war between Egypt and Israel would become a tangible prospect for the first time since 1973.
Despite the flood of stories indicating that the end of the Mubarak era is upon us, publicly Israel’s leaders behave as though nothing is the matter. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s routine, fawning pilgrimage to Mubarak this week seemed to demonstrate that our leaders are not thinking about the storm that is brewing just under the surface in Cairo.
Turkey’s transformation from friend to foe and the looming change in Egypt demonstrate important lessons that Israel’s leaders must take to heart. First, Israel has only a very limited capacity to influence events in neighboring countries.
What happened in Turkey has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with the fact that Erdogan and his government are Islamist revolutionaries. So too, the changes that Egypt will undergo after Mubarak dies will have everything to do with the pathologies of Egyptian society and politics and nothing to do with Israel. Our leaders must recognize this and exercise humility when they assess Israel’s options for contending with our neighbors.
Developments in both Turkey and Egypt are proof that in the Middle East there is no such thing as a permanent alliance. Everything is subject to change. Turkey once looked like a stable place. Its military was constitutionally empowered — and required — to safeguard the country as a secular democracy. But seven years into the AKP revolution the army cannot even defend itself.
So too, for nearly thirty years Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist. But as Israel saw no distinction between Mubarak and Egypt, the hostile forces he repressed multiplied under his jackboot. Once he is gone, they will rise to the surface once more.
Moving forward, Israel must learn to hedge its bets. Just because a government embraces Israel one day does not mean that its military should be given open access to Israeli military technology the next day. So too, just because a regime is anti-Israel one day doesn’t mean that Israel cannot develop ties with it that are based on shared interests.
Whether it is pleasant or harsh, change is a fact of our lives. The side that copes best with change will be the side that prospers from it. Our leaders must recognize this truth and shape their policies accordingly.