A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Turkey-Israel-Syria Triangle

The three-day Columbus Day holiday, during which I was actually in the West Virginia mountains for a quick three-day weekend, meant I didn't comment (yet) on the recent, rather rapid devlopments in the complex relationship Turkey has with both Israel and Syria. Since I presume most of my readers do not rely on me for all of their Middle East analysis, this probably won't be news to very many people, but it's worth recappinjg:

First, reportedly as a protest against the war in Gaza early this year, Turkey objected to Israeli participation in a joint NATO air exercise, which in turn led to the US and Italy pulling out of the exercise, and the US "gently" criticizing Turkey for the decision. Israel sought to play the issue down, with Haaretz reporting that "diplomats" at Israel's mission in Ankara were emphasizing that "Israel has no interest in settling disagreements through newspaper headlines."

But the newspaper headlines were quick to note that even while feuding with Israel, Turkey was cementing its relations with Syria, which were hostile not so long ago, with some of the most solid indications of cooperation yet. The Turkish Foreign Minister took a good part of the Turkish Cabinet to Aleppo to forge a new cooperation council with Syria. They announced the lifting of visa requirements between the two nations, a move previously announced but now apparently formalized. But it wasn't just the Foreign Ministers: along for the trip were the Turkish Defense, Interior, Economy, Oil, Electricity, Agriculture, and Health Ministers.

And here they are celebrating the Aleppo meeting. Apparently sunglasses were de rigeur, though I think the white-haired chap in the middle is Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu‘allem, and he's not wearing them.

And, as if to rub salt into the Israeli wounds, Turkey and Syria announced that they will hold a larger joint military exercise than the first, limited land exercise they held last spring. This announcement, on the heels of the cancellation of Israel's participation in the NATO exercise, was hardly coincidental.

Anyway, it is obvious from the press coverage, at least outside of Israel, that the Syrian rapprochement and the Israeli estrangement are being reported in tandem, as if reciprocal in some way. That could be unfortunate because, while better relations between Ankara and Damascus have been a priority for the Erdogan government for some time, that improving climate has also made Turkey a useful intermediary between Syria and Israel, and an interlocutor in the efforts to resume negotiations on the Syrian track.

But, of course, the Netanyahu government insists it's not going to negotiate over the Golan (or at least isn't going to agree to resume negotiations where they left off back in the 1990s), and that makes progress pretty difficult.

Turkey may be sending a number of messages here. Certainly it has sent one clearly to Israel. The message to Syria also seems to be that the old disputes over the PKK and water rights are forgotten or at least set aside for the time being.

I may have added little new here, but if you haven't been following this the links above should bring you up to date.


LJ Marczak said...

I trust you remember walking across the border between Syria and Turkey in the hot summer sun of 1972 because there was no cross border transport service.

The times are indeed a changin'

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I do remember that border crossing. Having to carry your luggage from one border post to the other.

LJ Marczak said...

How about the train ride to Athens?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

That too. And a long wait for the train on the Turkish-Greek border in some little town. Somewhere in the middle of the night on that train I remember a radio suddenly played the Egyptian national anthem. Somebody was listening to Radio Cairo somewhere,

For any readers not aware of the fact, commenter LJ Marczak and I were in the CASA program together in 1972-73. He's remembering our first exploration of Turkey and Greece, back in the Age of Pericles. (Actually, the Greek colonels were in power, but that seems almost as long ago.)