Could Israel vs. Flotilla be part of Turkey’s bid for Regional Hegemony?

As was inevitable, the commentary on Israel’s raid / high seas piracy / legal blockade enforcement / call-it-what-you-will has degenerated into a polarized flame-war between the blind and the deaf, which although very entertaining is also pretty useless*. By far the best analytical article on this issue I’ve found that really cuts through the partisan BS is The Limits of Public Opinion: Arabs, Israelis and the Strategic Balance, a free Stratfor article by George Friedman**.

The most fundamental point is that the current situation suits everyone just fine. The Arab regimes (and the Palestinians themselves) are weak and disunited and no longer represent the strategic threat to Israel that they did during the Cold War. Israel’s actions give them a chance to vent their fury to satiate the “Arab street”, but it is not in their interests to push the envelope any further. In turn, Israel is big enough to accept the verbal lashing in return for keeping its enforcement of the Gaza blockade credible. However, this Flotilla Affair may also presage much more significant long-term developments.

Last week’s events off the coast of Israel continue to resonate. Turkish-Israeli relations have not quite collapsed since then but are at their lowest level since Israel’s founding. U.S.-Israeli tensions have emerged, and European hostility toward Israel continues to intensify. The question has now become whether substantial consequences will follow from the incident. …

The most significant threat to Israel would, of course, be military. International criticism is not without significance, but nations do not change direction absent direct threats to their interests. But powers outside the region are unlikely to exert military power against Israel, and even significant economic or political sanctions are unlikely to happen. Apart from the desire of outside powers to limit their involvement, this is rooted in the fact that significant actions are unlikely from inside the region either.

The first generations of Israelis lived under the threat of conventional military defeat by neighboring countries. More recent generations still faced threats, but not this one. Israel is operating in an advantageous strategic context save for the arena of public opinion and diplomatic relations and the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. All of these issues are significant, but none is as immediate a threat as the specter of a defeat in conventional warfare had been. Israel’s regional enemies are so profoundly divided among themselves and have such divergent relations with Israel that an effective coalition against Israel does not exist — and is unlikely to arise in the near future.

Given this, the probability of an effective, as opposed to rhetorical, shift in the behavior of powers outside the region is unlikely. At every level, Israel’s Arab neighbors are incapable of forming even a partial coalition against Israel. Israel is not forced to calibrate its actions with an eye toward regional consequences, explaining Israel’s willingness to accept broad international condemnation.

Now for more detail on the internal Palestinian divisions between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

To begin to understand how deeply the Arabs are split, simply consider the split among the Palestinians themselves. They are currently divided between two very different and hostile factions. On one side is Fatah, which dominates the West Bank. On the other side is Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip. Aside from the geographic division of the Palestinian territories — which causes the Palestinians to behave almost as if they comprised two separate and hostile countries — the two groups have profoundly different ideologies.

Fatah arose from the secular, socialist, Arab-nationalist and militarist movement of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s. … Hamas arose from the Islamist movement. It was driven by religious motivations quite alien from Fatah and hostile to it.

Hamas and Fatah are playing a zero-sum game. Given their inability to form a coalition and their mutual desire for the other to fail, a victory for one is a defeat for the other. … Though revolutionary movements frequently are torn by sectarianism, these divisions are so deep that even without Israeli manipulation, the threat the Palestinians pose to the Israelis is diminished. With manipulation, the Israelis can pit Fatah against Hamas.

And on why the Arab elites don’t really care that much for Palestinians, despite their rhetoric.

The split within the Palestinians is also reflected in divergent opinions among what used to be called the confrontation states surrounding Israel — Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Egypt, for example, is directly hostile to Hamas, a religious movement amid a sea of essentially secular Arab states. Hamas’ roots are in Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian state has historically considered its main domestic threat. … For this and other reasons, Egypt has maintained its own blockade of Gaza. Egypt is much closer to Fatah, whose ideology derives from Egyptian secularism, and for this reason, Hamas deeply distrusts Cairo.

Jordan views Fatah with deep distrust. In 1970, Fatah under Arafat tried to stage a revolution against the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. … The idea of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank unsettles the Hashemite regime, as Jordan’s population is mostly Palestinian. Meanwhile, Hamas with its Islamist ideology worries Jordan, which has had its own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. …

Syria is far more interested in Lebanon than it is in the Palestinians. Its co-sponsorship (along with Iran) of Hezbollah has more to do with Syria’s desire to dominate Lebanon than it does with Hezbollah as an anti-Israeli force. Indeed, whenever fighting breaks out between Hezbollah and Israel, the Syrians get nervous and their tensions with Iran increase. And of course, while Hezbollah is anti-Israeli, it is not a Palestinian movement. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement. … So Syria is playing a side game with an anti-Israeli movement that isn’t Palestinian, while also maintaining relations with both factions of the Palestinian movement.

… the Saudis and other Arabian Peninsula regimes remember the threat that Nasser and the PLO posed to their regimes. … And while the Iranians would love to have influence over the Palestinians, Tehran is more than 1,000 miles away. … But Fatah doesn’t trust the Iranians, and Hamas, though a religious movement, is Sunni while Iran is Shiite. Hamas and the Iranians may cooperate on some tactical issues, but they do not share the same vision.

And now on why Israel feels it has a free hand in the short-term to carry out what it views as its optimal security policy.

Given this environment, it is extremely difficult to translate hostility to Israeli policies in Europe and other areas into meaningful levers against Israel. Under these circumstances, the Israelis see the consequences of actions that excite hostility toward Israel from the Arabs and the rest of the world as less dangerous than losing control of Gaza. The more independent Gaza becomes, the greater the threat it poses to Israel. The suppression of Gaza is much safer and is something Fatah ultimately supports, Egypt participates in, Jordan is relieved by and Syria is ultimately indifferent to.

Nations base their actions on risks and rewards. The configuration of the Palestinians and Arabs rewards Israeli assertiveness and provides few rewards for caution. The Israelis do not see global hostility toward Israel translating into a meaningful threat because the Arab reality cancels it out. Therefore, relieving pressure on Hamas makes no sense to the Israelis. Doing so would be as likely to alienate Fatah and Egypt as it would to satisfy the Swedes, for example. As Israel has less interest in the Swedes than in Egypt and Fatah, it proceeds as it has.

A single point sums up the story of Israel and the Gaza blockade-runners: Not one Egyptian aircraft threatened the Israeli naval vessels, nor did any Syrian warship approach the intercept point. The Israelis could be certain of complete command of the sea and air without challenge. And this underscores how the Arab countries no longer have a military force that can challenge the Israelis, nor the will nor interest to acquire one. Where Egyptian and Syrian forces posed a profound threat to Israeli forces in 1973, no such threat exists now. Israel has a completely free hand in the region militarily; it does not have to take into account military counteraction. The threat posed by intifada, suicide bombers, rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, and Hezbollah fighters is real, but it does not threaten the survival of Israel the way the threat from Egypt and Syria once did (and the Israelis see actions like the Gaza blockade as actually reducing the threat of intifada, suicide bombers and rockets). Non-state actors simply lack the force needed to reach this threshold. When we search for the reasons behind Israeli actions, it is this singular military fact that explains Israeli decision-making.

And while the break between Turkey and Israel is real, Turkey alone cannot bring significant pressure to bear on Israel beyond the sphere of public opinion and diplomacy because of the profound divisions in the region. Turkey has the option to reduce or end cooperation with Israel, but it does not have potential allies in the Arab world it would need against Israel. Israel therefore feels buffered against the Turkish reaction. Though its relationship with Turkey is significant to Israel, it is clearly not significant enough for Israel to give in on the blockade and accept the risks from Gaza.

At present, Israel takes the same view of the United States. While the United States became essential to Israeli security after 1967, Israel is far less dependent on the United States today. The quantity of aid the United States supplies Israel has shrunk in significance as the Israeli economy has grown. In the long run, a split with the United States would be significant, but interestingly, in the short run, the Israelis would be able to function quite effectively.

This is my major quibble with this article. I wouldn’t be so sanguine about the longer term consequences of this Israeli-Turkish spat. While Douglas Muir would interpret Erdogan’s grandiose theatrics as a function of internal Turkish politics, this does not mean it is not part of a larger “declaration of what Turkish identity has become”, as suggested by commentator Yigit Karabak. Mubarak might be risk-averse and friendly with Israel, but he is getting old and his successors will probably be more adventurous and in sync with Egyptian national sentiment (which is anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian).

In the meantime, the Turkish economy is growing, its military is rapidly modernizing and it is expanding its influence in the Near East. Turkey is now (arguably) already conventionally superior to Israel. It is also a de facto nuclear power. There are 90 US nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, of which 40 are slated to pass unto Turkish control if it is ever attacked by non-NATO nukes. Though it is true that the US has recently began to make noises about withdrawing its nukes from Turkey and Europe, the Turks have also recently – and perhaps not entirely coincidentally – made deals with Russia about massively expanding its nuclear power capacity. Now I’m not saying that Turkey’s sole or even main goal here is to provide a justification for pursuit of nuclear weapons, as argued in The Real Israeli Raid Fallout: Turkey with a Bomb? by Thomas Barnett***. Nonetheless, in a region with a nuclearizing Iran and intense all-round rivalries, it is a possibility that should not be immediately dismissed.

What emerges is a disquieting prospect for Israeli strategists, one in which Turks throw them down the river in their quest for regional dominance while successfully staying the moral high ground and mobilizing the Arab states in their support.

Israel does, however, face this strategic problem: In the short run, it has freedom of action, but its actions could change the strategic framework in which it operates over the long run. The most significant threat to Israel is not world opinion; though not trivial, world opinion is not decisive. The threat to Israel is that its actions will generate forces in the Arab world that eventually change the balance of power. The politico-military consequences of public opinion is the key question, and it is in this context that Israel must evaluate its split with Turkey.

The most important change for Israel would not be unity among the Palestinians, but a shift in Egyptian policy back toward the position it held prior to Camp David. Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world, the largest country and formerly the driving force behind Arab unity. It was the power Israel feared above all others. But Egypt under Mubarak has shifted its stance versus the Palestinians, and far more important, allowed Egypt’s military capability to atrophy.

Should Mubarak’s successor choose to align with these forces and move to rebuild Egypt’s military capability, however, Israel would face a very different regional equation. A hostile Turkey aligned with Egypt could speed Egyptian military recovery and create a significant threat to Israel. Turkish sponsorship of Syrian military expansion would increase the pressure further. Imagine a world in which the Egyptians, Syrians and Turks formed a coalition that revived the Arab threat to Israel and the United States returned to its position of the 1950s when it did not materially support Israel, and it becomes clear that Turkey’s emerging power combined with a political shift in the Arab world could represent a profound danger to Israel.

… The Israelis can’t dismiss the threat that its actions could trigger political processes that cause these countries to revert to prior behavior. … It is remarkable how rapidly military capabilities can revive: Recall that the Egyptian army was shattered in 1967, but by 1973 was able to mount an offensive that frightened Israel quite a bit.

The Israelis have the upper hand in the short term. What they must calculate is whether they will retain the upper hand if they continue on their course. Division in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, cannot disappear overnight, nor can it quickly generate a strategic military threat. But the current configuration of the Arab world is not fixed. Therefore, defusing the current crisis would seem to be a long-term strategic necessity for Israel. [AK: But defusing the crisis is not in the Turks' interests].

Israel’s actions have generated shifts in public opinion and diplomacy regionally and globally. The Israelis are calculating that these actions will not generate a long-term shift in the strategic posture of the Arab world. If they are wrong about this, recent actions will have been a significant strategic error. If they are right, then this is simply another passing incident. …

* I’ve also gotten some pretty hilarious email feedback about my post on The Geopolitics of Israel vs. Flotilla in which I got called both a “antisimite in objectivist [you mean objective?] apeasement cloth” [sic] and a Zionist extremist. I guess that’s what you get for stepping into this debate, it is every bit as binaried as the Russophile vs. Russophobe one and ten times as vitriolic.

** Yes, I know, Stratfor is a varied quality. Some of their analyses are downright loony, like the nonsense about Poland or Mexico becoming superpowers. But occasionally they are right on the ball (see 1, 2). This time it is one of those latter cases.

*** I would also note that in recent weeks Turkey, along with Brazil, announced a deal with Iran under which it would send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad and voted against the sanctions against Iran on offensive weaponry. In practice this amounts to tacit acceptance of Iran’s right to have nuclear weapons (since even if Iran sent some of its LEU abroad it still thought to have enough to build at least one nuclear weapon). Now Brazil is far away… but why on Earth would Turkey accept a nuclear Iran? (Haven’t the civilizations on the Anatolian and Persian plateaus been in almost permanent conflict with each other from ancient times through the struggles between the Ottomans and the Sassanids?)

Here is my wacky theory. Turkey believes that Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran. The Israelis have said as much. Eventually it could come to an Israeli or US-Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear capabilities, followed by incredibly damaging fallout. The US and Israel will become completely delegitimized in the lands of Islam. The ground will be cleared for Turkey to fill in this space, the Arab rulers either following in its wake or being marginalized or overthrown. Three birds with one stone. Iran out as a regional power – its military will have been decimated should Israel and the US launch serious strikes against its nuclear capabilities and its regime internally discredited – bringing to the fore Azeri (Turkish) separatism. The US influence sidelined out of the region as the resulting oil shock ripples through its debt-loaded economy. Third, this shock and resulting siege mentality may finally spur on the Arabs to recover a united front towards Israel, at which point a Turkey (with latent nuclear capabilities) may offer Israel a deal in which it accepts becoming a client state in exchange for security guarantees.

(Of course, causal chains work in various ways. Fear of exactly this scenario may explain why Israel will not attack Iran after all; perhaps the Israelis consider it better to manage their way though a deteriorated balance of power in the Middle East rather than face the specter of a far superior hegemon in Turkey. And this also, in turn, may explain why the Iranians in turn can feel so confident in getting away with the provocations they do. And why the Americans may be, contrary to all conventional wisdom, secretly seeking some kind of grand bargain with Iran).

PS. This footnote is almost becoming a post in its own right. I’ll probably expand on it a later post.

Comments

  1. Doug M. says:

    Well, thanks for the shoutout. I have the impression that Stratfor has several writers, who vary wildly in competence; I gave a thumbs-down to a recent Stratfor article here:

    http://fistfulofeuros.net/afoe/minorities-and-integration/hungarian-passports-or-dumbest-stratfor-article-ever/

    This isn’t nearly as bad, but it’s striking that it spends several thousand words discussing Israeli strategy and policy without once mentioning internal Israeli politics. In fact, this seems to be a common element of Stratfor articles — with the exception of the US, all nations are unitary actors, solid as so many potatoes.

    “Haven’t the civilizations on the Anatolian and Persian plateaus been in almost permanent conflict”

    Actually, no — they haven’t. The current border between Turkey and Iran was fixed by treaty almost 400 years ago. Their last shooting war was a minor border scuffle in the 1820s. And relations between them since then have been all over the board, from “edge of war” through “coolly correct” to “warm and friendly”. They probably peaked in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Shah — a would-be modernizer who admired Kemal — was very close to the various Turkish military governments.

    While there are certainly rivalries, the two are not in direct competition for land or resources. And their relationship is interestingly constrained by their ability to hurt each other. To give one example, Iran knows that Turkey could try to rally Iran’s large Azeri minority, while Turkey knows that Iran could help Turkey’s rebel Kurds.

    Note that they’ve been able to manage multiple crises along their mutual borders — the Iran/Iraq war, the Armenian/Azeri war in the 1990s, Gulf Wars One and Two — without coming into direct conflict. In fact, they worked together effectively to contain the Nagorno conflict, and in the Iran-Iraq war Turkey was formally neutral but in fact slightly inclined towards Iran.

    So, no — “permanent conflict” isn’t really correct. They are rivals, but there’s also a long history of peacefully resolving potential conflicts.

    Currently I’d describe the relationship as “wary, but cautiously willing to experiment”.

    I’m skeptical that Erdogan is really being so Machiavellian. Erdogan is an extremely canny navigator of Turkish internal politics, but on the international stage he has a record of being a little on the naive side. Broadly speaking, he has a lot of faith in Turkish soft power. (This is one big difference between him and the Kemalists. Like American neocons, those guys don’t believe in soft power except as the pale shadow cast by a hard steel gun.) An Iranian bomb would be a huge embarassment for him.

    Note that Turkey’s relations with its Arab neighbors have traditionally been fraught by memories of Ottoman imperialism. Iraqis, Jordanians, Saudis, Egyptians and above all Syrians — for three generations they all viewed Turkey with mixed envy and resentment, and nationalist discourse kept the image of the evil, domineering Turk alive and well. But — except in Syria — that’s gradually fading with the passage of time. This is opening up all sorts of new options for Turkish foreign policy, options that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

    It’s a great strength of Erdogan that he understands this. (The Kemalists, by and large, are still locked in a “Arabs are wogs who understand nothing but force” mindset.) But I think he’s inclined to overestimate how wonderful Turkey looks from the east and south. The Turks think the Arabs should look at them and see a really attractive model; so far, by and large, this is not the case.

    Doug M.

  2. Kallinikos says:

    Your hypothesis is

    1 Israel, Israel/US strike

    2 Iran collapse, US/Israel delegitimized in the ME

    3 Regional vacuum filled by Turkey

    4 Arabs form a united front threatening Israel

    5 Israel accepts to become a turkish client state

    ———–
    There are way too much wild assumptions in this
    It seems like each step is explained by another assumption, all of them being extremly unlikely
    I don’t expect more delegitimization for the US than it already has had since Iraq invasion. In fact, most arab states and especially the Saudi favor pushing back Iran (see Saudi secret proposal to allow Israeli flying over their territory in order to Strike Iran), but no to the extent it brings chaos to the whole region. Complet collapse of Iran is certain to bring this kind of chaos in the middle east.

    If Iran hasn’t collapsed, the various shia groups supported by Iran (militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon)provide that powerful armed factions in these countries remain dominant (as are the shia demographics); the shia ethno-religious group which rule Syria (the alawit minority) will always remain loyal to Iran. Shia populations have always been persecuted in muslim history, now that their have grown more autonomous, their will never lose a sense of solidarity and forget where their loyalty must go first. They can see very well the treatment of shia and shia sects in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and how it was in Iraq before.

    In the case of complete chaos in the middle east, believe me not only Turkey hasn’t any interest in that (it would be certainly contaminated also), but its army won’t be able to do anything to pacify an Iraqi-like chaos in the whole fertile crescent and arabian peninsula.

    And I have said nothing of the various US/israeli strikes scenarios which at best uneffective, at worst provoke a world crisis, and in any cas destroying the facilities will provoke nuclear fallouts that could well be detrimental to Israel and Turkey as well.

    Remember the so-called “neo ottoman” policy’ s motto is “zero problem”. They want prosperity in the region so that their growing economy could bee instrumental in devlopping the middle-east. They probably hope that they will have political gains also, as a consequence, but my opinion is that it is doubtful in the shia crescent (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) where Iran has most interest and support. Just remember one recurrent trend in history : the repeated attempts of persian empires to reach the eastern mediterranean. It has been the case since more than 2600 years, andthey have been remarkably consstant at that, no matter the competitors, the religion, the dynasty.
    ————-

    Granted you said your theory was wacky ;)
    But here’s my answer to the initial question : the zero problem policy as a said, but it also extend to one big problem of the region ; the Kurds, most numerous group without state, and also becoming, as a whole, more numerous than respectively the arabs, the persian (already), and the turkish (not counting the azeris and others)groups in the surrounding leading countries. They are very divided, but the Iraqi precedent shit scare everyone, especially Turkey. So Iran, Syria, Turkey and the central gov in Iraq has the utmost interest in tacit understanding and as much as possible good relations. For that single reason, nobody want to see Iran crippled

  3. I haven’t seen a mention of one crucial point in Israeli-Turkish relations. It is called water. As global temperatures rise, Israel is feeling the drought. Its main natural source of fresh water, the Kineret, is drying up and I had some information few years ago that they were planning to buy water from Turkey should the necessity arise.

    In fact the whole issue of water wars is really intriguing. The Tajiks wanted to build a dam that would trap water which flows into Uzbekistan. This is one point of possible conflict. Another I heard about, surprisingly also on Stratfor, is the relations between Egypt and the countries where Nile’s sources and tributaries are located.

  4. solar sun says:

    The greatest threat facing Israel and they know it is a demographic one imposing mass collective punishment on the Palestinian population like restricting water, electricity, etc as a means of population control.

    As far as neighbouring states goes they are essentially paid off to be nice to Israel with billions of dollars worth of annual aid and supressing political dissent in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc.

    Turkey’s relationship deteriorated with Israel after the failed coup in 2007 backed by Mossad presumably because Turkey would oppose war against Iran as that would further support Kurdish separatism in Turkey. And given US recognition of the Armenian genocide which of course is the sword and shield of Israel and its vassal state it looks like they are pushing for other regional alliances.

    Turkey is vital in US policy circumventing oil and gas pipeline routes to Europe away from Russia.

    Bzrezinski wanted dialogue with Iran and to be brought into the Nabucco oil project and even suggested that Israel might launch a false flag attack in the US and blame it on Iran in an address to the senate in 2007.

    I was surprised when Medvedev stated that war in Iran would be bad for Russia as that would drive up the price of oil. I thought that would be good for Russia.

  5. Oliver Laurence North says:

    Exclusive: Osama Bin Laden Is Living In Iran

    Paul Williams, PhD

    His hiding place has been pinned down for the first time by the Kuwaiti daily newspaper Al-Siyassa as the mountain town of Savzevar in the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan.

    http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/id.6422/pub_detail.asp

  6. Some might find this interesting. It’s a ranking of countries according to military strength. Turkey is at #10, one notch ahead of Israel:

    http://www.globalfirepower.com/

    • Personally I prefer Strategy Page’s Armed Forces of the World database.

      Armed Forces of the World
      LandTotTotActMilBudAir
      CountryRnkPowerQualPopGDPMenBudManAFVCmbtLdrsEqpExpSptMobTrad
      Middle East Nations

      Israel12098616.4$170550$9500$1710500500989338Egypt25322680$130468$3400$77000630655335Iran34532565$290545$7200$132900350547446Saudi Arabia43114527$400223$35000$1573500300685325Syria52301919$41293$1500$57100600545334Turkey39723371$560510$11000$228600470756439

      • Egypt ranks that highly?

        • Clarification: the Middle East ranking goes…
          1. Israel – 2098
          2. Turkey – 972
          3. Egypt – 532
          4. Iran – 453
          (Turkey is considered third in Europe, but it would be second in the Middle East).
          For comparison, USA – 10k, China – 2757, Russia – 1726.
          I don’t fully agree with the ratings. For instance, I think Israel should be far closer to Turkey’s level of around 1k (as evidenced by the 2006 Hezbollah War the IDF isn’t as awesome as it’s usually made out to be). But overall I like these rankings because unlike Global Firepower they try to take the non-material factors into account too.

          • My reaction is still “Egypt ranks that highly?” I thought that the Egyptian military was basically full of deadwood and not worth very much next to its regional competitors, even that much.

            • Egypt has a pretty formidable armed forces on paper – don’t forget it is the world’s biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel. It has the region’s biggest number of latest-generation tanks and around 300 4/4.5th-gen fighters. On the other hand by most accounts the morale and training of its conscript army is fairly low.

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