Israel’s apology to Turkey: An anti-Iranian alliance and sign of a “new Cold War”?

By Adnan Riza Güzel

Last week Tehran received what is likely to have been one of the worst pieces of news so far this year from Ankara and Tel Aviv. Three years ago Turkey had minimised its diplomatic contact with Israel, after the Gaza flotilla raid in which Israeli soldiers killed Turkish activists in international waters trying to transport humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Now however the two rivals of the Islamic Republic have resolved their dispute with American mediation during President Barack Obama’s recent visit, pushing Tehran in a more precarious situation with its erstwhile foe, Israel, and emerging strategic rival in the Levant, Turkey. Ankara’s apprehension regarding Sunni and Turco-Syrians as well as other dissidents of the Assad regime, along with Israel’s concerns with Islamic Republic’s nuclear program have collided into a re-newed regional alliance against the rising Iranian power. A day before the Israeli apology, Turkey reconciled with rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, obtaining a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It had been rumored that the PKK was receiving aid from Iran, after being listed as a terrorist organization both by the European Parliament and the United States.  Most astute observers of Middle Eastern diplomacy have realized the broad strokes of this picture painted by Obama’s visit. What remains obscure is the global implications of this alliance, in particular for the Islamic Republic.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans in Washington want a nuclear Iran. The big question now is about the possible revival of the historic Turkish-Israeli alliance. Turkey was the first Muslim nation that de jure and de facto recognized the state of Israel in 1948. Iran was the second, but the Islamic Revolution ended the budding Iranian-Israeli alliance. In 2009, Turkey’s alliance with Israel was disrupted by the Gaza flotilla affair, pushing Turkey to seek a better relationship with other regional states. Before the flotilla, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan had harshly criticized Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos. Recent statements by Erdogan about Zionism had also been fueling debates that Turkey was becoming increasingly anti-Zionist. Yet Israel’s recent apology has puzzled observers of the Turkish-Israeli dispute.

Would Turkey now return to full relations with Israel? The answer is hidden in Iranian steps towards Turkey and the Syrian conflict. Israel’s recent apology is a clear-cut shift toward a common front against Iran. Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had most likely never dreamed of a renewed alliance with Israel since their rise to power. Yet Iranian support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the revival of centuries old sectarian conflicts among Sunnis and Shi’as in the Middle East have pushed Turkey towards an alliance with Israel. Concomitantly, the decades long nuclear plans of the anti-Zionist regime in Tehran has also made Tel-Aviv apprehensive. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu would never have given such an apology to Erdogan, who recently made quite strong statements regarding Israel’s foundations. The biggest catalyst in this Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is Iran and its role in Syria’s sectarian conflict, in which Turkish speaking Sunni minorities have been oppressed by Assad. By accepting Israel’s apology, Turkey has re-articulated its role in the region.

Would this alliance push Iran to a departure from its nuclear program? The answer can only be given by Iranian policy makers. Yet this alliance, which has been clearly formed against Iran, is going to create further tensions. The greatest question is on the way in which it could trigger the creation of further alliances and regional and global blocks. Iran and Syria have been strongly backed by Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries, especially China and Russia, who blocked UN resolutions against Syria. Russia in particular has transferred significant quantities of arms to both of its Middle Eastern allies. The revival of bi-polar world can be gleaned from these events, a polarization that pits the SCO against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Israel and Turkey are two key players in this whose dispute had blurred the outlines of this polarization. Netanyahu’s apology has once again clarified this image for us. The main battlefields of these rival blocs right now is Syria, once an ex-province of the Ottoman Empire.

The historical depth of Turkish-Syrian relations should be underlined in this regard. Syria’s former province, Antioch (modern-day Hatay) became independent from the Syrian mandate in 1938 and accepted Ankara’s rule by joining Republic of Turkey, a move never officially recognized by Damascus. Official Syrian maps always included Antioch as a city belonging to Syria. The Turkish speaking populations of the bordering Syrian cities of the country kept their affinity with Turkey on religious grounds as well. A considerable part of dissidents in the Syrian Civil War have been Sunni Turkomans, along with other key participants such as Syrian Kurds. The repressive policies of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad against Kurds and Turks mirrored those of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, which massacred Kurds and Turkoman living in the northern part of the country next to the frontier with Turkey.

The status of certain countries of the Middle East remain ambiguous and key to the ongoing polarization in the region. Iraq is one of them. However, as the recently restored Turkish-Israeli alliance projects its power against the Islamic Republic, it is bound to create new of tensions between the SCO and NATO blocs and will be key to regional and global diplomacy. We are perhaps seeing the re-emergence of the Cold War, albeit in a new form and on new battlegrounds.

Adnan Riza Güzel is a junior contributor at IranPolitik. He received a B.A. in History from Koc University in Istanbul and is an M.A. candidate in International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He currently works as a free-lance reporter for a newspaper in Turkey.

The views of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of IranPolitik.