Israel official warns of ‘Somalization’ of Syria
BURAK BEKDİL JERUSALEM - Hürriyet Daily News
Yigar Palmor insists Israel respects Turkey’s rights and expect Turkey to respect everyone’s right in the same way. “When Turkey retaliated to deadly Syrian fire Israel made it clear that Turkey had the right to respond and defend its own citizens,” he says. AA Photo
The spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry has voiced his concerns about the potential for radical Sunni elements to take power in a post-Assad Syria.
Yigal Palmor said all could see how different extremist groups are playing their own games in the chaos currently taking over Syria. “There is a great concern that uncontrolled elements at the service of extremist ideas will manage to take over smaller or bigger separate territories inside the Syrian borders,” he told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview in Jerusalem.
“The ‘Somalization’ of Syria is a great concern. We hope that this war ends as quickly as possible, with a central power emerging that will rule all Syria,” he said.
There has lately been much talk in Israeli and in the Turkish media about a possible Israeli apology for Mavi Marmara and a subsequent rapprochement. Do you not think the apology is being over-emphasized as a kind of Midas touch for normalization?
I think this is way over-emphasized and is given a wrong place in the general scheme of events that would lead us to reconciliation. The question is not the apology. The real question is, does the Turkish government want to normalize its relations with Israel? And if it does, why does it use the excuse of Gaza to block every possibility of rapprochement. I’m afraid that we don’t have a real answer to that.
We don’t understand what motivates the Turkish government. We would know more if the Turkish government agreed to engage in some kind of dialogue, but that’s not the case. I’m afraid Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will use any pretext to maintain the status as it is now.
Would the removal of the naval blockade on Gaza be a game changer?
The term blockade does not correspond at all to the situation in Gaza, because any non-military material can go in. You must remember that Gaza has a border with Egypt and it would be meaningless for Israel to block something at the border that they can get in through Egypt. Anything legitimate like medical equipment or building material can come in through any of Gaza’s two borders. Also, people from Gaza can come into Israel for medical treatment freely and be treated in Israeli hospitals. But on the other side of the border there is an enemy government [Hamas]. You have to understand that when the other side of the border does not have a legitimate police force you need to be extra cautious when big containers are shipped into Israeli territory. You need to be able to scan everything.
That was not the case before Hamas took over. There were no limitations. If Hamas had not declared war with Israel this would not be the case. Restrictions at the border are purely for security and due to the policies of Hamas. This is why they are not allowed free access to the sea, although they can get anything through the land border. All legitimate material can be unloaded at Ashdod or Port Said, from where it can be safely transported to Gaza. This is how humanitarian aid for Gaza comes in, or how international organizations bring their material for projects.
What would convince Ankara to think that normalization would be in its interests?
Israeli people are and have always been friends of the Turkish people. They will remain so in the future, no matter who is in power in Turkey. We have common regional objectives and great common interests. Regional developments have made these interests even clearer, and the fact that the Turkish government continues to ignore this, to the detriment of Turkey’s interests, is incomprehensible.
The situation in Syria, for example, is very preoccupying. We all have an interest in seeing a stable rational government in power in Damascus. A government not controlled by extremists. This is in everyone’s interest. Stability on the border is in everyone’s interest. I am not suggesting that we could have been engaged in military action together with Turkey if we had friendly relations. But without the option of military action there could have been a very important coordination of diplomatic efforts that would have clearly benefited both countries, and even Syria itself. We could have coordinated efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria. An axis of peace and stability between Turkey and Israel would have had constructive implications for many countries in the region. The extremists and moderates who are now confronting each other could have taken a Turkish-Israeli peace axis as a major external reference point.
Where do Israel’s policy priorities on Syria converge and diverge with Turkey’s?
Turkey has a very complicated border with Syria. Israel’s border complication with Syria is the prolongation of Syria’s border with Lebanon, including south Lebanon, which is controlled by Hezbollah, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. What we have in common is a need for a rational, working relationship with the regime in Damascus. We need a regime that can exert its authority over the entire Syrian territory. Turkey and Israel cannot afford the disintegration of Syrian territory into a sort of Somalia. This would be detrimental for both Turkey and Israel, and this is where the common interest lies. We need peace and stability, and for that we need a reasonably moderate Syrian government.
We don’t have any pretext to [militarily] intervene in what is going on in Syria. Nobody wants us to do that and we don’t want to do that. We stay on the sidelines, except where our vital security interests are threatened. We reserve our right to limited intervention. We respect Turkey’s interests. When Turkey retaliated to deadly Syrian fire [last year] Israel made it clear that Turkey had the right to respond and defend its own citizens. We respect Turkey’s rights and expect Turkey to respect everyone’s right in the same way.
Do you see any possibility that Turkey and Israel can work together to stop the bloodshed in Syria?
If our relations were normal, cooperation for humanitarian aid could have been very useful. We are willing to extend our hands for this humanitarian cause. We are willing to cooperate. A few months ago, we cooperated with the Red Cross to send humanitarian aid, but we were told that the refugees refused to receive aid from Israel. Be that as it may, I still believe that Turkey and Israel could do great things for humanitarian assistance. We can settle political accounts tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but right now we have to help these people. Private aid organizations in Israel are already working with Jordan for human assistance to Syrian refugees. This shows that the Israeli public wants to help Syrians no matter what politics dictates. Maybe we can still do something between Turkey and Israel.
How much are you concerned about radical Sunni elements taking power in a potentially post-Assad Syria?
I have to admit that it’s a big concern. Because of the way things are developing you can see that the chances of an orderly transfer of power re diminishing by the day. You can see how there are different extremist groups playing their own game in the great chaos that is now taking over Syria. As there is no central authority emerging, the control of the territory is becoming more difficult everyday.
There is a great concern that uncontrolled elements at the service of extremist ideas will manage to take over smaller or bigger separate territories inside the Syrian borders. This is definitely a possibility, and it is a cause for great concern because these elements would be subversive and violent towards any future.
The “Somalization” of Syria is a great concern. We hope that this war ends as quickly as possible, with a central power emerging that will rule all Syria for the benefit of its own people and its neighbors. But until we reach that phase there will be many ups and downs, including the empowerment of extremists in certain areas of Syria, and perhaps with advanced weapons in their hands.
Can you rule out the possibility of sharing tracking information through the NATO radar at Kurecik, Turkey, in the event of an Iranian ballistic missile attack against Israel?
I think the Turkish government has no intention of cooperating with Israel. I am sure they have made certain conditions. Of course, we would theoretically greatly benefit from any assistance, but in this case I have to say that this is not about Israel. The location [of the NATO radar] should tell you that this is not about Israel. The Turkish government unfortunately refuses to see the regional picture.
Their petty conflict with Israel would prevent any use of this system, even by NATO, in sharing information with Israel. I would like to think that even the current Turkish government would not be as rash and irrational as to stand on the sidelines if Iran attacked Israel. I don’t have any proof that this is the case, and I would not like to put this to test. So, we take care of our own interests. We have our own capacities. We will do what we need to do.
What would a historic peace deal in Turkey’s Kurdish question mean for the region? How does Israel view the efforts for a happy ending?
As a matter of principle, we don’t involve ourselves in the internal politics of other countries. We would not say how an agreement should be reached or who should do what. But I can say that it is true that we warmly welcome any peace agreements on this question. If an agreement is managed it will effectively solve such an old problem. It is not for us to say how, but we can say that if there is an agreement it will be greatly appreciated by all Israelis. We only wish the people of Turkey well, and of course this issue is extremely important for their wellbeing and for their future internal peace.
It will also have implications beyond the borders. Turkey is such a big country. Its domestic situation radiates beyond its borders, so the questions that are being dealt with here affect other countries in the region - countries with Kurdish populations such as Syria, Iraq, or even Israel, where we have immigrants from Iraqi Kurdistan.