Turkey, Israel, Syria: A painful neighborhood
It was two years ago today that the tension in the eastern Mediterranean Sea burst into tragedy, when Israeli commandos raided the ship Mavi Marmara, hired by a Turkey-based aid organization for a humanitarian aid mission to break the Israeli embargo of Palestine’s Gaza Strip. As a result nine Turkish citizens were killed, the first Turkish civilians killed by foreign soldiers since Turkey’s war of liberation, which resulted in the establishment of the Republic in 1923.
A few hours later, militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacked a naval base, killing six soldiers in Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Syria. Officials suspected they had infiltrated the base from Syria.
By the summer of 2010, Turkey’s relations Syria were at their highest ebb. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was almost a big brother to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; they were calling each other “brother” in public. Al-Assad was extremely helpful to Turkey in chasing down the PKK in Syria, vowing that they would never let terrorists act against Turkey from Syria.
Well, those words were actually in reference to another painful experience during the 1980s and 90s, when the PKK’s headquarters, and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, were based in Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s late father. This came to an end when Turkey openly threatened Syria with a military operation in October 1998, resulting in Öcalan’s expulsion from the country within six days and his eventual capture, after leaving the Greek Embassy in Kenya for the airport, by a joint Turkish-American intelligence operation in February 1999.
During the 1990s, Turkey and Israel were like best friends, re-establishing and upgrading relations which had gone south during the 1970s and 80s. The atmosphere of friendship between the two Mediterranean democracies made their common ally, the United States, very happy. It continued into the 2000s, and had prospered and moved forward under Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments since they came to power in 2002. The relationship was so good that Turkey was mediating between Israel and Syria for a conceptual peace in the Middle East. Everyone expected the proxy talks to result in success. But when the Israeli army attacked Gaza, killing civilians, immediately after a visit by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Ankara to discuss peace with Syria and the Palestinians in December 2008, things began to break into pieces. Then came the Davos “one minute” affair with Israeli President Shimon Peres, in January 2009. So when the Mavi Marmara was raided by Israeli commandos, the relationship was already troubled.
The recent honeymoon with Syria ended when al-Assad began to mimic his father in response to calls from his own people for more freedom, inspired by the Arab Spring, which was bringing down regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
The stage we are at today is as follows: Yesterday Turkey withdrew its entire diplomatic mission from Syria, joining the Western alliance. A few months ago, Ankara had already downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel to the lowest possible level. Also yesterday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed its support for its soldiers, including the chief of staff, who are subject to a Turkish arrest warrant because of the Mavi Marmara tragedy, amid barbed words with Iran over its nuclear program. And today is the second anniversary of the Mavi Marmara raid, which will be marked with a rally in the heart of Istanbul organized by the same aid organization that organized the flotilla, the İHH.
There is no sign of decreasing political tension in this neighborhood.