Syria main challenge in Turkey's reconciliation processes, says former envoy Sanberk
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While mending fences with Israel and Russia are pragmatic moves that will bring Turkey out of isolation, many challenges remain ahead in the reconciliation processes, according to a former diplomat.
The deal with Israel is fragile, while the Kremlin’s expectations for modifications of Turkey’s policy on Syria will prove to be the key challenge, said Özdem Sanberk, the president of the International Strategic Research Association (USAK).
The deal with Israel was under negotiation for years. Why was it signed now?
Israel did not have very big strategic or security reasons to make the deal. It was not expecting an imminent threat from Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not targeting Israel, at least for now, and it has reduced its objection to the Iranian [nuclear] deal.
The discovery of gas became the game changer. It has become clear in the course of recent years that there is a significant amount of gas and that Israel would suffer losses if it were not to benefit from it. Israel’s system is based on oil; it needs to transform it to gas. It can do this conversion, which is very costly, by exporting gas. Turkey is the best route and market.
So you argue that it was not a breakthrough in the content of the deal but the introduction of the gas factor that finalized the deal?
Yes. In our case; our main purpose is to get out of isolation. We entered a big, vicious circle. We had to come out of that. This deal is the first implementation of what the prime minister [Binali Yıldırım] said when he came to power, “Let’s increase our friends and decrease the number of our enemies.”
So I think they did not focus too much on the nitty-gritty. There was already a channel of dialogue between [Foreign Ministry Undersecretary] Feridun Sinirlioğlu and [the Israeli envoy for the talks] Joseph Ciechanover, a communication line that did not collapse and remained open thanks to the diplomats. Turkey used that channel. If this deal does not collapse, Turkey can use it for additional diplomatic capabilities.
Is there a risk that the deal might collapse?
Yes, because there is lack of confidence between Turkey and Israel; they need to restore that. Restoring trust will reduce the risk of collapse. But let’s not forget the conjuncture. The Middle East is such a place that anything can happen at any time. The Middle East is in the midst of a meltdown. And if there is an Israeli attack on Gaza for instance… For Hamas, there is occupation, and the embargos are continuing. The siege and the blockade are continuing. The deal we reached with Israel has not changed any of that. But it enables humanitarian aid to reach Gaza under Israeli control. But if we are to put everything in the right place, this has been what Israel has been telling us all along from the beginning. At any rate, from now on, we need to work for the success of this deal because it can change the strategic balances in the region.
The Turkish-Israel axis is an important one. If the two sides were to restore their confidence and start their military relations, then this could change the balances. Their threat of hard power could exercise pressure. They could play a role in the solution to the Syrian crisis.
Do you think the two countries’ relations can get back to what they were before?
They could if they rebuild confidence.
But don’t you think that that type of cooperation requires them to be on the same page on important issues?
One should not see Turkey as a monolith. Today, there is a government sensitive to Hamas. I support the aid given to Hamas. There is a huge humanitarian issue there. But one should not look at it from the point of view of solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, or from an ideological perspective only. We should not think the two are not on the same page just because Turkey is sending aid.
We need to realize that our relations were cut. Now we can understand each other better as to why we are endorsing some policies and why we need to change some policies. Obviously, our policies are not going to overlap 100 percent, but even if there is 35 percent convergence, we can have an impact in the region.
There is an inherent potential strength in the reconciliation between Turkey and Israel. We should know the value of that. As a sovereign country, Turkey can give whatever help it wants to give to Hamas, provided this does not harm third parties. This is taking us to the Middle Eastern policies of the pre-2002 period. In a pragmatic way, Turkey established relations with each country in the Middle East according to the conditions of that country and took the interest of third parties into consideration. Of course, Turkey and Israel have different roads to take, too, but we could act like that again and become more aware of our common interests with Israel in the region.
Do you see that happening with the domestic policies of Erdoğan and Netanyahu?
Right now, the deal is very fragile. Of course, the two sides need common sense. We will see if they will use this window of opportunity. Will they control their domestic audience, will they gain the support of their publics? We will also see if Hamas will understand the value of this agreement?
But we are witnessing the meltdown of the Middle East. The cooperation of two strong states could perhaps slow this meltdown down.
What is your view on the reconciliation process with Russia? What are the challenges ahead?
I regard it as is a successful and pragmatic diplomatic move. For a start, it obviously greatly reduces Turkey’s current diplomatic isolation in the region. But it also opens the way for further agreements on matters such as natural gas and energy supplies. But the implementation of a possible deal will not be easy. There are several challenges ahead, not least of which is the strong expectation by the Kremlin that there will be possible modifications in Turkey’s strategy toward the civil war in Syria.
What do you think about the recent attack at Istanbul Atatürk Airport? Was it related to reconciliation with Israel and Russia?
The heinous terrorist assault on Istanbul airport was done with the intention of killing innocent travelers and officers in the course of their work. This is the latest – and alas not even the biggest – killing in a grim series of events across the world – from Brussels to Mumbai, in Europe and the Middle East, and in other places.
On another note, I must stress that the Turkish government vehemently rejected the adoption of a lenient attitude toward the threat from ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] from the very beginning. But on the on the other hand, it is also a fact that all the conventional security safeguards and the entire institutions of the republic from the police to the judiciary, which have worked for so long in the country, have turned out to be ineffective in the present conflict.
This is because we have to cope with the arrival of 3 million asylum seekers from the neighboring parts of the Middle East as a result of the meltdown there, particularly in Syria. There is a lack of fully effective control over migrants. The arrival of ISIL elements on the scene in Turkey for some time now is a clear sign that the protective wall that once existed is disappearing. ISIL elements in Turkey were quiet in the first few years, but took root and then grew. After which, of course, they have begun to go on the offensive. But I don’t believe that the recent attack has any connection to reconciliation with Israel and Russia. It is a straightforward piece of terrorism which was doubtlessly planned well in advance. Those responsible – people from the Caucasus and Central Asia – arrived in Turkey a month ago, undoubtedly with this operation in mind.
Who is Özdem Sanberk?
After graduating from Istanbul’s Lycée de Galatasaray and the Faculty of Law at Istanbul University, Özdem Sanberk served at the Turkish embassies in Madrid, Amman, Bonn and Paris. He was also appointed to a number of different offices at Turkey’s permanent OECD and UNESCO representations. Between 1985 and 1987 he was the chief foreign policy advisor to then Prime Minister Turgut Özal.
From 1987 to 1991, Sanberk served as Turkey’s ambassador to the European Union in Brussels; from 1991 to 1995 he served as a permanent undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara; and from 1995 to 2000 he served as Turkey’s ambassador to the United Kingdom in London.
Sanberk retired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2000 and was the director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) until September 2003.
He represented Turkey’s interests on the special panel that was established after the Mavi Marmara incident, where Joseph Ciechanover Itzhar served as a representative for Israel.
He is currently president of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) think tank.