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‘Iran-Saudi Arabia-Israel triangle: are there better alternatives to Turkish government’s muddling through approach to Middle East politics?’

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

INSIGHT Incek Debates

Iran-Saudi Arabia-Israel triangle: are there better alternatives to Turkish government’s muddling through approach to Middle East politics?

Incek Debates, on 13 December 2017, discussed ‘If there were better alternatives to Turkish government’s muddling through approach to Middle East politics in the Iran-Saudi Arabia-Israel triangle’. Speakers were Amb Öztürk Yılmaz (MP, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, TGNA), Dr RADM Deniz Kutluk (ret’d) and Assoc Prof Banu Eligür (Başkent University). The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmaztürk. Below is Rapporteur’s Summary of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was off-the-record.

Both pawns and pieces on the Middle East chess board are being reset. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel are now locked in a dangerous competition which may well lead to a conflict. Russia’s and Iran’s role in the fight against ISIS and their now dominant position in regional politics are openly resented by the latter two. After Syria, Yemen and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now confronted in Lebanon. Persian nationalism is on the rise and Iran’s influence is now stretching from Tehran to Beirut. As Russia, Iran and Turkey are closely cooperating on the future of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Unites States are now focusing on Iran as a matter of priority.

Following the doomed attempt to form a so-called ‘Islamic NATO’ in 2015, Saudi-led Gulf States’ embargo on Qatar in June 2017 ignited a long-simmering chain reaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia, involving also others. Saudi Arabia—and the Gulf States except Qatar—and Israel appear to be in an undeclared ‘alliance’ against Iran.

The referendum for ‘independence’ in Northern Iraq and PYD/YPG—manifestly an offshoot of PKK—controlling large territories in Syria along the Turkish border have further complicated the situation in the post-ISIS era. A ‘Kurdish’ region within Syria is presented as a means to curb Iran’s influence. But, arms supplies to YPG, and PYD’s efforts towards a federal ‘Rojava’ under the rubric of Syrian Democratic Forces, are making Turkey nervous.

Turkey, breaking with its longstanding tradition in foreign policy, has increasingly involved in regional disputes, intervened in both Iraq and Syria militarily and politically, alienated and even antagonized various actors. Its regional policy has been piecemeal, erratic, and most of the time, counterproductive. Turkey’s relations with the West—particularly with the U.S.—as well as Israel, are at an all-time low. Its partnership with Russia and Iran is less than cordial.

The idea of ‘getting tough(er) on Iran’ is becoming increasingly popular in Washington D.C. Just as Hamas and Fatah attempted national reconciliation, President Trump decided to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. This may well be the last straw on the camel’s back.

Against this background, the Incek debates discussed; political aims and objectives of respective actors, Turkish political behavior, risks to regional and global peace and security, threats to Turkish national interests and alternative policies to be adopted by Turkey.

 

Executive Summary

Some fundamental paradigm shifts have occurred in the Middle East and in the world, reshaping national and regional policies and strategies. Conventional alliances are gradually being replaced by ad-hoc alliances of convenience.

Jerusalem decision has not divided Arabs; it has simply displayed the already existing division. Shia versus Sunni ‘concept’ narrows our understanding of the socio-political reality in the region.

The U.S. is no longer the sole game setter in the region. Russia, through new friends and new alliances, has become a dominant actor in the Middle East. The West—particularly the U.S.—by its ‘Kurdish policy’, has forced Turkey to cooperation and even to an open alliance with Russia and Iran.

Israel has a traumatic approach to its own security. Given the current reality, it is not justified. Iran represents the only challenge to Israel’s regional dominance. ‘Begin doctrine’ has now been supplemented by the policy of ‘never allowing Iran establishing a Shi’ite corridor’.

Saudi Arabia aims to eliminate Iran as a rival force, and attempts to replace Egypt as the leader of the Arab world. Iran aims to establish a Shi’ite axis in the ‘north’, a system of friendly governments in the ‘south’ and a network of sympathetic ‘entities’, for hegemony.

The U.S.—along with Israel—has isolated itself by the 6 December decision, lost its position as an interlocutor in the Peace Process. The ‘decision’ gave a valuable (!) boost to radicalism.

Major threats to Turkey’s security are radical Islamism and Kurdish nationalism, eventually changing borders and political regimes in the ME. Turkey’s vital interests lie in regional peace and stability, and promotion of ‘democratic regimes’, NOT Islamism.

The Turkish decision-making system seems to have been taken prisoner by repeated mistakes, poor judgement and its own failures. Turkey needs to review its policies and reformulate a national security policy, based on, primarily, Turkish ‘national’ interests.

Turkish leadership has to give up the line of argument ‘accusing’ other governments of taking steps to further their national interests—which is only legitimate.

Turkey cannot afford to ‘own’ the Palestinian cause and take it over, for many reasons.

Recommendations for the Turkish government

Major threats to Turkey’s security are radical Islamism, that is non-secular political regimes & radical Islamist groups, and Kurdish nationalism, that is the ‘Kurdistan Project’, eventually changing borders and political regimes in the ME—Turkey’s neighbourhood.

Rise of ‘radical Islamism’ is occurring in parallel with the rise of Kurdish separatism in particular and Kurdish nationalism in general in the ME. Turkey needs to recognize the threat posed by radical Islamism—and its infrastructure within Turkey. Turkey’s vital interests lie in regional peace and security, and promotion of ‘democratic regimes’, NOT Islamism.

Maintaining Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity—exactly like those of Iraq—are vitally important for Turkish national interests. Sunni-Shia divide is artificial. The real struggle is for regional dominance. Sectarianism is intentionally used for social mobilization and legitimization of certain policies. 

Turkish foreign policy is short-sighted and ill-advised. Turkey should give up sectarian, ‘pro-Sunni Islamist’ foreign policy line which gives priority to the needs of domestic politics and expectations of the conservative electoral base. 

Looking at its end ‘products’, safe to say, Turkey’s national security policy has largely failed; however there is no discernible attempt to correct it. The Turkish decision-making system seems to have been taken prisoner by (repeated) mistakes, poor judgement, its own failures.  

Turkey needs to review its policies and reformulate a national security policy accordingly. This review needs to take into account the reality on the ground, lessons learned, changed paradigm and above all Turkish ‘national’ interests—versus sectarian and/or ideological aims.

If anything, Jerusalem decision has proven the risks associated with ‘unilateralism’. A new policy—whatever shape it will take—has to adopt a ‘win-win’ strategy for implementation and seek becoming part of a multinational framework—versus unilateral actions. 

On Jerusalem; Palestinian question is the ‘mother of all conflicts’, it has to be solved and solved today, NOT tomorrow. Jerusalem has been made the symbol of all evils and all goodnesses. Turkey should give up the counterproductive ‘Islamist’ rhetoric and seek cooperation with parties such as Russia and the European Union who look more concerned than Arabs. However, Turkey cannot afford to ‘own’ the Palestinian cause and take it over.

Give up the argument ‘accusing’ other governments of taking steps to further their national interests—which is only legitimate. This makes Turkish policy-making look ‘immature’.

For Israel—and the United States

Perhaps the suggestion made by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, cynically—with a twist of words—is the best, to start with: “I think we should give peace a chance. And it’s time that the Israelis (Palestinians) recognise the Palestinian (Jewish) state and also recognize the fact that it has a capital that is called Jerusalem”.

Secondly, one may recall the warnings by Ms Federica Mogherini of the EU for a sustainable solution: “It is in Israel’s interest to find a sustainable solution to its conflict with the Palestinians”, key word being ‘sustainable’. Current situation—created—is NOT sustainable.

The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.

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