Turkey Responds to the Israeli Strike: The Realist Wing Drives the Debate (For Now)

Yesterday, I wrote that the Turkish leadership would likely have some trouble formulating its response to the reported Israeli air strike in Syria. [From yesterday’s piece] Behind the scenes, the Turkish leadership is likely to be of two opinions about the Israeli action. On the one hand, there are credible reports that Turkey and Israel are sharing intelligence and cooperating on ways to ensure that weapons are not smuggled out of a post-Assad Syria. Turkey is wary of the PKK/PYD having access to arms, while Israel fears the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah. Thus, they have an incentive to cooperate on a narrow set of issues. With regards to the Israeli strike, there are probably some who see the strike as a useful deterrent. Others within the Turkish security establishment are probably arguing that Turkey should carry out similar operations, if they receive actionable intelligence that weapons are falling into the hands of either the PYD or the PKK.

The other wing may be arguing that the Israeli involvement in the conflict could further empower radical groups like Jabhat al Nusra, which espouses views that are antithetical to Turkey’s political goals. Moreover, they could argue that the Israeli action could galvanize Assad’s forces or further fracture the disorganized rebel leadership. Thus, it would be prudent for Turkey to loudly condemn the Israeli action so as to try and distance Ankara from the decisions made in Tel Aviv.

Turkey, therefore, finds itself in a strategic quandary. On the one hand, it has an incentive to support the strike. While on the other, it has to worry about the fall-out of direct Israeli involvement. However, Erdogan is a smart politician who has shown that he has a the pulse of his people. Thus, I am assuming that he is going to split the difference. Erdogan, as he did during the Gaza crisis, will be quiet about the incident for the next couple of days. He will outsource the response to Foreign Minister Davutoglu, who will in turn issue a mildly worded rebuke. The Foreign Minister will base his criticism on Israel’s decision to undertake unilateral military action. Erdogan will follow this criticism with a more scathing critique during his next major speech/press conference. The AKP will then largely abandon the issue, in favor of more pressing local issues like the Kurdish peace talks and the changing of the Constitution.

Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) tweeted that the Foreign Minister’s spokesman avoided condemning [the] Israeli strike on Syria, say[ing] it shows “how complicated the situation in Syria is.”

Thus far, the Prime Minister has avoided responding to the attack. As William Armstrong correctly pointed out on his blog, Erdogan drives the debate in Turkey, thus it remains to be seen if the powerful Prime Minister will choose to ramp up the rhetoric. Turkey’s actions to date, suggest that the realist wing of the AKP security/political establishment has wrestled control of the Syria file away from the more liberal interventionist wing of the party.

As I explained yesterday, the Israeli strike placed the Turkish leadership in a strategic quandary.  On the one hand, the AKP certainly understands the dangers posed by the spread of advanced weaponry to rogue groups and is keen on taking steps to prevent that outcome. However, Israel’s direct entrance into the conflict risks galvanizing Assad’s forces and increasing the appeal of Jihadist groups. Thus, Ankara would have to balance its silent approval for the strike, with the need to respond to the Israeli action. Ankara, for now, appears to have settled on a policy of silent approval and no condemnation.

The reports that Israel informed the United States about its intention to strike Syria, further complicates the Turkish approach. Ankara’s Syria policy depends, to a large extent, on the international community and, in particular, the United States. In a post-Assad scenario, Turkey will have to rely on its international allies to aid in the transition and, in the worst case scenario, for protection and cooperation against the potential  proliferation of chemical and heavy weapons. There are credible reports that the United States military is already in Turkey and is training Turkish special forces to operate on a chemical battle field. Turkey, therefore, appears to have joined its traditional Western allies’ response to yesterday’s military strike.

The Turkish response indicates that with regards to Syria, Ankara is pursuing an interests based foreign policy. For now, its interests align with those of the Israelis. Moreover, it also represents how Ankara has compartmentalized its relationship with Tel Aviv. Turkey is eager to publicly bash the Jewish State when it comes to the Palestinian issue, but is much more reserved when it comes to Syria. In other words, Turkey and Israel are establishing a relationship more akin to that of Israel and the Gulf States. Thus, I would suspect that the countries will continue to keep up the facade of conflict, while also sharing intelligence and quietly cooperating in areas of mutual interest. (As a side note, I do not think that the two will mend their diplomatic relationship any time soon.)

It also suggests that Turkey would begrudgingly accept some sort of negotiated settlement with Assad, so long as its interests are maximized. To be clear, those interests continue to be the maintenance of Syrian territorial integrity, preventing the empowerment of the PYD/PKK, and preventing the proliferation of chemical weapons.

Stay tuned . . .

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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