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Behind the Flotilla Headlines: Turkish Strategic Competition and U.S. Policy in the Middle East

By Ghassan Schbley and Scott Weiner

In the wake of the Israel Defense Force raid on the Mavi Marmara ship bound for Gaza, the United States must maintain a delicate regional balance between four influential actors in the Middle East. The first is Israel, an historic U.S. ally, which faces rising international criticism over its blockade of the Gaza strip and its 1.5 million residents. The second is Turkey, also an historic U.S. ally, which has made deliberate attempts to alienate Israel to gain favor in the Arab world, and resents a recent failed congressional resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. The third is Iran, which seeks nuclear influence and military hegemony in the Middle East even in the wake of tough U.N. sanctions passed against it on June 9, 2010. The fourth is the Arab world as a whole, which has grown increasingly frustrated over the ongoing war in Iraq, and lack of progress on the goals President Obama laid out in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009.

Key to a regional U.S. response to the IDF raid will be building a viable relationship between the United States and Turkey, an influential regional actor bordering Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Critical to this relationship is the recognition of two key points. First: Turkey's current alienation of Israel is deliberate strategic competition which derives itself from Turkey's "Zero Problems" foreign policy strategy and is undesirable for both Turkey and Israel in the long term. Second: Turkey is not only engaged in strategic competition with Israel, but also with Iran, and the United States should support Turkey in this regard.

Turkey's leaders in the ruling Justice and Development Party seek "Zero Problems" on Turkey's borders, and broader engagement in the Middle East. As an historic and contemporary U.S. ally, Turkey's objective is to promote stability in the Middle East by acting as a trusted mediator in the region's conflicts. However, mediating between the myriad antagonistic factions in the Middle East requires Turkey to strategically compete with other regional power players. Turkey's strategic competition is not a doctrinal re-alignment with non-Western actors, as commentators in the West have nervously speculated. Rather, it is a relatively short term strategy to alter the political landscape in the Middle East in order to create the long term political stasis which the "Zero Problems" strategy envisions.

The current brinkmanship between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza-bound flotillas is a component of the strategic competition necessary to the "Zero Problems" policy. Such brinksmanship is intended to achieve Turkey's objective of gaining additional credibility in the Arab world. With limitations by the secular Turkish army on the Justice and Development Party's Islamic credentials, foreign policy is one of the few areas where the party's Islamist platform can be expressed at low domestic political risk. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's walkout on Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Forum in January 2009 was one in a series of actions he has taken in this regard. In both that case and in the current situation, Arab public opinion has been overwhelmingly supportive and Prime Minister Erdogan has become a regional Muslim leader.

However, despite the short-term antagonism, Turkey and Israel ultimately share a number of long term interests. Both states aim to check the power of Iran, also a top U.S. priority in the Middle East. Both are actively engaged in long-term conflicts against insurgencies, Turkey with the PKK and Israel with Hamas and other Palestinian factions. Turkey and Israel have regularly coordinated joint military exercises for years, and have a strong defense relationship. Both are relatively secular democracies in a Middle East dominated by Islamic republics and kingdoms. And both stand to gain from economic agreements such as the Israeli purchase of Turkish water from the Manavgat River.

Even in the wake of the current crisis, both Israel and Turkey expressed mutual interest to cooperate rather than to antagonize. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated on June 2, 2010 that pending Turkish concerns were addressed, "I see no reason for not normalizing the ties." In a Jerusalem Post editorial published June 3, 2010, Member of the Knesset from the Kadima party Nachman Shai observed, "This isn't just about diplomacy; our relations with Turkey run deeper and there are significant economic and security matters to consider. Adding fuel to an already raging fire is not a good idea." As the United States crafts its response to the current instability, both Turkey's leverage in the Middle East and its benefits from a long-term alignment with Israel should not be underestimated. Despite the current political posturing, Turkey and Israel ultimately share a number of long-term interests. The U.S. should work to quickly mend this frayed relationship without further alienating Israel or Turkey.

The U.S. should also keep in mind that Turkey is engaged in strategic competition with Iran. PM Erdogan has explicitly stated in the past month that his foreign policy should not be interpreted as a desire to ally with Iran. Iran-Turkey competition, however, is based on different motivations. While Iran seeks primarily to gain military hegemony, Turkey seeks primarily to gain economic and political hegemony. On June 10, 2010, Turkey set up a free trade zone complete with visa-free travel between itself, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Turkey's GDP is also nearly twice that of Iran. The mismatch in pushing for politico-economic versus military hegemony allows both countries to engage in a certain level of cooperation. The May 17, 2010 Iran nuclear deal overseen by Turkey and Brazil is a perfect example of the benefits of Turkey's "strategic competition" with Iran. Under the terms of the deal, Iran would have retained the ability to use enriched uranium at a low political cost, while Turkey would gain political influence and prestige while simultaneously limiting Iranian nuclear autonomy. Such a deal would also have achieved the Turkish goal of being perceived as a mediator between the West and Iran.

Turkey is also employing strategic competition with Iran over leadership of the Palestinian cause, a role which the United States should support. While indirect support for the Palestinian cause may raise Israeli concerns, supporting Turkey versus Iran is the lesser of two evils from an Israeli perspective. Highly visible Turkish demonstrations of support for Palestinian rights not only promote Turkey as a leader in the Muslim world, but also cast Turkey as one of the primary defenders of Palestinian rights. But Iran also seeks to play this role, especially in light of increasing domestic and international pressure over its nuclear program. Both Iran and Turkey, non-Arab Muslim states, are defending an "Arab and Muslim cause", the Palestinian cause. Such competition is similar to Soviet-Chinese competition over North Vietnam and North Korea. In the 1950s and 60s, both China and the Soviet Union made heavy economic investments in communist North Vietnam and North Korea with the intent of bringing it within their respective spheres of influence, and championing the communist cause. Turkey and Iran each have different reasons for wanting to champion the Palestinian cause, whereas the motivations of China and the USSR were largely similar. However, competition for leadership of the Palestinian cause is likely to remain a source of Turkish-Iranian competition. Turkey's wedging of Iran out of this role is in America's interest, especially as the U.N. Security Council's preoccupation with the flotilla raid distracts attention from the Iranian nuclear program.

Ultimately, Turkey is attaining tentative leadership status in the Muslim world by conducting a deliberate and strategic balancing act with regional and global actors. As result of strategic competition, Turkey is becoming well positioned to mediate between the West and its Middle East partners. As President Obama stressed while visiting Turkey last April: "Turkey's greatness lies in [its] ability to be at the center of things... [it] is not where East and West divide - it is where they come together." Like the U.S., Turkey seeks to check Iranian military influence in the Middle East. It seeks to stabilize Iraq's Kurdistan region and maintain influence there to advance Turkish interests vis-à-vis the PKK as well as Iran. And like the United States, it is ultimately best served by an Israel which feels secure within its borders and is integrated as an economic and defense partner in the Middle East.

Contrary to notions that it has "gone rogue" and aligned with anti-Western actors, Turkey's response to the IDF flotilla raid has re-established its position as a key regional power in the Middle East. At a regional forum the week after the Israeli flotilla raid, PM Erdogan called suggestions that Turkey had broken from the West "malicious propaganda." American assessment of Turkish intentions should not be clouded by confusing strategic competition with a doctrinal shift and abandonment of Turkey's historically strong ties with the United States. In the months ahead, the U.S. should work to engage Turkey rather than inadvertently alienate it with condemnation. America must also be proactive in order to ensure that its interests and those of its allies are preserved when the brinkmanship and mudslinging die down.

Ghassan Schbley is a national security analyst. Scott Weiner is Chair of the Middle East Discussion Group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. The views represented in this piece are the authors' alone.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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