June 4, 2010

Turkey - U.S. ally or policy spoiler?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Israeli military confrontation of the so-called "freedom flotilla" earlier this week has precipitated a crisis not just between unlikely allies Israel and Turkey, but between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. As the two American allies start a verbal clash, the Obama Administration is finding itself in the middle.

This is just another event in a series of events that have been festering between Ankara and Washington as Turkey gradually changes its focus from being a European Union contender to a regional power broker between Israel, the Arab countries, Muslim/Turkic states of the former Soviet Union and Iran.

Looking at a map of the region, Turkey occupies a key location in a strategic part of the world. It truly is the bridge between East and West - mediator/broker is a good role for the Turks to play, assuming they can pull it off. Their efforts so far have merely alienated one group or the other - not exactly successful mediation.

The latest poke in the Ankara-Tel Aviv spat came today as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Hamas - a group committed to the destruction of Turkish ally Israel - as "resistance fighters." He failed to mention that if Hamas or its affiliated groups had refrained from launching over 8000 rockets into southern Israel over the last five years, the Israeli-imposed embargo would not have been necessary and the recent incident, not to mention last year's IDF incursion into the Gaza Strip, may not have taken place.

Erdogan's words go further: "Hamas are resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land." Defend it from whom? The Israelis have no designs on the Gaza - they were happy to be rid of it in 2005, the settlers not withstanding. There are no Israeli troops in the Strip as there are on the West Bank. The only Israeli military operations in Gaza are generally retaliatory air strikes following the unending Qassam rocket attacks on southern Israel. (See Sderot - Israel's "Rocket City".)

Turkey's spat with Israel is not the only thing that appears to undermine American foreign policy in the region. In an effort that was contrary to the Obama Administration's goal of gaining international support for tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, Turkey, along with Brazil, negotiated a sham nuclear deal with Tehran. Turkey has also proposed a Turkey-Syria-Iran alliance - a move that certainly would not be viewed in Washington as the action of an American ally.

For decades, Turkey was a stalwart ally of the United States and NATO. It allowed the coalition in 1990-1991 to use its bases and airspace to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey looked toward Central Asia as its rightful sphere of influence.

During the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, in what many American military planners regard as reneging on a commitment, Turkey first allowed U.S. Army forces to move through Turkey to the Iraqi border, only to change its mind at the last minute, forcing the United States to withdraw an entire mechanized division and redeploy them via the Arabian Peninsula. Again, not the actions of an ally.

Turkey needs to decide whose side they want to be on. Right now they are trying to be all things to all sides while addressing increasing Islamist pressure at home. Unless the Turks determine where Turkey stands, they are likely to become part of our foreign policy issues and not a foreign policy partner.