Conflict & Justice

Israel and Turkey: Fair-weather allies?


A demonstrator burns an Israeli flag as he sits behind a Turkish flag during a protest against Israel on June 5, 2010 at Caglayan Square in Istanbul. Nine people — eight Turks and a US national of Turkish origin were killed in May 31's pre-dawn raid by Israeli forces on the Turkish ferry, Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the aid flotilla aiming to break the crippling blockade of Gaza.


Bulent Kilic

JERUSALEM — Last March, in a dramatic, hands-on moment that rarely occurs in the closely choreographed world of international politicking, President Obama left Air Force One idling at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport while he huddled in a trailer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Obama was mediating a call with Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan, who had not communicated with his Israeli counterpart since the latter’s deadly raid on the Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla three years ago.

In the phone call, Netanyahu apologized and America's two top Middle Eastern allies agreed to negotiate a renewal of diplomatic ties. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu later announced that his nation's renewed ties with Israel had no connection to fresh tensions with Syria or Iran. 

More from GlobalPost: Israel apologizes to Turkey over Gaza flotilla deaths

But with Syria up in flames, and both Israel and Turkey lining up against Syrian President Bashar al Assad, will the two US allies forge a regional alliance in the face of their war-wracked neighbor?

Erdogan was in Washington D.C. Thursday to both meet with Obama and pressure the US leader to do more on Syria. The visit follows Israel's own strike on the Syrian capital, Damascus, earlier this month, and that racheted up the debate over international intervention.

“It’s a strategic asset for both Israel and Turkey to have good ties,” said Gabriel Levy, Israel’s ambassador to Turkey before relations were ruptured in 2010.

Indeed, Turkey has had vigorous relations with Israel since its founding in 1948, including wide-ranging trade and commerce, arms sales and significant tourism.

Israeli press reports quoted anonymous officials as saying the warming of ties with Turkey gave Israel the international support to carryout its most recent airstrikes in Damascus earlier this month. 

More from GlobalPost: What 5 Israelis think of the Syria strike

But while Syria could bring these two erstwhile allies back together, analysts warn it could also pull them apart.

For one, Israel's peace negotiations with Syria, which Israel asked Turkey to broker, are now moot, and analysts say Turkey no longer sees Israel as its bridge to the US and Europe.

“Each has its own interests to watch out for right now,” said Eyal Zisser, professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University.

“Turkey wants Assad to fall and is providing shelter and subsidies to the opposition,” he said. “Israel is not there yet. There may be cooperation on the margins like information sharing… but that’s the limit of this.”

As Syria continues to fracture, so could the Israel-Turkey alliance against Assad, analysts say.

One potential fault-line for an Israel-Turkey fall-out is the Kurdish community inside Syria.

More from GlobalPost: Kurds in Syria: A struggle within a struggle

Turkey has long been locked in a bloody struggle with its own Kurdish minority, and whose armed militias are withdrawing to Iraq under peace negotiations with Turkish authorities.

Despite the peace deal, Erdogan remains actively opposed to Kurdish sovereignty — and particularly wary of the growing autonomy of the 1.6 million Kurds inside Syria that could provide a model for Turkey’s Kurdish population.

If Syria’s Kurds emerge independent from the civil war, “that’s not a negligible thing,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and former ambassador to NATO and Jordan.

More from GlobalPost: Kurdish militants begin historic Turkey withdrawal 

Israel’s ties with Kurdish leaders go back 40 years — with both leaders seeing themselves as beleaguered minorities in a uniformly Arab region — and a Kurdish state would give Israel a new ally in the region.

“For us, it can even be amenable to have a non-Arab nation with whom we can build a policy,” Eran said.

 For now, “it may be easier for the US to act when its two regional allies see eye-to-eye,” Zisser says.

Erdogan's top priority was to push Obama into more open and wide-ranging support for the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday. The Obama administration had also previously expressed its support for Israel’s May 4 Damascus raid.

"We're going to keep increasing pressure on the Assad regime and working with the Syrian opposition," Obama said at Thursday's joint press conference with Erdogan. "We both agree that Assad needs to go." 

But the common interests between Israel and Turkey may in fact end there.

“In some ways, there is more competition than a unified vision” between the two, Eran said.  

More from GlobalPost: How Syria's conflict stretches beyond its borders