Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), democracy and economic growth in Turkey have improved, leading to a more active foreign policy and good relations with its neighbors. A strong stance against Israel and its aggression in Gaza was made evident during the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009, when then-Prime Minister Erdogan stormed off the stage protesting Israel’s aggression in Gaza. Later, the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, which saw Israeli commandos killing Turkish nationals on a flotilla bound for Gaza, led to a complete freezing of diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey. In a way, the worsening relations between Turkey and Israel was a natural result of simmering tension arising from Turkey's expanding regional role and Israel's heavy-handed attitudes towards the Middle East.
Turkey's regional weight became more apparent with the eruption of the Arab Spring which shook the Arab world with a wave of democratization, throughout which Turkey stood as a model of democracy, development and an assertive foreign policy. The Arab Spring, however, also revealed the limits of Turkey's power against the hard realities of the forces in the region, as Syria's Baath regime managed to survive the tide with the support of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. In late 2015, Russia’s military intervention in Syria led to a parallel crisis with Turkey, following Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet violating its airspace, after which harsh economic sanctions against Turkish products and tourism were imposed by Russia.
Today, major changes taking place regionally and globally have led Turkey to reassess its current position. Regionally, the Syrian crisis has lasted longer than many expected, leading to an influx of refugees to Turkey and Europe alike. What were initial democratic struggles have turned into sectarian and ethnic conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, causing a rise in terror threats and further conflicts in the region. Turkey has also been afflicted by terrorist acts from both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), this in addition to the financial burden that came with the huge influx of refugees.
Lately, Turkey has made two major strategic moves to normalize its relations with both Israel and Russia, signaling a new critical chapter for the future of the country and region. Israel accepted Turkey's demands of an apology, compensation to the Mavi Marmara victims and an easing of the Gaza blockade. Similarly, Turkey expressed its regret for downing the Russian plane and Russia agreed to normalize diplomatic relations. Such developments invite an analysis of the factors leading to these major developments and the repercussions on Turkey and the region.
The Syrian conflict poses a unique challenge for Turkey. Even though Israel has on the whole remained silent about the crisis, it is not difficult to guess their delight with the collapse of its Arab neighbor Syria. In September 2015, when the Assad regime was on the verge of falling despite Iranian support, Russia intervened in Syria, notably coordinating with the Israelis. The prolonging of the Syrian conflict, one could conclude, was in many ways a result of Israeli concerns over a democratic Syria, made even more noticeable with heavy Israeli lobbying discouraging US intervention in Syria to topple Assad.
The normalization efforts with Israel came as a result of what can be called a Russo-Iranian siege around Turkey from the north to the south, especially after the imposition of Russian economic sanctions on Turkish products and tourism, and the conflicts and terror in Iraq and Syria. Turkey thus found itself having to open its doors to Israel to break the siege, and in so doing allow it to influence the future of the regional crisis. This move comes after Turkey's clear disappointment with the USA's reluctance to stop the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq, as well as NATO’s failure to provide the necessary assurance to defend Turkey's borders against Russians, among other threats.
Tension between Russia and Turkey arose because the former supports the Assad regime and the latter backs Syria's democratic opposition. Turkey downed the Russian jet after it violated Turkey's airspace while bombing the Syrian opposition. Moscow, meanwhile, has failed to destroy an opposition that has proven its resilience to Russian airpower. Resigned to the clear need for a political solution, Turkey and Russia seem to have reconciled their differences, with the latter having not overruled the possibility of a solution in Syria without Bashar Al Assad. The current deadlock seems to have facilitated Turkey's normalization with Russia, as they now begin to seek common ground for a solution in Syria.
Energy was another factor easing Turkey's rapprochement with Israel and Russia, even more so with Israel. Following the recent exploration of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, the production and distribution of natural gas has become a geostrategic issue. Turkey currently imports its energy from abroad, mainly from Russia and Iran, and is keen to diversify its energy sources through imports from Egypt, Qatar and Israel. Russia also wants to diversify its gas route to the West by avoiding Ukraine through the pipeline called the Turkish stream.
Turkey's geostrategic location provides the most feasible gas route from the Eastern Mediterranean to European markets. This has prompted Israel to reach an understanding with Turkey. Such a route requires a solution and stability in Syria, a gateway to the gas route. Similarly, the negotiations on mapping the gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean forces the Turkish side to mend its relations with some of the parties involved in the energy debate, i.e. Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria. Energy politics have thus dictated Turkey's normalization with Israel and possibly Egypt, necessitating an urgent solution to the Syrian crisis and the huge implications this entails.
Economic losses also forced Turkey to reconcile with Russia. Turkey imports more than half of its natural gas consumption from Russia (the equivalent of more than US$15 billion) and balances that bill with manufacturing and agricultural exports, and by attracting Russian tourists (roughly three million Russians visit Turkey annually) along with obtaining construction contracts. The Russian embargo on Turkey began to hurt Turkish exports and tourism, while Russia was somewhat affected by the rising food prices. Russia has also been under economic pressure from Western sanctions following its invasion of Crimea. Economic interests were thus at force from both sides in mending ties between the two countries.
Finally, security concerns were another crucial factor behind Ankara’s normalization with Russia and Israel. After the downing of its plane, Russia allowed the PYD, a PKK-affiliate, to open a branch in Moscow. Russia’s targeting of moderate Syrian opposition rather than ISIL during its military intervention led to ever greater numbers of Syrian refugees to land on Turkey’s doorstep. The recent rapprochement might lead Russia and Turkey to cooperate in fighting ISIL, which might also curtail Russia's support for the PYD. In the wake of the recent spate of terrorist attacks targeting Turkey launched by ISIL and PKK or its off-shoots, normalization with Moscow can boost security cooperation and intelligence sharing, particularly important when considering that the most recent suicide bombers in Istanbul were Russian citizens. Similar intelligence sharing is also possible with Israel against possible terrorist attacks targeting Turkey.
The Effects of Normalization on Turkey and the Region
Today, we are witnessing worrying global developments: the stumbling of the Arab Spring, the Iran Nuclear deal, the rise of Islamophobia, right-wing populism in the West, the UK exit from the European Union (or Brexit) and the EU's economic struggles resulting from the weakening of the Chinese economy and instability in Brazil. After Brexit, Europe will need Turkey more than ever. With its dynamic economy, young population as well as its crucial role in providing security cooperation against terror, illegal immigration and an effective defense alliance, Turkey’s stability is critical for all. With such global uncertainties, Turkey's move to normalize ties with Israel and Russia will ease the isolation caused by the stumbling of the Arab Spring and will constitute a breather in the regional and global arena.
Ultimately, Turkey and the wider region will be better off economically and politically if Turkey, Russia and Israel can find a political solution to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Both ISIL and the PYD/PKK are trying to build separate states by carving out space for themselves in Syria and Iraq. The PKK is intent on dividing Turkey but is failing when pit against Turkish security forces on the ground deployed after the collapse of the Turkey-PKK peace process in the summer of 2015. Turkey's normalized relations with Israel and Russia will help its fight against terror. Moreover, a political solution in Syria will decrease the flow of refugees to Turkey and the resultant financial burden.
Turkey recently curbed its differences with Saudi Arabia and it is not implausible for Turkey to also normalize its relations with Egypt, despite its disapproval of the Sisi government. In normalizing ties with Russia, Israel and Egypt, three important countries in its neighborhood, Turkey will take part in the processes shaping the region's future. From mapping gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean to the conflicts that might redraw the borders in Syria and Iraq, Turkey will continue to have a strong voice in the region’s future, especially to keep Iraq and Syria intact and to fight ISIL and PKK in its southern borders.