Turkey, traditional allies: escalating tensions amid deepening differences

Alwaght– The West Asia region’s developments are going fast, complicated, and unpredictable. Such a situation renders the regional and international actors to become less obsessed with working out long-term plans and strategies. Rather, the focus is now on designing drifting policies as part of a strategy to make decisions proportionate to the new, unfolding conditions.

Turkey, a significant regional player among the others, has been struggling to influence the course of events through relations with other parties amid fast-moving regional developments. In the past two years, the country experienced a litany of highs and lows in its foreign relations more than any other player. An evidence to this claim is the remarks in past few days of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who unprecedentedly attacked Ankara’s traditional allies in the region. On November 17, the Turkish president lashed out at Turkey’s key ally the US, accusing the Washington leaders of financially supporting ISIS terrorist group in Syria.

“They [the US] said they were fighting Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS), but what did they do instead? Gave Daesh a load of dollars… We do not want to enter into an allied relationship with them on Afrin. The United States has constantly violated our agreements. In Manbij, in Raqqa. When we offered to work there together, they promised that not a single member of the PYD [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party] would remain there, don’t worry,” Sputnik news agency quoted Erdogan expressing deep disappointment over the US’ non-compliance with the agreements reached.

This was not Erdogan’s last anti-ally attack. He on December 11, a week after the American President Donald Trump announced the recognition of the city of al-Quds (Jerusalem) as the Israeli capital and promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to al-Quds, Turkey’s leader rebuked Tel Aviv and called the Israeli regime a “terrorist and child-killer state.”

“Palestine is oppressed and a victim. Israel is absolutely a state of occupation. Israel has never recognized any decision adopted concerning it, especially United Nations decisions, and it will never do so,” Erdogan said, also presenting a series of maps showing how the Israelis have expanded their borders by occupying Palestinian territories since 1947.

On Sunday, he accused Saudi Arabia, once an ally of Turkey in the regional game of influence, of colluding with other foreign parties against Ankara. He said the crises in Iraq, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region, referring to the Qatar row, all were tenets of a single, inclusive project for the region. He further noted that some powers were planning to redraw the traditional geography of Turkey. His mentioning of the Yemen war and Qatar diplomatic rift, in both of them Saudi Arabia is heavily engaged as the main culprit, lays bare the fact that Ankara finds Riyadh a party to the Americans and Israelis in their efforts to destabilize the region.

Fundamental differences and inconsistent policies

Two levels of differences underpin Erdogan’s unprecedented attacks against the old allies of Turkey. One level is the conflict of strategic interests and the second is the rivalry for influence amid rapid regional developments.

When it comes to the aspect of strategic interests of Ankara and its traditional allies the main point is the conflicting viewpoints of the two sides on the Syrian and Iraqi crises. The main sticking point in this case is the form of Kurds’ role playing and their separatist agenda. Another stumbling block is the clash of ideologies of the Turkish political system and the others.

Turkey has apparent troubles with the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Turkey’s border regions are inhabited by a dissenting Kurdish minority that is a source of Turkish leaders’ security obsession. Moreover, Ankara is clashing with the Kurdish secessionist armed radicals, on top of them the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who posed the most serious dangers to Turkey’s national security over the course of over past three decades. Another source of Ankara’s worries is the fear of split of the neighboring Syria and Iraq where there is a possibility of establishing autonomous Kurdish units on the Turkish borders.

On the opposite side stand Washington and Tel Aviv, and even Riyadh that in past two years embarked on a new policy, backing the Kurdish militias in the two war-ravaged countries militarily, politically, and diplomatically. When in September the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq campaigned for the independence referendum, the Israeli regime was a unique supporter of the secession plebiscite mainly pressed for by the veteran Kurdish politician Masoud Barzani, who was also president at the time. The US in past two years has been a staunch backer of the Kurds. It trained and equipped them in various battles. Washington help has been crucially significant to major battlefield successes, including seizing much of Syria’s north, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is a coalition of Kurdish militant groups with the People’s Protection Unit’s (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK, at the center.

The ideological collision is another divisive issue. Turkey is ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) which is a patron of the dissenting Muslim Brotherhood movements across the Arab world. This is while Saudi Arabia, along with its allies the US and the Israeli regime, is a severe adversary to this line of thought, something triggering tensions between the two sides.

There is another factor sending Ankara and others to the blows. It is the regional competition, especially between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which goes for the aim of gaining a deeper toehold in the Muslim world. When two weeks ago Trump announced approving al-Quds as a replacement to Tel Aviv, the Turkish president seized the moment and brought under fire the US for its recognition and the Israeli regime for its anti-Palestinian violations, amid obvious Saudi passiveness in addressing the new Palestinian situation. The Turkish move was meant to grab the golden chance for regional influence expansion, beside a will to pressure Washington and Tel Aviv.

Tensions boil over, relations decline

Erdogan’s accusing the Washington-Riyadh-Tel Aviv camp of mobilizing sources to destabilize the region did not go without responses. The Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for Israeli-Turkish trade ties revision. Lieberman, referring to the Erdogan’s rejection of Israeli gas transit to Europe via the Turkish soil, maintained it was “big and strategic mistake” that the Israeli gas transit fate determination is in hands of Erdogan. In 2015, Lieberman, then a foreign minister, called the Israeli apology and paying compensation for those killed in Israeli forces’ raid on the Turkish humanitarian ship meant to break Gaza siege back in 2010 an “enormous” mistake.

Additionally, the Saudi newspaper Okaz in November claimed that it accessed secret documents showing high-level Turkish-Qatari coordination to destabilize Arab states, especially Egypt. Reactions from both sides are expected to fan the flames and force bilateral relations to lower levels.