Terrorists carried out two massive attacks in his country, at the international airport in Istanbul in June, and at a wedding in Gaziantep in August. He survived an attempted coup in July, and then took draconian measures against rivals: arresting tens of thousands of people, and purging many thousands more from the police force, schools and universities, the Ministry of Education, and the legal profession.
He reconciled with Israel. He reconciled with Russia. He quarreled publicly and bitterly with both the US and the European Union. And, to top it all off, two weeks ago he sent tanks streaming across the border into Syria, signaling a much more muscular Turkish approach to Syria, a conflict already over-burdened by too much international muscle.
Israel, of course, is carefully watching Turkey’s moves inside Syria – codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield – knowing full well that what starts as a relatively minor incursion in northern Syria can have major ramifications for the region and for Jerusalem.
Eran Lerman, who served from 2009 to 2015 as deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council, said the Turkish incursion impacts on Israel in a number of ways.
“First of all, it greatly limits the ability of Turkey to court any more trouble than it already has,” said Lerman, today a faculty member at the Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem and a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “Their deepening involvement in Syria cements their interest in bringing down the number of conflicts they can be engaged in.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they are using their lever to tell Hamas that they do not really wish to be put in the position of having to choose between their current interest in going ahead with [the reconciliation with] Israel, and the implications of escalation in Gaza,” he said. “They have a vested interest in avoiding escalation in Gaza.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Turkish military move again illustrates waning US power and influence in the region.
Though Washington backed the initial Turkish push into the Islamic State controlled city of Jarabulus, ostensibly to push the organization away from its border, this support soured when the Turks began using this as cover for fighting its Kurdish nemesis along the frontier, apparently trying to prevent a contiguous Kurdish area from emerging along its border that could embolden restive Kurds inside Turkey.
“If they go all out against the Kurds in northern Syria, I think it is a danger for us with troubling implications – it would be morally and strategically a tragedy,” he said.
Israel, Lerman added, is “justifiably careful” not to take a position whether a Kurdish state should be formed, and that to do so would be neither helpful nor wise.
“But we do have a sentiment and an affinity for people who stood and fought – and courageously – against Islamic State in the last few years, and I think it is not only morally, but strategically troubling, to see the Turks prioritizing a fight with the Kurds over their fight against ISIS.”
Asked why Israel tiptoes so gingerly around the question of a Kurdish state, even though on the face of it the emergence of such a state would seem like a natural non-Arab ally in the region, Lerman said that Jerusalem “does not want to give the Kurds’ enemies the ability to say that this is something that we are fomenting.”
Lerman said that there was something “pathetic” about hearing unnamed Pentagon officials this week rebuking the Turks for taking their battle inside Syria beyond Islamic State to the Kurds, but then the Turks going ahead and doing whatever they want “regardless of American discomfort.’” “That is very telling on the state of US authority right now, and of course it has implications for us at least in the short term until January 20,” he said, noting the date when US President Barack Obama will formally leave office.
Turkey’s moves in Syria against US-backed Kurdish forces who have fought against Syrian President Bashar Assad and Islamic State is more evidence that the US right now carries little strategic weight in the region.
“The will of the United States of America has rarely carried less weight than it does now in regional affairs,” he said.
“And that means that those of us who worry about regional stability have to work together for ourselves.”
With their moves into Syria, he said, Ankara has demonstrated that “we don’t care less what the US says or feels about this, we are going ahead with what we see as our national interests,” adding that the message is even more “troubling” considering that Turkey is a NATO ally.
America’s lower profile and reduced effectiveness in the region, he noted, could change with a new president, and at least at the level of the actions it chooses to take, this could change relatively quickly. However, he said, “at the level of perceptions, changing perceptions takes time.”
This lower and less effective US presence is very much behind the understanding in Jerusalem of the importance of developing regional relationships, and it is a sense shared by countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Persian Gulf countries.
Regional ties, he said, “are much more important to us now than in the past, when our traditional geostrategic policy used to be, ‘Let’s talk to Washington about it.’” That response – looking to Washington – was for many years the “mainstay of Israel’s strategic arsenal of responses,” Lerman explained. “Let’s talk to the Americans, we’ll make a point, and then things will happen.”
But this is an assumption that can no longer be made, he said, either because the US does not want to get involved, or is unable anymore to “make things happen.”
“I think the prime minister is acutely aware of that, and it is fueling efforts you see to find other ways of communicating with our immediate environment.”
Lerman stressed that the US is still powerful, compared to all the other powers in the region. “It can make a difference if it wants to make a difference. But for the time being, we are seeing in the Turkish incursion a reflection of this reduced profile.”
Most observers concur that one consequence of Turkey’s incursion – by weakening both Islamic State and the Kurdish rebels fighting Assad’s regime – will be to help Assad hang onto power. In that, the Turkish moves are in line with both Russian and Iranian interests in Syria: ensuring Assad’s survival.
“There is a commonality of Iranian and Russian interests when it comes to Assad’s survival,” he said. “There is no commonality when it comes to the use of Syria as a jumping-board for action against Israel and against Jordan. The Iranians have designs on Syria that the Russians do not share.”
That the Russians “are not working for the Iranians” inside Syria is made clear in the deconfliction mechanism created between Israel and Russia to prevent their militaries from “bumping into each other.” Russia is interested in Assad’s survival to retain its strong foot-hold in the region, while the Iranians would like to turn Syria into a base of operations against Jordan and Israel.
“Assad will be running an unbelievable risk to his wretched remains of a regime if he plays along with the Iranians on the Golan, and I should hope he understands it,” Lerman said. “The Russians certainly have no problem understanding that what the Iranians want to do in Syria, and what they want to do in Syria, are not the same things.”
Regarding whether he thought the Russians would be willing to prevent the Iranians from using Syrian territory against Israel, Lerman said it was not a question of preventing the Iranians, rather of Moscow “speaking sweetly into Assad’s ear and telling him that it wouldn’t exactly suit Russia’s interests if he took unnecessary risks to the survival of his regime, a survival for which they are sacrificing their resources and some lives.”
But why should the Russians care if the Iranians use the Golan against Israel? “Because Israel is going to react,” Lerman responded. “We are not exactly a dead body. If we bring our power to bear on what is left on Assad’s regime, then there is a good chance that the Russian interests in Syria will follow the interests they once had in Libya into oblivion. The last thing they need is for Assad to take risks with Israel that could bring about the demise of his regime. That would mean that they invested in another rabbit hole.”
Lerman, who served 20 years in military intelligence, said that one of the problems he encountered during that period was intelligence officers who were always taking into account what others would do, but somehow keeping Israel out of the equation, as if it was “on the dark side of the moon.”
“Israel is a very strong country,” he said. “Others have to think about us. The Russians have a very keen sense of what we are capable of doing, and they have no wish to see Assad take unnecessary risks. They recognize our capacity, and have no wish to have it called up.”