Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, Cyprus and Greece – a regional realignment

Regional map

Regional map of the Mediterranean

M K Bhadrakumar, writing in The Asia Times  (via NOW Lebanon) assesses that Israel has given up on Turkey as its largest and most powerful regional ally, and has transferred its diplomatic allegiance and political friendship to Cyprus and Greece.

This makes sense for a number of reasons: Turkey, ever since Prime Minister Erdogan came to power, has wrapped itself in a much stronger Muslim identity and thus become much more hostile to Israel, aggravated by Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and the Mavi Marmara incident, followed by Turkey’s demand that Israel apologise, and Israel’s refusal to do so.  Cyprus and Greece, being rivals to Turkey for decades, especially since Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus in the 1970s, are only too happy to draw closer to Israel, both to be in direct opposition to whatever Turkey does, and to benefit from Israel’s excellent economic status.

This new close relationship benefits Israel too because of the recent natural gas finds in the Mediterranean in the waters between Cyprus and Israel.  An alliance between the countries will prevent Turkey from trying to intervene and grab the oil and gas for themselves.  Cyprus and Greece’s membership in the EU can also work to Israel’s advantage.

The Kurds enter this picture being natural enemies of both Turkey and Syria, who are both hostile to Israel to one degree or another, this being the case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Israel has all but concluded that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is disinterested in reviving strategic ties between the two countries. This used to be a relationship that Israel desperately wanted to keep going as it was ideologically and politically useful, having been a unique one with a major Muslim power, and also highly lucrative, Turkey being a receptive market for Israeli goods and services, civilian and military.

At the root of it also lies the historic turnaround in Turkey’s regional policies and its assertive claim to regain its Ottoman legacy in the Muslim Middle East, which puts it at odds with a range of Israeli core interests and vital concerns. Israel is now moving on with life, turning a new leaf in its regional policy, almost accepting that the relationship with Turkey is probably irretrievably lost unless there is a regime change in Ankara and the Islamist ruling party loses power.

True to style, Israel is looking around the region for comfort and companionship with anyone who might also have an intractable problem with Turkey – it didn’t have to look far across the Mediterranean.

The two-day visit by the Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, to Tel Aviv, which ended on Thursday, was much more than a routine call. The minister had just assumed charge in Nicosia and headed for Israel as soon as her customary first visit to Athens was out of the way.

Quite obviously, Nicosia and Athens (which has an ancient grudge to settle with Ankara) put their heads together and assessed that Israeli regional policies are on a remake. Cyprus and Greece have had indifferent ties with Israel, but a compelling commonality of interests is sailing into view. A realignment of regional powers is taking place in the eastern Mediterranean, the leitmotif being the “containment” of an increasingly assertive Turkey.

The backdrop is easy to understand. Cyprus contracted American oil company Noble Energy to prospect for gas in 350,000 hectares in the eastern Mediterranean, bordering Israel’s economic zone where significant gas deposits have been discovered.

But Turkey butted in, saying the hydrocarbon resources also belonged to northern Cyprus (which has been under Turkish occupation since 1974) and Nicosia didn’t have the right to exploit resources that belonged to Turkish Cypriots. Turkey threatened to intervene.

Regarding Kozakou-Marcoullis’ mission to Tel Aviv, the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia said on Tuesday, “Particular emphasis will be placed in cooperation between Cyprus and Israel in energy issues, and the recent developments in the wider region.” Nicosia factored in that the minister would receive a warm welcome in Tel Aviv, which she did from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

The statement issued by Netanyahu’s office virtually underscored that Israel has a convergence of interests with Cyprus with regard to Ankara’s perceived belligerence. Netanyahu said Israel and Cyprus had “overlapping interests”. The statement said Netanyahu discussed with Kozakou-Marcoullis “the possible expansion of energy cooperation given that both countries have been blessed with natural gas reserves in their maritime economic zones”.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told Kozakou- Marcoullis that Israel “welcomed the exclusive economic zone agreement that was signed between the two countries … [and] that this was a bilateral issue that must be implemented as soon as possible to enable the initiation of the gas production process for the benefit of both parties and that the agreement was signed in accordance with the rules and rights of international law.”

The Israelis are pinning their hopes on Cyprus turning out to be a prize catch, being a member of the European Union, which works by consensus and is shortly expected to evolve a common stance apropos the expected Palestinian move at the United Nations General Assembly session in New York in September, seeking recognition for their “state”.

This explosive diplomatic issue haunts Tel Aviv (and Washington) and the stance that Cyprus takes at Brussels could be a diplomatic windfall when the mood in Europe is increasingly empathizing with the Palestinian case for statehood.

Turkey, on the other hand, has taken a firm stand supportive of the Palestine cause. Indeed, the first fracture appeared in the architecture of Turkey-Israel ties when Erdogan snubbed Peres in front of television cameras at the Davos forum some two years ago during a debate on the Palestine problem.

Meanwhile, Israeli commentators have also begun rattling Turkey’s nerves, already somewhat frayed, over the furious return of Kurdish militancy. Israeli intelligence and businessmen have longstanding contacts with the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.

Interestingly, Iran has highlighted lately that Israel could be stirring up the Kurdish pot for Turkey and, therefore, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus would have shared interests in countering the Kurdish separatism that threatened all three countries. Leading Israeli defense specialist David Eshel commented in August about the upsurge of Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s eastern provinces:

The entire Kurdish people could take advantage of the ongoing Arab Spring and prepare the ground for a long-anticipated Kurdistan, linking up with Iraq’s ongoing autonomy, the Iranian Kurdish enclave and perhaps even the Syrian Kurdish minorities … With the Arab world in total turmoil, lacking any orderly leadership, the Kurds could finally achieve their sacred goal for independence, after decades, if not centuries of desecration and oppression … the ongoing “Arab Spring” could eventually shift into a “Kurdish Summer”.

The most devastating part of Eshel’s commentary is his analysis that with the acute ongoing confrontation between the civilian government of Erdogan and the Turkish military, the latter’s professionalism and intelligence-gathering capabilities have suffered a severe setback and the Turkish General Staff realizes that any military action in the Kurdish regions would be a “high-risk operation”.

Eshel anticipated with an ominous overtone that a criticality might be reached soon if Turkish Kurds merged with the seasoned Iraqi Peshmerga militia numbering more than 100,000 fighters. He warned, “Erdogan is facing his yet most difficult challenge.” Given Israel’s close links with the Kurdish Peshmerga going back decades, Israel could be signaling to Ankara at various levels that it has the means to hit back at Erdogan.

Israeli interests fundamentally lie in creating rifts in Turkey’s relations with Iran and its “diplomacy” toward Ankara is constantly working in this direction. The paradox, however, is that Israel knows that neither Ankara nor Tehran can afford any serious drift to develop in their relationship at this juncture in regional politics. But the Israelis are adept at turning paradoxes to their advantage.

The Kurdish problem exposes fault lines that cut across Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in the region. Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus have a convergence of interests regarding Kurdish separatism despite being on different sides of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide.

Israel estimates, however, that the Kurdish problem makes Ankara vulnerable to American and European pressure tactic and an exacerbation of this could politically weaken Erdogan and bring him to his knees.

Turkish public opinion is becoming concerned about national security and the government’s handling of the Kurdish problem. At a delicate time in Turkish politics when Erdogan is navigating himself with gusto to assume office as the head of state in a new French-style presidential system of government, he cannot afford to be seen as ineffectual in meeting the Kurdish challenge.

He has opted for a firm military response. But in Eshel’s estimation, the weakened Turkish military will meet more than a match in the Kurdish mountains and the assertive Turkish leadership may well find itself in a quagmire.

Interesting times in a fascinating region: never a dull moment – that’s for sure.

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26 Responses to Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, Cyprus and Greece – a regional realignment

  1. NormanF says:

    An independent Kurdistan would severely weaken the hegemonic aspirations of Turkey and Iran. But it may be difficult for them for them to prevent its emergence as they face serious internal divisions. Ditto for Syria and Iraq.

    • anneinpt says:

      Agreed. I jut wonder if an independent Kurdistan would be good for Israel. On the face of it, it will, but we’ve had optimistic thoughts in the past about Hezbollah and Hamas believe it or not, so nowadays I’m more wary.

      It’s funny (not) how there is no worldwide outcry for an independent Kurdistan like there is for “Palestine”. The Kurds should have chosen their enemies more wisely (i.e. the Jews).

  2. Earl says:

    …Given Israel’s close links with the Kurdish Peshmerga going back decades, Israel could be signaling to Ankara at various levels that it has the means to hit back at Erdogan.

    Fascinating. Note to Erdogan: repealing Kemalism will not be without internal consequences to Turkey.

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  4. Andrea says:

    I like this article : very stimulant . I am only wondering if there are Jihadist movements among the Kurdish and their influence.

    • anneinpt says:

      Hello Andrea, thank you for your comment and welcome to my blog! I agree with your concern about Jihadist influences amongst the Kurds. I would doubt Jihadist movements, but certainly the Kurds’ PKK movement is very violent

      Israel needs to be careful who she aligns with. We don’t want to make a similar mistake like we did with Hamas and Hezbollah, when Israel allied itself with them against Yasser Arafat’s PLO. On the other hand it is very tempting to take advantage of the Kurds’ enmity with Syria for our benefit.

      It is a difficult decision.

  5. Andrea says:

    Thank you for your kind answer Anne and congratulations for your blog. Notwithstanding I do not share all of your views – honestly I am on your left – I like the way you support your opinions with very clear facts and examples.
    I think that Israel could bare the risk to support Kurdish interests,in a very careful way . Jihadism influence should not be that strong – my only concern was that I seemed to have read in the past on a newspapwr ( but I have not any evidence, unfortunately) that most ferocious Jihadist were coming from Kurdistan.

    September will be very important to understand next movies from Iran and Turkey and their reaction in case of possible overthrow of the Assad regime.

    In the meantime best wishes to you and your family

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you Andrea for your kind comment. It looks like we both agree on the necessity of supporting the Kurds, but cautiously.

      I am happy to read opinions from everyone, on the right or the left, as long as they are polite and civil, so I am delighted you’ve discovered my blog and have decided to visit. I look fowrward to seeing you more often.

  6. Otis says:

    Kurdistan and Israel do not share any border, therefore, there are no similarities with Hamas and Hezbollah. Additionally, Iraq Kurdistan can become a country on its own which will create a huge military base that can act for Israel as a countreweight to Turkey, Iran and Syria.

    • anneinpt says:

      Welcome to my blog Otis and thank you for your comment. You raise a very good point, that Kurdistan doesn’t share any borders with Israel and therefore does not pose a direct threat. I also agree in principle that Kurdistan would be a counterweight to Turkey, Iran and Syria. That is also the general view prevailing in Israel.

      I just wonder if Israel needs to be cautious, having been ‘burned’ by Hezbollah in the past. I certainly hope it all works out as we wish.

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  8. Ludvikus says:

    Great article. I just discovered it today! It conforms to my analysis almost exactly.

    The exception involves an understanding of the PKK. It has been placed on the US State Department list of “terrorist organizations” without any hearing. Now you describe it as “violent.” But most Armed revolutions are violent – that is not the same as being “terrorist.” The latter requires the indiscriminate killing of civilians. In most recent time, the violence involved the killing of Turkish soldiers. That’s what wars and rebellions involve – and neither Europe nor Anglo-America considered that illegitimate regarding the struggles of countries and nations – with one exception. American were anti-Communist from the get-go – and the PKK was a Marxist organization from its inception. The good thing about that is that Marxists are at least secularists; and the people known as Kurds are Muslim by religion – after turning to secularism the way the Turks have done. We might have thought that Erdogan’s neo-Islamic revivalism might have created an opening for these “Mountain Turks” (the Turkish term for Kurds), but in fact, the Turks have a long time ago have claimed, for example, that the Turkish language itself is Godly – so there is no room among religious Turks for the Kurds to need to speak their own Kurdish language. The Kurds of Turkey of see themselves as victims of “cultural genocide” – and being of Muslim extraction has not given them any refuge from these efforts by their Muslim Arab, Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Arab hosts in their attempts to extinguish their national identity. Therefore, they are the natural, and best, allies and potential friends of Israel and the Jews.

    • anneinpt says:

      Welcome to my blog Ludvikus and thank you for your informative comment. I admit that I don’t know very much about the PKK beyond what I’ve read in the media, and I would very much like to learn more about them.

      Certainly your comment helps me understand the reasons for the regional turmoil between Turkey and the Kurds, with Israel in the background.

  9. RICE says:

    Why is it that All the Moslem Nations direct their anger against ISRAEL for the PALESTINIAN problem but never against TURKEY, IRAQ, SYRIA, IRAN for the KURDISH PROBLEM?

    • anneinpt says:

      Welcome to my blog RICE, and thank you for your comment. You make a very good point which is one I have made many times. The Moslem nations like to use Israel to distract their people from the crimes that they themselves commit against their own people. It is always easier to rally the people around an external enemy rather than face one’s own problems.

      • RICE says:

        So, what you are saying and it makes a lot of sense, Anneinpt, is that all these hmm nations need a scapegoat. Exactly what Turkey has been doing against Greece for hundreds of years. Could we not perhaps suggest to them a different scapegoat? But it seems they found some in their own countries their own dictators! Egypt, Syria, Tynusia, Libya etc. hope they will be kept busy enough in their own domestic affairs. They do have so much land afterall. Nice blog Annei!

    • NEIL says:

      BECAUSE THEY ALL HATE JEWS!!!

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  12. Thashiznitov says:

    Im a kurd myself. I can provide with some more facts about Kurdish problem.

    Those 4.4 million Kurds who are in the southern part of Kurdistan is quite busy with Baghdad by dividing regions like “Khaneqin, Kerkuk” and many other cities in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam.

    “http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/14/kurdish-strategy-iraq-kurdistan?newsfeed=true”

    There is an article that is sure is written by an Arab. But on the other hand, there is no better at writing an article about what we’re doing in the south of Kurdistan ;)

    http://www.peyamner.com/details.aspx?l=4&id=252667

    I like this comment in the guardian because he is so dam right !

    “Who can blame the Kurds for adopting a Scottish strategy towards Baghdad.
    They have interests, and it’s not like anyone else is going to hand them their freedom”

    For northern Kurdistan, you have the PKK and the Kurdish people / on the other hand, you have the Turkish government and MIT as well as military. There, they repeatedly tried to overthrow the PKK and support for them. Read somewhere in the U.S. sources that the Turkish MIT & dresses in PKKs uniforms walks/drives into some poor kurds house kills the father raping the women / children. Just to reduce support for the PKK, there is only one of the paintings that I have in my head of all the crimes that the Turkish government has done, if I ignore all the other crime that the Turkish state did to the people Erakom or whatever it’s called is just a part of the government’s deep secrets. “The same people in government who tried to exterminate Armenians in Turkey”

    • anneinpt says:

      Thank you for your comment and your insight Thashiznitov. The Guardian link was very interesting but the 2nd link didn’t work. But I’m grateful for anything that sheds light and gives us more information on that region of the world which is so close to us in Israel, yet which we know so little about.

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  14. The problem is that in Greece there are many businessmen who have very strong bonds with Arab, Iranian and Russian energy suppliers, and they have strong influence on Greece’s media. See for example
    http://iakovosalhadeff.hubpages.com/hub/Greece-Israel-the-Arab-countries

    Moreover Greece has always been influenced by Russia. Isn’t Russia hurt from this Greece- Cyprus- Israel triangle?

  15. For example read this
    http://xaameriki.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/the-root-causes-of-conspiracy-energy-relations-with-greece-and-israel/

    It is written by the Greek neo Nazi party Golden Dawn. Greece has so much to gain from this energy triangle, so why oppose it with so much passion? It means they are funded (Golden Dawn) by Russians (who do not want natural gas competitors who would hurt Gazprom), and from Greek businessmen that are partners or work for Russians or Arabs

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