By Joseph Szyliowicz and Sigurd Neubauer, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Joseph Szyliowicz is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Sigurd Neubauer is a Washington, DC-based defense and foreign affairs specialist. The views expressed are their own.
Celebrating nearly a decade as Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed confidence in his 2011 election victory speech that newly emerging political actors across the Middle East would look to Ankara for leadership, revealing a clear ambition to establish his country as a preeminent power in the region. However, nearly fifteen months later, instead of achieving this goal, Turkey appears increasingly marginalized, lacking the ability to shape events even along its own southwestern border with Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Turkey’s “zero-problems” foreign policy has resulted in the aggravating of its relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, as the Syrian crisis lingers into its second year, President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled Alawite regime struggles to contain a rapidly increasing Sunni insurgency, and a particularly serious toll has been taken on Turkey as policy stirs domestic violence and dissent. It has also had to accommodate approximately 200,000 refugees who have crossed the border for shelter against successive Syrian air strikes.
As is now obvious, Turkey’s policy was based on a series of miscalculations. Erdogan’s initial support for al-Assad, while quietly calling for political reforms, was not only ignored, but Syria’s subsequent turn to Iran for assistance while relying on Russian diplomatic cover at the United Nations has created new problems for Turkey. Turkey now has an even starker reminder of its limited ability to influence developments in the Middle East.
While the Syrian crisis has brought the Eastern Mediterranean to a dangerous suspension, a strong incentive for Turkish-Israeli reconciliation is emerging as the Jewish state fears that the conflict could inflame sectarian tensions in Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, spread bio-chem weapons to terrorists, and endanger Israel’s fragile – and disputed – Golan Heights border. Turkey Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently described Syria as a “risk to its neighbors.”
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Aside from converging interests on steering Syria towards a path of peace and stability, Israel and Turkey not only enjoy political stability in a region plagued by turmoil and instability, but their respective leaders also benefit from robust domestic support. If not a game changer, a new chapter in Turkish-Israeli relations could arguably further pressure al-Assad to step down while strengthening regional initiatives, spearheaded by the Arab League, to bring about a Syrian political solution. However, even though there are signs of a renewed interest by both Erdogan and Netanyahu in improving relations, a shared perspective on the strategic issues is unlikely enough to bridge the significantly strained bilateral ties culminating in the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israeli commandos reportedly killed nine ethnic Turks.
Moreover, rapprochement talks solely focusing on the Syrian crisis would be a strategic mistake for both Turkey and Israel as the two regional powerhouses could positively change the strategic landscape of the eastern Mediterranean region, marked by an end to long standing conflicts such as those involving Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.
In the background of regional instability prompted by the Arab Spring lies the discovery of extensive natural gas deposits, which is creating new tensions and aggravating old conflicts. Current industry estimates suggests that roughly 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas are estimated to be found in eastern Mediterranean waters. Preliminary estimates suggest that gas deposits in Israeli waters, accounting for an estimated 16 trillion cubic feet, could potentially fulfill Israel’s gas consumption for decades. Greece, Cyprus, and Lebanon also possess large deposits.
But securing the greatest benefits from this bonanza remains a challenge. Ankara insists that Nicosia does not have the right to solely manage the island’s energy resources without providing Turkish-Cypriots a “fair share.” Israel and Lebanon, meanwhile, are feuding over an 850 square kilometer disputed maritime border. And, as Turkish-Israeli relations deteriorated, Israel undertook a strategic shift, realigning its foreign policy with economic interests by forming a strategic alliance with Cyprus and Greece and abandoning its efforts at cooperating with Turkey to assist it in becoming the major transit route for natural gas shipments to Europe. Given Israel's new orientation, it is possible that Turkey views Israel’s gas discoveries not only as a missed economic opportunity, but as a strategic threat.
Ironically, the existing tensions mask the degree to which these countries can benefit from cooperating to exploit this rich new resource. The simplest way to meet Europe’s needs for additional supplies that are not controlled by Russia is by a pipeline from the new gas fields. However, constructing such a pipeline while avoiding Turkish waters is, at best, difficult.
Although the outlines of a “grand design” that benefits all the parties can easily be conceived, actually moving in that direction will be difficult. Turkish-Israeli relations are the cornerstone of the region’s stability, but although there are indications that Turkey and Israel recognize the importance of improving relations, and have taken some small steps in that direction, if reconciliation is to succeed then an Israeli apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is clearly required. This should be possible, especially given Netanyahu’s strong domestic standing. Turkey would reciprocate by ending its public hostility towards the Jewish state.
All this could be followed by Turkish Greek, Turkish-Cypriot, and Israeli Lebanese discussions. Forces within Lebanon, including Hezbollah, may have an interest in resolving the maritime boundary dispute with Israel, while the U.S. has advanced various proposals towards that end. The U.S., however, can and should play a greater role, as must the E.U., which has been remarkably quiet to date. It should follow up its recently announced willingness to revitalize negotiations over Turkish entry to the union and work actively to resolve the Cyprus issue.
Although it is possible to envisage a new era in the Eastern Mediterranean, existing tensions and the history of the region do not bode well for such a scenario becoming a reality. Nevertheless, a remarkable opportunity for great economic gain and a mutually rewarding strategic infrastructure exists for Turkey and Israel in particular. In the event an understanding is reached, the two countries will arguably be better suited to influence events in the Levant and beyond.
By focusing on stabilizing the eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan’s stated “zero-problems” objective could partially be met. For Netanyahu, improving ties with Erdogan coupled with easing Israel’s embargo of the Gaza strip could also help lift the Jewish state out of its diplomatic isolation. But whether the political leaders inside and outside the region possess the wisdom, the perseverance, and the ability to seize this chance remains to be seen.