|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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The axis of evil -- from another angleTurkey has joined forces with the United States and Israel in a bid to rearrange the Middle East. Galal Nassar believes their alliance to be the true axis of evil
Standing at the doorsteps of the White House, following an audience with US President George W. Bush last month, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit proudly announced that Turkey is now a "global" force. Turkey is now an established partner in the US efforts to rearrange international politics, fight terror, and smother the evil threesome of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But evil is in the eye of the beholder. For Arabs and Middle Easterners in general, the emerging security pact of the United States, Israel and Turkey holds woeful consequences.
Turkey is still facing a grinding economic crisis. Still, the Ecevit-Bush talks were only marginally concerned with such minor bilateral issues. Rather, the two men focused on momentous international tasks, on regions where the United States intends to make a move or two, get the global chessboard sorted out, and generally make life easier for itself and those ready to play along. Turkey is more than ready. Ankara will lead the international forces after the end of the UK command mandate in Afghanistan. It has a finger in other global pies: Central Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Cyprus, the Aegean Sea, the Caucasus plateau, the oil of the Caspian sea. And just out of the oven, the main course in this sumptuous global banquet is the joint offensive against Iraq.
Plans for an imminent offensive against Saddam Hussein's regime are afoot. Ecevit reviewed these plans during his Washington visit. Military planners envisage supplying the 70,000 Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, and the smaller force of irregular fighters in southern Iraq, with weapons and money and sending them against Saddam Hussein, with aerial US support. In a later stage, US Special Forces and columns of Turkish tanks would march on Baghdad. A cooperation agreement signed recently by Washington and Ankara sets the groundwork for such military action.
Bush and Ecevit seem to have finalised plans for a joint offensive against Baghdad. They are likely to have discussed ways of imposing a strategic military, economic, and political blockade on Tehran. That is two-thirds of the axis of evil taken care of. North Korea can be left to the devices of closer neighbours in the Asia-Pacific rim.
What we have here is not an axis of evil under attack; rather, what we have is an axis of evil in the making. Cooperation among the United States, Israel and Turkey has been sharpened through successive security and military agreements. Turkey's role is central to the plans of this axis. It is the thin end of the wedge that can take the axis to places it could not have gone, at least not so easily. Turkey, with its Islamic creed, secular constitution, imperial history and European location, can act as a primary scalpel in the reconstructive surgery the United States envisages for the Middle East. It is a role Turkey has been auditioning for for some time through its previous cooperation agreements with Israel. The distinctive feature of Turkish foreign policy right now is its desire to promote its national interests, even at the expense of its traditional loyalties and historic commitments.
The conflict between secularism and fundamentalism within Turkey has made it a model for historic contradictions. The rivalry between secularists and traditionalists, between state institutions and conventional loyalties, is not new to the region. But it has assumed a heightened urgency in Turkey, where the Islamist Refah Party has once made a successful bid for the country's government. Turkey is somewhat schizophrenic in matters of identity, strategy and priority. Its current alliances reflect the swing of a disturbing pendulum, with perilous implications.
Turkey, situated at the edge of the world's arguably most industrialised continent on earth, seems ready to sacrifice its entire Islamic and Arab links for a geopolitical/military threesome with the United States and Israel. The army, patron of the Turkish constitution, is an active supporter of these new strategic bonds. Turkey's military institution played a key role in consolidating ties with Israel. Senior military commanders have actively sponsored training and cooperation programmes with Israel. These same commanders are now spearheading the campaign against Syria, Iran, and Iraq; their pretext being that all of these countries support the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its perceived "terror."
The implications of the Turkish-Israeli-US axis are alarming for the Arabs. Turkey is the wild card that can effectively upset the regional odds. Let us look at the agreements, security arrangements and plans that have so far been forged by the United States, Turkey and Israel. The essence of the security cooperation agreement between the United States and Israel, and the earlier military cooperation agreement between Turkey and Israel, reflect changes in the US strategy in the Middle East. These changes are reminiscent of the 1950s attempts to reshape the region through the formation of collective security pacts. The course of military alliances in the region is definitely changing. Israel, Turkey and the United States are holding periodic naval drills in the Mediterranean, the latest of which was a few days ago, following Ecevit's visit to Washington. Arab countries, while monitoring such actions closely, are making little secret of their displeasure.
From the Arab and Iranian point of view, this is the new axis of evil, for it presents a direct threat to Arab and Iranian national security. The threat could not have been worse-timed, for it comes at one of the lowest points of the Middle East peace process. The Turkish-Israeli-US axis opens the Turkish aerial space to the Israeli air force. It can thus provide Israel with a chance to attack any country in the Arab region, particularly next-door Syria and Iraq. Iran, mindful of the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, cannot miss the significance of such arrangement for the safety of its own nuclear installations and arms industry.
The new axis aims to encircle the Middle East from the north. Israel has been making parallel efforts to encircle the region from the south, through cooperation with Eritrea, Ethiopia and other African states. This sits well with the new Israeli security doctrine. It also interlocks nicely with other security pacts being forged in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea and the Indian subcontinent, in which other regional players, such as India, the interim government in Kabul, and a number of Central Asian countries, are involved.
The emerging axis of Israel, the United States, and Turkey is particularly worrying, considering Turkey's intentions regarding Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkey has been engaged in a long-running duel with the PKK, the rebel force that aims to form an independent Kurdish state in south-eastern Turkey. The confrontation costs Turkey several billions of dollars every year, deepens ethnic divisions and generally complicates political life in Turkey. In a sense, there is some similarity between Turkish and Israeli troubles, and their corresponding methods of trouble-shooting. The two countries are now busy developing common devices of monitoring and knocking out regional threats. And just to add a doctrinal twist to the realpolitik, politicians of both countries often note how they are the only two democratic countries in the region and that their interests and security problems mesh.
Turkey has granted Israel listening posts from which to monitor any military moves in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Israel's intelligence service is thus becoming increasingly able to conduct electronic espionage and gather better information about Syria, Iraq, and Iran. In return, Israel is giving Turkey satellites imagery and electronic devices to help the latter pinpoint PKK locations in southeast Anatolia and northern Iraq.
A complete overhaul is under way of the Turkish air force, through a programme costing $650 million that Israel is implementing with direct financial backing of the US. In the context of Turkish-Israeli naval cooperation, joint sea patrols are being operated by the two sides to allegedly avert the occurrence of hostile acts in the eastern Mediterranean, and as a supplementary act to the activities of the US Sixth Fleet in the region. This perhaps sheds some light on the nature of the US role in this equation. The United States aims to boost the Turkish-Israeli ability to serve US aims and interests. It also wants to reinforce Israel's air, sea and land dominance, by giving it the freedom to use Turkish territories in offensives against Iraq, Syria, and Iran. This would ensure for Israel an effective psychological deterrence against Arab countries in general. Israel has deployed its F-16s in a Turkish airbase, practically taking over an entire section of the base. The number of Israeli pilots conducting training in Turkey is likely to increase over the next few months.
Turkey is as enthusiastic as Israel and the US about this new type of alliance, for several reasons.
Israel is the key to the heart of the United States. Anyone who secures Israel's pleasure would be in Washington's good books. Turkey hopes to obtain US financial aid with the help of the Jewish lobby in the United States.
Turkey believes that Israel's expertise in fighting the intifada can help it in its bid to defeat Kurdish rebels. Turkey is also developing a taste for Israel's sophisticated military technology. It can definitely obtain some of the technological leftovers of Israel's arms industry in return for turning the heat on Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
By pressuring Syria and Iraq, Turkey hopes to dissuade the latter from aiding the PKK. Turkey blames Syria for training PKK members and harbouring PKK leaders.
This strategic alliance with Israel and the United States is expected to strengthen the hand of the army-supported secularist camp in Turkish politics.
Recently, a Turkish newspaper noted that the "aim of the Israeli-Turkish-US manoeuvres is to build a tripartite alliance which can be activated rapidly in the case of a threat from Iraq or Iran, as well as in the event of a crisis in the Gulf."
Israel has disclosed to Turkey the technological secrets of the Russian MiG-29 fighter plane -- the most sophisticated warplane owned by Syria. Israel had been able to examine three models of the planes that it received from a Western country, most likely Germany (East Germany used to own the same type of planes). This will help Turkey adapt the electronic devices on its F-4 and F-16 planes to be more effective against the MiG-29s.
Turkey and Israel are discussing a joint project to upgrade Turkish M-60c tanks and also to produce 800 Israeli Mk3 tanks in Turkey. Turkey has just launched a 25-year, $150 billion plan to modernise its armed forces.
How would the Arabs, and Iran, get out of this fix? There is a number of ways. One is to bolster Arab-Iranian ties. There are signs that closer ties are developing between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria on one hand and the Iranians on the other. An Egyptian-Syrian-Iranian-Gulf axis may emerge to confront the Israeli-Turkish-US one. Egypt and other Arab countries have agreed to attend the Islamic summit in Tehran. Iranian officials are regularly exchanging visits with officials of several Arab countries, particularly Abu Dhabi.
A second line of defence is to appeal to Turkey's cultural heritage; that is, to persuade it that its historic bonds and traditional loyalties matter. Arab pressures may range from moral persuasion to a collective boycott of Turkish goods and economic interests.
The Arabs and Iran may also be tempted to play the Kurdish card. Syria, Iraq and Iran all have leverage in the Kurdish question and can use it to reach some understanding with Turkey. This prospect is perhaps the reason why Turkish military commanders are so eager to get into Iraq and eliminate this bargaining chip for good. There is more to the prospective invasion of Iraq than meets the eye.
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