Turkey has ended its ban on cooperating with Israel as a third-country NATO partner. Although it will refrain from taking part in joint military manoeuvres with Israel, it will be willing to take part in workshops and seminars attended by the Israelis.
So what does this exactly mean in terms of Turkish foreign policy and its implications for the region? To understand this move, let’s first review Turkey’s relations with NATO.
Turkey joined NATO in 1952. Since then, Ankara has taken part in most NATO activities, which during the Cold War were mainly geared against communism and the Soviet Bloc.
When the Cold War ended, NATO began expanding its mandate, launching operations that transcended the usual boundaries of Europe and the Atlantic.
The first major NATO engagement was in Afghanistan, retaliation against the 9/11 attacks. Turkey, as the single Muslim country in NATO, has been walking a thin line since then, balancing public opinion considerations with the need to accommodate the political objectives of NATO.
In Afghanistan, Turkey pledged to train the Afghan army and attend to civilian logistics, but stopped short of fighting the Taliban. In Libya, during the anti-Gaddafi campaign, the Turks refuelled NATO planes and helped enforce the naval blockade, but again refrained from taking part in the fighting.
For NATO, the advantage of counting a Muslim state among its members is clear. When NATO carries out operations in Muslim land, Turkey’s participation defuses the claim that the West is carrying out crusading wars against Muslims.
Turkey also offers NATO a geographical advantage, as it has allowed it to deploy sophisticated early-warning radar as well as Patriot batteries on its soil. These defence arrangements have given concern to the Russians, who get irritated whenever NATO extends its military defences eastward. But the real threat perceived by NATO and the Turks comes not from Russia, but from rogue regimes, including Iran — another fellow Muslim nation.
Turkey also allows the Americans to store warheads in the Incirlik airbase, which reinforces its position as a NATO bulwark.
So how different is Turkey really from Israel? In some respects, the two countries are indispensable to NATO’s global policy. For one thing, the information culled from Israel’s Iron Dome and Turkey’s missile shield is processed at NATO’s headquarters. Also, the US is the main supplier of weapons to both Turkey and Israel. And NATO officials, who view the safeguarding of Israel’s security as a main pillar of their policy, rely on Turkey to deflect any accusations that NATO is a Christian league out to get Muslims.
Turkey, to sum up, is more integrated into NATO than it is integrated in this region. Its security is more connected with Israel’s security than with the security of the rest of the region.
So Turkey may have reservations about Israel, may try to protect its bonds with the Arab world, but when all is said and done, Turkey’s allegiance is with NATO, its main military backer.
Keeping this in mind will help us understand the shifts in Turkey’s regional policy. We all know that the ruling party in Turkey has sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic movements in the Arab world. But when it comes to Turkey’s higher interests, Ankara will defend its membership in NATO, even if this means defending the security of Israel. And even if this means compromising on the Palestinian issue.