Overdone Turkey

The hype about Ankara as a regional leader is way overblown.

One day before announcing Wednesday, Nov. 21's cease-fire agreement, at a brief news conference prior to talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, late on Tuesday night, the secretary announced that her itinerary included Ramallah and Cairo in addition to Jerusalem. The visit to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a head-scratcher -- given how marginal he was to the conflict raging in the Gaza Strip -- as much as talk with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is a no-brainer. There also seemed to be a glaring omission from Clinton's shuttle: Ankara.

This was a surprise only if one took all the hype about Turkey's aspirations to be a regional power broker and problem solver seriously. For all of Turkey's apparent assets, including its good relations with Hamas and the regional popularity of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is Egypt that was at the center of diplomatic efforts to find a formula for a cease-fire. As for poor Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose plane is usually first to land in a crisis zone, he was a bit player in this drama. His visit to Gaza on Tuesday seemed late, especially as it came five days after Morsy dispatched the Egyptian prime minister to Gaza to demonstrate his country's solidarity with the Palestinian people. Observers have understood since Hosni Mubarak's fall that Cairo would make a bid to re-establish its regional prestige, but no one knew it would be so fast, performed with such deftness, and at the definitive expense of Turkey -- last year's Middle East's "it" country.

The widespread praise for Egyptian diplomacy is no doubt well deserved, but the fact is that the Turks have long written themselves out of the Arab-Israeli script. Once upon a time, Turkey -- even under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- had good relations with Israel. The Turkish prime minister visited Israel in 2005, as did then-foreign minister, now president, Abdullah Gul, both in the service of peace between Israelis and their neighbors. Yet Ankara is no longer a problem solver with good offices on all sides.

The AKP's critics will no doubt want to hang Ankara's absence from all the Gaza diplomatic action on incompetence. That's unfair. The Turks have legitimate disagreements with the Israelis, starting with Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. It was not just the way the Israelis prosecuted their military operations, but the fact that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had visited Ankara two days before Israel's incursion into Gaza and did not even give the Turks a hint of what might be coming -- even though Turkey was then serving as a go-between to discuss the future of the Golan Heights with Syria.

Israel's silence was likely sound in terms of operational security, but it was bad for relations with Turkey. Once the Israeli tanks got rolling, Erdogan risked looking either complicit with Olmert or too weak to stop his Israeli counterpart. Then, of course, there is the infamous Mavi Marmara incident 17 months later, in which the Israelis intercepted a flotilla of vessels attempting to run Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. In the melee when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish ferry, eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed. There are two sides to these incidents, but no one is ever going to convince the Turks of any narrative that does not place exclusive blame on the Israelis, rendering once-close allies adversaries for the foreseeable future.

Still, the Mavi Marmara is not where it all began. The downward trajectory in Turkey-Israel relations began in February 2006, when the Turks inexplicably invited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Ankara, where he met government officials at AKP headquarters. Over the course of the following six years, the Turks made an effort to build a relationship with the hard-line Islamist movement, ignoring the organization's bloody history and instead emphasizing that the organization won a free and fair election in January 2006. Hamas's electoral success was certainly a fact, but the irony of Ankara's position was only lost on the Turks, who systematically repress legal Kurdish political parties with ties to the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

Back then, the AKP's ministers and representatives made a not-so-convincing argument about how their developing ties with Hamas were part of a strategy intended to turn the organization and convince it to accept Israel's existence. At the same time, however, it seemed that something else was going on, especially when Erdogan remarked rather bizarrely that Hamas and the AKP were similar. Healthy doses of both ideology and geostrategy went into Turkey's cooling of relations with Israel.

It is important to recognize that even though the AKP came to power and maintained good relations with Israel for a time, the party emerged from a tradition that was anti-Zionist and has a core constituency that has been hostile to Jews. When they formed the party in 2001, Erdogan and Gul shed the anti-Western shibboleths of the older generation of Turkish Islamists, but they remained cool to Israel. That does not make either man anti-Semitic -- who knows what is in their hearts? -- but it indicated that the close strategic ties that Turkey's military forged with Israel in the 1990s were vulnerable.

On the geostrategic level, Turkey's relations with Hamas as well as with Bashar al-Assad's Syria, Iran, and Libya, along with closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, at the expense of Israel, were about establishing Ankara's leadership in the region and the Muslim world. The reality is this: You cannot be strategic partners with Jerusalem and be a regional leader. And the region's traditional big player, Egypt, was in decline. About the only one who believed that Egypt was a regional leader under Mubarak was Mubarak, and much of Cairo's growing irrelevance had to do with the perception among Arabs that the Egyptians were too closely aligned with Israel.

Given Ankara's goals under the AKP, cooling relations with Israel was a reasonable position to take, but the Turks seemed to have the spirit of the converted. They embraced the principles, themes, and language of anti-Israeli sentiment so common in the Arab world, but without any nuance that would allow them to continue to play in the Arab-Israeli game. The Egyptian, Jordanian, Qatari, and even Saudi governments, for example, have a long history of engaging in very public criticism of Israel, but have always managed to keep lines of communication open to manage regional crises and look out for their interests. Not so the Turks who seemed to relish burning bridges with the Israelis.

The full-throated response to perceived Israeli perfidy played well all over the Arab world, making the Turkish leader the "King of the Arab Street," but it does not do anything to get the airstrikes to stop. The double irony now is that Morsy, whose anti-Zionist credentials are beyond dispute, seems like the diplomatic troubleshooter who can put Egypt back on the map, while Erdogan's Turkey is once again left to be a mere observer of regional events.



Gunning for Damascus

When no one was watching, the Syrian rebels started winning.

Mideast conflicts have a nasty habit of occurring all at once. And while all eyes have been on Gaza and Israel this past week, several major diplomatic and military developments have occurred on the Syrian front -- some of which may prove decisive to the end game of a 20-month old crisis.

The rebels are winning.  The insurgents on the ground in Syria appear to be winning more and more territory and confiscating more and more high-grade materiel from President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Just as Operation Pillar of Defense was kicking off over Gaza on Nov. 14, the Free Syrian Army took the entire city of al-Bukamal along the Iraqi border, where they also sacked two major airbases, giving the opposition a strong military foothold in Syria's easternmost province, a vital smuggling route for weapons.

The rebels then claimed a massive victory on the night of Nov. 18, sacking the Syrian Army's 46th Regiment, 15 miles west of Aleppo, after a 50 day-long siege. The real score, though, was in confiscated materiel: Rebels made off with tanks, armored vehicles, Type-63 multiple rocket launchers, artillery shells, howitzers, mortars, and even SA-16 surface-to-air missiles. Gen. Ahmed al-Faj of the Joint Command, a consortium of different rebel battalions, told the Associated Press: "There has never been a battle before with this much booty." (For a seemingly comprehensive video accounting of the rebel haul, check out Brown Moses's blog.)

The gains have only continued in the past week. On Nov. 20, rebels hit the Syrian Information Ministry in Damascus with two mortar rounds and stormed an air defense base at Sheikh Suleiman, about 11 miles from the Turkish border, where they seized stocks of explosives before withdrawing to elude retaliatory air strikes. "Assad's forces use the base to shell many villages and towns in the countryside," one rebel said. "It is now neutralized."

There are also signs that bigger gains are on the way. It's "March to Damascus Week" for the revolutionaries, as a multi-pronged offensive has taken shape in and around the capital. On Nov. 19, Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades, two Islamist rebel groups, seized the Syrian Air Defense Battalion headquarters near Hajar al-Aswad, just south of Damascus. Another base in Ghouta, a region in the Damascus countryside, was also sacked. Opposition forces are also holding Daraya, a southwest suburb of the capital, despite days of intense aerial bombardment from Assad's Republican Guard.

This map, courtesy of the wonderfully obsessive EA Worldview website, shows how rebel operations have arrived right at Assad's doorstep the last 48 hours. Meanwhile, as EA Worldview's Jim Miller points out, the Syrian north is now effectively anti-Assad country: "The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months."

Syria's political opposition is getting its act together. The six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, France, Libya, Turkey and Britain have now all recognized the Syrian National Coalition, which was formed in Doha on Nov. 11, as "the" (not "a," an important distinction in diplomatese) legitimate representative of the Syrian people, in effect making it the new government-in-exile for all those countries. The anti-Assad opposition group has even appointed its own ambassador to France, Munzer Makhous, an Alawite with a background in academia, no doubt selected to signpost its minority-friendly inclusiveness. These moves have led to intense speculation about whether Western countries are prepared to supply the rebels with military assistance, or even the possibility of an Anglo-French-led effort at intervention.

Yet that all still hangs on the United States, which stopped short of fully recognizing the coalition. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the newborn body, which Foggy Bottom helped midwife, simply "a legitimate representative of the Syrian people" -- the same language Washington used with the Syrian National Council. The EU foreign ministers' statement was even more wishy-washy, recognizing the coalition merely as "legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

This fudge is deliberate, and there are at least two reasons behind it. First, Washington and Brussels understand that while the coalition's optics and rhetoric might be encouraging (President Moaz al-Khatib's alarming website notwithstanding), it still has much work to do in expanding its ranks, building a viable transitional government, and -- most important -- proving rather than simply asserting that it controls the bulk of the armed rebels.

Its control over the men who are waging the insurgency against Assad's military was cast in doubt last week, when members of the Islamist Tawhid Brigade, the largest rebel faction in Aleppo, rejected the new coalition as a "conspiracy" against the uprising. The group quickly reversed course: On Tuesday, a new YouTube video showed Tawhid Brigade spokesman Abdel-Qader Saleh affirming the group's support for the coalition, "as long as it adheres to the objectives of and aspirations of the revolution" and characterizing the earlier statement as a rogue demarche based on the "marginalization of revolutionary groups with an actual presence on the ground, which are leading the liberation of Aleppo."

President Barack Obama's administration may also be wary of going all in with the coalition because it realizes that it could increase the pressure to intervene in Syria, which it is loathe to do. If the coalition is described as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, then a credible case can be made to designate Assad's forces an "invading" presence in Syria -- making it all the more urgent to expel them by force.

Turkey gets its Patriots. For the last fortnight, Turkey had been playing its usual will-we-or-won't-we games with the media over whether it would move for NATO to position Patriot missile systems on its border with Syria. It ended the suspense on Nov. 20, when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that a deal had indeed been struck to better fortify Turkey's 560-mile border with Syria with the kind of surface-to-air batteries that made Saddam Hussein's life very unpleasant in two Gulf wars. Though NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has claimed that the Patriots would exclusively be used to counter cross-border Syrian mortar rounds, there's always the chance they could be used to shoot down Syrian aircraft that fly too close to the border, thus creating a no-fly zone.

Creating a no-fly zone might not require too much heavy lifting for the United States. Lt. Col. Eddie Boxx and Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace have argued that if Patriot systems were stationed on the Turkish and Jordanian borders and were used in conjunction with three types of U.S. aircraft -- the E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and E-8 JSTARS -- they could "give the FSA a protected arc some 40-50 miles from the borders."

John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images