Middle East’s shifting ties balanced on a diplomatic tightrope
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 shifted the Middle East’s balance of power toward the three non-Arab states — Turkey, Iran and Israel — creating a new strategic environment. This environment went through a transformation after the Arab uprisings, which shifted the region’s center of gravity toward the Gulf, with these countries playing more active roles in regional affairs. The subsequent developments in the post-2010 order evolved the parameters of relations between Turkey, Israel and certain Gulf states, particularly the UAE, raising questions over how they might form a triangular relationship that could potentially be beneficial when it comes to dealing with common issues.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this month announced that he would host his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog for an official visit in mid-March, adding that both Turkey and Israel are eager to rebuild ties, which have been strained for years. Although the Israeli presidency is considered to be a largely ceremonial role, the invitation and his anticipated visit signal a rapprochement that is likely to be driven by strong mutual interests and common concerns.
Amid the announcements coming from Ankara, Herzog also paid a historic visit to the UAE, which normalized ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords in 2020. This trip highlighted the burgeoning relations between the two countries, as they each brought to the table several issues for joint cooperation, which Turkey may also be a part of. On the eve of Herzog’s visit to Abu Dhabi, three members of the UAE Federal National Council visited Israel’s parliament, becoming the first Emirati delegation there since the signing of the Abraham Accords.
In this context, Erdogan’s scheduled visit to the UAE on Monday gains particular significance. In his first such trip in nearly 10 years, the Turkish president will reciprocate Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan’s visit to Turkey last November, which saw the signing of several investment and cooperation deals.
These high-level visits come against the backdrop of rising tensions between the major powers, particularly the US and Russia, indicating that there are crucial topics in the economic and security realms that serve as a driving force in their triangular relationship.
The first area of mutual interest and concern is Syria. Both Israel and Turkey are Syria’s immediate neighbors. While Tel Aviv is concerned about the conflict emanating from southern Syria, Ankara is concerned over the future of northern Syria. Thus, Israel’s own experience with cross-border attacks leads to a mutual understanding of the challenges faced by Turkey in Syria.
There are crucial topics in the economic and security realms that serve as a driving force in interstate relations.
Secondly, both Turkey and Israel have a strategic interest in the postwar settlement that emerges in Syria and they are supportive of a process of political transition. Given that the Assad regime has reconsolidated its authority in territories previously lost to opposition forces in most of the country and that there are no alternatives to its rule, both Turkey and Israel have recognized the new realities and have adopted a more pragmatic approach toward the Syrian issue.
The UAE’s recent overtures to Syria could be read within this context. In December 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Syria and sent its foreign minister to meet Bashar Assad in Damascus last November. Economic considerations play a central role in the UAE’s recent diplomacy with the Syrian regime. Restoring relations with Damascus, not only politically but economically, is significant, especially in terms of the reconstruction of Syria. Thus, the latter issue is now common ground in the Turkey-UAE-Israel relationship.
The second area of mutual interest and concern is Iran. Not long after Herzog’s arrival in the UAE, the Houthis in Yemen fired a ballistic missile toward the UAE. The Emirati Defense Ministry said it intercepted and destroyed the missile and Ankara condemned the attack. Thus, a related second goal is that the triumvirate wish to limit Iran’s influence in Syria and the region, especially amid the talks over a fresh nuclear deal between the US and Iran, which stands to again change the regional balance of power.
Thirdly, economic concerns drive the three sides closer to each other at a time when the future of oil and gas imports from Russia and Iran are in question. Erdogan has indicated that he wants Turkey to be involved in the import of Israeli gas to Europe, saying a discussion over energy cooperation with Tel Aviv would take place in March.
Lastly, although all three sides have been close allies to the US for years, their bilateral relationships with Washington have seen ups and downs during previous administrations. Moreover, the Biden administration’s distant policy toward the Middle East suggests that the ties between Turkey, Israel and the UAE may strengthen further.
Yet, despite all these common goals, there are still several challenges. The future of this triangular relationship depends on the interplay of contending factors in both the domestic political arenas of each country and the region generally.
However, what is most necessary for the success of such a cooperative triangle is that the three sides walk a diplomatic tightrope and manage certain aspects of continuity and change in a volatile region, while avoiding minor internal political calculations that may hinder the relationship.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz