“This is the way the world ends,” T.S. Eliot wrote in his epic 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” “not with a bang but a whimper.” Had he written it today, Eliot could easily have been speaking about the strategic divorce taking place between Israel and Turkey - a monumental decoupling with the power to alter the correlation of forces in the greater Middle East.
In mid-October, the Turkish government formally announced that it had canceled Anatolian Eagle, a major joint exercise with Israel’s air force as well as U.S. and NATO forces, in protest over Israel’s Gaza offensive last winter. The news was as dramatic as it was disheartening. Just a decade ago, the strategic bonds between Jerusalem and Ankara were strong and vibrant, encompassing military and political cooperation and animated by a shared perception of post-Cold War regional threats. That partnership, in turn, was nurtured by a West eager to secure a pro-Western pivot in the historically inhospitable Middle East. And Anatolian Eagle, a cooperative air force drill designed to enhance training and interoperability between the Israeli and Turkish militaries, was a large part of the strategic partnership formally codified between the two countries in 1996.
Today, however, that warmth is just a distant memory. Since taking power in fall 2002, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) slowly but surely has steered its country away from partnership with Israel.
Part of the reason has been political. The strategic entente with Israel was the brainchild of the AKP’s chief political rival, Turkey’s fiercely secular military and defense establishment. Predictably, therefore, it has become a political football in the tug-of-war for domestic primacy between the Islamist AKP and its nationalist detractors.
But the significance of Turkey’s anti-Israeli turn is more than merely local. Rather, the widening rift between Jerusalem and Ankara is a troubling manifestation of Turkey’s eastward drift. That is because the country that once ranked as the West’s most dependable partner in the Muslim world has increasingly drifted into alignment with some of the Middle East’s most troublesome regimes.
Take Syria. Just days after Ankara’s announcement, the Syrian government hosted the first-ever ministerial meeting of the Syrian-Turkish strategic cooperation council in Aleppo. The results of the summit were striking: The two countries - which almost went to war 11 years ago over Syria’s support for anti-Turkish terrorism - are now poised to sign a raft of cooperation agreements, ushering a new era of political, economic and military coordination between Ankara and Damascus. Since simultaneously maintaining such a relationship with two rival powers tends to be unworkable, the news out of Damascus suggests that, for all intents and purposes, Jerusalem has been left out in the cold.
Israel’s loss is also Iran’s gain. Tehran’s leaders understood long ago that an Israeli-Turkish divorce would effectively signal the end of a “northern option” for Israel’s military, precluding the use of Turkish airspace for a potential aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear program - and greatly complicating Jerusalem’s strategic options against an Iranian “bomb” in the process. That, in part, is why Iran has invested considerable political capital and savvy diplomacy to mend fences with its sometime regional competitor.
Iran’s charm offensive has paid real dividends. Bilateral trade between Tehran and Ankara now stands at more than $10 billion annually, and officials in both countries hope to double that figure in the near future. And where money has gone, the politics have followed. Once-frosty relations between Tehran and Ankara are experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with consensus on everything from support for the Palestinian terror group Hamas to backing for Tehran’s own stubborn pursuit of a nuclear capability. Or, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it not long ago, there can now be “no doubt” that the Islamic Republic and its firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “is our friend.”
By itself, the rupture between Israel and Turkey could be chalked up to little more than a passing spat. All alliances have their ups-and-downs, after all. But the fact that Turkey has become more comfortable cooperating with Damascus and Tehran than with Jerusalem speaks volumes about the Turkish government’s own perception of its proper place in the region. Increasingly, it seems, that place is not on the side of the West, but on that of its opponents.
Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. His latest book is “Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).