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Israel between Turkey and China, Egypt, Kurds

Erdogan has other reasons than the rise of Iran in the region to push for normalization of ties with Israel

On 7 January Erdogan’s AKP mouthpiece Daily Sabah published an article on a potential new Turkey/Israel/Saudi alliance that would counter Assad, Iran and Russia, perhaps modeled on the Turkey/Qatar/Saudi axis that has been backing the Army of Conquest to oust Assad in Syria.

While Israel may not appreciate being named as part of the new “Alliance of the Surprised”, akin to Saudi Arabia’s new 34-nation counter-terror “Coalition of the Surprised” that initially did not know they were named as members, it is understandable that Jerusalem and Riyadh now have aligned interest to push back a rising Iran in the region.

However, it is not clear that a rising Iran is necessarily a threat to Turkey, and Erdogan’s push for normalization of relations with Israel is driven by other factors that will be watched closely by China, Egypt and the Kurds.

Kurdish concerns and Turkey’s Access to Israeli weapons

One reason Turkey wants to restore diplomatic ties is access to Israeli weapons, especially advanced UAVs and reconnaissance and surveillance systems such as the Super Herons in its war against the Kurds.

In 2010 despite the spat with Israel over the Mavi Marmara, Ankara was still using Israeli technology to attack PKK in Iraq.

After the freezing of arms deals following the spat, in 2011 Turkey tried to purchase the MQ-9 Reaper drones from the US, but the package was held up in Congress due to Ankara’s then deteriorating relations with Israel as well as fear of proliferation of technology to third parties. PKK also warned US supplying Turkey with “special assassination aircraft” would imply direct US involvement in the Turkey-Kurdish war.

In the meantime Turkey is attempting to develop its own version the Bayraktar TB2 as well as a policy for using drones –whether to use them on Turkish citizens such as the Kurds in southeast Turkey; allowing the police to use armed UAVs; allowing the intelligence service MiT or the Turkish military to operate UAVs outside Turkish borders.

If Turkey’s ties improve with Israel, Erdogan may perhaps receive Congressional approval for new arms deal from the Pentagon.

However, Turkey would need to display some sincere daylight in Turkey-Iran relations—since in 2013 Congress cancelled an arms package of 10 Predator drones to Turkey when it was discovered Ankara outed several Iranian intelligence assets that were helping Israel.

Egypt’s concerns and Turkey’s Access to Gaza

For Egypt, the main concern is Turkey’s access to Gaza and thus establishing a closer base from which to meddle in Egypt via the Muslim Brotherhood to destabilize al Sisi’s government.

In addition to Turkey supporting the Brotherhood and Hamas, Egypt has also accused Turkey of working with ISIS on the Sinai Peninsula.

In July 2015 a senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official accused Turkey of supporting ISIS affiliate in Sinai, Ansar Beit Al Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem) that also calls itself Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province, and using Gaza as an intelligence base for Egypt. On July 23 four men killed or captured in Sinai were identified as agents of Turkey’s intelligence agency, MiT: MiT colonel Ismail Aly Bal, and operatives Diaa El Din Mehmet Gado, Bakoush Al Hussaini Youzmi and Abd Allah Al Turki.

Thus giving Turkey access to Gaza next to Sinai would heighten Cairo’s fears, and it is no wonder the Sisi government has asked Israel to keep Turkey away from Gaza.

In fact Turkey’s MiT agents are not only found in Sinai, but the Kurds in Iraq and Syria’s Kobane also found MiT agents fighting with ISIS, while a member of Turkey’s Grey Wolves working with MiT in northern Syria was responsible for killing the Russian pilot as he parachuted from the jetfighter Turkey shot down in November.

China’s concern and Turkey’s influence over Sinai/Suez Canal

China shares Egypt’s concerns that Turkey’s support for Muslim Brotherhood and increasing terrorism in Sinai would also threaten China’s maritime security in the Red Sea.

Both Beijing and Cairo understand Suez stability is inextricably tied to Egypt’s own economic development and future, with $5 billion a year in revenues from the Suez Canal as a vital source of hard currency for a country that has suffered a slump in tourism and foreign investment since 2011.

The newly expanded Suez Canal that allows for two-way traffic is estimated to increase revenues to $13 billion by 2023, and is a mainstay for China’s New Silk Road to reach its largest export market in Europe. However, Hamas, Al Qaeda and ISIS groups in the Sinai are threatening the Canal and global maritime trade.

In 2013 Al Qaeda affiliate Al Furqan Brigade attacked China’s Cosco Asia by firing rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) at the container ship.  Although China is hedging itself by building the “steel canal” of the Red-Med rail in Israel connecting Eilat in the Red Sea to Ashdod in the Mediterranean, over 95% of global trade remains seaborne and further underscores the significance of Suez stability.

As such China would be uneasy with Turkey projecting influence over Beijing’s vital trade and economic chokepoint via a Turkish Gaza presence, especially in face of current Sino-Turkey spat over Ankara’s support for Chinese jihadists in Syria and threat of increased terrorist attacks back on Chinese territory.

Israel between former ally and new partners

Given some of Erdogan’s demands for normalizing ties with Israel have potential negative spillovers to Chinese, Egyptian, and Kurdish security interests, it is important that Israel and Turkey set a realistic baseline for negotiations and focus on concrete issues that may be mutually beneficial, such as a possible gas pipeline.

Erdogan’s access to Gaza is unlikely to be in Israel’s interest and may inadvertently jeopardize Israel’s budding relationship with other new partners, at a time when Jerusalem is facing increasing isolation from the West.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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