The military aspect of normalization with Israel

After several rounds of talks in the last couple of months, Turkey and Israel are set to sign a deal to normalize diplomatic relations. The parties are reportedly working on the details to finalize the agreement, seeking common ground to meet Turkish demands in Gaza without forsaking Israel’s security concerns.

Perhaps a relatively downplayed aspect of normalization – even as it arouses utmost curiosity – is the potential course of military cooperation between Turkey and Israelafter any deal.

A bomb attack in March that killed three Israeli citizens in Beyoğlu was a tragic event that brought the two countries closer together. Following the attacks, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – in his first conversation with an Israeli leader in three years – that Turkey was ready to cooperate with Israel against terrorism.

Subsequently coming to Turkey, Israeli Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold praised the Turkish government and said: “The Turks went above and beyond to coordinate with Israel.”

In early May, as a gesture of goodwill, Turkey lifted the veto it had imposed in 2010 at NATO, allowing Israel to open offices at the alliance’s headquarters.

Though Israeli experts by and large agree that relations will not return to the 1990s level and that building trust was essential for the enhancement of intelligence cooperation, they also admit that the restoration of ties might pave the way for increasing cooperation, particularly at a time when Turkey faces imminent threats at home and abroad.

Fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on its border and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast, Turkey has been seeking ways – including with foreign cooperation – to upgrade its defensive and offensive capabilities against rocket threats.

The alleged downing of a Turkish attack helicopter on May 13, by a man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) fired by the PKK was perceived as a game changer in the field, challenging the conventional strategies of the Turkish Armed Forces against the PKK as the army had heavily relied on the use of attack helicopters.

What’s worse, since mid-January, rocket attacks from ISIL have killed 21 people killed and wounded over 70 in the border province of Kilis alone. Fırtına howitzers deployed along the border fall short of effectively deterring these attacks because of range issues.

“Against this changing security environment, the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – known as drones – has been on the rise for quite a while due to their tactical and strategic advantages. Of particular importance, they are effective in reducing the loss of personnel,” says Ahmet Han, an IR Professor at Kadir Has University.

Can Kasapoğlu, a security analyst at EDAM, asserts that “as Turkey’s non-state adversaries improve their capabilities with mobile rocket systems, antitank guided missiles, and Manpads, Turkey needs to adapt to the new security environment and devise strategies to meet these threats.”

During a panel at the Atlantic Council last month, Defense Undersecretary İsmail Demir revealed Turkey’s frustration at the U.S. restrictions on the sale of some weapons systems, a fact that has driven Turkey to develop its own technologies.

Since 2008, the U.S. Congress has been dragging its feet on approving the sale of armed drones to Turkey, citing concerns about the Turkish army’s operations in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

Turkey has thus given weight to domestic research and development in defense technologies, developing tactical unmanned aircraft and indigenous fighter jets not only for domestic use but also for export.

“While Turkey’s promising drone program has shown impressive improvements in testing the Bayraktar and ANKA platforms, the urgency of the rocket threat necessitates well-balanced offensive and defensive capabilities immediately. Regarding the defense counter-measures against the rocket threat, the Israeli-made, combat-proven Iron Dome system provides over 90 percent interception rates, which could have been a silver-bullet solution for Turkey’s Syrian border areas. Besides, as a stopgap measure, Turkey could have opted for prioritized procurement of Israel’s armed drones, which were proven effective in several conflicts,” says Kasapoğlu, leaving the door open for future cooperation between Turkey and Israel.

Turkey’s ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient in defense technology in order to free itself of any political entanglements, as evidenced by its sometimes stormy relationship with the U.S. Amid the pressing threats, domestic R&D does not necessarily rule out the procurement of military systems from third parties, especially from those who are less sensitive about the use of these military systems.

The golden era of cooperation between Turkey and Israel in the fields of security and intelligence might belong to the past. But it feels a lot like the 1990s, doesn’t it?

What’s Tunisia got that Turkey doesn’t?

Head-turning remarks by Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, about abandoning political Islam have left their mark on Turkey’s debate on secularism. Turkey’s parliamentary speaker recently recommended the removal of secularism from the country’s charter – putting paid to suggestions that Turkey was a secular Muslim model for the region – while the Tunisian parliament’s largest party, which hails from Islamist roots, has declared its commitment to secularism, recommending the exclusion of religion from politics.

Considering Ghannouchi’s political past, particularly Ennahda’s ambiguous approach to Salafi jihadists, we have every reason to doubt his sincerity. However, five years after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia and its path deserves appraisal.

The Arab Spring categorically revealed that the idea of a “model state” was too problematic and unfeasible.

Beyond the fact the models had their own flaws and were subject to changes over time, as with Turkey, the promotion of democracy was also inapplicable to countries that differed from each other in terms of their levels of institutionalism, socio-political structures and behavior of their decision-makers.

As such, there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for political modernization. Besides, political setbacks and counter-coups during the Arab Spring displayed once more that neither modernization nor democratization consisted of a linear progressive process.

Against this background, Tunisia stands out as an exceptional case in the Arab Springfor having come a long way on the bumpy road of democratic transition, ending decades of authoritarian governance.

A homogenous society, neutral military and robust civil society with strong trade unions have all contributed to Tunisia’s success. One should also add the quality of the education system and the high literacy rates, which could explain the societal tendency toward secularism from a modernization perspective.

But Tunisia has its own flaws just like any other country. Lacking natural resources and crippled by a culture of corruption, the country struggles to maintain its industry by relying on foreign aid and investment.

One of the major problems facing Tunisians has always been the high rate of unemployment, which averages around 15 percent – rising to 30 percent or more in some parts.

It was this frustration that led Mohamed Bouazizi to immolate himself in 2010, thus sparking the Arab Spring.

Five years on, the post-revolutionary transition period has failed to deliver the expected prosperity to Tunisians.

Worse, terrorist attacks last year dealt a severe blow to tourism, which accounts for 8 percent of the economy.

Leaving aside all the destabilizing effects of the civil war in Libya, having a large number of young unemployed frustrated people explains why Tunisia – despite its secular culture – has become the country that exports the highest number of foreign jihadists in the region.

Subsequently, on material terms, making comparisons between Tunisia and Turkey is unfair, as Turkey clearly outstrips Tunisia in many aspects. However, what makes Tunisian politics more promising than Turkey’s is its respect for consensus building.

Unfortunately, the high levels of political polarization in Turkey render reconciliation almost impossible. What’s more, compromise is often perceived as weakness in our political culture.

In contrast, in Tunisia, Ennahda chose to deliberately blaze a new trail by compromising on ideological tenets rather than escalate tension.

After suffering under dictatorship for decades, Tunisian society embraced secular democratic principles as the guarantee of their freedom.

It was through the political will for consensus building that the National Dialogue Quartet emerged in 2013 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015 for mediating a peaceful political transition.

But the story might have taken a completely different turn if Ennahda had refused to hand power to a technocratic caretaker government in 2014.

At the end of the day, Ghannouchi might be trying to increase Ennahda’s appeal to a larger constituency so as to transform it into a mass party, but there are lessons to be drawn from Tunisia’s experience for Turkey, particularly at a time when it is sliding dangerously toward a majoritarian understanding of democracy – or worse.

As NATO bolsters its southern flank

In the wake of Montenegro’s admission to NATO and the activation of NATO’s first land-based ballistic missile defense system in Romania, attention has been focused on the escalating tensions between the West and Russia in the Black Sea, in what is being dubbed the new Cold War. The rapid developments last week suggest that NATO is willing to enhance not only its eastern but also its southern flanks, and therefore play a larger role in the Mediterranean.

Faced with mounting rocket attacks from Syria, which have caused dozens of casualties in Kilis since January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently warned that Ankaramight take unilateral action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria if partners in the multinational coalition fail to deliver support.

The following day, U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdoğan reportedly discussed joint efforts to defeat ISIL militants in Syria, with an emphasis on the importance of international cooperation and the U.S. commitment to Turkey’s security as a NATOmember.

Not coincidentally, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg subsequently said in Brussels that the situation in Kilis was high on their agenda, underlining NATO’s solidarity with Turkey.

In this respect, a tailored package of assistance measures, which includes the dispatch of additional NATO ships and aircraft to the region will occur before a summit in Warsaw on July 8-9.

Italy is reportedly planning to send SAMP-T missiles – the latest generation of surface-to-air defense missile systems – in addition to NATO’s pledge to dispatch new Airborne Warning and Control systems (AWACS) by July.

Owing to the escalation of the ISIL missile attacks against Turkey, the U.S. decided to deploy high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) rocket launchers along Turkey’s border in May. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that NATO allies hoped to assist moderate Syrian opposition groups on the ground with this system.

For quite a while, there has been an ongoing debate between Washington and Ankaraabout the ground forces to be engaged in the operations to seal of the Manbij area, which lies at the southern end of the 98-kilometer border Turkey shares with Syria that is controlled by ISIL.

Turkey adamantly opposes the U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitutes the backbone of the Democratic Syrian Forces. Instead, Ankarahas been promoting a new plan, which relies on Syrian Arab tribes instead of Syrian Kurds in taking over the area from ISIL.

Seeking to draw NATO into the Syrian equation, Turkey expects the moderate opposition – defined on its own terms – to advance on the ground, and therefore pave the way for the de facto establishment of a safe zone, which Ankara has been demanding for years.

In this context, a crucial question is whether there could be some quid pro quo with NATO getting further engaged in the Syrian conflict in return for a move permitting a permanent NATO naval presence in the Black Sea in contravention of the Montreux Agreement of 1936.

Professor Nurşin Güney, vice president and security and nuclear energy fellow at the Wise Men Center For Strategic Studies (Bilgesam), argues that NATO’s security strategies from the Cold War no longer function in terms of deterring either conventional (rocket attacks) or unconventional threats such as global terrorism. In this respect, as a NATO member, Ankara’s protection under the collective defense mechanism as stated in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty –unless additional deterrence measures are taken-continues to be at stake.

So far, NATO has refrained from clashing directly with Russia and thus even framed the crisis in November 2015 as a conflict between two countries.

Güney asserts that NATO’s plans to bolster its southern flank with increasing naval presence in the Mediterranean and deployment of defense systems not only aims at deterring Russia, but is in fact part of a broader strategy to stabilize the region and control the migrant flow. As such, NATO’s involvement in the Syrian conflict at some point has to involve reconciliation with Russia, thus she excludes the option of direct military engagement.

As for the Montreux Convention, Güney claims that it is Turkey’s strongest bargaining chip not only against the West but also against Russia.

It is true that since the downing of the Russian jet, Turkey has rediscovered the value of its Western alliance ties. However, maintaining a healthy balance between the West and the rest is crucial for a middle power like Turkey, especially when sitting in such a precarious geopolitical location.

The Muslim Brotherhood bears the cost of reset in Mideast

The growing closeness between Riyadh and Ankara is pushing the latter to adopt a more balanced and distanced attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization it once embraced wholeheartedly.

Intending to “lead the winds of change in the Middle East,” Turkey made supporting a government of its ideological fellow traveler, the Muslim Brotherhood, the linchpin of its Middle East policy. Such moves were not limited to Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, but came to encompass Tunisia, Libya and Syria, drawing Turkey and Qatar closer together while simultaneously driving it further away from the great defender of the status quo, Saudi Arabia. What’s more, its failure to adapt its foreign policy line to the changing conditions severely isolated the country in the region.

When Morsi was overthrown in a coup in 2013, the wind started to blow the other way.

The disagreements between Turkey and Saudi Arabia about the Muslim Brotherhood were put on the back burner amid more pressing foreign policy concerns over the nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran, the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and the deepening of the problems in Yemen. In this context, King Salman’s accession to the throne enabled both countries to open a new page in bilateral relations.

In the meantime, Iran’s rise, which drove the Saudis and other Gulf countries closer to Israel, provided Ankara with an opportunity to improve its ties with Tel Aviv in an effort to end its regional isolation.

While the negotiations to normalize Turkish-Israeli ties might appear to have become bogged down in discussion of the Gaza embargo and Hamas’ activities in Turkey, signing the agreement is a matter of time.

In this respect, let us not forget how Turkey deported senior Hamas figure Salih Aruri at the end of 2015 without fanfare.

In parallel to the Turkish-Israeli negotiations, a possible compromise between Egypt and Hamas could contribute to improved ties between Turkey and Israel, as well as Turkey and Egypt, the third aspect of the reset.

The Abdel Fettah el-Sisi government has accused Hamas, which it describes as the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, of supporting terror attacks by Sinai Province, which has pledged allegiance to ISIL. Moreover, there have been accusations that Hamas’ Turkey office was behind last year’s assassination of Egyptian chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat.

Nevertheless, Egypt is warm to the idea of opening the Rafah border crossing to Gaza on the condition that Hamas cuts its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, stanches the flow of militants from Gaza to the Sinai and halts arms smuggling.

Hamas’ recent deployment of up to 300 soldiers to secure the border with Egypt – despite suspicions that it was a tactical maneuver – could indicate a possible thaw in ties with Egypt.

Husam Badran, a Hamas official residing in Qatar, sought to distance his movement from the Muslim Brotherhood, saying: “Although we come from the same ideological line as the Muslim Brotherhood, we are a Palestinian liberation movement. Our decisions come from our own advisory boards and the Hamas leadership.” The comments suggest expedience could come to outweigh ideology.

Is it possible to say the same thing about Egyptian-Turkish ties?

In truth, the anticipated rapprochement occasioned by the Egyptian FM’s appearance at the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Turkey did not come to fruition. However, the fact that talk of “Rabia” did not appear in Turkey’s official or public rhetoric throughout the summit suggests that Ankara might be moving toward a more realistic politics.

Likewise, the United Arab Emirates’ decision to send an envoy back to Ankara for the first time in two years following Turkish FM Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Abu Dhabi is another result of the revision in Turkey’s foreign policy.

Such developments were likely discussed during Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal’s talks in both Ankara and Qatar.

Ultimately, even though the AKP government cannot completely turn its back on the Muslim Brotherhood out of considerations for its domestic audience, the current situation is pushing Ankara to follow a foreign policy path that is contingent on expedience, realism and balance rather than ideological values.

‘1915 and Beyond: Perceptions in Turkey’

Why bother penning an article on the Armenian issue when we have just passed April 24, the anniversary of the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915, without much fuss this year – something that usually means we can sleep easily on the issue until next year. But in the wake of heated debates over a new constitution, the issue of minority rights and their positions in Turkish society deserve attention.

Last week, Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM) released a report, “1915 and Beyond: Social Perceptions in Turkey,” which offers a thought-provoking snapshot of how Turkish society approaches the events of 1915, shedding light on their perceptions toward Armenians living in Turkey and Turkish-Armenian relations.

Aybars Görgülü, one of the coordinators of the project, says: “The purpose of this study was to reveal Turkish and Armenian perceptions toward the ‘Armenian question.’ In this respect, we conducted research on focus groups in eight cities. We also conducted in-depth interviews in Ankara and Istanbul. The results display deeply rooted biases among Turkish people toward Armenians and the events of 1915.”

Looking at the sincere and occasionally heartbreaking accounts of respondents, the prevalent view of Turkish people reflects the official ideology, but the overall inconsistency in their own narratives of 1915 hardly goes unnoticed.

As the study indicates, the majority of Turkish respondents believe that both sides suffered during the war and that it was the poor conditions that resulted in Armenian losses during their relocation from Anatolia.

While some blame Armenians and claim that they deserved to be killed for being traitors, others claim that Turks have never committed genocide in history, meaning that if they had been determined to do so, no Armenians would have remained left alive in Turkey.

With regard to Armenians’ status in Turkish society, the study reveals the perception gap between Turks and Armenians. Whereas Armenians feel insecure and discriminated against, Turkish respondents claim that Armenians enjoy equal rights and freedom – or even better conditions than Turks. But they openly oppose having an Armenian chief of General Staff, for instance, on the grounds that he wouldn’t be able to act objectively on behalf of Turkish national interests.

Interestingly enough, this lack of trust, which prevents intermarriage or complicates the upward social mobility of Armenians, disappears when it comes to commerce, as fairness and honesty are among the virtues of Armenian businessman stated by Turkish respondents.

Though the events of 1915 are no longer a taboo owing to the intellectual openings made in 2006 and 2008 by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), they remain a sensitive issue in Turkey.

The process which started with the AK Party’s first ever statement offering condolences to the descendants of slain Ottoman Armenians in 2014 was received positively. However, feeling empathy for 1915 has not produced further reconciliation with Armenians either at home or abroad.

The Turkish government denies that the killings amounted to genocide, claiming that thousands of people, including Turks, died as a result of war, and regards the issue as a matter of scholarly debate to be dealt by historians. Turkey’s suggestion in 2005 to form a joint historical commission with Armenia has yet to bear fruit.

Despite hopes of normalization in 2009, détente has been indexed to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to avoid alienating Baku. The current political conjuncture, particularly the recent flare-up in Karabakh, offers no hope for the resolution of the political deadlock between Armenia and Turkey as long as bilateral ties remain hostage to Azerbaijan.

The deep distrust caused by the events of 1915 has understandably led both sides to take a defensive position against the other. But as PODEM notes, there are many constructive steps that could be taken to rebuild trust among the communities, such as redesigning schoolbooks in a way to eliminate discriminatory narratives targeting Armenians or continuing to return confiscated property.

Creating consciousness has always been the first step in resolving conflicts. Perhaps the breakthrough for reconciliation is not to be found in seeking uncontested truth but in soul-searching instead.

Obama’s legacy on Turkish-American relations

As the U.S. presidential elections near, many people, including President Barack Obama himself, have been engaging in a reassessment of the last eight years of Americanforeign policy.

For Turkey, the tumultuous course of Turkish-American relations during the Obama administration has exhibited parallels to the challenges Ankara has faced in the international arena.

When Obama made his first presidential visit to Turkey in 2009, it was a deliberate choice. Turkey, as a Muslim country, with a vibrant economy, young and dynamic population and location at the crossroads of continents, seemed like the ideal spot for President Obama to deliver a message to the Muslim world that the U.S. was seeking a new beginning based on mutual interest and respect.

During his speech in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Obama’s emphasis was on Turkey’s secular democratic character and its commitment to the goal of European Union membership, but above all, it was Turkey’s ability to engage in a peaceful dialogue with all the countries in the neighborhood.

Looking back, Turkey used to be such a promising partner for the U.S. as part of a solution to various regional conflicts that in an interview in 2012, President Obama cited then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as one of the five foreign leaders with whom he had succeeded in building trust and friendship.

But the same Obama would complain about his disillusionment with President Erdoğan just four years later.

So what went wrong?

Weathering the storm of the false Arab Spring, Turkey has experienced its own share of political transformation, which not only eroded constitutional checks and balances and activated social fault lines within society, but also cost Turkey its role as both a model country and a regional interlocutor.

In this respect, the Gezi movement in 2013 was a breaking point that caused many in the Obama administration to question Turkey’s commitment to democratic values.

Barely surviving Gezi, the U.S.-Turkish partnership went through other serious tests with the coup in Egypt and the chemical attack in Gouta, Syria, that summer.

But perhaps, above all, it was the new episode of the Kurdish issue that emerged in Syria which drove a wedge between the two allies, awakening bitter memories from the first Gulf War.

Since the August 2013 chemical attack in Gouta, Turkey and the U.S. have had divergent political priorities over Syria. For Turkey, toppling Bashar al-Assad might have been the primary goal since the beginning. Yet, in the aftermath of Syrian Kurds’ victory in Kobane over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and particularly as fighting resumed with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, containing Syrian Kurdish dominance in Syria has assumed the utmost importance for Ankara – such that even combating ISIL, which has been openly bombing Kilis almost every day recently, comes a distant second.
Despite Turkey’s protests, the U.S. continues to rely on the support of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – an offshoot of the PKK – as the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which also includes Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmens in the fight against ISIL.

Having failed to convince Washington on the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, Turkey’s hopes rest on the next administration.

On the bright side, NATO still serves as glue between the allies.

Owing to the signs of a coming reset in Turkish foreign policy, Ankara might be able to break out of its regional isolation by repairing broken ties with countries such as Israel, Iran and perhaps Egypt, which would definitely elevate Turkey’s status as a valuable partner for the U.S. building on its geopolitical location.

However, as long as the Kurdish issue remains unresolved at the domestic level, it will continue to blur Ankara’s foreign policy lens and complicate the prospects of effective cooperation with Washington.

What to expect from Turkey’s normalization with Israel

Once again, uncertainty has prevailed after optimism regarding reconciliation talks between Israel and Turkey, with İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying on April 12 that the parties “are not yet at the stage of drafting and sealing an agreement.”

Before a meeting in London last week, the two sides were reportedly close to finalizing a deal, having agreed upon the amount of compensation to be paid by Israel for the victims of the Mavi Marmara – despite major hurdles such as Israel’s demand that Hamas’ headquarters in Turkey be shut down and the recent Turkish demand to send a power-generating ship to Gaza.

Though neither Turkey nor Israel have abandoned the negotiations, it may take longer than expected for them to reach an agreement (if indeed both are still willing to restore bilateral relations).
An announcement by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office on April 13 that said “Israel would gladly exchange ambassadors if Turkey was willing to take the first step,” reveals that a third option might also be on the table for the two neighbors to resume diplomatic ties without fully resolving their conflicts.

When making predictions about the Middle East, betting on a pessimist outcome always pays off. But those who prefer to remain on the safe side and comfortably envision no deal at all between Israel and Turkey ignore the fact that regional geopolitics have been pushing the two closer to each other for quite some time, meaning that normalization will take place sooner or later.

Turkey and Israel have shared geopolitical interests in the region, such as cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), balancing the rise of Iran, restoring stability in Syria and Iraq, and fostering energy security and cooperation in the Mediterranean. While regional developments are bringing Ankara and Tel Aviv closer, domestic factors such as the negative view of Israel in Turkish public opinion due to the Palestinian issue continue to drive a wedge between them. Anti-Israeli attitudes, which are often fused with anti-Semitism and manifest themselves as hate speech, are very widespread in the Turkish media.

From a broader perspective, however, normalization with Israel is in fact a part of a long-awaited reset in Turkish foreign policy in terms of repairing broken ties with neighbors, overcoming the country’s regional isolation, and realigning with the Western alliance in the post-Arab Spring context.

Aside from that, the souring of relations with Russia over the downing of the SU-24 Russian jet in November 2015 has made the diversification of energy resources a more pressing issue for Turkey, pushing it toward seeking reconciliation with Tel Aviv. For a middle-sized power like Turkey, building smart alliances is a sine qua non for maintaining security and increasing influence in international diplomacy.

Israel and Turkey, two non-Arab countries, are likely to benefit from enhancing dialogue and cooperation amid the chaos in the region.

However, Turkey’s embracing of the Palestinian conflict to the point where it is almost a domestic issue, and its promotion of Hamas more than any other Arab country in the region, hinders negotiations with Israel.

Besides, both countries are also seeking to “claim victory” in the talks, which obstructs tradeoffs and eliminates flexibility in the bargaining process.

Having faced several obstacles in the foreign policy realm for the last couple of years, the stakes are higher for Turkey to reach an agreement if Israel does not meet its demands, given that Ankara has a conservative domestic constituency that is highly sensitive about the suffering of Palestinians.

Although normalization with Israel does not provide a magical formula to soothe Turkey’s long-standing problems, it could be a constructive step in terms of providing mediation for resolving the Palestinian issue and fighting anti-Semitism in Turkish society.

The outcome of the negotiations in the upcoming weeks will indicate whether geopolitical interests or domestic politics prevail.

How close are Turkey and Israel to a deal?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who went to Washington last week to attend a nuclear summit, received perhaps his warmest welcome from pro-Israel lobby groups as he enjoyed the benefits of the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Israel.

During a closed meeting with Jewish representatives, including Robert Singer, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and the head of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, and Malcom Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Erdoğan reportedly called on Jewish leaders in the U.S. to cooperate against Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

Indeed, the groundwork of these friendly discussions were laid last month as senior representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the AmericanIsrael Public Affairs Committee, were hosted at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, where they met Erdoğan, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and other senior officials. The meeting marked the first time in seven years since the infamous “one minute” episode at Davos caused a rift between the leaders of the two countries.

Erdoğan delivered warm messages to Israel during his speech at the Brookings Institute, expressing hope that the tragic suicide bomb attack that took place on March 19 in Istanbul, killing three Israelis and an Iranian, would bring the two once-close allies together again.

In the aftermath of the bomb attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated his expectations that a third round of reconciliation talks with Turkey in the upcoming weeks would eventually yield a positive outcome.

The relationship between the two countries were severely strained following a deadly assault in 2010 on the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara aid flotilla, which was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Since then, Turkey has repeatedly raised three conditions for normalization: an apology for the incident, compensation for the Mavi Marmara victims and the lifting of the Gaza blockade.

So far, an apology has come from Netanyahu, thanks to U.S. President Barack Obama’s mediation.

Though normalization has not yet materialized, both sides are positive about reaching an agreement soon. In fact, Erdoğan’s remarks during his Brookings speech in fact provided hints about the unresolved issues in the negotiation process.

While progress has been made on the details of the compensation, Gaza remains one of the problematic topics obstructing an agreement.

During his speech in Washington, Erdoğan addressed the poor conditions of Palestinians and reiterated Turkey’s imperative to “remove the embargo” once more. He also expressed the government’s willingness to take part in any initiative that would contribute to the welfare of the Palestinians, such as rebuilding Gaza and providing schools, hospitals, infrastructure, goods and financial support.

In fact, just two weeks ago, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TİKA) announced new plans to build 320 housing units in the Gaza Strip. The project is one of just 400 TİKA-funded projects being carried out in Palestine.

In addition to Turkey’s previously stated three conditions for normalization, the two sides have reportedly been discussing the construction of a seaport in Gaza, which the Israeli side previously denied. Israel, on the other hand, has been demanding Ankarashut Hamas’ offices in Turkey, an issue on which the Turkish officials have been dragging their feet.

It is highly unlikely that Israel will accept the construction of a seaport in Gaza, since it would mean granting Hamas political gains and jeopardizing Egypt’s friendship. It is therefore important to follow recent rapprochement efforts between Hamas and Egypt, as well as between Egypt and Turkey, and then see whether or not they will culminate in regional reconciliation among  neighbors.

Meanwhile, Israel’s recent expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone from six to nine nautical miles could be interpreted as a goodwill gesture in terms of easing the blockade.

However, signals of Turkey’s possible coming thaw with Russia and the Israeli High Court’s decision temporarily suspending energy deals may change political calculations on both sides and affect their desire to reach a settlement.

Nevertheless, with uncertainty and chaos prevalent in the Middle East, the normalization of Turkish-Israeli relations would, without a doubt, foster better cooperation between the two countries in various fields and thus help construct mutual security.

The EU-Turkey deal from Brussels

The major events of last week were, without question, the terror attacks in Istanbul and Brussels.

As long as measures are not taken following such an upsurge in attacks by various terror groups in Turkey, such attacks are regrettably unlikely to end soon.

At the same time the bomb in Istanbul exploded, participants at the German Marshall Fund’s 11th Brussels Forum in the Belgian capital were discussing the fight against global terrorism and extremist currents, the migrant problem and how such issues were likely to affect global security strategies.

It bears noting that the forum touched on far more issues than those above, ranging from broader geopolitical issues to the digital revolution, the need for a more equitable liberal economic order and the necessity for a change in mentality on gender equality.

With everyone in Europe searching for a solution to the migrant crisis, perhaps the most captivating panel at the forum was conducted with Turkish EU Minister Volkan Bozkır and EU Budget Commission Vice President Kristalina Georgieva, who were both fresh from signing the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU.

Despite their visible fatigue following the grueling negotiations, the pair gamely attempted to allay concerns about the refugee deal that had aroused suspicions in both Turkey and the international community during the panel “Refugee Crisis: Europe’s Ultimate Stress Test.”

It bears noting that the sides view the deal not so much as an ultimate deal, but more as an important step along the road to a solution.

As it is, Georgieva sought to emphasize this in her comments. Noting that the EU’s 72,000-person quota as part of the one-for-one swap between Ankara and Brussels was just the beginning, she said: “The EU has been aware for years that it has to address the refugee problem. In the discussions on the refugee crisis, we were talking about the 1.5 million refugees in Europe; what about the 59 million people that could be at our door due to a variety of disaster scenarios? As such, the EU needs to exert efforts to address the root of the problems that have produced the refugee crisis – particularly in terms of effecting political solutions to military conflicts. Moreover, what we need to do should not be restricted to providing shelter and food for refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. We need to create opportunities for schools and work for people so that the influx is decelerated.”

Instead of heeding Turkey’s warnings in a timely fashion, the EU busied itself gawking at the approaching tsunami, Bozkır said, while adding that he was pleased the bloc had finally – if tardily – comprehended the severity of the situation. More than financial aid, Turkey expects collaboration and a sharing of responsibilities from the EU, Bozkır noted, adding that Ankara needed to again feel it was “part of the family.”

Despite realizations that there will be a number of problems in the implementation of the deal, from the return of refugees to the expectations of visa-free travel and other issues, there is a hope that the agreement will somewhat deter refugees from attempting to illegally enter Europe and save them from the clutches of human smugglers.

It behooves one to say, however, that the majority of participants milling about during the coffee break were in the “doubters” category.

At the outset, participants expressed their desire to see Europe emerge from this stress test with added strength. Similar hopes for Turkey depend on a revival of relations with the EU that are partly tied to the continued positive trajectory of the Cyprus peace negotiations, which would help open accession chapters that are currently under veto.

Rather than unfettered access to the Schengen zone come June, it is more likely that a narrower group of people (business leaders, academics, students and the like) will be able to benefit from visa-free travel.

Bozkır, meanwhile, addressed critics at the forum who asserted that Turkey was straying from the Copenhagen criteria, suggesting that they should think again. “[If Turkey doesn’t enter a deal due to the points you mention], it will be deprived of opportunities for progression. In an era in which human rights and democracy are under threat, let’s work together to make Turkey a better country,” he said.

Constraints may delay ‘independent KRG’

As Syria enters its sixth year of war, the turmoil in the region renders the boundaries drawn by the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement obsolete, particularly the border between Iraq and Syria. No one is certain what a post-war Syrian map is going to look like, let alone whether or not “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) will ever be achieved.

Amid such uncertainty and despair, regional actors are seeking to forge a new order out of this devastation based on their ethnic and sectarian interests. It is no wonder that Kurdish aspirations for independence have also emerged in this period. In January, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani suggested holding a referendum on Kurdish independence before U.S. elections in November.

The economic and security dynamics on the ground, however, have imposed different realities on Iraqi Kurds. Along with the burning issue of fighting ISIL and other sources of extremism, the KRG’s political future, economic constraints, demands for reform and tensions between Baghdad and Arbil were among the hot topics discussed by prominent speakers at the fourth Sulaymaniyah Forum organized by the American University of Iraq last week.

The founder and the chairman of the university – as well as former KRG PM – Barham Salih took the time to share his perspectives on the challenges the KRG faces at this delicate stage and shed light on the hopes for independence as the war against ISIL has taken a new turn with an impending operation to retake Mosul.

According to Salih, Kurdistan, which used to be a success story, is at a major crossroads today. The drop in oil prices, Baghdad’s failure to pay a 17 percent share of the federal budget, the war against ISIL and the burden of 1.8 million refugees have brought the KRG to the brink of bankruptcy.

Today 70 percent of the Kurdish population is under 30, and many are unemployed university graduates, Salih said. Furthermore,  people expect fundamental change and reform in government, but the domestic struggles within the KRG and the broken trust between Baghdad and Arbil impede any structural reforms.

The only way out, according to Salih, is the implementation of a comprehensive reform program to increase transparency and eradicate corruption.

Asked whether the time has come for an independent Kurdistan, Salih asserts: “Every Kurd aspires to be independent. Kurdish people deserve and have the right to a separate independent Kurdistan just like Turks, Arabs and Iranians. But Kurdish independence in my view comes with fixing our economy. First, we need to put our house in order, making sure the reform agenda succeeds by consolidating the trust of the community of Kurdistan. I believe we still have a lot of work to do. I’m also very happy to see our relationship with Ankara has improved over the years.”

Since international legitimacy and recognition is a crucial aspect of independence and sovereignty, Salih’s comments are thought-provoking in this sense.

“Independence does not come by being dependent on Turkey or the United States. We need to develop interdependence with our close and far neighbors across the region. The issue should not be about choosing Turkey over Iran, or choosing Turkey over Baghdad.  The best policy is to build bridges with our neighbours, Turkey, Iran and the Arab world. This should not be a zero-sum game.”

As for the KRG’s expectations from Turkey and the U.S. in combating ISIL, Salih underlines the fact that confronting the plague of ISIL is indeed a common interest of Kurds and Turks. “At the end of the day, ISIL has to be defeated by regional actors and local communities – the Kurds, the Turkmens, the Arabs, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come together. I appreciate what the Americans are doing. We ask for more because we need more supportand more military engagement, but it is our country and we have to fight for it!”

In light of domestic struggles, economic hardships and the looming ISIL threat, plans for a declaration of independence are very much likely to be postponed until an undetermined date in the future, yet the ideal is obviously what keeps Iraqi Kurds alive.