Seth J. Frantzman

Ankara’s aggression has spurred a most unlikely pact

Ankara's aggression has spurred a most unlikely pact
(Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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The monumental accords being signed in Washington between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain represent a new era in Israeli peacemaking. These agreements are being signed with Gulf states and they are a result of shared interests. At the top of the list of Israeli concerns is the Iranian threat. But Turkey's increasingly aggressive stance in the Mediterranean and across the Middle East is easily overlooked as a catalyst for closer Israeli-UAE relations. 

In the last year, Turkey has invaded parts of northern Syria, sent mercenaries to fight in Libya, launched a military operation in northern Iraq, and threatened Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and France. Ankara’s decision to deploy a naval flotilla in the Mediterranean has led to Greek and Egyptian military exercises with the UAE participating in the Greek drill and supporting Egypt in Libya. Increasingly Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE share concerns about Ankara’s antics.

To understand how Turkey’s role helped bring Israel and the UAE closer together we need to understand how Abu Dhabi and Ankara are on different sides in the Middle East. The UAE is a central ally of Saudi Arabia and together they work closely with Bahrain and Egypt. For instance, when in 2015 Saudi intervened in Yemen’s civil war to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the UAE played a key supporting role. The UAE also helped the Egyptian-backed general Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s civil war. Turkey backs the opponents of Haftar.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are also the foremost opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Erdogan and his AK Party have roots in the Brotherhood. His support for the former Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi, and its support for Hamas, is linked to a shared Brotherhood background. Ankara hosted Hamas leaders twice this year. Ankara’s increasing religious zeal, demonstrated in the conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, is laced with statements about 'liberating Al-Aqsa mosque' – the Dome of the Rock – in Jerusalem. This illustrates how Turkey’s regional alliance system is rooted in opposition to Israel while backing groups that are hostile to the UAE as well. Israel’s Mossad has assessed that Turkey’s current regime could be a greater long-term threat than Iran.

Closer to home for the Emirates and Bahrain is the Gulf crisis with Qatar. In 2017, Riyadh led the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in breaking relations with Qatar. Turkey immediately sent troops to Doha to deter a Saudi invasion. The Qatari crisis has its own complex history but what is important for us to understand two things. The first is that it accelerated existing processes in the Gulf, leading to break in the Gulf Cooperation Council and secondly it causing the UAE and Saudi Arabia to feel threatened by a break in ranks so close to home. With the war in Yemen dragging on and Iranian drones and cruise missiles targeting Saudi Arabia, the UAE became more open to an Israel deal.

Israel is starting to be seen as a potential ally by many Gulf states. Historically the country had trade offices and links in the Gulf dating back to the 1990s. Meanwhile, Saudi promised peace in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories in 2002. What changed Gulf calculations was a sense of Iran’s growing threat during the Obama years and now the emergence of Turkey’s wider role in Libya and Qatar and the support for Hamas in Gaza. 

Turkey’s attempt to ride the Palestinian issue, positioning itself as a champion of the cause, could potentially displace Saudi Arabia and Jordan as the leading Islamic countries with a role in Jerusalem. What does that have to do with the UAE? The UAE is Saudi's main ally and, by quietly approving its outreach to Israel, the Saudis can enable peace without necessarily signing an accord with Israel itself. There is now growing speculation that Saudi will follow Bahrain and the UAE eventually.

This normalisation process has given the UAE and others, backed by the Saudis, a way to regain control of regional policy and to call Iran and Ankara's bluff. For these Gulf states, it accomplishes several things at the same time: the move improves relations with the United States, leading to weapons deals and other economic goodies. But it can also bring Israel into the Greco-Egyptian alliance over territorial disputes with Turkey. This was reflected in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Cyprus and the region recently.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states could have faced a rising Iranian threat without gambling on peace deals with Israel this quickly. What encouraged them to move more quickly was the increasing role of Turkey and its aggressive moves in Libya, the Mediterranean, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Jerusalem and now even northern Lebanon

In an ironic twist of history, it was the Obama administration’s empowering of Iran through the Iran deal and the Trump administration giving Turkey a free hand in northern Syria that helped encourage this Israeli-Gulf alliance. Turkey’s aggressive moves forced its adversaries to come together.