The Israeli special-forces assault in the early hours of 31 May 2010 on the leading ship of a humanitarian-aid convoy sailing towards the Gaza strip was intended to be a robust statement of national policy. Instead, the deadly commando-raid - in which nine of the on-board activists were killed and thirty wounded - has sparked an international diplomatic crisis with profound implications.
This international dimension of the incident was apparent within hours when Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu cancelled what was to have been a crucial bridge-building meeting in Washington with Barack Obama and returned to Israel. The events on the Mavi Marmara ferry, both a human tragedy and a public-relations disaster for Israel, were soon to accomplish what the activists had set out to do and Israel been determined to stop: focus global attention on the blockade of the Gaza strip (see Patrick Cockburn, “PR dangerously distorts the Israeli sense of reality”, 2 June 2010).
A clear danger
Israel had assembled a powerful naval force to intercept a flotilla that represented much the largest and best-resourced effort to break the Gaza blockade.
The Mavi Marmara initiative centred on the Turkish group the Foundation of Humanitarian Relief (IHH), a well-endowed organisation that may be supported financially by many Turks but also has (at the very least) informal links with the Ankara government. The IHH had bought the Mavi Marmara from a state-owned company for $1.25 million; there was every sign that the flotilla it led represented the early stage of a long-term operation with high-level Turkish political endorsement (see Simon Thurlow, “Israel Founders in International Waters”, Asia Times, 1 June 2010) .
Israel's absolute determination to maintain control of Gaza meant that the development of such a strategy (essentially under official Turkish tutelage) presented it with a clear danger. Israel therefore decided to use sufficient force to deter any practical attempts to pursue the strategy, even if that would damage further its already strained relations with Turkey.
A deep concern
The working relationship between Turkey and Israel, complex and in many ways unexpected as it has been, has survived major tests (see Kerem Oktem, “Turkey and Israel: ends and beginnings”, 10 December 2009). Yet it had already been deteriorating for some time before the Israeli military assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 - Operation Cast Lead – made it even more fraught. The public dispute between the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos was only the most visible sign of an accentuating trend (see Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza", 26 January 2010). Now, the crisis over the flotilla attack has brought it to an even deeper low.
This is worrying enough for Israel, but the profound breach between two of the United States’s closest allies is also a deep concern for Washington. The US is acutely aware that the assault on the Mavi Marmara has potentially damaging reverberations in other areas – Pakistan and Iran, for example - where what it perceives as its core security interests are at stake (see "America and the world's jungle", 27 May 2010).
Among these effects is a further rise in anti-Americanism in Pakistan, evident in demonstrations in Karachi (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Israeli strike echoes in Pakistan”, Asia Times 2 June 2010). This will dismay Washington as it attempts to secure Pakistani cooperation in its tough campaign to subdue the Taliban.
But the Barack Obama administration will be even more alarmed by the renewed difficulties in persuading fellow United Nations Security Council states to vote for another round of sanctions against Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The current non-permanent members of the council include Turkey and Brazil, and both were already aggrieved at the United States dismissal of the enriched-uranium exchange-deal they agreed with Tehran on 17 May 2010 (see Mariano Aguirre, “Brazil-Turkey and Iran: a new global balance”, 2 June 2010). Now, after the Israeli raid, Turkey will be even less inclined to support Washington.
An Istanbul gathering
These matters are serious enough for the United States. But an equally momentous development, one that as yet has not been fully registered, is a five-day meeting that took place in Istanbul's Cevahir Hotel on 10 April 2010. The "Iraqi resistance support conference" involved dozens of Iraqis who had been active in the Sunni insurgency that developed after the US-led overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime and occupation of Iraq in 2003 (under the banner of groups such as the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the al-Rashideen Army) (see Ernesto Londono, “Iraq's Sunni insurgent groups gather to plot comeback amid political crisis” , Washington Post, 1 June 2010).
The Istanbul meeting included people who had been involved in the governing Ba’ath Party during the Saddam Hussein era, though not (it seems) any linked to al-Qaida in Iraq. It did, however, reflect a strong sense that many of those involved in the “awakening” movement that had opposed and weakened al-Qaida in 2007-08 were now being excluded from Iraqi politics at the highest level.
Almost three weeks after the Istanbul gathering, on 29 April, a public meeting was held in Damascus to relaunch the Ba’ath Party in Iraq, an organisation outlawed since spring 2003. The Syrian capital may be seen as the “natural” location for this event for reasons both of geographical proximity and political-ideological affinity (Syria, after all, is ruled by a branch of the once-unified Ba’ath and is ostensibly committed to the same Arab nationalist goals).
The party’s rebirth was condemned by Iraq’s current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who belongs to the (Shi’a-supported) Dawa that long opposed Ba’ath rule. But the International Crisis Group’s specialist on Iraq (and openDemocracy author) Joost Hiltermann puts this political move in the context of current Iraqi realities:
“There is no doubt that Sunnis will feel excluded, disenfranchised and marginalised if they are not given a significant share in government. After all, it is with this expectation that they agreed to abandon the insurgency during the surge in 2007”.
The attempted reforming of the Ba’ath Party may well come to nothing. Indeed it may simply be a political ploy - a veiled threat to the Shi'a majority in Iraq that it should avoid entrenching any exclusion of the Sunnis from Iraq’s post-election settlement.
This aspect of internal Iraqi politics aside, the Turkish government’s willingness to allow a key meeting of Iraqi ex-insurgents to take place in Istanbul is remarkable.
A new wind
There is much talk and some fear in western capitals that Turkey is ceasing to look westwards towards the European Union and Nato, and rather seeks to build its influence to the east and south.
The view of some analysts in the United States is even more alarmist: that Turkey – its membership of Nato notwithstanding - is increasingly unreliable as a partner of the west (see Steven A Cook, "How do you say 'frenemy' in Turkish?", Foreign Policy, 1 June 2010). The prospect of a revival of a form of Islamist-imperial dominance in the region, under the leadership of Erdogan’s AKP government, offers history-fuelled succour to the notion. A comment in the influential neo-conservative Weekly Standard is indicative:
“Since 2005, Americans have been worrying about Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony. Maybe its time we started worrying about Turkey's regional ambitions as well. The Turks ruled the region from 1453 to 1922, after all. A renascence of Turkish power, in an Islamist guise, would cause all sorts of troubles no one can anticipate” (see Matthew Continetti, “The Turkish power”, Weekly Standard, 1 June 2010).
There are variable degrees of simplification in such views, which need to be considered in the context of Turkey's substantial military involvement in Nato and its continuing ambitions to join the European Union (see Katinka Barysch, “Turkey and Europe: a shifting axis”, 14 April 2010).
What is much more likely is that Turkey is pursuing and will further develop a triple strategic and diplomatic policy:
▪ retaining its European orientation
▪ enhancing its regional influence, not least in Iraq and Iran (see Carsten Wieland, “Turkey’s political-emotional transition”, 6 October 2009)
▪ creating space to work more closely with other major emerging states - notably Brazil, as over the tripartite fuel-swap agreement with Iran
In this broader context, the Istanbul hotel meeting may over time prove to be as significant as Turkey's angry response to Israel's commando-raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla. What is certain is that both events are ingredients of a change in the world’s political order.