Friday, June 18, 2010

Flotilla Fallout

Flotilla Fallout
Damage Done by Israel 's Raid Echoes in Region

Published: 14 June 2010

No one predicted the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico , particularly after the largely accident-free drilling of thousands of off-shore oil wells. Neither could anyone have predicted that Israeli troops would kill Turkish civilians in Israel 's effort to block last week's humanitarian aid flotilla bound for Gaza .
Yet these recent events are creating a proverbial sea change in the Middle East , one that signals the end of Israeli-Turkish security cooperation and friendship, the keystone in the region's American-sponsored security architecture since the end of World War II.

Washington's eyes are now justifiably riveted on Ankara where the sea change is well underway. The attack on the Turkish-flagged ship and the killing of Turkish citizens was an affront to Turkish national pride. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey 's prime minister and a devout Muslim, confronts the situation with the wholehearted support of an enraged Turkish population.

Turkey is the 13th-largest economy in the world. Its military establishment, the largest among European NATO members, is also well-equipped, disciplined and aggressively nationalistic. Turkey , not Iran , is the region's true superpower, a nation-state with the power to create a new Middle East.

The big unknown for Washington is what Erdogan will do next. Will Erdogan direct the Turkish military to escort the next humanitarian flotilla into Gaza ? How will the Turkish generals, who view themselves as the guardians of secularism inside Turkish society, react?

Surely, the Turkish generals who've cooperated closely with the American and Israeli military establishments are frantically searching for a way out of the crisis. Or, perhaps this thinking is wrong; perhaps this crisis has inadvertently forged a bond between Turkey 's Islamist prime minister and Turkey 's secular military leaders?

Terrible Timing

The crisis could not come at a worse time. Washington is betting heavily on the Turks to help stabilize Iraq as U.S. forces withdraw. Erdogan has worked hard to end the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, which has claimed 40,000 lives, even sanctioning the use of the Kurdish language in all Turkish broadcast media and political campaigns.

For Turkey , which tends to view Iraq 's Kurdistan Regional Government as indistinguishable from the violently anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK, this development has been nothing short of a miracle.

Once again, events in Gaza may put these arrangements at risk. Turks, secular or Islamist, never had much incentive to allow anti-Turkish Kurds to exploit 3 percent of the world's oil reserves in northern Iraq to bankroll regional aims and terrorism against Turkey.

Ankara and Tehran have reportedly discussed spheres of influence in Iraq when the United States leaves, giving Turkey control of Iraq 's northern (Kurdish) territory, as well as its enormous oil wealth, leaving Iran to control the central and southern Iraq through its Shiite Arab surrogates in Baghdad .

Now, Turkey and Iran may form substantive agreements that are antithetical to Washington 's interests.

Meanwhile, if a confrontation with the Turks over Gaza ensued, Turkish conventional military strength might lead Israel to threaten use of nuclear weapons against Turkey . If NATO, under pressure from Washington , refused to acknowledge Turkey 's protection under Article V of the NATO Charter (NATO's nuclear umbrella), then NATO would certainly dissolve and the Turks would likely turn to Russia , Iran or even China for support.

Ankara also could go nuclear much faster than Tehran , given the assistance of the Pakistani military establishment, the Turkish military's longtime strategic partner.

For the moment, things are unlikely to go this far, but no one in the United States or Israel should miss the long-term strategic impact of the American and Israeli military occupations of Iraq and Palestine . Both created radicalized groups and embittered Muslim populations scarred by the unwanted presence of foreign troops.

Israeli occupation of Lebanon and Palestine enabled Hizbollah and Hamas to emerge as viable political forces, while U.S. military occupation of Iraq expanded Iranian strategic power and influence.

Eventually, the United States will tire of pouring billions into contractors and making payoffs to Arabs and Afghans and withdraw its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan . But the Israelis contend with an insoluble security problem at their very gates. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson's words, in Gaza and in the rest of the Palestinian territories, " Israel has a wolf by the ear, and Israel can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."

Whatever course Israel adopts in the months ahead, it must measure carefully what it might gain from maintaining the blockade by what it might lose, not just in Gaza , but from the Nile to the Black Sea .

U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) is a fellow at the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Washington. His latest of four books is "Warrior's Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting."