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Turkey thrown for loop

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TEL-AVIV -- Quietly and without any public admission, Turkey had reversed its Middle Eastern policies as defined in the 2010 Red Book.

The 2010 Red Book, which is revised every five years, removed Syria and Iran from the list of countries that pose a threat to Turkish national interests. Instead, it stated that the region's instability stems from Israel's actions and policies and became the "bible" of the Justice and Development party, which started its "zero problems" policy with its Arab neighbours.

Turkey's foreign policy, however, took a serious downturn in 2010. It's relations with Israel were downgraded to the lowest level following the Mavi Marmara incident and Israel's refusal to apologize for killing nine militants who tried to break the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Turkey's relations with the U.S. were strained by its efforts to negotiate a compromise -- with Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa -- over Iran's nuclear program, to which the U.S. Congress responded with some sanctions against Turkey.

The Arab Spring has forced a total reversal of Turkish foreign policy, with a special emphasis on Syria. President Bashar Assad's brutal suppression of the Syrian uprising moved relations with Turkey from warm co-operation to confrontation that seeks the downfall of the Syrian president.

Istanbul became the headquarters of the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, headed by Burhan Ghalioun, an intellectual who lived in Paris. He is the preferred U.S.-Turkish choice as future president.

Under strong Turkish pressure, Ghalioun met in Alexandretta with Col. Riad al-As'ad -- a former air force officer and the head of an insurgent army of 10,000 soldiers to reconcile the conflicting approaches of the Syrian opposition to the Syrian rebellion.

Ghalioun is opposed to military action to topple Assad. In contrast, As'ad is convinced that without military force Assad will never leave office.

According to a Turkish "compromise," Ghalioun now accepts military action limited to "defensive actions."

Turkey supports full military action to topple the Syrian regime and is providing As'ad training centres, it facilitates arms from Lebanon and helped create three opposition centres -- in Deraa near the Jordanian border; in Idlib, near the Turkish border; in Homs -- near Lebanon's border.

There are 10,000 deserters in the rebel army, organized in companies and battalions and equipped with light arms. They face the Syrian army, equipped with modern Russian weapons.

The rebels need modern arms smuggled from Lebanon and Turkey.

In an effort to prevent arms smuggling, Syria is encouraging elements in Lebanon to heat up the tension along the Israeli border. Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hasan Nassrallah is careful not to get directly involved in the Syrian rebellion, although he publicly supports it.

In light of Nassrallah's public reluctance to engage in conflict with Israel, pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon have recruited other elements to attack UNIFIL and Israel. Both UNIFIL and Israel are aware of this effort and have responded cautiously to provocations.

The majority of the Syrian army, however, is deployed along the Turkish and Jordanian borders, while the deployment along the Israeli border remains "normal."

The U.S. and Russia play their cards very cautiously. Neither of them is "officially" involved. Russia, however, continues its contracted arms deliveries to Syria, including the recent delivery of a SA-22 anti aircraft system. A Syrian delegation is preparing to leave for Moscow to study the most advanced SA-300 anti-aircraft system, which Russia refused to deliver to Iran. Assad paid the Russians with Iranian money.

All these developments have increased the importance of Turkey in the West's efforts to dislodge Assad. This was again demonstrated last week at the NATO conference in Brussels. Due to Turkish opposition, NATO froze the efforts to upgrade Israel's association with NATO and refrained from Israel's request to appoint a permanent Israeli ambassador to NATO similar to the Israeli ambassador to the European Union.

NATO also froze planned participation of Israeli torpedo boats in a NATO exercise in the Mediterranean.

Israeli-Turkish tension is not limited to NATO. Last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul refused to join a group photo with Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak at a conference in Vienna. Barak retaliated by walking out of the conference hall the moment Gul went to the podium. Gul retaliated by refusing to attend the closing dinner because of Barak's presence.

It's pity that both countries did not find the formula to work together to overthrow the Syrian regime.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2011 A13

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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