Friday’s American-brokered Israeli apology to Turkey over the events of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2008 was a significant diplomatic event, one deserving of the tremendous amount of media attention it will undoubtedly receive when the weekend ends. However, the apology is still just politics. What is much more interesting is the geopolitics of Turkish-Israeli relations. In the view of geopolitics, personal apologies matter little. What are important, rather, are the capabilities and self-interests of nations as a whole.
The basic realities of Turkish-Israeli geopolitics were transformed in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Before then, Turkey had been surrounded by Armenia and Georgia (Soviet Republics), Bulgaria (a Soviet vassal), Iraq and Syria (Baathist Soviet allies), and Greece (a Slavic country, which had a popular Communist party and a rivalrous relationship with the Turks). The Russians desperately wanted influence in Turkey in order to gain access to the Mediterranean. As a result, Turkey looked to the United States to protect its autonomy from Russia and ensure its access to the global economy.
The United States became closely allied with Israel in 1973, meanwhile, supplying it with arms during the Yom Kippur War. Israel was useful to the United States because it blocked Egyptian-led pan-Arabism, could be used to help guarantee Western influence over the Suez Canal, and was generally popular among American Jews (and among many Christians). Israeli strength also forced Syria to focus on its southern border, potentially reducing the pressure it could exert in other directions, such as towards Turkey.
Also important during the Cold War was that oil prices averaged less than thirty dollars a barrel, adjusted for inflation. As a result, the economic clout of Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran was relatively small. Turkey, which did not have a large economy at the time, did not need to import much from these states. Its economy was tied far more to North America and Europe than it was to the Middle East.
Now look at today’s world. Russia’s borders are nowhere near Istanbul. Iraq and Syria are chaotic and disunited. Oil prices are around 110$ a barrel, and were above 140$ in 2008. Turkey is extraordinarily dependent on imports of Russian energy, a dependency it would like to reduce with imports from Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Most importantly, Turkey’s economy is now the world’s sixteenth largest, and grew more rapidly than any significant country apart from China in recent years. Indeed, whereas in 1986 Turkey’s economy was nearly three times smaller than Iran’s, today it is approximately one and a half times larger than those of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and roughly quadruple the size of any Middle Eastern economy if oil and natural gas are excluded.
Turkey’s economic and political influence is gradually expanding into the disorganized regions that surround it. In the Balkans, the Caucuses, and the Middle East, reaching out to Muslim populations – Arabs, Persians, Bosnians, Albanians, Azeris, Chechens, etc. – is a natural and effective way for Turkey to become influential. As a result, non-Muslim countries in the region, such as Russia, Armenia, and Serbia, will probably become less friendly to Turkey in the future if its power continues to grow. This does not mean that Turkey will be allies with every Muslim group or enemies of every non-Muslim group. It does mean, however, that Turkey may be in an early phase of reconstituting itself as a leader of the Muslim world, a position it held between the Fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century and WW1 in the twentieth century. And of course, it is particularly hard to become a leader of the Muslim world when you are too chummy with Israel.
That said, it is also not in Turkey’s interests to break completely with Israel, at least not yet. Israel is still a very powerful country in the Middle East. Because of its technological prowess, Israel will perhaps become even more powerful compared to its neighbors in future years (though perhaps not, since its population is relatively small). Israel also continues to have the support of the United States, the world’s sole superpower. Thus, it is likely that Turkish relations with Israel will bend before they break, if indeed they ever do break. The Gaza flotilla incident of 2010 was one example of such bending. In the future, Turkey will have many more opportunities to sour its relations with Israel, as there are sure to be violent flare-ups between Israel and Arab populations that it can choose to criticize.
To predict when Turkey might break completely with Israel, though, two areas to watch are Bulgaria and Greece. Because these countries occupy the only vulnerable approaches to the heartland of Turkey surrounding Istanbul – Greece from the sea and Bulgaria on land – Turkey will want to lure them into its sphere of influence if it ever becomes powerful enough to do so. So long as the US remains a superpower, however, it may see such a move as a challenge to the alliance systems it has formed in Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Europe, and specifically countries like Romania and Russia, may not be too enthused by this either. As a result, Greece and Bulgaria are the areas where Turkish relations with the US may be most likely to worsen in the decades ahead — perhaps even more so than in Iraqi Kurdistan, which the US has formed close ties with during the past 25 years, but which the Turkish government is ambivalent about because it fears Kurdish secessionism and militancy within eastern and central Turkey. Worsening relations between the US and Turkey could mean a shattered relationship between Turkey and Israel.