The international agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program has generated anxiety in Israel and elsewhere. Middle East uncertainty underscores the growing importance of Turkey, a democracy with strong ties to both Iran and the West.
In late March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel telephoned Turkey Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to apologize for a notorious 2010 incident when Israeli armed forces boarded a Turkish ship as it attempted to deliver supplies to occupied Gaza. Nine Turkish civilians were killed.
The call was not only the right thing to do, but also a successful start down the long road of repairing relations.
The conversation occurred at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. President Barack Obama, who was on the point of departure from a generally successful visit to Israel, brokered the conversation. Obama rightly deserves credit for engineering this initial rapprochement.
The effective last act of the Israel visit may prove particularly important among the Obama administration’s moves in the Middle East, thanks primarily to Turkey’s steadily expanding regional and international roles. Accusations that Turkish intelligence agents exposed Israel’s spies in Iran have generated current controversy, but cooperation between Israel and Turkey in energy and other matters continues.
In June 2012, a Syrian missile shot down a Turkish F-4 jet fighter. Turkey avoided war and emphasized NATO cooperation. Ironically, Syria’s aggressive missile launchers increased the growing isolation of their government.
The destruction of the aircraft greatly bolstered the collective international effort to bring effective pressure on the Syria government. Turkey was added to the June Geneva summit of U.N. Security Council members. The gathering discussed ways to rein in the brutal regime in Damascus. The continuing bloody fighting within Syria further underscores Turkey’s important geostrategic role.
Turkey is a pivotal nation, Western in practices with a Muslim majority population. Since the successful revolution in the 1920s led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the government of Turkey has been constitutionally secular. The army has served as constitutional watchdog, relatively restrained in recent years.
Since 2002, Turkey has been governed by the Islamic Justice and Development Party, with substantial popular support reinforced in elections in 2007 and 2011. Relations with the military have been tense but manageable. The people remain committed to representative government, an effective counter against al-Qaida and other extremist movements.
Turkey commands vital sea lanes and trade routes, including the Strait of Bosporus, and oil and gas shipping avenues. Last year, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a $7 billion gas pipeline deal. Turkey’s trade and investment with Eastern Europe and Central Asia grows, effectively leaving behind a restrictive and often elitist European Union.
Ankara-Washington cooperation is strongly rooted. Turkey has been engaged in Afghanistan, including military command responsibilities. During the first Persian Gulf War, U.S. B-52 bombers were deployed on Turkish soil, a potentially risky move by Ankara. Turkey played a vital Allied role during the Korean War; the U.N. military cemetery at Pusan contains a notably large number of Turkish graves.
The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was bitterly opposed by Ankara. As predicted, Kurdish terrorists based in Iraq were freed to attack Turkey, leading to retaliatory military strikes across the northern border.
Obama emphasized importance of visiting Turkey at the start of his administration. Bringing Israel and Turkey back together provided a nice bookend at the start of his second term.
Washington must continue rebuilding relations with this vital, sometimes challenging ally.
Note to readers: Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at email@example.com.