April 8, 2016 | Policy Brief
Ankara’s Path to Moscow May Run through Jerusalem
As Turkey and Israel negotiate a long-awaited rapprochement, senior Israeli security sources have reportedly complained that Ankara is seeking reconciliation primarily to gain “leverage” over Russia. Since Turkey downed a Russian jet that strayed into its airspace in November, Moscow has all but declared Ankara a public enemy. With its NATO partners unable to offer much help, Turkey now needs a third party’s assistance to assuage tensions with the Kremlin. Israel, with its increasingly warm ties to Moscow, is uniquely positioned to play that role.
Turkey’s fallout with Russia is a driving force behind its newfound interest in speeding up normalization with Israel. Negotiators announced the start of the reconciliation process on December 17, less than a month after the Kremlin announced sanctions on Turkish products and launched a propaganda campaign against Turkey’s ruling party. Even more alarming for energy-dependent Turkey was the uncertain future of its natural gas supply from Russia – intensifying the urgency for Ankara to diversify energy sources. Israel was able to step into that role after the discovery of the Leviathan gas field in 2010 transformed it into a prospective energy exporter.
But energy security is not the only cause for alarm in Ankara. Since the diplomatic spat over the jet, Russia has been actively supporting Syrian Kurdish militants with ties to separatist Kurds in Turkey. Ankara has historically turned to the West when threatened by Moscow, but NATO appears unable to de-escalate the Turkish-Russian row. NATO also seeks to avoid a fight with Russia when tensions are already high over Ukraine and Syria – especially because of Turkey, whom some in the alliance perceive as an unreliable ally. With U.S.-Russian relations at their worst since the Cold War, Washington is in no position to court the Kremlin on Ankara’s behalf.
Ironically, this leaves Israel – Ankara’s default regional adversary for much of the last decade – as Turkey’s next-best option. Russian-Israeli ties have grown closer over the last year. The two sides’ handling of Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 was a testament to those closer ties. When the Israeli prime minister and military chief of staff traveled to Moscow to convey concerns about Russian operations on Israel’s doorstep, the two sides established an unprecedented joint coordination mechanism.
The mechanism has paid off by preventing inadvertent clashes and allowing Israel to freely strike at Hezbollah militants in Syria, and also by increasing Russian appreciation for Israeli security needs. For example, Moscow halted the shipment of the S-300 missile system to Iran, reportedly based on Israeli intelligence of Tehran having transferred Russian-made weapons to Hezbollah. The Kremlin’s continued support for Syrian Kurds underlines that it has far from given that same courtesy to Ankara.
In a region beset by turmoil, Turkey and Israel have many reasons to return to normalized ties. But Ankara likely also hopes that restoring ties with Jerusalem will lead the latter to intercede on its behalf with Russia. As Moscow accommodates itself to Israeli security needs, it may have to also take a restored Turkish-Israeli alliance into consideration. This is particularly true in Syria, where Russia has responded to Israeli fears with concrete measures, while ignoring and exacerbating Turkish ones. In such dire circumstances, Ankara appears to believe that its path to Moscow may pass through Jerusalem after all.