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July 22, 2012, Sunday

As Syria collapses, Israel needs Turkey

“What will follow is not clear, given the mixed and divided nature of the opposition. This much we know: On the fate of Syria hangs the fate of the earth’s most combustible region,” wrote Jonathan Freedland, in the Guardian.

Combustion is ahead in the not too distant future. As opposed to the former Yugoslavia, Syria will not implode, “It will explode,” a close aid to Obama said. Given the devilish nature of rule tied to the Assad dynasty, its collective memory and its well proven ways of shaping policies based on horror and terror, it is only natural that many a ricochet will be scattered around its neighborhood, not if, but when it does.

People come to realize now that if the Assad clan’s base shatters for real, those very deep consequences will indeed be underway.

“What began with Nasser in Egypt -- or even Atatürk in Turkey -- will end with Assad: the regime that represses local and ethnic difference in the name of nationalism centered cultishly on the leader. In its place will come at first the chaos of hundreds of new parties and an even greater number of mediocre politicians. But eventually it will pave the way for a post-dictatorship Middle East, a place where rulers stand or fall not on their ability to exploit problems as moves in a geopolitical power game, but to solve them instead,” according to Freedland.

If these predictions are true, what could be done by two key countries in the region neighboring Syria, namely Turkey and Israel, needs a good elaboration. As days go by, this question is moving into the center.

The last 72 hours or so brought a new dimension that brings together two old allies and new foes, on common concerns: The collapse of the old order in Syria is real, irreversible.

If Assad is rapidly losing territorial control as claimed, namely close to 70 percent now, what became visible needs quick, efficient thinking: No matter if Turkish intelligence data that Assad ordered the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) alongside the Turkish border to be equipped with weaponry is true, the recent developments in the Kurdish northeast of Syria overlaps with what Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden, described as a new drama unfolding. Never mind the “have we not told you so” type of concerns of some Turkish pundits that the Kurds of Syria have now moved in to declare a liberated zone. But still, how Turkey will manage those Kurds’ integration into a new Syria, by eliminating the destabilizing effect of the PKK, is a huge challenge.

The same applies to Israel, with the arch-enemy Hezbollah located on its northern border. No matter if Israeli intelligence data that Assad is on the brink of handing over some of his chemical weapons to that area, it is certainly alarming enough. It is easily foreseen that the burden of Israel and Turkey will be of a similar nature.

Yet, here you have two powerful, democratic, key allies that do not talk to each other. And, it must be said, objectively, that Israeli governments in the past decade managed to show how mistrustful, myopic and arrogant they have been towards Turkey by refusing a Turkish-sponsored deal with Syria, undermining relations badly with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and refusing to apologize for a crime committed (by killing 10 people, of which 7 were conservative Kurds from Turkey) in international waters.

Their dispute will remain a heavy burden mainly on Israel, but also (to a much lesser degree on Turkey) if things roll out of control in the region as Assad’s order collapses. Both Israel and Turkey could make a difference now. It is interesting to see, however, the big differences in how their governments judge the reality.

Concerned as it is, Ankara is aware of the fact that changes in Iraq and Syria may come to mean a change of the political status of the region’s Kurds. It therefore is keen to strike a balance between the fight against the PKK terror, as it assists in the coordination of efforts to “win over other Kurds” to the side of regime changes. The AKP and reformist circles all back these nuanced policies. Ankara remains closer to realism.

But, the Israeli government and military still live in the old order. Israel’s public remains aloof and thinks deeply about the profound changes that take place all around them. A recent news analysis in the New York Times helped reveal the sad fact that for Israel it is still all, only about security, without the slightest need of revision of its decades old, ineffective policies.

Eyal Zisser, chairman of the Middle East and African history department at Tel Aviv University, told the NYT: “Most Israelis do not care about the grievances and the aspirations of their neighbors, democracy, justice, prosperity. They care about their own security. That’s the way of the average Israeli, and as a result, his government.”

Turkey may be criticized for its “zero problem with neighbors’’ policy, but it blocks many others from seeing that it is actually Israel that insists on maintaining a “zero neighbors without problems” policy instead of being part of the architecture of the new region. None of this changes the fact that they need the trust of one another, to protect the people of the Middle East.

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