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Baris Karaagac: In spite of harsh words, Turkey has strategic partnership with Israel but relations with Iran worsen since conflict in Syria

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our series of interviews about Turkey as it expands its role as one of the major players in the Middle East conflict. Two of the major powers Turkey must deal with as it expands its influence is Iran and Israel.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Baris Karaagac. He’s a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University. He’s in Ontario, Canada. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crisis, and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism. And he joins us from the Real News studio in Toronto. Thanks for joining us, Baris.


JAY: So let’s start with Israel. Turkish and Israeli relations seem to go up and down. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s rhetoric. Right now, in absentia, Turkey is trying some Israeli generals that were involved in the deaths on the Turkish flotilla that was going to Gaza. At the same time, Turkey is a member of NATO, and the fundamental cooperation with Israel seems to be in place. So what’s real here?

KARAAGAC: First of all, let’s go back a little bit. Turkey was the first predominantly Muslim country that recognized Israel in 1949. But since then, their relations have been characterized by ups and downs, as you mentioned. And recently the most important issue was the attack by the IDF on the Gaza flotilla, which led to the death of nine passengers and with many others getting injured during the raid.

So in this—after what happened, Turkey has three demands. One of them is an apology, an official apology. The second one is a compensation of the relatives of families of the victims who died there, also who got injured. And third one is an end to the blockade in Gaza.

And when you look at—but at the same time, when you look at the relations, despite the fierce rhetoric, the powerful rhetoric that is being used, particularly by the prime minister of Turkey, ErdoÄŸan, there’s a huge contradiction—that’s what I’ve observed—contradiction between the rhetoric, between the discourse and the practice. Even while Israel was bombing Gaza, Turkish officials from the intelligence agency in Turkey were meeting with their counterparts from Israel, from the Israeli side, to normalize the relations between those two countries.

And secondly, although Erdoğan even referred to the Israeli state as a terrorist state—this is really strong language—these bilateral treaties, agreements between the two countries are still in effect. Turkey continues to buy a lot of weapons from Israel, and Israel uses Turkish airspace for training purposes. And secondly, even after what happened in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, which was condemned by the Turkish government—and that was the beginning of the deterioration of relations between AKP government and the Israeli state—since then, the trade volume has increased from $2.6 billion to $4.4 billion.

So it is business as usual. We hear this discourse, this rhetoric, but when it comes to practice, we have not seen much yet.

JAY: So the Turkish rhetoric is for the Middle Eastern streets, the Turkish streets, to appease public opinion and to help expand Turkish influence in the Middle East and has no real basis—essentially, then, Turkey is part of this sort of alliance with Qatar and Saudi Arabia—and Israel, in fact—to manage—and of course now Morsi from Egypt—to manage their interests in the Middle East together.

KARAAGAC: Well, Turkey, I think, has two goals: to appease the public, both within Turkey and the Arab populations in the Middle East. But, again, many people are growing tired of this, because although both populations, both the Turkish public and most of the Arabs, they’re quite critical of what Israel has been doing there, about the Israeli occupation and the massacres, Turkey has not delivered so far.

JAY: To what extent is public opinion in Turkey against the Turkish government because of this reality of cooperation with Israel?

KARAAGAC: Well, the public opinion is siding—the public is siding definitely with the Palestinians, but we have not seen much criticism directed at ErdoÄŸan and his government, particularly within his electorate, within his people, in terms of the Turkish government’s policy, attitude towards Israel, yet. But, of course, many people, particularly on the left, have been pointing out this contradiction between the discourse and the practice.

JAY: Now, what then is the relationship with Iran? I mean, you have all the rhetoric against Israel, but real cooperation with it. What about Iran?

KARAAGAC: Well, Iran until recently—again, Turkish-Iranian relations, particularly under the AKP government, had been quite close and on friendly terms. But then this started to deteriorate, particularly with the emergence of the insurgency in Syria, because Turkey sided with the rebels.

And, also, Turkey in 2011 did something really interesting—and this is actually related to Turkish-Israel relations and the question that you just posed: Turkey agreed to hosting the NATO missile shield in eastern Turkey. So Turkey and NATO argue that this is only for defensive purposes, this is to defend Europe. But we all know that this is against Iran. And Iran recently has said very clearly that if Iran is hit, is attacked by any power, Iran will attack Turkey because of this missile shield. And Iran is not happy about it. And the second thing is that recently Turkey asked NATO for Patriot missiles to be deployed along the Syrian border, and both Russia and Iran are against this and quite critical of this.

JAY: And so Turkey seems to have made a shift even more in terms of its commitment to being part of this Western alliance.

KARAAGAC: Yeah. And it’s quite interesting, because until a couple of years ago—I always use a couple, because literally until a couple of years ago, Turkey was pursuing a zero-problems policy with its neighbors. Now Turkey has a problem with each and every one of its neighbors. Turkey, without doubt, sided with the Western alliance despite this rhetoric about Israel.

JAY: And what has it done to Turkish relations with Russia and China?

KARAAGAC: Well, Russia and China, they are critical of the stance taken by Turkey towards both Iran and Syria. There’s no question about it.

JAY: And why do you think this shift in 2011? It would have seemed to make more sense for Turkey to continue to sort of stay above the fray to some extent.

KARAAGAC: Well, we can only speculate [incompr.] And I think one of the critical things is that Turkey probably never expected these developments before then, even what happened in Syria. And once the rebellion took place and Turkey had to side with someone there and/or in terms of what policies it had to implement, it sided with its NATO allies, as well as the Arab League, against Syria and Iran.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Baris.

KARAAGAC: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Don’t forget we’re in our year-end fundraising campaign. Every buck you donate is matched if you click the Donate button over here. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.