At a time when Republican frontrunner Donald Trump scares the hell out of everyone by engaging in blatant Islamophobia, U.S. President Barack Obama seems preoccupied with defending his foreign policy. In an interview with The Atlantic last week, he made bold statements about the Syrian civil war and the Israel-Palestine situation in addition to expressing his frustration with U.S. allies including Turkey, Israel and Jordan. Having failed to develop a proper response to the Arab Spring revolutions, President Obama opted to blame his problems on his allies.
To be clear, many people seem to appreciate the Obama administration's efforts to strike a deal with Iran and criticize their willingness to let the Russians hijack the Middle East. Especially since the Kremlin interfered in the Syrian civil war, Washington's bilateral ties with regional allies has been under a lot of pressure. For Turkey, the tipping point was the downing of a Russian military jet in November.
At this point, though, all regional powers acknowledge that the Russians want to play a more dominant role in the Middle East. Their concerns aren't exclusively related to Moscow's cooperation with the United States to broker a temporary cease-fire either. The Kremlin finds itself in a position to influence Washington's partnership with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Less powerful U.S. allies, including Jordan, are even more open to Russian advances. The Kremlin's latest moves, furthermore, complicate bilateral ties between U.S. allies in the Middle East. Turkish-Israeli relations are a great example.
In December, the media reported that Turkey and Israel were on the brink of normalizing their relations. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan notably told reporters that Turkey and Israel needed each other. Around the same time, there were rumors that the Israelis, who had already apologized for the Mavi Marmara assault, were willing to meet Turkey's remaining conditions - compensation for victims' families and lifting the Gaza blockade - to restore diplomatic ties. No concrete progress, however, has since been made.
According to Haaretz, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently reached out to Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and told him that "Erdoğan was interested in reaching an agreement as soon as possible." Although Biden's involvement indicates that the Obama administration is pushing for normalization, the situation is more complicated. The fact that Israel considers the closing down of Hamas headquarters in Istanbul a red line, for instance, reflects Tel Aviv's resistance.
Keeping in mind that Turkey and Israel could launch mutually beneficial joint projects, including a pipeline to export natural gas to European markets, why is Netanyahu's government reluctant to shake hands with Turkey?
Israel's reluctance is a result of Russia's growing influence on the Middle East - especially since Turkey shot down one of their Sukhoi Su-24. Fully aware of Tel Aviv's concerns about the nuclear deal, the Kremlin has been offering to help Israel with Hezbollah. It was telling that Moscow ignored Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah convoys even though Russia works closely with Iran in Syria. They have, likewise, changed their minds about delivering S-300 air defense missiles to Tehran.
According to Ben Caspit, who recently wrote about Russia's game plan on al-Monitor, the Russians discovered that Iran had shipped a number of SA-22 missiles to Hezbollah. At this point, he argues, Tel Aviv faces a serious dilemma: One on hand, they would like to work more closely with Turkey to address regional security challenges. On the other, they would like to move the Kremlin away from Iran and Hezbollah.
No matter how much you sugarcoat it, the Obama administration's legacy in the Middle East amounts to little more than regional powers trying to create a new balance of power - which means a lot of twists and turns.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.