Israel-UAE Peace Deal: Is Turkey The Actual Target?

In a recent op-ed for Daily Sabah, analyst Batu Coşkun argued that the Israel-UAE ‘peace deal’ is directed against Turkey, not Iran.

Indeed, following the assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) leader Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, it was widely believed that Arab countries would huddle together to form a “united front” against the regime in Tehran. On the contrary, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt have apparently redirected their focus toward limiting Turkish assertiveness in the Mediterranean, adopting a similar posture to Israel, Greece, France and Cyprus.

Turkey’s “Mavi Vatan” or “Blue Homeland” doctrine which outlines Turkish maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily for energy resources’ exploitation, is a bone of contention between Turkey and the Arab countries that perceive President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “neo-Ottoman” leader threatening their energy as well as security interests. It is estimated that the Eastern Mediterranean sea-bed alone has natural gas reserves of up to 100 trillion cubic metres.

Arab leaders have genuine reasons to be rattled by Turkish successes on the regional chessboard. Their investments on Khalifa Haftar, once the CIA’s blue-eyed boy, to topple the Government of National Accord in Tripoli have so far failed to upend the perceived Turkish “expansionism”.

Earlier this year, Israel’s Military Intelligence included Turkish President Erdogan’s policies as a “challenge” in their annual assessment presented to lawmakers, describing his policies as “aggressive”. This is the first known instance in which Turkey was included as a “threat”. While the assessment ruled out a direct confrontation, the Israeli military mentioned Turkey’s actions in Syria and a gas pipeline to Libya as causes of particular concern. Turkey has already sealed the deal on the gas pipeline. In this context, if indications by Turkish Energy Minister Fatih Dönmez are to be believed, gas exploration off the coast of Libya could begin by August or September this year.

Additionally, Libya’s Deputy Defence Minister has already inked an accord with Turkish and Qatari Defence Ministers to transform Lybia’s Misrata port into a Turkish naval base. The new setup extending from the Turkish mainland to central North Africa, right across Italian waters, would serve as a buffer against opposing forces. Fortunately for Ankara, it has a strong political ally in Rome with common objectives concerning Libya and Mediterranean stability.

Arab leaders find in Tel Aviv an unusual ally that is militarily and diplomatically assertive and able to take regional initiatives without necessarily invoking the ire of Washington.

Arab leaders have genuine reasons to be rattled by Turkish successes on the regional chessboard. Their investments on Khalifa Haftar, once the CIA’s blue-eyed boy, to topple the Government of National Accord in Tripoli have so far failed to upend the perceived Turkish “expansionism”. The United States (US) has been treading cautiously as it still needs to move out tactical nuclear weapons stored at Incirlik Air Base.

In the midst of these developments, Arab leaders find in Tel Aviv an unusual ally that is militarily and diplomatically assertive and able to take regional initiatives without necessarily invoking the ire of Washington. Egypt, which already maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel since 1980, signed a maritime delimitation agreement with Greece which was welcomed by the UAE and immediately declared “null and void” by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The signalling was crystal clear.

An unchallenged Turkish maritime force could choke-off commercial maritime traffic between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Europe.

Another dimension is commercial trade. Ankara’s maritime dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean might be perceived by the Arabs as a threat in terms of controlling waterways linking the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. From their perspective, an unchallenged Turkish maritime force could choke-off commercial maritime traffic between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Europe.

Such a scenario would necessitate increased militarisation of the Red Sea. Egypt is already working on completing development of new strategic naval bases in Gargoub (adjacent to Libya), Ras Banas and in eastern Port Said. The revival of Berenice joint naval and air base amalgamated historical Ras Banas air base with Berenice port. Among the prominent guests during its inauguration was Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The renewed Port Said naval base would provide strategic access to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s assertive posturing in the Mediterranean help to explain the timing of the UAE-Israel bonhomie. Shared security interests are most certainly the foundation of this bilateral relation.

After the UAE’s announcement of “normalising” relations with Israel, Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, now removed from the office, issued a comment indicating that his country would follow suit. If Sudan joins the bandwagon, it would create a highly-militarised Arab buffer, stretching from the Red to Arabian Sea. In the event of a conflict, Qatar – home to Turkey’s sole existing base in the Indian Ocean – would be detached from Ankara.

This helps to explain why Arab countries such as the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are attempting to establish a normalisation with Israel and concurrently holding talks with Greece and Cyprus. The Arab-Israeli “Arc of Resistance” against Turkey starts in Greece to the north, curves at the UAE to the east, along the Red Sea to the south and ends at Egypt to the west. As far as geography is concerned, Turkey is indeed in a “dead end”.

Another noteworthy confirmation of this “arc” is an article by a senior British journalist Roger Boyes, who claimed that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen held talks with his counterparts from Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Reportedly, Cohen vindicated the Israeli military’s earlier assessment by describing Turkey as the “real threat”.

Boyes’ report mentioned that Cohen’s rationale was: “…not that Iran had ceased to be an existential menace but rather that it could be contained: through sanctions, embargoes, intelligence sharing and clandestine raids. Turkey’s coercive diplomacy, its sloppily calculated risk-taking across the Middle East, posed a different kind of challenge to strategic stability in the eastern Mediterranean”.

The US President Donald Trump is viciously cornering Iran by slapping it with sanctions and other efforts for diplomatic isolation, the Mossad considerably retarded Iran’s uranium enrichment agenda. There was no particular reason for the UAE to establish ties with Israel overtly in these circumstances.

The aforementioned developments i.e. Turkey’s assertive posturing in the Mediterranean help to explain the timing of the UAE-Israel bonhomie. Shared security interests are most certainly the foundation of this bilateral relation. Once the other dormant but eager Arab Gulf countries come out of the shadows, it would be only a matter of time for the Red Sea to become the next geopolitical flashpoint.

Iran has been a threat to the Arabs since the Pahlavi regime was toppled more than four decades ago. The US President Donald Trump is viciously cornering Iran by slapping it with sanctions and other efforts for diplomatic isolation, the Mossad considerably retarded Iran’s uranium enrichment agenda. There was no particular reason for the UAE to establish ties with Israel overtly in these circumstances.

The only plausible explanation, therefore, is that Iran may not be the target.

Zaki Khalid

Zaki Khalid

is a freelance national security and strategic affairs commentator whose writings have appeared in South Asia Journal, The Nation, Russian International Affairs Council, The Frontier Post and Pakistan Observer, to name a few. He can be reached on Twitter @misterzedpk

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