With Syria on Fire, Turkey and Israel Move to Avoid a New Fiasco at Sea

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It’s hard to overstate the zesty potency of the words “Mavi Marmara” in Turkey.  Giant posters on Istanbul’s busiest streets trumpet the impending return to sea of the ferry that Israeli commandos intercepted in the Mediterranean a year ago, killing nine activists en route to break the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. The botched raid set back Israel’s public image yet again, and threatened to totally fracture relations between erstwhile allies who have yet to find their way back to common ground.

But that may be changing with the news that the Marmara will not be part of the sequel flotilla preparing to depart.  Instead of serving as flagship, the vessel will remain at dock undergoing repairs, according to an official version of events that, really, no one much believes.  By all appearances, what’s actually occurred is quiet diplomacy: Israel (and, surely, Washington) prevailing on Ankara, which in turn prevailed upon the Humanitarian Aid Foundation, the Islamic charity known by its Turkish acronym IHH, which quietly withdrew from the project on Friday.

Only last month, the group was calling news conferences to declare why the new flotilla should go forward even though Israel broadened the list of goods it permitted into the Strip over land crossings — and even though Egypt opened its own border crossing at Rafah to most of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.  “They opened the gate at Rafah, so why are you doing the Mavi Marmara?” IHH chairman Bulent Yildirim asked at an Istanbul presser, seated beside two men with beards as full as his own, and a covered woman.  His answer to his own question ranged far, touching on international demands to “embargo Israel” and the bad behavior of the Israel Defense Forces after the raid (laptops and credit cards went missing from passenger’s confiscated luggage).  “They kill kids picnicking on the shore,” he finally said, meaning the Israelis. “They have the right to a shoreline. That’s why we’re continuing with the Mavi Marmara despite the fact there are other routes.”

But access to Gaza wasn’t the only thing changing. As the Arab Spring has overturned the region’s politics, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been stepping lively. No longer is it enough to just look tough standing up to Israel in the name of suffering fellow Muslims (even bigger than the phrase “Mavi Marmara” was “One minute!” his warning, with raised index finger, to Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Economic Forum as he dressed him down for the 2008-9 offensive that killed some 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza).  Erdogan remains hugely popular inside and outside Turkey, but Libya sorely tested his government’s “zero problems” foreign policy: the two countries had good relations, with 25,000 Turks working in Libya.  But Erdogan, having early on called for Mubarak to step down in Egypt, eventually had to call for Gaddafi to quit.

Syria presents an even more delicate situation.  Erdogan and his wife actually vacationed with the Bashar Assads, which may be help explain why Erdogan continues to call for the Syrian president to institute “reforms” rather than just take a hike.  Then there’s the refugee issue: Thousands of Syrians are fleeing into Turkey as the government’s sledge approaches.  Israel also shares a border with Syria, and has an even bigger stake in what transpires there, what with Syrian sponsorship of both Hezbollah and Hamas.  Washington wants things to calm down, too, on all three fronts. Which is surely one reason Erdogan’s foreign minister earlier this month asked the IHH to pull out of the new flotilla.  Things just don’t look so simple as they did a year ago.

— Updated to replace incorrect Turkish with the English Erdogan used at Davos.