A lot has happened in the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of 2020. The killing of an Iranian senior commander, Qasem Soleimani, by the United States and Tehran’s calculated retaliation have been observed as the first worrisome incident of the New Year.
The fact that Iran has erroneously hit a Ukrainian plane that killed 176 people aboard has shown once again the dear implications of the ongoing tension in the region. On Libya, the Turkish-Russian initiative for a permanent ceasefire has brought hopes for a political settlement although General Khalifa Haftar has refrained from signing the deal in Moscow. But, still, the continued implementation of the ceasefire between Haftar and the Tripoli-based government promises a sharp decrease in violence so that Germany-led efforts for peace can yield results.
Amid all these breaking news concerning the region, prospects on possible changes on Turkey’s position vis-a-vis some key actors are more loudly being discussed in the Turkish capital. As might be expected, this discussion is about whether ties and dialogue could be re-installed with Syria, Israel and Egypt.
On Syria, the focus is still on Idlib as Turkey has long been expressing concerns over the attacks by the Syrian regime. Following talks between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 8, a new ceasefire has been announced between Damascus and the opposition groups in the Idlib province.
This gradual but fragile calm in the region has paved the way for a surprise meeting between the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Hakan Fidan, and the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Lt. General Ali Mamlouk, in Moscow.
According to the Syrian news agency, the meeting took place as part of the Syrian-Turkish-Russian tripartite mechanism dealing mainly with security and anti-terror issues. It was the first time – at least publicly – that MIT’s chief Hakan Fidan met his Syrian counterpart, although lower-level intelligence and military officials from the two sides had established contacts in the past.
It seems this dialogue between the two intelligence organizations has entered a new phase and it will likely continue at the level of the heads of the secret services, surely under the mediation of Russia. Moscow has long been pressing on Turkey to agree to talk with Syria under the context of the 1998-dated Adana Agreement on the fight against terrorism.
Although this dialogue is not characterized as political in the Turkish capital, it still reflects a new perspective about the future of the Syrian conflict and future ties with Damascus. On Israel, Ankara is closely following the course of the domestic political developments in Israel. At a press conference last week, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu signaled a more flexible approach towards Israel should a new government be formed without the participation of Benjamin Netanyahu.
This flexible approach would be materialized if this new government would follow a more positive policy on issues concerning Jerusalem and the Palestinians. At the same press conference, Turkey’s top diplomat implied Turkey’s readiness to exchange ambassadors with Egypt, a country he categorized as a very important actor in the Middle East and North Africa. Although the sitting government under the leadership of Abdel Fettah al-Sisi is directing Egypt to a wrong destination, Turkey still highly values this country’s potential and weight in the region, the minister stressed.
Egypt has conditions before normalizing ties with Turkey, the minister said, informing that Cairo wants Turkish leaders to give an end to their public criticisms of human rights violations in Egypt, including the suspicious death of former President Mohamed Morsi.
In a recent article, Yasin Aktay, a prominent figure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an advisor to Erdoğan, has suggested that Turkey should build bridges with Egypt and normalize ties as this break in ties hurts the interest of the Muslim world. Aktay is well-known with his strong-worded criticisms against the Abdelfattah al-Sisi rule after the 2013 coup attempt that toppled Morsi. His advice to the government to repair ties with Egypt is therefore noteworthy.
Of course, reconciling ties with all these countries require a two-way process. Plus, the developments in the Syrian and Libyan theaters, as well as the future of the tension in the eastern Mediterranean, will determine the future shape of Turkey’s ties with all these regional powers.