Yesterday was a day of kissing to make up in the Middle East (how often can you say that?). Turkey and Israel announced that they had repaired diplomatic relations after a standoff following the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, when a Turkish ship tried to run the blockade of Gaza and was stormed by Israeli soldiers. Turkey and Israel will restore full diplomatic ties, do the ambassadorial swap, and look forward to a future full of natural gas sales courtesy of Israel’s offshore fields. Ankara bowed to Jerusalem’s demand that the Gaza blockade remain in place, but will funnel supplies to Gaza through the Israeli port of Ashdod. And Israel will pay the families of the Turks who died on the Mavi Marmara a total of $20 million.
It’s a deal that makes Netanyahu and Erdogan look like capable and practical statesmen, an image neither has been completely consistent in maintaining. But it is perhaps Putin who comes out looking strongest, even from a deal to which he was not party.
The other big news of yesterday was Erdogan’s apology to Putin over the downing of a Russian jet near Turkish airspace late last year. Erdogan got to hide his humiliation beneath a greater triumph, but the timing also effected the neat trick of presenting, all in one go, a trio of powerful partners emerging in the Middle East—Erdogan, Netanyahu, and Putin. Indeed, Putin ostentatiously gave his blessing to a Turkey-Israel deal about three weeks ago, when during Netanyahu’s visit to Russia he announced that he would not stand in the way of rapprochement between Ankara and Jerusalem. It was an act of political theater reminding Turkey that Russia’s friendship with Israel gives Israel the advantage—thanks to the considerable leverage Putin has over Erdogan.
Not only is Russia the acknowledged mediator in the Syrian conflict, but Putin has used that to back the Syrian Kurds, who have ties to the Turkish Kurds, who are Erdogan’s biggest worry. With further backing from Moscow, a Kurdish state might become a reality—a Turkish nightmare.
Which leaves us with a final question: Does Assad profit from all this, too? If Turkey sees Russia as the last superpower left standing, it might make peace with Assad’s continual rule in exchange for Russia’s abandonment of the Kurds (Turkey’s preferred target, after all) and an end to the tide of refugees. Israel has been waiting out the Syria war for the duration, but is ardently hoping for the restoration of stability before Syria takes Jordan or Lebanon down with it. It’s hard to imagine Netanyahu objecting to a Russia-brokered peace, whether or not Assad comes along.
If there is anything we learned from yesterday, it is that Putin is still maneuvering successfully in the Middle East.