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Changes in the Turkish Threat Perception: Strategic Significance for Israel

INSS Insight No. 220

Turkey's National Security Council document, the 2010 “Red Book,” which maps the expected threats to Turkey in the coming years, includes a number of sections that are highly problematic for Israel. The document itself is classified, and therefore there are different versions regarding its content. Nevertheless, according to published information, Israel’s precedent-setting inclusion in the Red Book, and especially the claim that Israel’s policy is undermining the stability of the region, are additional evidence of the difficult state of Israel-Turkey relations. The document does not claim there will be a direct clash between the two countries, but the very fact that Israel is mentioned will intensify the mutual suspicion between Israel and Turkey.

turkeyIsrael-flags_web1Compared with previous documents of this type, the 2010 document is radically different. The omission of Syria in the Red Book and the indirect reference to Iran’s nuclear program, rather than the reference to Iran as an explicit threat, reflect Turkey’s “zero problem” policy toward its neighbors. According to this policy, promoted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu, Turkey must and can solve its conflicts with its neighbors. This is in contrast to Turkey’s traditional approach that the country’s borders are under constant threat. That the Red Book reflects the zero problem policy also stems from the changes that have taken place in the makeup of the National Security Council since 2003. As part of the reforms connected with Turkey’s attempt to enter the European Union, a majority of the council members are civilians, as opposed to the former situation, when the council was controlled by military figures and mainly reflected the positions of the Turkish armed forces. Therefore, DavutoÄŸlu’s success in making his innovative ideas the guideline for Turkish foreign and defense policy is not surprising.

While to a large extent the Red Book reflects changes that have already taken place in relations between Turkey and its neighbors, a future development that could affect Israel is connected to the Turkish army. There is a large gap between the size of the Turkish army, the second largest in NATO, and the Turkish perception of the threat. According to this threat perception, as reflected in the Red Book, there are few direct threats to Turkey. Already now, some in Turkey are expressing opposition to the country’s military draft, and there are calls to turn the Turkish army into a professional army of more limited scope. Such a change, if it occurs, can be expected to be gradual. Nevertheless, it would accelerate the process of weakening the Turkish army as a player in Turkish politics. The weakening of the army, which is connected to the struggle between the old secular elite and the rising religious elite, has been underway for some time. This trend has accelerated in the past two years, and was expressed, inter alia, in the accusation that retired senior military officials attempted to bring about the fall of the government headed by the Justice and Development Party.

The weakening of the Turkish army is worrisome for Israel for two reasons. One is that it was the Turkish army and security establishment that played a central role in promoting Israel-Turkey relations in the past. Two, the lack of direct threats to Turkey ostensibly reduces both the need to purchase advanced weapon systems and Turkey’s dependence on purchasing such systems from the West.

Another source of concern for Israel is the possibility that changes in the size of the Turkish army will affect Turkey’s standing in NATO. The strength of the Turkish army was a decisive factor in the importance NATO attributed to Turkey during and after the Cold War. Turkey’s continued membership in NATO as a significant player is in Israel’s interest because it reduces fears of a potential Turkish-Syrian-Iranian defense axis. It is already possible to see the tension between Turkey’s changed threat perception and the perception of most NATO members. For example, Turkey is opposed to defining the anti-missile defense system that NATO will apparently station on its territory as a system intended to protect it from a possible Syrian, Iranian, or Russian attack. The reason for this, it is claimed, is that not only do these neighbors not constitute a threat to Turkey; they also do not constitute a threat to the other members of NATO. Nevertheless, the fact that Turkey is making efforts to reach a compromise formula on the stationing of the defense system makes it clear that Turkey too still sees its membership in NATO as a central axis in its defense strategy.

The significant change in the Turkish threat perception, as derived from the zero problem policy and the Red Book, is connected to Turkey's relations with its neighbors. However, these relations cannot be conducted in isolation from developments in the regional and international system. It seems, therefore, that there is a certain contradiction between Turkey's desire to stabilize the regional system on the one hand, and its support for revisionist players like Iran on the other. True, the Turks claim that only a policy of dialogue will lead to a resolution of the dispute with Iran on the issue of building its nuclear capability, but in practice, Iran is continuing to promote its nuclear program. In light of this, a comprehensive and critical look at the Red Book raises the question whether some of Turkey's actions – even if indirectly – are undermining stability in the regional system.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. 


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