What the Ukraine Invasion Means for the Middle East

Turkey, Israel and Syria have been playing a complex tightrope act balancing their international ties and commitments, while keeping a wary eye on Russia’s imperialistic designs.

March 3, 2022

Russian tank

Europe is likely to shoulder the brunt of the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Middle Eastern states could prove to be a close second.

That is no truer than for Turkey and Israel. Their management of the Ukraine crisis could determine their ability to protect perceived core national interests.

Turkey’s high stakes

Indeed, for NATO-member Turkey, the stakes could not be higher. Its 2,000 kilometer-long Black Sea coastline stretches from the Bulgarian border in the West to Georgia in the East.

It is the longest of any of the Sea’s littoral states, including Russia and Ukraine.

The Black Sea ranks on par with Turkey’s determination to prevent at any cost a permanent autonomous, let alone independent, Kurdish presence on Syrian soil.

“Ukraine is like a dam that stops further Russian influence and pressure in the region. If Ukraine falls, it will have direct implications on Turkey,” warned a Turkish official.

A challenging balancing act

Turkey’s stakes are magnified by last year’s discovery of a natural gas field in its Black Sea littoral waters.

According to Energy Minister Fatih Donmez, it could provide nearly a third of Turkey’s domestic needs by 2027.

As the crisis in Ukraine escalates, Turkey could discover that protecting both of those interests may no longer allow it to perform its virtuoso balancing act.

Ankara’s Catch-22

Turkey has been maintaining a fragile partnership with Russia.

It has been sustained by careful management of differences while remaining a Western ally committed to the defense of the Western alliance.

Turkish economic and military support of Ukraine and Crimean Tartars was aligned with NATO policy which fit well with Turkey’s tightrope act.

So was its refusal to recognize the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to throw Turkey off its tightrope and create a Catch-22 for Ankara.

The imposition of U.S. and European sanctions against Russia is likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the Turkish tightrope act.

Turkey’s soft spot

“Syria remains Turkey’s soft spot. For that matter, Russia is likely to put pressure on Turkey through Syria,” said Turkey scholar Galip Dalay.

“At a broader level, Russia and Turkey have cooperated and competed with each other through the conflict spots in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, Moscow has been less open to repeating this experience with Turkey in the ex-Soviet area.”

A feared Kurdish secession

Days before the recognition of the Ukrainian regions, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Bogdanov fired a shot across Turkey’s bow.

Mr. Bogdanov declared that Syrian Kurdish participation in diplomatic efforts to negotiate a post-war settlement in Syria was necessary to prevent Kurdish secession.

It would also ensure the unification of the war-ravaged country, he argued.

Speaking to state-controlled Russian RT television, Mr. Bogdanov noted that the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) controls large areas east of the Euphrates River.

The region is pockmarked by a patchwork of military forces from Turkey, Russia, the United States, Syria, the Kurds, and various militant and jihadist groups.

An irritant for U.S.-Turkish ties

U.S. cooperation with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State has been an irritant in relations between Ankara and Washington.

This is because of Turkish assertions that the SDC is linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and Europe.

It has waged a low-intensity war in southeastern Turkey for almost four decades that has cost the lives of tens of thousands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to fend off a potential further Turkish incursion.

He agreed to joint Russian-Turkish patrols in a region where Turkey has already built a chain of outposts as a buffer with Russian and Syrian regime forces.

A lesson for Israel

However, Turkey accuses Russia of failing to fulfill its pledge to disarm Kurdish fighters in a 30-kilometer area along the Syrian-Turkish border.

For its part, Israel does not share physical land or maritime borders with either Russia or Ukraine.

Still, it is discovering that its ability to militarily counter Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, in Syria may depend on its approach to the Ukraine crisis.

Israel’s “crude violation”

Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned Israeli strikes against targets in Syria as “a crude violation of Syria’s sovereignty.”

She warned that they “may trigger a sharp escalation of tensions.”

Ms. Zakharova added that “such actions pose serious risks to international passenger flights.”

Russian-Syrian air patrols

The Russian warning came weeks after Russia announced that joint Russian-Syrian air patrols had become routine.

The announcement came after one of the first patrols flew along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that divide Israel and Syria.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz defiantly insisted in response that they would continue to prevent the Iranian entrenchment that is “eating Syria up from the inside.”

At the same time, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid acknowledged their “kind of” border with Russia which exists owing to the Russian military presence in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

He noted Isreal’s sizeable Russian and Ukrainian Jewish communities and that a significant number of Jews are resident in the two feuding countries.

Israel’s bind

As a result, Israel, caught in a bind similar to Turkey’s, scrambled to avoid further provoking Russia’s ire.

It announced that it was banning Baltic states from transferring to Ukraine weapons with Israeli components.

Isreal’s options are not like those of Turkey. Turkey may feel it has greater maneuverability in its relations with Russia, China, and the United States.

Israel feels that its options, like in the case of China, are more limited when it comes to Russia.

It cannot afford to put its relations with Washington at risk.

Israeli Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli said hours before the Ukraine crisis came to a head:

“There is no question that the special relationship that Israel has with the United States, that this government is working to rehabilitate and rebuild, is not the same relationship that Israel has with Russia.”

Conclusion

If the United States’ approach to Russia, as well as China, was — prior to the Ukraine crisis one of cooperation where possible while simultaneously competing — it is now likely to revert to former President George W. Bush’s principle of “you are with us or against us.”

For Middle Eastern states, that means that hedging becomes an increasingly less viable option.

Takeaways

Turkey has been maintaining a fragile partnership with Russia. But the invasion of Ukraine is likely to create a Catch-22 for Ankara.

Syria being Turkey’s soft spot means that Russia is likely to put pressure on Turkey through Syria. Turkey’s ties with the US have been strained by the fact that US cooperates with Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State.

While Israel shares no borders with Russia or Ukraine, its ability to militarily counter Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, may depend on how it approaches the Ukraine crisis.

Isreal options are not like those of Turkey. Turkey may feel it has greater maneuverability in its relations with Russia, China, and the US.

The US will likely tell the Middle East: "You're either with us or against us" vis-à-vis Ukraine.