The new crisis with Israel initiated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Gaza so called “March of Return” demonstrations, taken together with his decision to advance the presidential election, should be regarded as an integral part of his bid for regional hegemony.
Under his leadership, Turkey has become a major player in the Middle East. In order to further his vision, he is active virtually everywhere. This is a major departure from the policy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—the father of modern Turkey, who not only abolished the caliphate and separated religion from the state, but also turned his back on the Arab world—which he saw as a burden hampering his country’s progress toward parity with the developed West.
Erdoğan’s new course is fraught with danger. Granted, it has given Turkey a welcome prominence on the world stage. But it has also embroiled the country in conflicts with many of its neighbors (Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria), worsened already poor relations with Cyprus and triggered a confrontation with Russia. At one point, Ankara’s only friend in the region was Qatar—another strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy was matched by boldness on the home front. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), an Islamic political group that Erdoğan founded with Abdullah Gul, has won the most votes in every national election since 2002, establishing a dominant position that allowed him to establish a presidential regime. The political opposition was neutralized after the failed military coup of 2016, which Erdoğan used skillfully to consolidate his rule.
Yet this polarizing figure is also the same man who once pledged to pursue a “zero problems” policy with Turkey’s neighbors, in accordance with the neo-Ottoman vision propagated by Ahmet Davutoglu, for many years Erdoğan’s closest adviser before succeeding him as prime minister in 2014-16. Turkey could assume a greater role in the world, Davutoglu believed, by using Muslim solidarity to regain its preeminent position in the former Ottoman lands of the Middle East. Islam would be the glue binding them together.
This program appealed to Erdoğan, a devout Muslim. In 2004, he proclaimed his support for Hamas and, following its electoral success two years later, lavishly hosted Hamas leaders in Ankara, demonstrating for all to see a sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood that would grow to the point that Turkey is considered today that organization’s strongest base.
Perhaps to garner prestige in the Arab world and support for his endeavors in the region, then Prime Minister Erdoğan worsened his country’s traditionally good relations with Israel. In 2009, following Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza, he insulted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling him a murderer and walking out of the meeting. In 2010, he initiated or facilitated the Mavi Marmara flotilla to embarrass Israel and, following that incident, downgraded diplomatic relations. Previously excellent military contacts between the two countries came to an end, as did intelligence cooperation.
At the same time, Erdoğan implemented a plan to neutralize the army and the courts, formerly the bulwarks of Turkish secularism. In this he had the misguided support of the European Union, which felt that the special powers granted to the army were detrimental to democracy and human rights, and thus constituted a major obstacle to the country’s joining the European Union. All army officers, including the chief of staff, who had regular contact with Israel were arrested and accused of plotting against the president.
In the early stages of the Syrian civil war, the Turkish authorities supported President Bashar Assad, but changed their view and called for his immediate ouster when they grasped that the stream of refugees endangered Turkey itself. Likewise, Erdoğan’s government did not immediately oppose Daesh, also known as Islamic State (ISIS), letting young Muslims transit through Turkey to join the terrorist organization and turning a blind eye to oil smuggling from Daesh-controlled territory.
Taking advantage of the chaos created by Daesh in Iraq, Turkey sent troops to the north of that country and set up a military base near Mosul. Because Erdoğan then believed that good relations with the Iraqi Kurds would prevent them from siding with the Kurdish opposition in Turkey, part of their mission was to train both Kurdish Peshmerga military forces and Turkmen fighters. Ankara justified its incursion by the wish to protect the local population and the Turkish border. Strong protests by the Iraqi prime minister were to no avail.
When the government in Baghdad opened the battle to retake Mosul, Erdoğan wanted Turkish forces to take part in the fighting. He pointed to Turkey’s historical responsibility for the region—hinting that his country, as the heir of the Ottoman empire, held special rights. The United States joined Iraq in opposing the move, and this time he had to back down.
The situation in Egypt set off another crisis. Following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish government announced that diplomatic relations would be frozen until Morsi was freed and restored to office.
Meanwhile, Ankara was foiling attempts at reconciliation with Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island. He also blocked efforts by the internationally recognized Cypriot government to develop offshore deposits of natural gas.
The downing of a Russian Su-24M fighter-bomber in November 2015 (after it strayed into Turkish airspace for a few seconds) put a temporary end to this aggressive policy. President Vladimir Putin reacted swiftly, halting Russian tourism to Turkey and boycotting Turkish agricultural imports. Then, in Moscow, he hosted the leader of the pro-Kurd Turkish People’s Democracy Party.
Erdoğan understood he had gone too far and decided to change tack. He apologized and made his peace with Russia, and even agreed to renew diplomatic relations with Israel.
However, “peace” came at a price. Turkey aligned itself with Moscow’s policy in Syria: supporting the Assad regime, letting Iran entrench itself in the country and joining the fight against Daesh. In return, Erdoğan was invited to the Astana summit, where Iran and Russia drew up the map of a new Syria to emerge after the civil war.
Ankara sees the Syrian Kurds as a direct security threat. Specifically, Turkey has targeted the People’s Protection Units, the Syrian Kurdish militia set up with assistance from the PKK—against which the Turkish army is waging a bloody counter insurgency.
Assuming he was now free to advance his own objectives, Erdoğan sent troops into northern Syria to fight the Kurdish autonomy and drive it beyond the Euphrates River (“Operation Euphrates Shield,” August 2016–March 2017). A second operation, code-named “Olive Branch,” against the Kurds began in January. Erdoğan sent his army to occupy the Afrin enclave in North West of Syria which borders with Turkey but in the same time increased the tension with the United States, which has been cooperating with the Kurds.
Lastly, Erdoğan severed his covert ties with Daesh and brought Turkey into the international coalition against that organization. In retaliation, the organization launched terrorist attacks that had a devastating impact on Turkey’s tourist industry.
In 2016, he fired his faithful ally, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, after he opposed constitutional amendments instituting a presidential regime and denounced corruption scandals that allegedly involved Erdoğan and his son. The constitutional amendments, approved by a slim majority in the referendum carried out according to the constitution, will let the president fulfill his long-term ambition of becoming the absolute ruler of his country. Those amendments will confer Erdoğan extensive powers. He will be both president and prime minister, and will appoint the judges of the supreme court and the prosecutor general. The changes were to take effect in November 2019 after the next presidential election, but recently, Erdoğan decided to advance the election for June 24 after having secured of the support of National Movement party for his candidacy to the presidency.
Perhaps this is the prelude to establishing a new Islamic caliphate and bringing an end to Ataturk’s revolution.
In the aftermath of the July 2016 coup, Erdoğan eliminated all possible threats to his rule. This crackdown focused on his rival Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic philosopher who had established a dense network of schools, institutions and protégés that exerted great influence on Turkey’s government, legal system and society.
Fearing for his safety, Gulen had chosen exile in the United States, though this did not shield him from accusations of having organized the coup. Turkey demanded his extradition; a demand rejected by the U.S. courts until proof of his involvement can be produced. Erdoğan has responded by claiming that America was complicit in the so-called Gulenist plot.
Altogether, some 40,000 Turks were arrested for their alleged participation in the failed July coup, including more than 10,000 military personnel and thousands of judges, teachers and journalists. Most were subsequently released, but many lost their jobs. Others are still in custody and awaiting trial.
These repressive measures were calculated to instill fear and discourage people from joining opposition groups and demonstrations such as the Gezi Park protests in 2013, when secular Turks spontaneously organized a mass movement against the Erdoğan government in the heart of Istanbul.
Meanwhile, the president has worked to whip up nationalist and anti-American sentiment. Students are encouraged to join uniformed paramilitary units and parade in the streets to demonstrate their fealty to the leader. The Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate is issuing directives explaining to young people the importance of martyrdom to defend a new and Islamic Turkey, while the creation of Islamic schools is encouraged. The government is also exhorting families to have three to five children.
The West has watched helplessly as a NATO ally starts to slide into what could become an Islamic dictatorship, flouting human rights and the E.U.’s core standards of law and order. Then there is Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia, which has become a serious issue for NATO.
Turkey is a major partner in NATO and one of the procurement group that is developing and manufacturing the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter, of which it has ordered 116. Yet in December 2017, the Turkish government signed a contract to buy two S-400 air-defense batteries from Russia, even though these missile systems are not compatible with NATO equipment.
Ankara has also taken to threatening the U.S., warning that when Turkish troops complete their takeover of Afrin in northern Syria, their next target will be Kurdish-held territory near Manbij, where American troops are training mostly Kurdish units that make up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). So far, the United States has only asked the Turkish authorities to show “moderation,” but Washington has a tough decision to make. It must either withdraw from Syria, as Trump recently suggested, or risk a military confrontation with a NATO ally with the alliance’s second largest army.
The European Union is also in a quandary. It made a 6 billion euro deal with Turkey to stop the flow of refugees from Syria, promising in return to restart talks on E.U. membership and waive entry visas for Turkish citizens. But the accession negotiations remain stalled and no E.U. country has shown readiness for a waiver that could allow millions of Turkish Muslims into Europe with no vetting whatsoever. President Erdoğan has made threats against some E.U. member states, including Germany and the Netherlands, after they refused to allow the ruling AKP to hold campaign rallies on their territory. He even threatened France over President Emanuel Macron’s meeting with a SDF delegation and expressing his concern over the Afrin operation in the last Brussels summit on 24 March.
Erdoğan seems to feel that he has been given free rein. That explains why his troops took Afrin, inflicting severe hardship on the Kurdish civilian population, which is largely made up of refugees. The Assad regime vigorously protested this invasion of Syrian territory and even sent reinforcements that proved no match for Turkish army and their allies in the so-called “Free Syrian Army.”
Turkish troops have also set up observation points near Idlib, one of the “de-conflicting” zones established at the Astana summit. Erdoğan has indicated that he wishes to take part in the attack on this largest remaining bastion of anti-Assad rebels that is being prepared by pro-Assad forces and their allies Russia and Iran.
Resumption of diplomatic ties with Israel has not cooled Turkey’s support for Hamas. When Qatar expelled the movement’s leaders in 2017 under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, they quickly found refuge in Turkey, where they continued to plan terror attacks against Israel. Ankara still sees itself a close ally of Qatar. In accordance with a 2014 treaty, Turkey set up a military base in the country and reinforced its small contingent in a show of solidarity after Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt imposed an embargo on the emirate.
On the surface, relations between Ankara and Tehran are good; they are joint sponsors of the Astana process and have exchanged visits of their top military leadership last year. Nevertheless, Turkey is closely monitoring Iranian penetration into Iraqi Kurdistan and its efforts to set up a safe route for its militias through Syria and into Lebanon—skirting the Turkish border. Shi’a Iran and Sunni Turkey have conflicting interests and are both striving for regional hegemony.
Of late, Turkey is extending its reach to the Red Sea. A military base was built in Somalia to train Somali soldiers according to an agreement signed in October 2017. Two months later, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir granted Turkey an indefinite lease of the strategic island of Suakin in the Red Sea, midway between the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb strait, and a departure point for ferries to Jedda in Saudi Arabia.
Suakin was once the seat of an Ottoman governor, and the Turks are allegedly interested in restoring historical buildings of that era and perhaps establishing a naval base as well. A direct Turkish presence in the Horn of Africa is perceived as a threat by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with whom the Erdoğan government is feuding. The Sudan treaty also indirectly strengthens Ethiopia in its dispute with Egypt over the Nile dam project.
Potential for escalation
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has gone as far as to say that Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” with Iran and jihadi terror movements, and he accused Erdoğan of trying to revive the caliphate. Some of these views appear to have been shared by members of the Trump administration, including former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, who said in December 2017 that Turkey and Qatar are “sponsors of radical ideology.”
Regarding relations with Israel it’s believed that they will be marked by periodical crises. Erdoğan will continue to vilify Israel in order to enhance his image among the Arabs as a great Muslim leader in his unrelenting march to the caliphate. Relations will probably not be severed because it might hurt the Turkish economy whose success is vital to the advancement of Erdogan’s ambitions.
To sum up: The potential for escalation is there. The Arab world will never countenance a renewed Turkish hegemony in the Middle East. Washington, deeply worried by the aggressive policy of a fellow NATO country against the Kurds, who are American allies, along with Turkey’s ties to Russia and Iran, is still looking for a suitable path of action. Moscow is unhappy with Ankara’s growing involvement in Syria, which puts it at loggerheads with the Assad regime and will make any resolution of the civil war more difficult.
There could be a long and costly military operation between the Turkish army and Syrian and Kurdish troops. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are looking for ways to dislodge Turkey from its new Red Sea strongholds. Finally, Erdoğan’s activism and military gambles might begin to erode his public support at home, despite his apparent overwhelming popularity.