(June 7, 2022 / Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security) Large-scale global events such as the Abraham Accords and the war in Ukraine continue to cause tectonic changes in the balance of power among nations.
In the shadow of Turkey’s deteriorating economy and devaluation of its currency, and after years of self-imposed isolation, Ankara recently launched a new charm offensive to mend ties with the Abraham Accords nations.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the recently elected president of the United Arab Emirates, visited Ankara in November, ushering in full political normalization and a $10 billion Emirati investment in the fragile Turkish market. This marked a shift in Turkish foreign policy.
Ankara has begun to implement radical changes in its foreign policy compatible with the UAE and other countries that are part of the Abraham Accords. The reconciliation processes launched with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt can be seen as a result of this significant step.
While Turkey still has not achieved full normalization with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it seems that Ankara’s U-turn will not be limited to the Middle East.
The recent reports leaked to the Israeli media on a possible Israeli, Emirati, American and Indian quartet summit during U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in late June herald the extension of the Abraham Accords’ scope to India. Such a scenario will upgrade the Abraham Accords into a new Quad, much like the Quad alliance between the United States, Australia, Japan and India designed to contain China.
Turkey probably does not want to be excluded from this broadened version of the Abraham Accords. Ankara’s charm offensive vis-à-vis the Abraham Accords countries will likely incorporate a reconciliation process with India.
The Abraham Accords and the Turkish U-Turn
Despite being the first Muslim state to recognize Israel in 1949, Turkey opposed the Abraham Accords, portraying them as a treacherous act against the Palestinian cause. Turkish public discourse regarded the accords as an artificial treaty between leaders that would be doomed to fail after the departure of former U.S. President Donald Trump from the White House.
However, thanks to quiet Saudi support, warm relations between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel became stronger when Morocco joined the pact.
The Negev Summit in April 2022, which brought Israel, the United States, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt together, highlighted the strength of the accords while simultaneously underscoring the historic shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Turkey, however, has been excluded from much of the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean due to its ongoing problems with Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.
Moreover, in Turkish eyes, being excluded from a U.S.-backed regional alignment meant being further dragged into the Russian-Chinese axis—which is not manageable in light of the war in Ukraine.
Thus, to strengthen Turkey’s relations with the West, Ankara has no choice but to mend fences with the Abraham Accords countries and India, and avoid being excluded from the “Western Quad” initiative. Turkish efforts are focused on improving Ankara’s relations with the moderate Middle Eastern countries. The expanding nature of the Abraham Accords will likely force Turkey to reevaluate its ties with India and Pakistan.
Turkish-Indian relations have never experienced a golden age.
Although India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Turkey in 2015 and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to India in 2017, relations did not noticeably improve. Due to Erdogan’s pan-Islamist foreign policy approach that expresses solidarity with India’s enemy Pakistan, relations deteriorated.
Turkey’s growing penetration of South Asia, combined with deepening bilateral relations with Pakistan, culminated in the formation of the Turkish-Pakistani High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council in 2009. This complicated relations with New Delhi.
From India’s perspective, Turkish arms sales to Pakistan were seen as a game-changer, notwithstanding Turkey’s long-standing support for Pakistan in all diplomatic forums such as the U.N. General Assembly, U.N. Human Rights Council and the Financial Action Task Force.
A joint Turkish-Pakistani naval drill in 2019 was named “Crescent and Star”—a reference to the flags of both nations. Turkey sold Pakistan four MILGEM corvettes and thirty Atak helicopters, which India saw as hostile behavior. Moreover, given Turkey’s usage of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), New Delhi is concerned about Turkey’s growing penetration in Central Asia.
The Kashmir Question as the Source of Tension
Relations between India and Turkey have been severely damaged since August 2019, when New Delhi decided to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Turkey condemned the decision and backed Pakistan.
Moreover, Erdogan became the first-ever international leader to raise the Kashmir dispute in his 2019, 2020 and 2021 annual speeches at the U.N. General Assembly. While calling for a peaceful solution to the Kashmir question through mutual dialogue, Erdogan openly delegitimized India’s abrogation decision by accusing New Delhi of laying siege to Kashmir and imprisoning eight million people.
For India, the situation deteriorated in February 2020, when Erdogan equated Pakistan’s Kashmir struggle with the Ottoman Empire’s homeland defense in the World War I Gallipoli campaign against Britain, France and Russia. That same month, Erdogan hardened his position against India during the New Delhi riots and criticized India for allegedly conducting massacres of local Muslims.
Erdogan’s statements did not trigger international condemnation. The Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, remained neutral and refrained from criticizing New Delhi. However, the Turkish president’s statements had a significant impact on social media. There were more than 300,000 tweets with the slogan #OurVoiceErdogan, which praised the Turkish president for his anti-India stance.
Unsurprisingly, Erdogan’s statements were slammed by India’s leadership and tagged as an attempt to interfere in India’s internal affairs. Apart from the verbal response, New Delhi began taking steps against Ankara. After Erdogan’s U.N. Kashmir statement, India decided to halt military export equipment like explosives and detonators to Turkey.
Moreover, for the first time, India began to confront Turkey diplomatically by calling upon Ankara to respect U.N. Security Council decisions on Cyprus and condemning Turkey for its cross-border operation against the Kurdish PYD-YPG in northern Syria. Furthermore, government officials and Indian scholars began to openly criticize Ankara for mistreating Turkish nationals of Kurdish origin.
Unlike in the past, Modi began to engage with Turkey’s opponents like Cyprus, Greece and Armenia. Besides meeting with these countries’ leaders in person, New Delhi conducted a naval military drill with Greece in the Mediterranean and signed a $40 million arms deal with Yerevan to supply four SWATHI weapons-locating radars.
In addition, New Delhi became highly alarmed by Turkish-affiliated charities operating in Kashmir. Indian intelligence launched a probe against individuals and non-profit organizations linked with Turkey. Within this framework, Indian officials did not hesitate to hold Turkey responsible for financially backing Kashmir’s separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, as well as funding religious seminaries and journalists who cover Kashmir for Turkey’s official TV channel in English, TRT World.
Will Turkey Seek to Join the Expanded Abraham Accords?
Despite the Turkish government’s pro-Pakistan stance, growing anti-refugee public campaigns triggered an unexpected anti-Pakistani trend in Turkey. The Turkish secular opposition-led social media campaigns against Pakistanis accused them of spreading crime, filming Turkish women, kidnapping tourists and posing a security threat to the secular Turkish republic. This evident anti-Pakistani sentiment may play into the hands of New Delhi in the long run.
However, India’s possible integration into the broadened Abraham Accords will inevitably push Turkey to normalize its relations with India to safeguard its reconciliation with the Abraham Accords countries.
Due to Erdogan’s pan-Islamist foreign policy, such a turnaround in relations with India and Pakistan will not be easy. However, given the Erdogan administration’s flexibility and pragmatism, this is not a mission impossible.
Therefore, like Ankara’s normalization attempts in the Middle East, making another U-turn vis-à-vis India will be another about-face to end the country’s isolation.
In the shadow of the war in Ukraine, Turkey has been pursuing a relatively pro-Western policy. Given India’s close relations with the U.S. and Pakistan’s disfavored position in the eyes of Washington following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a rapprochement with India at the expense of Pakistan would eventually strengthen Turkey’s position vis-à-vis the United States.
The May 11 Turkish announcement that it ordered 50,000 tons of wheat imports from India instead of war-torn Ukraine can be considered the first step toward a possible Turkish-Indian normalization, which is a must for Turkey’s cooperation with the West.
India’s Relations with Israel
Since 2014, India has developed friendly relations with Israel that are no longer linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The intimate relationship between Modi and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played a crucial role in building mutual trust.
For India, strengthening relations with Israel is related to New Delhi’s agenda of modernizing its weaponry and benefiting from Israeli technology, especially irrigation.
A new initiative following the Abraham Accords seeks to form a corridor from India to Israel via the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In addition, New Delhi wants to access Europe via Greece.
A historic flight from India to Israel on March 22, 2018, via Saudi airspace can be seen as a signal consolidating the peace agreement between Israel and the Gulf states.
Moreover, right after the signing of the Abraham Accords, India’s firm support for the pact could be seen when New Delhi’s high-ranking military officers began to conduct official visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE. This was later reciprocated by a visit from a Saudi military commander to India last February.
According to Kabir Taneja, an Indian expert on India’s relations with Western Asia, the accords helped remove strategic obstacles for New Delhi.
The recent Turkish charm offensive in the Middle East diminishes the neo-Ottoman populist “precious loneliness” foreign policy doctrine, which called for Turkey to downgrade its relations with so-called “non-moral states.”
The Abraham Accords were incongruous with this worldview. Combined with the deteriorating Turkish economy, the agreement forced Ankara to make a U-turn in its foreign policy.
Turkey has still not finalized this diplomatic maneuver. It seems that India’s increasing closeness with the UAE and Israel is designed to contain China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative, and reach the West through an alternative “China-free” route.
Thus, the Turkish government seeks to mend its fences with the West, and the Abraham Accords countries will likely launch another halfhearted normalization with India.
Such a rapprochement—similar to the Israeli-Turkish one—will require Ankara to refrain from verbal attacks against New Delhi on the Kashmir issue. Rhetoric in Turkey against Pakistani immigrants could also become a cause for cooling relations.
Given Turkey’s tense relations with India and the U.S., Ankara’s integration into the Western bloc might be unlikely today. However, Turkey has made radical foreign policy shifts before, and the future of Turkey-India relations could be bright.
Dr. Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is an expert on contemporary Turkish politics and foreign policy, Turkish-Israeli relations and the Kurds. He is co-editor of Turkeyscope, a publication of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
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