(January 20, 2015 / JNS) On Monday, the European Union (EU) announced it is partnering on counter-terrorism projects with Middle East countries—including Turkey, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, and the Gulf states—in the wake of the Islamist terror attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket. But is Turkey a suitable partner for that initiative?
Turkey’s inclusion in the EU’s counter-terrorism plan comes despite longstanding reports of jihadists using the Turkish border to cross into countries where they join Muslim terrorists. In particular, a Turkish official recently admitted that Hayat Boumeddiene—the girlfriend of Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who took nearly 20 hostages at the Paris kosher supermarket—had crossed into Syria through Turkey. Boumeddiene was being pursued by authorities as a suspected accomplice in the attack.
Since Boumeddiene was not listed on any no-fly list, there is no way that Turkey could have known to watch her, according to Michael Koplow, program director of the Israel Institute think tank. But at the same time, Koplow said, “There’s no question that Turkey has turned a blind eye in a lot of ways to the rise of ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria… and jihadists who [are] crossing into Syria over their border.”
“In the past few months it seems that Turkey has tried to crack down on [these] jihadi highways to Syria a bit, but it’s difficult,” Koplow told JNS.org. “Turkey has an extremely long border with Syria. It’s nearly impossible to police all things, so people are going to get through.”
Turkey, added Koplow, “doesn’t seem to recognize the extent of the [border] problem, or at least doesn’t want to acknowledge it.”
Western nations, and Israel in particular, should be concerned that Turkey is “clearly supporting radical extremist groups in the Middle East, be it in Syria, in Libya, among the Palestinians, [or] of course, helping Hamas,” said Efraim Inbar, a professor of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).
Turkey is hosting the new Istanbul headquarters of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that governs Gaza. Additionally, the Paris terror attacks have elicited a series of inflammatory comments about the Jewish state by Turkish officials.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of committing “crimes against humanity” equivalent to the Paris attacks, citing Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas last summer and the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident (in which Israeli forces were attacked by Turkish militants aboard the Mavi Marmara vessel and subsequently killed nine of those militants).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed Netanyahu for attending the Jan. 11 mass anti-terrorism rally in Paris, accusing the Israeli prime minister of carrying out “state terrorism.” Additionally, a member of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ibrahim Melih Gökçek, promoted an anti-Israel conspiracy theory when he told a gathering of youths that because Israel is angry with France for supporting a recent Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations, it is “certain” that Israel’s Mossad spy agency is behind the Paris attacks.
Israel is “bewildered that the U.S. and the Europeans allow a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) member [such as Turkey] to behave in such a way, but we see the inability of the Americans and Europeans to call a spade a spade,” Inbar told JNS.org.
The Israeli-Turkish relationship has been deteriorating since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza from 2008-09. Erdogan publicly chastised Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2009 during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, saying, “When it comes to killing, you (Israel) know well how to kill people.”
The Gaza flotilla incident further strained Israel-Turkey ties, but Koplow cautions against the notion that their relations were bright before 2008. “Israel and Turkey had a strong relationship in the 1990s,” but it was mainly a military relationship.
When the AKP party first came to power in Turkey in 2002, it sought to address Western skepticism about its rise and presented “a very moderate front” during its first term, meaning it did not “ruffle any feathers” internationally nor antagonize Israel.
But when AKP was re-elected in 2007, its foreign policy became more outward facing and Turkey became more involved in Middle East issues, in part by brokering talks between Israel and Syria or the Palestinians. Erdogan began to support the Palestinian cause, largely due to the desire to expand Turkey’s global footprint.
“There’s this idea floating around that Israel and Turkey were steadfast allies up until the AKP. I’m not sure that’s an accurate picture,”Koplow told JNS.org. Nevertheless, Turkey and Israel “were never at each other’s throats until the late 2000s and the AKP,” he said.
Koplow explained that opposing Israel has political benefits for the AKP.
“Turkey is in the middle of what has essentially been a two-year election cycle,” he said. “There were local elections last spring, there was a presidential election last summer, and there are parliamentary elections coming up this summer as well. In the context of that, it plays very well for the AKP base to bash the Israelis and to play up the AKP’s ‘nationalism’ by going after Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
But Dr. Harold Rhode, a distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute think tank and the former Turkish Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of Defense, views the current Turkish leadership’s stances within the prism of religion rather than politics.
“Erdogan is an Islamic fundamentalist who is anti-Western and anti-American,” Rhode told JNS.org, noting that both Erdogan and Prime Minister Davotoglu “grew up in what are called Imam-Hatip schools, which are religious schools in Turkey that preach a form of Islam” that is “doctrinaire.” That doctrine, explained Rhode, teaches that “Islam is the only way.”
The modern Turkish republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who tried create a secular geographic entity. Before Atatürk formed what is today known as Turkey, the Ottoman Empire promoted Sunni Islam there—and while Atatürk had some success in secularizing Turkey, Rhode described a mistaken tendency in the West to “think that once Atatürk snapped his hands, that all Turks began to think in a different way.”
Islamic fundamentalists first came to power in Turkey in the 1990s under prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who Rhode called “the intellectual godfather of President Erdogan, former president Adbullah Gul, and the present Prime Minister Davotoglu.”
“Erbakan tried to re-Islamify the society quickly… but the military overthrew him by what the Turks call an ‘e-coup’ (electronic coup),” said Rhode.
Erbakan’s failure taught Erdogan not to confront secular authorities and risk immediate defeat; therefore, Erdogan’s method was “slowly but surely to push, and push, and push” Islamization, Rhode said.
In Rhode’s estimation, Erdogan was always “a vicious anti-Semite” and very intolerant of religious diversity in general.
“I speak Turkish and I have a personal experience standing with him [waiting to be introduced to Erdogan by a friend], when he thought I was just one more dumb American bureaucrat, and he had no idea I was understanding exactly what was going on in the conversation. … One of his advisors and he are having a discussion… and all of a sudden he blurted out, ‘Alevi (another branch of Islam) Köpek.’ Köpek means a dog, which is a horrible thing to call someone in Turkey,” Rhode recalled.
America chose “to put its head in the sand” about Erdogan’s true views—as did many past Israeli leaders—while Erdogan “pulled a fast one on the outside world” and on many Turks “who desperately wanted to see him as an Islamic reformer,” said Rhode.
Yet despite their diplomatic dysfunction, trade between Israel and Turkey is at an all-time high. Last July, a report in Haaretz cited Israeli Ministry of Economy figures showing that Israeli exports to Turkey in the first four months of 2014 had climbed nearly 25 percent (to $949.2 million) from the same period in 2013. Israel’s imports from Turkey grew to $956 million over that span, a 21-percent from the first four months of 2013.
Neither Israel nor Turkey has an interest “to stamp out trade between the two countries because it benefits both economies,” especially because Turkey is not energy independent, the Israel Institute’s Koplow told JNS.org.
“Below the government level… there’s been a lot of effort to try to figure out a way for Israel to export natural gas to Turkey,” he said.
On the political level, BESA’s Inbar believes there is “a struggle over the soul of Turkey within Turkey.”
“This is an issue of identity, [of] where Turkey is going,” he said. “I am not optimistic, but there is a possibility that maybe the more Western elements of Turkish society will gain the upper hand, and then of course we will see entirely different relations between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey and the West.”
Rhode is even less optimistic, offering an analogy on the increasingly contradictory behavior of the Turkish government.
“I’ll give you what a Turkish satirist—Aksakalli—said in the 1940s,” he said. “‘Turkey is like a ship, a big ship, where the captain and crew are leading the ship to head westward while the boat is traveling full speed ahead eastward.’ That summarizes Turkey very well.”