By Henri J. Barkey
The timing and scope of the war between Israel and Hamas has put Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a difficult position.
At first, shocked by Hamas’s violence, Erdogan reached out to his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog. However, the strength of public support for Hamas in Turkey, the mobilization of the Israeli army and the start of the Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip almost immediately made him change his position. The tone of his criticism of Israel for its campaign in the Gaza Strip is gradually becoming more intense.
That has not stopped Erdogan from seeking to play a mediating role; he has initiated several phone calls with regional leaders, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin. US President Joe Biden was absent. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken began a sweeping tour of regional capitals soon after the crisis broke out, looking for ways to prevent further deterioration. He appears to have deliberately skipped a visit to Ankara, preferring to speak by phone with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. The Biden-Erdogan relationship has been strained for some time. Biden, too, has limited his contacts with Erdogan and has been unwilling to invite him, for example, for a state visit to Washington.
A widening US-Turkey rift
The current war between Israel and Hamas comes as Turkey and the US are already at loggerheads over many issues. Most critical is Washington’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mainly Kurdish fighters who have been the main US allies in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS. On October 5, this dispute reached a nadir when a US F-16 fighter jet shot down a Turkish drone that came within a few hundred meters of US forces in northern Syria.
The Turkish military is conducting numerous military operations – ground and air against the Syrian Kurds – that Washington sees as undermining the fight against Islamic State. Turkey is adamant about labeling Syrian Kurdish forces as an extension of its own Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and its allies have labeled a terrorist organization. The U.S.-Turkey standoff over the issue dates back to the rise of Islamic State and its sweeping sweep across northern Syria and Iraq in 2014. Erdogan rejected U.S. President Barack Obama’s request to help fight the terror group, forcing the U.S. to cooperate with the SDF. US forces and the SDF successfully defeated the Islamic State. But in the absence of any state authority in northern Syria, Washington has kept about 900 troops there and worked with the SDF to contain the Islamic State. The SDF also maintains a camp, al-Hol, which houses around 50,000 people with various ties to the Islamic State.
Turkey also recently took issue with the language used by the Biden administration in an Oct. 12 statement renewing the state of emergency in northern Syria. The wording of the statement was identical to one issued by US President Donald Trump in 2019, although it did not draw the same derision from Ankara at the time. The new White House statement said: “The situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the actions of the government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive in northeastern Syria, is undermining the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the of Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians and further threatens to undermine peace, security, and stability in the region and continues to pose an extraordinary and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy.”
NATO, Warplanes, Carrier Developments
The two countries also have disagreements over Sweden’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Erdogan took advantage of the ratification process to make a series of demands from Sweden before agreeing to send the accession resolution to the Turkish parliament, which he officially did on October 23. While Sweden has made several concessions, Turkey’s ratification has been overshadowed by Ankara’s demand that Washington allow it to buy new F-16s and modernization kits for those in its stockpile.
The Biden administration’s strong support for the request has met stiff resistance in the US Congress. Congressional leaders have made it clear that the F-16 sale is unlikely to be approved unless Turkey ratifies Sweden’s accession. In the wake of the US administration’s critical Oct. 12 statement, congressional efforts to establish a link to the F-16 sale, and heightened tensions over the Israel-Hamas war, it is likely that the Turkish parliament—pushed by Erdogan behind the scenes – could delay the ratification of Sweden’s accession.
The start of the conflict in Gaza has further alienated Erdogan from Washington. He reacted with indignation at the deployment of two US carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean and suggested that the US has no business sending the carriers or playing a role in this conflict. He also argued that the presence of the air carriers was interfering with Turkey’s efforts to resolve the crisis. Erdogan’s foreign policy discourse increasingly reflects a growing distrust of the West and the United States. Beginning with the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, which he blames on Washington, he has also complained that Turkey’s poor economic performance is caused by Western (ie, American) interference and sabotage. However, an analysis of Turkey’s trade statistics will show that its most consistent trading partners are the West. In 2022, the US, Germany, the United Kingdom (UK) and ten European Union countries received almost 43% of Turkish exports. In 2021, five countries – the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the UK – accounted for almost two-thirds of foreign direct investment in Turkey.
Support for Hamas
Erdogan has long supported Hamas, allowing its leaders to reside in Turkey and meet with its leadership, while refusing to label the group’s actions as terrorism. The reaction of the Turkish public, led by Erdogan, to the current conflict in Gaza is likely to strengthen this relationship. However, despite Erdogan’s sympathies for Hamas, he is also well aware that a major conflagration in the region would be detrimental to everyone, including Turkey. This explains why he reportedly warned his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, about steps that would increase tensions.
With no end in sight to the conflict, Erdogan also faces the prospect of further deterioration in relations with Israel and the US. The protests in Turkey have targeted US facilities – most notably, the radar base in Kurecik, Malatya, in southeastern Turkey. And the US consulate in Adana, in southern Turkey, was forced to close. Erdogan’s rhetoric towards the US is partly responsible for these events. Although some commentators have argued that he has tried to distance himself from Hamas, in a speech on October 25, he categorically maintained that Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a group of freedom fighters and “mujahedin”, or people fighting for their faith. He also invited all Turkish citizens to a “Greater Palestine” demonstration in Istanbul on October 28.
Erdoğan could initially have contributed greatly to finding a compromise in this conflict. He has shunned what little confidence Washington may have had in him with the severity of his anti-American language. He appears to have walked away from the US-led negotiations.
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