Amir’s commentary on how Turkey turned from an ally to an enemy of Israel
“a great nation, a great power”—the recent Fourth General Congress of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party proclaimed” this ambitious goal for 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. The Congress celebrated Erdogan’s leadership and reelected him as party chairman.
With his party’s backing, and through a prospective new constitution that will create a powerful “presidential system,” Erdogan expects to preside over the anniversary celebrations as president of a transformed Turkey that dominates the Middle East.
Would Turkey be a moderating influence on political Islam, in particular on the Muslim Brotherhood parties now dominant in much of the new Middle East? Will Erdogan make the country a unique Islamic liberal democracy that will reconcile the Muslim world to the West?But what would be the shape of Erdogan’s golden age?
Or is he presiding, as a growing number of observers fear, over an Islamist transformation of Turkey that would put it at odds with the West as it consolidates a “neo-Ottoman” regime? Those who worry about such an outcome find a portent in his remarks—well noted in Turkey but not elsewhere—at his party’s recent Congress. There, Erdogan urged the youth of Turkey to look not only to 2023, but to 2071 as well.
This is a date that is unlikely to be meaningful for Westerners, but is evocative for many Turks. 2071 will mark one thousand years since the Battle of Manzikert. There, the Seljuk Turks—a tribe originally from Central Asia—decisively defeated the leading Christian power of that era, the Byzantine Empire, and thereby stunned the medieval world. At the battle’s end, the Seljuk leader stepped on the Christian emperor’s throat to mark Christendom’s humiliation. The Seljuk victory began a string of events that allowed the Seljuk Turks to capture the lands of modern Turkey and create an empire that would stretch across much of Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
In evoking Manzikert, Erdogan recalled for today’s Turks the glories of their aggressive warrior ancestors who had set out to conquer non-Muslim lands and, along the way, fought off the hated Shias of their day to dominate much of the Middle East. Manzikert is thus not an image of a peaceful and prosperous liberal state that sways others by its example of tolerance, virtue, and goodwill.
Rather it indicates that as part of his vision of Turkish power and glory, Erdogan seeks to reverse the broad legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The recent AKP Congress aimed to celebrate Erdogan as a new and powerful kind of leader—now prime minister, later president—of Turkey, one ready to abandon Ataturk’s secular state structures and Western orientation. The warrior Ataturk warned against the allure of military victories; the politician Erdogan invokes them.
But for all Erdogan’s domestic problems, his grasp has most outstripped his reach in foreign affairs. Here, too, his agenda and failures seem to reflect a fundamentally Islamist vision, albeit one that he may be in the process of redefining.
Under Ataturk, Turkey insulated itself from troubled Middle Eastern politics and Islam’s anti-modern pull by associating with Europe and the West. Almost from the beginning of his rule, whatever the symbolism he offered the West, Erdogan has turned this legacy inside out, emphasizing Muslim solidarity and engagement with the Middle East as Turkey’s true destiny. Erdogan’s new direction was partially embodied in the AKP’s now famous, if often ridiculed, policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Under this approach, Turkey would embrace not only the Sunni-led states of Turkey’s former imperial realm, but also the broader Islamic world. This included most notably Shiite-led Iran and Alawite-led Syria, the two neighbors most identified with ideological hostility to the West. Erdogan has met with mixed results in the Sunni realm, and disastrous rebuffs elsewhere.
Erdogan’s reorientation of Turkish foreign policy led to an early embrace of forces hostile to Israel. Previously, Turkey had maintained close relations with Israel and a distance from the Palestinian “movement.” As early as 2004, Erdogan had declared his sympathies with the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, even though it was opposed by the more secular and nationalist Palestinian Authority, led by Western favorites Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. In 2006, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections, Erdogan welcomed its senior leadership to Turkey in a celebratory fashion. With his shift came a steadily increasing rhetorical assault on Israel’s Palestinian policies. After the Gaza war of 2008–2009, Erdogan publicly insulted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos Conference, calling him a “killer.” In 2010, he conspired to provoke the “flotilla” incident, which aimed to delegitimize Israel’s maritime embargo of Gaza. More recently, he called Israel a terrorist state and threatens to escalate this schism with Israel.
Erdogan’s hostility to Israel and sympathy with its terrorist enemies has not only proven popular in domestic politics, but is also broadly consistent with his eager embrace of Sunni Islamism and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, as became clear in the position he took on the “Arab Spring.” As authoritarian rulers fell in Tunisia and Egypt, Erdogan was quick to embrace as comrades the Muslim Brotherhood parties that moved into the power vacuum. Having first opposed a Western intervention in Libya, he soon claimed a leadership role in that conflict. In his so-called “victory tour” of the Arab Spring countries in mid-2011, Erdogan was received as a rock star.
But Erdogan’s ambitious vision of reaching out to and leading the Middle East even beyond its Sunni core soon ran into natural contradictions. Iran, in particular, as it sought nuclear weapons, domination of Turkey’s neighbor Iraq, and regional leadership, could be seen as a natural state rival of Turkey. Yet Erdogan, in accord with his ideas about his—and Turkey’s—grand status in the region, undertook at crucial moments to undermine Western initiatives to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and opposed sanctions against the mullahs’ regime. As the Arab Spring reached into Syria, Erdogan initially positioned himself to defend Syrian Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan prematurely announced Assad’s agreement to reform, only to be given the back of Assad’s hand as the Damascus regime turned increasingly violent and the Alawite-Shiite alliance hardened. As the conflict has deepened, Erdogan’s interests have been repeatedly thwarted and his proposals pushed aside, to his embarrassment and disadvantage. Erdogan tried to retake a leading role by hosting the Syrian National Council, a body claiming to represent the internal opposition against Assad, but also known to be dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. That body has now been displaced by a new coalition of Syrian opposition forces that has been internationally recognized. At the same time, Iran mocks Erdogan as a tool of the West and Israel, and Assad’s forces and Turkey’s exchange artillery fire.
Seen in the light of these regional problems, Erdogan’s evocation of the Battle of Manzikert during the AKP’s Fourth Party Congress this past fall takes on an additional coloration. While Manzikert was a great triumph over that era’s leading Christian power, the Christians were not the primary focus of Seljuk Turk policy. Instead, the Sunni Seljuks were mainly focused on their primary religious and temporal enemies, the main Shiite and Arab power of the time, the Egyptian-based Fatimid Caliphate (in the eleventh century, Iran was not yet Shiite and was part of the Seljuk Turk empire). Indeed, not long before Manzikert, the Seljuks had readily accepted a truce with the Christians so they could attack the Fatimid-controlled city of Aleppo, in today’s Syria.
Thus, the historical symbolism of Erdogan’s speech may have artfully highlighted for Turks an age-old agenda, one held by modern Turkey’s ancestors and now by Erdogan. Turkey must outstrip the growing influence of today’s leading Shia power, Iran; beat back the Christian world; and surmount the incipient military and economic power of Egypt, the historic champion of the Arabs. As in the distant past, the most immediate obstacle to these ambitions is the Shiite power Iran and its allies; and Syria is once again a front in that conflict.
An early sign of this policy shift against Iran came in the spring of 2012, when Erdogan described his party’s historic mission in a way that excluded Shiite Iran: “On the historic march of our holy nation, the AK Party signals the birth of a global power and the mission for a new world order. This is the centenary of our exit from the Middle East . . . whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, from 2011 to 2023 we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands.”
At the party Congress a few months later, Erdogan may have invoked Manzikert to signal that he would not just distance Turkey from its Shiite challengers, but actively oppose them.
The Syrian crisis, then, has exposed weaknesses in Erdogan’s early claims and weighs heavily on his reputation, at home as well as abroad. By a large majority, the Turkish public is now dissatisfied with and opposed to Erdogan’s Syrian policies. The critiques come not only from opposition parties, but from within previously supportive groups. Indeed, Erdogan finds himself and his grand design for Turkey confronted not only by Syria’s tyrant, but by an alliance made up of Russia, Iran, and the latter’s allies in this matter, Hezbollah and the Shiite government of Iraq. He finds himself dependent upon others—the United States, NATO, even the head of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government—for assistance. Before he had belittled the relative importance of the US and others in the region; now he complains sourly about their lack of activity and welcomes their support. In response to Syrian attacks on Turkey, Erdogan called for emergency meetings of NATO, invoking provisions for common defense. He is now receiving on Turkish soil US-made Patriot missile batteries manned by American, Dutch, and German troops. While he has made periodic shows of military force, he has clearly pulled back to the edge of history, allowing Saudi Arabia and Iran to move into the foreground, respectively, by arming the Syrian rebels and the Syrian tyrant.
In short, concrete successes in foreign policy have eluded Erdogan’s grandiose claims. The region’s vast troubles seem impervious to his remedies. Turkish elites—both from the opposition and among many who had been supporting him—have noticed the gap between rhetoric and reality; and Erdogan now finds himself mocked in the Turkish press for his frustrations.
During his visit to Israel in March, US President Barack Obama compelled Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to apologize to his Turkish counterpart for the actions of IDF Naval Commandos aboard the Mavi Marmara terror ship in May 2010.
The Mavi Marmara was sent by the IHH, a Turkish- government supported, al-Qaida-aligned group, to try to break Israel’s lawful maritime blockade of the Gaza coast. When the lightly armed naval commandos boarded the ship they were attacked by terrorists wielding knives and iron pipes. They were stabbed and bludgeoned. In the violence, nine Turkish terrorists were killed.
By forcing Israel to apologize to Turkey, Obama took the side of the aggressor against the victim.
Netanyahu apologized to Turkey’s pro-Hamas Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in a phone call that Obama participated in. Obama promised that Turkey would accept Israel’s apology and restore full diplomatic relations.
But nothing of the sort occurred. Last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul told Yediot Aharonot that the apology came too late. And this week, Erdogan hosted Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal for the third time in the past year. Commentators have raised the prospect that Hamas may be hoping to transfer its headquarters from Qatar to Turkey.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan’s embrace of Mashaal was a sign not only of support for Hamas and ill will toward Israel. It was a sign of animosity toward Egypt.
It is notable that the same day Erdogan welcomed Mashaal to Turkey, the Obama administration announced it is scaling back US military assistance to Egypt. The administration claims it is freezing the transfer of major military platforms to Egypt to show its dissatisfaction with the government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood government, and its impatience with the military’s refusal to date to call elections after deposing the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in July.
The administration’s declared concern for democracy is apparently limited to Egypt. One finds no trace of such concern for instance in the administration’s relationship with Turkey. There, as Michael Rubin reported in Commentary, the Justice and Interior ministries just announced that people can now be jailed if they think about protesting against the government. In other words, NATO member Turkey is not merely considering becoming the official sponsor of a terrorist organization. The regime of the man Obama praised as his closest friend in the region has criminalized thought.
Not only has the administration refused to take any action against Turkey for its authoritarian governance and its pro-terror policies. Last month the US and Turkey along with Qatar announced a $200 million program under which Turkey and Qatar will develop materials aimed at promoting the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda. The stated aim of the Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience will be to convince Muslims to adopt the totalitarian Muslim Brotherhood version of Islam, but at the same time, to convince them not to join al-Qaida. The official launch of the initiative took place at the US-Turkish Global Counterterrorism Forum last month in New York.
When the forum was founded two years ago, the Obama administration bowed to Turkey’s demand and barred Israel from participating in it.
Obama’s success in forcing Netanyahu to apologize to Erdogan was the culmination of years of US pressure on Israel. Obama began gunning for an Israeli apology to his friend Erdogan almost immediately after the incident.
NOTABLY, IDF commanders led by then-defense minister Ehud Barak were early supporters of the move. They claimed that an apology would enable the US to restore Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey, and that the alliance with Ankara was too valuable to squander simply to defend the honor of our soldiers.
As Turkey’s embrace of Hamas, its cultivation of the al-Qaida- and Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian rebel forces, and its general hostility toward Israel at every turn show, Israel’s military brass’s hope to restore Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey was based a critical misreading of Turkish intentions. Barak and the generals failed to understand who Erdogan is. They failed to understand that by persecuting his political opponents through summary arrest and imprisonment without trial of leading members of the military, state bureaucracy, business community and media, Erdogan was transforming Turkey from a strategic ally into an enemy of Israel.
Now, that Turkey is an enemy, with a crumbling economy – attacking Israel is a great way to make a come back. Ezekiel’s Gomer and the House of Togarma is Turkey of today, and it is more than ready for some action!