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Turkey’s reaction to Gaza invasion may determine future of Middle East

Their President is a diplomatic wildcard and flip flopped in their reaction to Israel – but this country could hold the key to negotiations.

The scale of Israel’s new war depends on the reactions of its neighbours. Not least among them is Turkey. And its autocratic leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is something of a diplomatic wildcard.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrors of October 7, Ankara condemned the loss of innocent civilian lives and called for restraint in Israel’s response.

But the tide of public opinion soon caused Erdogan to change tack.

“It is clear that security cannot be ensured by bombing hospitals, schools, mosques and churches,” Erdogan said in a statement as Israel’s brutal response unfolded over the Gaza Strip. “I reiterate our call on the Israeli government not to expand the scope of its attacks against civilians and to immediately stop its operations that are bordering genocide.”

Israel has since only stepped up its assault. And last weekend, it sent its troops and tanks over the border to encircle Gaza City.

Erdogan responded with an escalation in his rhetoric.

“I believe that we should stop Israel – which looks as if it’s completely out of its mind and lost it – as soon as possible,” he said in an official statement. “We will ensure that those responsible for war crimes in Gaza will face justice.”

It’s a response that seems certain to further enlarge the growing diplomatic gap between Ankara and its NATO ally, Washington.

“The current war between Israel and Hamas comes as Turkey and the United States are already at loggerheads,” argues Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) senior fellow Henri Barkey.

There’s the president’s relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. There’s the blocking of Sweden’s admission to NATO. There’s the matter of the Iraq-Syria-based Kurdish ethnic group that successfully held off Islamic State’s relentless assaults – even as Turkey refused to join the fight.

But Ankara’s position, power and independence had the potential to give its controversial leader a strong diplomatic hand.

“Erdogan could have initially contributed much to the search for a compromise in this conflict,” says Barkey. “He has eschewed the little trust Washington may have had in him with the stridency of his anti-American language. He appears to have dealt himself out of the US-led negotiations.”

Palestinians injured in Israeli air raids arrive at Nasser Medical Hospital

Between two worlds

Just days before Hamas unleashed its surprise attack on Israel, another incident set Ankara-Washington relations on tenterhooks.

On October 5, a United States F-16 fighter shot down a Turkish drone that entered a no-fly zone around an outpost of its ground forces in Kurdish Syria.

A week later, Erdogan said he would respond to the incident “eventually”.

“There is no doubt that the incident has been engraved in our national memory and necessary action will certainly be taken when the time comes,” he declared.

Turkey’s ties with the US have long been on shaky ground.

Instead of fighting Islamic State jihadists, Turkey sent its tanks over the border to Syria in 2016 to occupy a “security zone” spanning some 8800 square kilometres. Washington criticised this move as “undermining” the campaign against Islamic State and posing “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to US forces.

US President Joe Biden and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold bilateral talks during the NATO Summit in Vilnius

But Turkey has refused to back down.

And Erdogan reacted with anger to news last month of the deployment of two US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean.

“The US is sending its aircraft vessel to Israel, but what is it doing in Israel? What is it coming to do?” Erdogan demanded shortly after Israel declared its intention to pursue Hamas fighters back to their Gaza hideouts.

“It will hit Iran, Gaza and demolish it, and it will be a step towards a serious massacre.”

And he’s recently taken his verbal cudgel to Washington again: “The perpetrators of the massacre and the destruction taking place in Gaza are those providing unlimited support for Israel. Israel’s attacks on Gaza, for both itself and those supporting them, amount to murder and mental illness.”

Washington deployed two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean, the USS Gerald Ford and the Eisenhower, in the wake of the deadly attack on Israel by Hamas 

Conflicting interests

Turkey is in an unusual position when it comes to Israel.

It was one of the first Arabic nations to recognise the proposed state of Palestine. But it was also among the first to recognise the statehood of Israel in 1949.

But relations between the two countries imploded in 2010 after Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists aboard a ship making a highly publicised attempt to breach its blockade of Gaza.

Then, in 2014, Erdogan accused Benjamin Netanyahu of “keeping Hitler’s spirit alive” as Israeli forces engaged in another widespread bombardment of Gaza.

And, In 2018, he insisted “Hamas is not a terrorist organisation and Palestinians are not terrorists … It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, wearing a scarf with the Palestinian and Turkish flags during a rally organised by the AKP party in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza,

He’s become equally blunt about Israel’s unfolding “Operation Swords of Iron”.

He’s denounced it as “not a war, but a massacre.”

He proclaimed the bombing of Gaza’s al-Ahli Arab Hospital – the source of which remains uncertain – to be the “latest example of Israel’s attacks devoid of the most basic human values”.

And he’s promised to pursue Israel and its leadership with charges of war crimes.

“Erdogan’s position on the Hamas-Israel war … threatens to widen his rift with Washington further,” states international security group The Soufan Center.

“His criticism of the civilian casualties resulting from Israel’s retaliatory offensive does not differ much from that of many other world leaders, but he has gone further in his apparent willingness to support Hamas and its rejectionist objectives.”

Erdogan reiterated that stance again in the past week.

“The West owes you a lot. But Turkey does not owe you anything,” he told Israel during an assembly of his parliamentary faction. “Hamas is not a terrorist organisation. It is a group of mujahideen (holy warriors) defending their lands.”

Wicked game

International governments have approached the Turkish government to use its Hamas contacts to lobby for the release of their nationals among the hostages seized on October 7.

Little progress has been made.

And that’s no surprise, says German Institute for International and Security Affairs associate Sinem Adar.

“Stuck between hegemonic aspirations and rapprochement efforts to break its isolation and repair its economy, Ankara lacks influence on either Israel or Hamas,” he writes for War on the Rocks.

“After two decades of policy to expand Turkey’s role in the Middle East, Ankara is effectively a marginal actor.”

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters stand guard in Jarabulus close to the border with Turkey in the rebel-held north of Syria’s Aleppo province

And that, he says, makes Erdogan even more fearful of a return of the United States to the region. “The fear is that a stronger American presence will further disrupt Ankara’s efforts to prevent Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units in northern Syria”.

Ankara has classified the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) within Turkey to be a terrorist organisation. Washington agrees.

But Turkey asserts all Kurdish organisations – including those in Syria and Iraq – are just extensions of this group. Washington disagrees.

Now, Erdogan is attempting to justify his support for Hamas by comparing it to that of the US towards the Syrian Kurds.

“Still, Erdogan’s sympathies for Hamas notwithstanding, he is also acutely aware that a major conflagration in the region would be detrimental to everyone, Turkey included,” concludes Barkey. “This explains why he reportedly warned his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, against steps that would increase tensions.”

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