The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey threatens the stability of the region and Israel’s interests too.

Executive Summary

The end of the Cold War gave Turkey, a large and important country in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, greater freedom of action in its foreign policy. Turkey’s ambitious and expansionist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has capitalized on this and on US isolationist tendencies to bolster Turkey’s standing in the world.

Erdoğan’s AKP, which came to power in 2002, seeks to restore the country’s Islamic character (alongside a transition to authoritarian rule) and at the same time enhance its regional and international status – with overt references to the bygone glory of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey aims for regional hegemony, undermining the existing political order in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. Turkey is actively engaged in the global community of Muslim nations. It has established a military presence in Iraq, Syria, the Gulf (Qatar), and Somalia. Recently it has been challenging Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean (by claiming an EEZ “border” with Libya), posing a challenge to the plans to export gas from Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus to European markets. It is seeking to consolidate influence in Libya, Lebanon and Gaza, as well as Balkan lands that once were under Ottoman rule.   

The political changes in Turkey reflect long-term trends in Turkish society and foreign policy, that will not disappear even when the Erdoğan era ends. Turkey’s frictions with Israel likewise reflect a distancing from the West and a growing solidarity with popular anti-Israeli attitudes in the Muslim world.

In short, Turkey threatens the stability of the region as well as Israel’s strategic interests in the region. Nevertheless, it is possible to design an effective Western strategic response to Turkey, as outlined in this paper.

Recommendations for Israeli Policy

Israel must act with great caution toward Turkey. It has no interest in turning this powerful country into an active enemy. It should be borne in mind that even under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey has demonstrated a certain degree of pragmatism regarding Israel. It has not completely severed its diplomatic relations with Israel, and it maintains extensive trade ties with Israel, alongside mutual air traffic that is important for Turkey’s tourist trade including securing access for Muslim visitors to Jerusalem and particularly the Temple Mount.

Consequently, Israel must distinguish between Turkey’s current leader and Turkish society as a whole, to preserve the possibility of better relations with a future government that is not under AKP control, or a government based on moderate elements in the party. Secular circles in Turkish society (as well as members of the Gülen movement) want good relations with Israel. Turkey is not Iran. Its status in the G-20 and its relations with the US are important to Turkey.

At recent summits of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) and in tripartite summits of the leaders of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece it has been emphasized that these new regional alignments do not seek to exclude Turkey – if its leadership chooses to cooperate. Israel should continue to emphasize this.

At the same time, Israel needs to identify the levers of influence that will make it possible to restrain the ambitions of the current Turkish leadership. This relates first and foremost to economic realm, which has been the source of Erdoğan’s power and has become his Achilles heel. The aim is to prevent him from posing threats to vital Israeli interests and to its partners in the regional alignment (and in particular to Egypt’s stability). Israeli diplomatic activity on the Turkish issue must focus on Washington, seeking to harness the US (both the administration and Congress) in the effort to curb Erdoğan. The experience of recent years indicates that despite expressions of contempt, Erdoğan is leery of a direct confrontation with Washington.

Meanwhile Israel must work together with Egypt, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen the alignment that is trying to “contain” Turkey. This can be done in tandem with the measures now being taken by France, which is waging a diplomatic campaign as well as demonstrating a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean (in Libya and Lebanon). It is also important to increase European awareness of Turkey’s problematic behavior. The Balkan countries, too, suffered under the Ottoman yoke in the past and are fearful of Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria (which are EU members) as well as Serbia and Kosovo (which are knocking on its door) are natural partners in this effort.

Israel cannot commit to military action against Turkey (certainly not if the potential of a clash with Iran and its proxies remains Jerusalem’s highest priority). This must be candidly explained to Israel’s partners in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, it must be made clear that Israel will not hesitate to use force against Turkish moves that directly impact Israel’s vital interests. It is worth recalling that Israel’s thwarting of the Mavi Marmara flotilla prevented additional hostile flotillas from sailing and won the respect of Greece and Cyprus and other countries across the region.

From the standpoint of intelligence collection and research, and regarding the components of force buildup, Israel’s defense establishment and intelligence community must adapt to a reality in which Turkey’s behavior poses risks to Israel and its vital interests. The implications of the strengthening of the Turkish naval fleet must be carefully considered.

Considering Erdoğan’s statements, developments in the Turkish nuclear domain need to be monitored. It is also necessary to monitor Turkish activity in Jerusalem and to neutralize its influence among the Muslim population of the city.

It is worth looking (ad hoc) into the possibility that Russia can help restrain Turkey’s ambitions, which are likely sooner or later to foment unrest among Russia’s large Muslim minorities as well.

Israel must also consider the sensitivities of the Jewish community in Turkey, which needs the protection of the government in Ankara.

Introduction

Turkey, which during the Ottoman era was the dominant force in the entire region and a world power of the first order, is still one of the largest and most important countries in the Middle East. Its population is equal to Iran’s at more than 84 million (second in the region after Egypt). Its economy is the second largest after Saudi Arabia, with a GDP of $744 billion that makes it a member of the G20. Its strategic location in western Asia, at the southeastern outskirts of Europe, on the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and its control of the Bosporus Strait give it additional strategic significance. Its military is the second largest in NATO after that of the United States.

The end of the Cold War afforded Turkey greater freedom of action in its foreign policy. This trend intensified as U.S. administration, during both the Obama and Trump presidencies, tended to limit U.S. involvement in the Middle East. This new international reality suited Turkey’s ambitions to bolster its global status. The year 2002 saw the rise of the AKP (Adalet ve-Kalkinma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party), which works to restore the country’s Islamic character (alongside a transition to authoritarian rule) and bolster its regional and international standing, openly longing for the glory of the Ottoman past. In recent years Turkey has been striving to achieve regional hegemony and to undermine the existing political order in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. 

Turkey, despite having remained a member of the NATO alliance (which lacks a mechanism to remove a contentious member), has gradually distanced itself from the West. In the wake of a failed attempt to join the European Union – which the governing party used as an excuse to neutralize the political power of the military – Turkey paid no heed to the warning of the founder of modern and secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), against getting involved in the Middle East. Turkey now maintains a military presence in Iraq, Syria, the Gulf (with a base in Qatar), and Somalia; it challenges Greece’s sovereignty in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean; and it seeks to consolidate its influence in lands that in the past were under Ottoman rule (Lebanon, Gaza, Libya, and the Balkans).

The unquestioned leader of Turkey since 2002 is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, head of the AKP.  The party can be described as a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood, though it also includes more moderate voices. The source of its power lies in the traditional rural areas and in economic growth, which has brought millions of Turks from the impoverished periphery and the shantytowns into the middle class. Hence Erdoğan is wary of steps that could harm the Turkish economy, which is export-oriented, integrated into the global economic system, and dependent on the tourism sector.   

Cautiously at first, and afterward with greater energy, Erdoğan distanced his country from the secular legacy (Kemalism) of Ataturk, which was imposed on Turkey by the founders of the Republic going back to 1927. Under his leadership, Turkey does not conceal neo-Ottoman and Islamist aspects that nowadays combine with resolute Turkish nationalism, as manifested in a bellicose foreign policy, and in symbolic acts such as turning the Haghia Sophia into a mosque. This nationalism, which has gradually radicalized against the backdrop of changes in Turkey’s domestic politics (among other things, the enhancement of Erdoğan’s status and the political partnership between the AKP and the nationalist MHP Party), breeds, among other things, antisemitic expressions, a hostile stance toward Israel, and the vision of “liberating Al-Aqsa.”

This article surveys the new directions in Turkey’s political system and foreign policy. The changes are profound, and even if the Erdoğan era comes to an end, they are not likely to disappear. These developments pose dangers to Israel’s interests. The article concludes with suggestions for Israeli policy facing the Turkish challenge. The appendix surveys the balance of political power in Turkey with an eye to the near future.

Domestic Changes

Almost two decades since the AKP rose to power, the Turkish political system has undergone an extensive purge of “Kemalism,” though there are still Kemalist strongholds, and the symbols of the Republic are still in place. Meanwhile a policy of Islamization has left its mark on education and in the public sphere. A further characteristic of the system is the transition to an increasingly authoritarian rule, with opponents, the media, and even the social networks persecuted and silenced. Despite the tendency of Erdoğan’s domestic and foreign critics to call him a sultan, he still does not entertain ideas about the sultanate and the caliphate: but public symbolism does resonate themes from the Ottoman past. 

A gradual Islamization process is taking place in the educational system, and it gained steam in the second decade of the 21st century. The tenet known as Ataturkism (secular Turkish nationalism) was removed from the curriculum in 2012. In 2017 the principle of jihad was introduced; in the spirit of the Islamic apologetics, it is presented as a concept that mainly concerns an inner struggle for improvement, but it has other meanings as well. The number of religious high schools, called the Imam Hatip network, has increased by hundreds of percentage points in the second decade of the century. The AKP has also taken control of the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and added Islamists to the universities’ staff.

Islamization has also occurred in other domains. As noted, the power of the military, as the protector of the secular Kemalist legacy, has been neutralized. The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), however, has been bolstered considerably, and in recent years the authorities have brutally persecuted the competing and more moderate religious faction of Fethullah Gülen. As part of the effort to reduce public alcohol consumption, the state has increasingly cracked down including heavy taxes on its sale and advertising. Likewise, the government has restored musea (in the past, Byzantine churches that in the Ottoman period became mosques) to the status of mosques. The most famous of these is Haghia Sophia, whose conversion back into a mosque was celebrated with a military ceremony that highlighted the Ottoman past (specifically the conquest of Constantinople/ Istanbul, in 1453) and with official messages that present the Al-Aqsa Mosque as next target for “liberation.”

For years the president and his party have been tightening their grip on governmental institutions. Erdoğan (who first served as prime minister within the parliamentary system) has weakened the parliament’s powers and brought about a staged transition to a very centralized presidential regime. The constitutional transformation was completed in 2017, and it consolidated Erdoğan’s political status as an all-powerful ruler. The regime became more and more authoritarian (and personal). The restrictions on press freedom grew, and companies that owned newspapers and television stations were purchased by associates of the prime minister – later president – under pressure from the authorities. Military and police officers as well as senior government officials were subjected to public trials and accused of collaborating against the government. The party also took control of the legal and banking systems. Restrictions were imposed on NGOs, and recently the authorities have also been tightening their control on the social networks.

Erdoğan has carried out extensive purges of the military and police top brass, especially after the failed coup attempt in 2016. The remnants of the high officer corps that grew up on the secular legacy have been removed from the organizations authorized to use force. The opposition, and those in the West who are ill at ease with the direction Erdoğan is taking,  are also concerned about the attempt to build a militia loyal to the party by granting permission to bear arms to the Neighborhood Guards (Bekçi) organization. In August 2020 Erdoğan established another organization of a military nature known as the Reinforcements (Takviye). Its task is to guard the president within Turkey, and it will train in the framework of the special forces. Unlike the police and the Neighborhood Guards, the Reinforcements are under the direct command of the president. Erdoğan has established a Presidential Guard that will fortify his personal rule even more.  

In large parts of the Turkish population, particularly in the periphery, non-urban regions, and areas more distant from the coast and the large cities, the top-down process of Kemalist secularization never took root. Hence the appeal of the nationalist messages. The Islamism that is also anchored in the Ottoman legacy, as articulated by Erdoğan, and on which his worldview is based, have also fallen on very attentive ears. In addition, personal charisma and the repression of his opponents have helped Erdoğan assume control of the political system. But these are not the only explanations for the impressive power that Erdoğan and his party have accrued. First and foremost, what fortified their status was the overcoming of the economic crisis at the beginning of the century and the subsequent prosperity, which enabled millions of Turks in rural  and in the shantytown neighborhoods (Gecekondu) at the outskirts of the large cities to emerge from abject poverty. These achievements were credited to Erdoğan and contributed to the popular support for his leadership, as manifested until recently in the ballot boxes.

The economic deterioration of the last two years, however, has dimmed the luster of the leader, and things have gotten worse with the COVID-19 crisis. For Erdoğan and the AKP, the question of economic growth has turned into an Achilles’ heel. In the 2019 municipal elections, the AKP lost important strongholds such as the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities. The defeat in Istanbul was especially bitter. When Erdoğan decided to legally appeal the narrow defeat of the AKP candidate, this led to a second round of voting and a win by a much larger margin for the opposition candidate. (All this in the beating heart of Turkey’s economic and cultural life, which had been a stronghold where Erdoğan himself had built his political career with popular support). One of the reasons for the loss was the AKP break with the Kurdish residents of the city, abandoned in favor of the MHP nationalists. Moreover, prominent AKP figures left the party and took a stance opposing Erdoğan. The most notable are former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan. (See the appendix regarding the political map of Turkey.)

These developments indicate that the AKP’s hegemony is not necessarily irreversible. The next parliamentary and presidential elections are slated for June 2023. Currently, there is no potential leader on the horizon who threatens Erdoğan’s dominance. His party, however, which does not have an absolute majority in the parliament, will likely lose additional seats, and by that time someone may take the risk of running against him. In any case, the economy will top the order of priorities for the Turkish voter.

Changes in Foreign Policy: The Regional System

Turkish foreign policy is based on perceptions of great national power held by the political and security elite; sentiments that already existed at differing levels of intensity before the Erdoğan era. Turkey’s military played a stabilizing role in the Cold War era, and Turkish expeditionary forces fought alongside the United States in Korea (but not in Vietnam) and in Afghanistan. Membership of NATO, within which Turkey carried significant military and geopolitical weight, augmented these feelings. Other objective factors that heighten Turkey’s importance, both in its self-perception and in its diplomatic discourse with Europe, are its role as an “energy bridge” from the east; and its ability to regulate unwanted mass migration. The discovery of a gas field in the Black Sea, though its size is still not clear and its utilization will take time, is already being portrayed as a resource that will make the country energy-independent and perhaps even an important actor in the international energy market.

At the ideological level, all this is accompanied (since the AKP’s accession to power and the more so in recent years) by ambitions to re-establish Turkey’s status as the natural leader of the Muslim world. Some circles even call for a renewal of the caliphate. Ataturk and his successors, who worked for an aggressive secularization and an erasure of history (including by adopting the Latin alphabet), turned their backs on the Ottoman heritage. This is now being reversed.

At present Turkey is active in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In 2004 the Turkish representative was appointed secretary general of the organization and served in that post for 10 years. Turkey also hosted two of the organization’s summits (in 2016 and 2017). It also tried to activate an organization for economic cooperation as envisaged by the former Turkish Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan (1996-1997). Known as the D-8, it includes eight large Muslim countries (Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey).

In the Erdoğan era, Turkey has joined forces with Qatar’s financial power in support of Islamist movements (including Hamas). Despite the rivalry with Iran in a number of domains, and the disparate conceptions of Islam in Shiite vs. Sunni radicalism, Turkey did not hesitate to host Iranian president Ahmadinejad (considered persona non grata in the West) and is still helping his country, mainly out of economic considerations, to circumvent the economic sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program. Reza Zarrab, a businessman of Iranian background, and an associate of one of Erdoğan’s sons, was indeed arrested in this context in the United States (2016). Turkey twice hosted the former Sudanese dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir (2008), even though the International Criminal Court had indicted him for war crimes in Darfur. When criticism ensued, Erdoğan did not hesitate to defend al-Bashir by saying, “A Muslim cannot commit a massacre.”

Turkey’s stance toward the Islamic State (Da’esh) was at best ambiguous. The main force that initially combated the spread of the Islamic State were the Kurds in northern Syria, whom Turkey regards as an enemy. Heavy Western pressure was needed to get Turkey to allow Kurdish Peshmerga forces to reach the besieged enclave of Kobane, which was under an Islamic State onslaught. After the coalition to defeat the Islamic State was formed, with the US at the helm, and after severe terror attacks in Turkey as well, Turkey took a more resolute stance, while continuing to support Syrian militias that grew out of organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Erdoğan’s support for Hamas (as a Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) came to the fore in his enraged reaction to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (December 2008-January 2009). Alongside Qatar, Erdoğan worked to bring about an end to the campaign, and after that publicly attacked President Peres in an incident in Davos. He also gave covert backing to the IHH Islamist organization and to the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010. When Israeli forces stopped the flotilla in its tracks, Erdoğan downgraded Turkey’s relations with Israel. Even after the Israeli apology and the restoring of ties in 2013, Turkey’s open support for Hamas continued; although Erdoğan avoids any harm to his country’s economic ties with Israel, and to the trade with Jordan and the Gulf that is conducted via Haifa Port. Turkey, however, plays host to Hamas operatives, including some actively engaged in terror, and recently granted Turkish citizenship to senior Hamas figures. Erdogan also took a belligerent line against the Israeli-UAE agreement and the Bahrain normalization deal.

Also problematic for Israel is Turkey’s activity in Jerusalem. It includes encouraging and subsidizing visits by Turkish pilgrims, whose presence contributes (economically and in terms of morale) to Muslim institutions affiliated with Hamas and the “Northern Section” of Israeli Islamic Movement (which is also an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood). Moreover, the Turkish foreign aid agency (TIKA) supports educational and social institutions in the Muslim parts of the city; and Turkey is working to undermine Jordan’s status and to hamper Israeli activity on the Temple Mount and in the Holy Basin.

On the regional level, Turkey seeks to undermine the stability of the Sisi regime in Egypt, which Erdoğan regards as an illegitimate “usurper government” since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Muslim Brotherhood activists from Egypt have found a refuge and a base for operations in Turkey, where they are quite involved in the media, on the social networks, and in tendentious “research” publications. This is part of Turkey’s ongoing effort to appeal to Muslim publics, which includes launching a channel in Arabic (in 2010) on the state radio and television network. That same year Ankara also joined the Arab League as an observer.

The rivalry with Egypt over dominance in the region, which goes back to the Mubarak era, has intensified further in the Sisi era, and has affected the civil war underway in Libya since 2014. In that conflict the pro-Turkish Government of National Accord (GNA), which rules in Tripoli and the northwest of the country and is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is fighting the Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar, which holds sway in the eastern part of the country and is backed by Egypt.

Since November 2019, possibly also against the backdrop of the upset in the municipal elections, Erdoğan (with the support of his nationalist coalition partner the MHP Party, also known as the Gray Wolves) has ramped up Turkey’s military intervention in Libya. This has set off a chain of events that undermines stability in the Mediterranean Basin and accords with the Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine. Based on a memorandum of understanding with the GNA, followed by parliamentary approval of direct Turkish military intervention, Erdoğan dispatched aerial defense units, drone operators, and other forces to Libya, and also helped transfer thousands of Sunni jihadists from Syria to the Libyan battlefields. This intervention tilted the balance against Haftar and prompted a retreat of his forces and the lifting of the siege they had imposed on Tripoli. In reaction, Sisi is threatening (with his parliament’s approval) to invade Libya if the pro-Turkish forces keep advancing eastward. In August 2020, with German and apparently also American involvement, a ceasefire was reached that temporarily stabilizes the situation; but no political solution is in sight.

The Change of International Orientation and Conflict in the Mediterranean

Alongside supporting organizations and regimes of an Islamist character, Turkey has distanced itself from the West in other ways. A first clear sign of that new direction was the Turkish parliament’s refusal in 2003 to approve the transit of U.S. forces through its territory to Iraq.

Although the US indeed still maintains an important airbase at Incirlik (in which B-61 aircraft-carried thermonuclear weapons are kept, but now need to be taken out for maintenance), and NATO still maintains the Kurecik radar base, which is designed to monitor developments in Iran, the US evidently does not rely on Turkish help in fighting the Islamic State. On the contrary, its allies on the ground both in Iraq and Syria are Kurds affiliated with the PYD, viewed as terrorists by the Turks (including the military establishment, which on this issue sees eye to eye with the political leadership).  

The tensions between Turkey and the United States intensified when Turkey deviated substantially from NATO’s armament policy and purchased sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. In reaction to this (and also because of coordinated pressures by friends of Israel and the Greek lobby), the US canceled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 project despite the fact that parts of the warplane were supposed to be manufactured in Turkey. Even when President Trump allowed Erdoğan to seize a strip of land from the Kurdish forces (which are under U.S. patronage) in northern Syria, this was accompanied by ugly exchanges in which Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” the Turkish economy if Erdoğan were to behave like a “fool.” Erdoğan declared that he had tossed the letter in the trash bin.

Erdoğan also does not hesitate to defy European leaders (especially Macron) by threatening to flood Europe with waves of immigrants, and by deprecating the US. His crude statements against US presidential candidate Joe Biden are but the latest example of such hostility; even when Erdogan’s actual conduct is more cautious.

Erdoğan’s relations with Putin and with Chinese leader Xi Jinping are also complex, though he shows them respect. After the incident in which Turkey downed a Russian warplane that had entered its territory (November 2015), a way was found to lower the tension and even arrive, as noted, at an arms deal. Turkey, Russia, and Iran (known as the Astana group) are trying to coordinate their policy in Syria, but from time to time the tension erupts again, especially after violent incidents between Russian and Turkish forces or proxies in Syria. As for the Chinese, they are proceeding cautiously with Erdoğan, among other things because of statements of support in Turkey for the Uyghur minority (which speaks a Turkic language) in northwestern China.

The focus at the moment is on Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s longstanding struggle with Greece is intertwined with the Libyan question. Alongside the understandings about the military intervention, Erdoğan also dictated a Memorandum of Agreement with the GNA that parcels out the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean in a way that would deny Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus access to Greece, and to the European market, without Turkish approval. The Turkish stance ignores the rights to the EEZ areas that Greek sovereignty imparts, according to international law, in islands such as Crete and Rhodes. Earlier, Erdoğan had already challenged the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) that set the border between Turkey and Greece (he has also challenged the borders with Syria and Iraq). Ataturk’s old warning against territorial aggrandizement is being ignored.

The dispute over the EEZ border between the countries is obviously perceived as a fight over underwater resources, but also a Turkish attempt to achieve hegemony in the region and to unravel the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which was established early in 2019. This move puts Turkey in conflict with Greece and Egypt, as manifested in naval maneuvers against each other, and in Turkey’s sending of seismic research boats to economically significant waters claimed by Greece. It puts Turkey in conflict in principle with Israel as well. (Israel, however, has avoided committing itself to military action, whether on Greece’s or Egypt’s side, and is limiting itself to diplomatic activity against the Turkish position, in the US arena.)

It should be noted that in this campaign, both the UAE (a week before the announcement of the breakthrough with Israel) and France have come out unequivocally in support of the position of Egypt and Greece. The latter signed (August 6, 2020) an agreement on a “counter-map” to that of Turkey and Libya. Consequently, France, Greece, and the UAE also conducted a joint naval exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean, reflecting the mounting tension with Turkey. Germany is trying to mediate the crisis, while in Washington there is a controversy between, on the one hand, strongly pro-Turkish elements in key positions in the administration, and, on the other, the prevailing mood in Congress (which shows increasing hostility to Turkey, including on the issue of the Armenian genocide) and among those in Trump’s circle who are attentive to Israel, Egypt, and the UAE.

Under these circumstances, there is a growing possibility of a military confrontation in the Mediterranean arena. As mentioned, Turkey has a large and well-equipped army and does not hesitate to use it. As also pointed out, it has dispatched military forces to the Middle Eastern arenas of northern Iraq, northern Syria, and western Libya, and it has built military bases in Qatar and Somalia. There are also indications of Turkish activity in Yemen that may signal an intention to gain influence in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. In the Eastern Mediterranean, ships from the Turkish fleet accompany seismic exploration ships in disputed areas, and have harassed, among others, an Israeli gas-exploration ship in waters claimed by Cyprus. Off the coast of Tripoli, Turkish ships came to the brink of a confrontation with a French frigate that was trying to enforce the arms embargo on Libya. The European Union’s Operation IRINI to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya has been avoiding further frictions with the Turks.

Turkey’s bellicose foreign policy is accompanied at home by an effort to build up a large defense industry (among other things, Turkish Bayraktar drones have been used in Libya). The government’s declared goal for the defense industry by 2023 is to provide 75% of the armament needs of the Turkish military and to reach $10.3 billion worth of exports.

Moreover, in a speech to members of his party in September 2019, Erdoğan hinted that Turkey does not recognize the legitimacy of the world order based on the hegemony of “the five,” that is, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, who are also the nuclear powers recognized by the NPT. That means he does not rule out expanding Turkey’s activity in the nuclear domain, even in the direction of a military capability with all that it entails.

Recommendations for an Overall Israeli Policy

It should be assumed that the political changes in Turkey are not temporary and will not disappear after the Erdoğan era. They flow from long-term trends in Turkish society. The recurrent frictions with Israel, and recently the calls for the “liberation” of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa, do not just stem from the antisemitism in large parts of Turkish society but reflect a distancing from the West and growing solidarity with popular anti-Israeli attitudes in the Muslim world. The critical stance toward Israel is also aimed at acquiring legitimacy and attaining a status of precedence among the Muslims, especially among Arab publics whose sympathy Turkey seeks to win for itself and for the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdoğan has indeed succeeded to attract more sympathy from these publics than any previous Turkish leaders. Thus, Turkey under Erdoğan’s leadership has become a country with hegemonic ambitions that threaten the stability of the region and endanger Israel’s interests.

Despite the hostile expressions toward it, Israel must be very cautious in its behavior toward Turkey. Israel has no interest in turning this powerful country into an active enemy. It should be borne in mind that Erdoğan’s Turkey has demonstrated a certain degree of pragmatism toward Israel. It has not completely severed its diplomatic relations with Israel and also maintains extensive trade ties with it, alongside mutual air traffic that is important for Turkey’s tourist trade and in terms of Muslim access to Jerusalem and particularly to the Temple Mount.

Consequently, Israel must distinguish between Turkey’s current leader and Turkish society as a whole, to preserve the possibility of better relations with a future government that is not under AKP control, or a government based on moderate elements in the party. Secular circles in Turkish society (as well as members of the Gülen movement) want good relations with Israel. Turkey is not Iran. Its status in the G-20 and its relations with the US are important to Turkey.

Against this backdrop, it is important to keep emphasizing that these new regional alignments do not seek to exclude Turkey – if its leadership chooses to cooperate.

At the same time, Israel needs to identify the levers of influence that will make it possible to restrain the ambitions of the current Turkish leadership. This relates first and foremost to economic realm, which has been the source of Erdoğan’s power and has become his Achilles heel. The aim is to prevent him from posing threats to vital Israeli interests and to its partners in the regional alignment (and in particular to Egypt’s stability). Israeli diplomatic activity on the Turkish issue must focus on Washington, seeking to harness the US (both the administration and Congress) in the effort to curb Erdoğan. The experience of recent years indicates that despite expressions of contempt, Erdoğan is leery of a direct confrontation with Washington.

Meanwhile Israel must work together with Egypt, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen the alignment that is trying to “contain” Turkey. This can be done in tandem with the measures now being taken by France. It is also important to increase European awareness of Turkey’s problematic behavior. The Balkan countries, too, suffered under the Ottoman yoke in the past and are fearful of Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria (which are EU members) as well as Serbia and Kosovo (which are knocking on its door) are natural partners in this effort.

Israel cannot commit to military action against Turkey (certainly not if the potential of a clash with Iran and its proxies remains Jerusalem’s highest priority). This must be candidly explained to Israel’s partners in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, it must be made clear that Israel will not hesitate to use force against Turkish moves that directly impact Israel’s vital interests. It is worth recalling that Israel’s thwarting of the Mavi Marmara flotilla prevented additional hostile flotillas from sailing and won the respect of Greece and Cyprus and other countries across the region.

From the standpoint of intelligence collection and research, and regarding the components of force buildup, Israel’s defense establishment and intelligence community must adapt to a reality in which Turkey’s behavior poses risks to Israel and its vital interests. The implications of the strengthening of the Turkish naval fleet must be carefully considered.

Considering Erdoğan’s statements, developments in the Turkish nuclear domain need to be monitored. It is also necessary to monitor Turkish activity in Jerusalem and to neutralize its influence among the Muslim population of the city. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are natural partners for countering Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

To a certain extent, Russia also is concerned about Turkey’s ambitions because of conflicting interests in Syria, on the Kurdish issue, in Libya (where Russian mercenaries are assisting Haftar’s army), and in the Bosporus Strait. It is worth looking ad hoc into the possibility that Russia can help restrain Turkey’s ambitions, which are likely sooner or later to foment unrest among the large Muslim minorities in the Russian Federation.

The efforts to find weak points in the Turkish system must, in any case, focus on the economic question, which as noted, plays a central role in cementing or undermining Erdoğan’s hold on power. As reflected in Trump’s blunt warnings, in 2019 Turkey was already in difficult straits (the plunging value of the lira, stalled growth, bloated debt) that can be translated into levers of influence. At present, the economic realm is even more vulnerable. The COVID-19 crisis was not well handled (at least in the first stages), and this has caused an economic recession and denied Turkey an important source of income with the collapse of the tourism sector.

The lessons of recent years indicate that Erdoğan can be subjected to restraining influences, particularly on Washington’s part, when he understands that he faces a resolute posture and cannot maneuver around it. Israel can play a discreet role here, while clarifying to the Turkish public that it does not regard it as an enemy.

Despite the current government’s hostility and the expressions verging on antisemitism, there is still a small Jewish community in Turkey that enjoys and needs the protection of the regime. (It prides itself on the hospitality that the Ottoman Empire showed toward Jews exiled from Spain). This community’s sensitivities, too, must be considered.

Appendix: The Political Map in Turkey

The map of the Turkish parties is indeed fluid, but Erdoğan’s AKP Party holds a dominant place. This survey offers an up-to-date picture of the political power relations with an eye to the near future.

Ruling AKP Party

In the latest elections in June 2018, the AKP Party received 42.56% of the votes. Looking toward the 2023 elections, Erdoğan is still the unquestioned leader and his control of his party is firm and stable. In a process of concentrating power and authority, Erdoğan got rid of charismatic figures in his party such as Davutoğlu and Babacan. Instead of them he prefers to work with uncharismatic yes-men such as former prime minister Binali Yıldırım or current vice-president Fuat Oktay. But in the wake of the revolt of Davutoğlu and Babacan, for the first time in December 2019 a quiet party conversation began on the issue of who would lead the AKP after the Erdoğan era.

The opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet conducted a survey of AKP supporters. Seventy-three percent of the respondents said they could not think of a chairman other than Erdoğan. Seventeen percent accepted the challenge and expressed support for Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soylu. Soylu’s sworn rival is Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, the (failed) finance minister, who was favored by only 8%. Even though his name was not mentioned in the survey, in light of his status as outgoing chief of staff and current defense minister, Hulusi Akar is particularly well positioned for the post of future party chairman.

CHP – Republican People’s Party

In the 2018 elections, the veteran Republican People’s Party or CHP received 22.64% of the votes. After its victory in the local-authority elections, the party appears to have presented a candidate who could challenge Erdoğan. The new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has undoubtedly become a very important figure in the secular party. His task, however, is not easy. There is a competition for leadership within the CHP, primarily between Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and Muharrem İnce, who was the party’s presidential candidate in 2018. İnce recently declared that he had established a new movement without resigning from the party. There is a significant possibility that the race between İnce and İmamoğlu will fracture the CHP’s power and even pave the way to the forming of a new secular party.

Nationalist Camp  

Since the founding of the Nationalist Movement Party or MHP in 1969, it has been considered the “mother” of all the Turkish nationalist parties. In the 2018 elections it garnered 11.1% of the votes. Thanks to the alliance it formed with the AKP in 2015 and the brand that it created, the MHP is now regarded as an important player with influence in setting the political agenda. Hence there is a strong chance that the party will continue to cooperate with the AKP. Erdoğan, a political strategist of the first order, made the MHP a natural partner of his party when he put an end to the reconciliation process with the Kurds. At present the Turkish military operations in northern Syria are cementing the ties between the AKP and the MHP.  

Since its inception, the MHP has always been a party that falls in line behind its leader. The legendary founding chairman was Alparslan Türkeş, who chose Devlet Bahçeli as his successor before his death. Bahçeli has been chairman since 1997. In 2017 he was fearful of losing his status and did not allow the party to organize primaries; as a result, his opponents left the party and established the Good Party or İyi Parti.

When Meral Akşener became the head of the new party, she constituted a change in the concept of leadership in Turkish politics. Instead of other charismatic male figures such as Sinan Oğan or Ümit Özdağ, Akşener succeeded to gain control of the party, but failed in the electoral struggle against Erdoğan. As a result, and in contrast to the norm in Turkish politics, Akşener took responsibility for the failure and resigned. While everyone thought Oğan or Özdağ would replace her, a majority of the party members demanded that she return to the position as chair. Because of pressure from the party’s supporters, Oğan and Özdağ refrained from officially challenging Akşener; currently they are cooperating with her. Nevertheless, if and when there is another failure or primaries in the party, it is likely that both or one of them will declare candidacy. It does not appear that stability is in store for the İyi Parti.

Kurdish Party  

In the 2018 elections the Kurdish HDP party gained 11.70% of the votes. This party supported Erdoğan, who was not hostile to the Kurds at first and even began a reconciliation process with them that ended without results in 2015. Already during the 2014 presidential elections, which Erdoğan won, the Kurdish party demonstrated opposition to the Turkish leader. The party’s chairman Selahattin Demirtaş, possessing charisma and oratory skills, became a serious rival. Demirtaş’s campaign touted the slogan “We will not let you be the omnipotent leader.” Erdoğan, for his part, saw Demirtaş’s move as a kind of betrayal of him. In response he formed an alliance with the Turkish nationalists and paved the way to the collapse of the reconciliation process with the Kurds. In retrospect, the breakdown of the peace process, the delegitimization of the Kurdish party, and the imprisonment of Demirtaş (on November 4, 2016) were apparently the conditions for the MHP to form an alliance with the AKP. During this period other Kurdish leaders were put in prison as well, and in their absence the HDP chose two new chairpersons, Sezai Temelli and Pervin Buldan. The two did not came close to the charisma of Demirtaş, which weakened[the party. It appears that as long as Erdoğan fortifies his rule through alliance with the MHP, there is no progress on the horizon in the peace process with the Kurds.

Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party

On December 13, 2019, Ahmet Davutoğlu went before the cameras and declared the establishment of a new opposition party called the Future Party. As a classic neo-Ottomanist, Davutoğlu is trying to gain the support of the national-religious camp, which will not want to see a significant change in Turkey’s foreign policy. On domestic issues, however, Davutoğlu hopes to make drastic changes. He told the media he wanted to abolish the presidential system and restore the parliamentary one. Davutoğlu does not appear to have much chance to bring about a revolution in Turkey. For many Turks his image is associated with the recent period of the AKP, that is, terror attacks, international isolation, a failed foreign policy in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular, and a slumping economy. It seems, then, that Davutoğlu will only be able to gain the support of the Turkish conservatives who are displeased with Erdoğan. However, taking into account that Erdoğan recently turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which won him great sympathy, Davutoğlu’s chances to attain the required, high minimum threshold of votes—10%—appear very small. That means there is a considerable possibility that he will form an alliance with other parties opposing Erdoğan so as to pass the 10% threshold.

Ali Babacan’s Solution Party

Compared to Davutoğlu, Babacan’s chances of passing the electoral threshold are higher because he has a more positive image. For many Turks, Babacan’s image recalls the AKP’s initial period, which was marked by economic prosperity as well as sound relations with the European Union and the United States. Despite Babacan’s achievements in the economic sphere, it is important to note that he lacks charisma. Despite all the good tidings he brings for foreign and economic policy, he is unlikely to “steal” substantial numbers of votes from Erdoğan’s party. Instead it is very likely that he will get votes from the ranks of the CHP and the İyi Parti. Similar to Davutoğlu’s party, there is a very strong chance that the Solution Party will also forge an alliance with the anti-Erdoğan parties.

Near Future in Turkish Politics

Erdoğan’s long reign shows that he is capable of surprising many of his enemies and friends alike. To a large extent his decisions are influenced by the political alliances that he forms. His political evolution can be understood in that light: in the past he has recruited supporters among liberals and business people who wanted to neutralize the political power of the military, Gülenists who want an Islamic coloration in the Turkish public space, Kurds who sought cultural autonomy, and recently the Turkish nationalists who fear the Kurds’ aspirations. Erdoğan has used all these groups as a tool to maintain control of the country. The history since 2002 indicates that no political actor is ruled out or immune to defection. Should Erdoğan come to the conclusion that the Turkish nationalists no longer serve his political needs, he can try to find another partner, though it appears at present that he views the nationalists as a natural ally.

Nowadays, achieving a parliamentary majority is related to the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish party plays a key role in building a coalition that enjoys a stable majority in the parliament. According to many polls, the AKP and the MHP together cannot get more than 50% of the parliamentary seats, but neither can the opposing coalition. The table below offers a calculation of the averages from several of the polls that asked whom people would have voted for if elections had been held in June 2020:

AKP-MHP alliance: 42%
İyi Parti-CHP alliance: 40%
AKP: 34%
MHP: 8.3%
CHP: 28%
İyi Parti: 12%
HDP: 12.4%

According to these findings, the HDP wins the status of “kingmaker” in the parliament—a result that is not to Erdoğan’s advantage. Nor is the picture that emerges for the presidential elections so optimistic for Erdoğan. According to those polls, if the opposition can unite around the candidacy of Ekrem İmamoğlu (which cannot be taken for granted) and if the Kurdish party manages to pass the threshold, there is a chance to defeat Erdoğan at the ballot box. Because the Kurdish party is not an official part of the anti-Erdoğan alliance of parties, it must pass the minimum 10% percentage. The rest of the parties in the anti-Erdoğan alliance benefit from the fact that the alliance will easily pass the threshold. 

It is not clear whether Erdoğan would accept defeat. It can reasonably be assumed that he would not recognize the results and would work to cancel them as he did in the first elections in Istanbul. It is also worth noting that if and when the Kurdish party is unable to pass the high 10% minimum, then the AKP, as the second largest party in the Kurdish districts, will receive all the mandates that would have gone to the Kurdish party. Indeed, if the HDP does not pass the threshold, the AKP that will be significantly strengthened.

Despite the Kurdish party’s importance, the two blocs still are not hurrying to recruit the HDP. Partnership with the Kurdish party could detract from the variety of target sectors. The chair of the İyi Parti, Akşener, recently declared that the HDP’s place is beside the PKK terror organization and staunchly rejected the option of including the Kurdish party in the alliance with the CHP. Despite her words, the HDP voters and leadership well understand what is at stake and the sensitivities of each party. Apparently the HDP will continue to support the anti-Erdoğan alliance informally.

If the nationalist MHP Party fails to cross the threshold, it will lose its importance in Erdoğan’s eyes. To prevent that situation there are intentions to call for early elections as long as the polls show that the MHP is above the threshold. Such a measure could undoubtedly cause a problem for Davutoğlu’s and Babacan’s parties. Turkish law bars new parties from running if they do not have a faction in the parliament (a minimum of 20 members) or if they do not have branches throughout the country. There is also a requirement to hold primaries six months before the date for the national elections. There is a possibility that a party in the parliament will “lend” legislators to a party that still does not have parliamentary representation. Because of this possibility, the MHP and the AKP are working together to pass a law that prohibits “transferring” members of parliament from party to party with the aim of blocking the path of Davutoğlu and Babacan in the parliament; this would eliminate the option for the MHP joining another party.

If this move succeeds, the Erdoğan government’s policy toward the Kurds will not change. However, if Davutoğlu and Babacan do manage to run for parliament and if the MHP loses power, Erdoğan will have to look for new allies on the political map, and there may then be a change in policy toward the Kurds.

There is much uncertainty about the contours of Turkish politics. It may perhaps be possible to put an end to Erdoğan’s rule in 2023, but his political skills may suffice for him to overcome the political hurdles. In any case, Erdoğan has left his mark on the political system. The country is more religious, centralized, and ambitious.


Photo: Bigstock/Freepik

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