Sunday, June 6, 2010

Making Sense of Turkey's Anger

Of all the geopolitical repercussions from the Flotilla Massacre, I think the stance taken by Turkey is the most compelling to look at. This is partly because the Turks have always been well-versed in the art of diplomacy, avoiding hostility at every turn. Of late, they even buried their long standing enmity with the Armenians, a rivalry that makes India-Pakistan look like a schoolyard tussle. Which is why the anger over the Flotilla is particularly surprising. The American press has clearly been caught off guard, as this perplexing New York Times editorial suggests. It is important however to look at this from a wider lens, because I feel Turkey’s stance is likely to have far-reaching implications on the region and its politics.

Historically, the country has subscribed to American foreign policy - opposing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, supporting George W. Bush's War on Terror, establishing a civil-military relationship with Israel and refusing to support Iran's nuclear ambitions. This was in line with its secular founder’s desire to be a part of the West, further manifested by its conscious distance from the Muslim world and courtship of the European Union.

That history seems to have turned, and in intriguing manner that. It is not the anger that Turkey displayed at Israel in the post-Flotilla era, but the nature and intensity that is significant. Among the things Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stated include accusing Israel of “state murder”, warning it of “unspecified consequences” if the blockade of Gaza is not ended, and describing Hamas as "a resisting group struggling for its own land". President Abdullah Gul went even further saying, “Turkey will never forgive this attack.” These are strong statements, and they follow a chain of words that began last year when Erdogan stormed out of a World Economic Forum debate describing Israel's Gaza offensive as "crimes against humanity”.

These tensions come on the back of moves by Turkey to assert itself in the Muslim world. It has engaged with Syria, a country isolated on the international front. It has worked to bring Pakistan and Afghanistan to the negotiating table. Most importantly it has thwarted the West’s assault on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, opposing sanctions and the military option using its position on the Security Council and ties with Tehran.

Several analysts have described this shift a result of the futility of Turkey’s EU ambitions and its realization that the Middle East better serves its economic aspirations. But this theoretical explanation ignores the changing political landscape of the country. After eight years in power, the Islamic minded government appears to have dealt a decisive blow to the previously dominant secular establishment, which encompasses the military, judiciary and media. The arrest of a group of generals accused of plotting a coup earlier this year served as a signature move for this victory. The removal of a major obstacle to its agenda has allowed the government to move ahead with more confidence on the foreign front. By design or fortune, it has assumed the role of the statesman of the Muslim world.

The big question is what this means in the regional context. At least in the Middle East, the days of the US-Turkey partnership are over. On Iran and Palestine, the defining issues of the region, the two countries are rapidly moving apart. This is a blow to the US in particular, because Turkey with its secular outlook and NATO status was as ideal a Muslim ally could be. With Europe appearing wary of adventurism, China and Russia nurturing long standing grudges, the US suddenly finds itself bereft of strong geostrategic allies.

The US’s Muslim allies will feel vulnerable as well. The Turkish admonishment of Israel has earnt it heroic status on the Muslim street. This is unlikely to sit well with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – all of whom have traded foreign policy independence for American security and economic assistance. Populations in these countries are rabidly anti-American, rivaling in emotion only the reverence their leaders have for Washington. Their people will inevitably cite Turkey as a model for what their state stance should be, further discrediting the government in public. This will prove dangerous when the Afghan war endgame, Gaza imbroglio and the Iran nuclear issue reach their climax, because it might require these countries to choose between domestic and international compulsions.

Turkey’s move is major in both its timing and impact. Whether it serves as a catalyst to a new future remains to be seen.


  1. Brilliant Umair... Although I don't quite agree with the statement "This is unlikely to sit well with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan" .... Egypt and Saudi Arabia do not require any economic help, there are other geo-political reasons for their support of the US and I believe Turkey's recent stance might influence these two states to alter their stance as well.

  2. Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world? This a foolish conclusion to a decent political analysis which has the facts but lacks accurate insight. Sure, Turkey seems to have upped up the rhetoric in the last few days but is that really your catalyst for suggesting a country gains leadership to a region which it previously turned its back upon, only to run back to after its rejection at the EU. While there have been some instances that you have done well to bring up, it is hardly much, to show that Turkey is the next STATESMAN. And of course, the Islamic minded government secured victory but the this could well change the next voting cycle.Remember - that this is Turkey - where the hijab was banned despite it being a 95% Muslim country. They pride themselves on being different from the rest of the Muslim Middle East. On being secular. About US - Turkey relations, it is impossible that Turkey will ever be foreign policy independent of the US. Very few countries are at the moment. And Turkey acheiving cult status in the Muslim world? Sure their statements have brought some cheer but isn't the Muslim world so used to hearing these hard-liner statements and then getting nothing else? There is absolutely no cult status associated with this.

    It is a far time before Turkey gains acceptance as a fellow "Muslim" country in the Middle East after years of distrust, its previous preference for the EU over the M.E. and secular population.

  3. I would like to say that being part of the Jewish community and hearing all about the flotilla from both sides of the situation, I really appreciate this post. This was very insightful. Thank you, and keep writing, it is wonderful to read.

  4. hmmmm, the insight you give is reasonable. given that turkey triggered circumstances which might lead to the blockade finally stopping, as we speak two ships from Ireland are heading for the blockade, Turkey could regain respect in the muslim world. Be it not with the govts, but with the people for sure. The question of whether Turkey can bring about a change, well only time can answer that, but they seem to be headed in that direction.

  5. very well written article, nice read i enjoyed it provided a different take on the geopolitical ramifications for Turkey, and its showing how they are moving away from the EU aspirations, but see they had somewhat neutral relations with Israel before all of this i thought they could play a perfect role before all of this in being a more westernized islamic country that could create dialouge and keep Israel in an ok position security wise, and with all of this now the prime minister of turkey wants to join the flotilla efforts by going to the gaza himself, i feel like turkey is going to push itself behind iran and lebanon, so that voice they were looking for to distinguish themselves i think they lost it
    because now as secular as they once were even with the number of muslims they were able to stay in good relations between Islamic countries and western countries which is a very unique position to be in and rare in today's world, but i feel like as you said they are shifting away from that and many of the world is rejoicing that but i dont know if its a good thing in bettering US relations with countries like Pakistan and others, i think it kinda hurts the Islamic countries and divides the world further, you need countries with those middle grounds to be the link in between the US and you to bring countries together, those linking countries are rare to come by

  6. This is a very well-written and insightful article, Umair. I thought I'd offer my two cents.

    Turkey has been an 'applicant' for EU accession for decades and there are numerous roadblocks that make the prospect of Turkey being allowed into the EU bleak. An article I read last semester argued that the country's patience is waning, and that at some point it may not even want to make any more changes, accommodate further reform, and simply choose to give it all up.

    But does this mean that the Turkish leadership is consciously looking to be relevant, if not in Europe then in the Middle East? I don't think that Erdogan's anger is anything but genuine and sincere; the fact that his rhetoric and moves will elevate his standing in the Muslim world and lend him an almost Nasserist appeal is a by-product that I think he won't mind accepting. But will Turkey be the new Egypt in the balance of power in the Middle East? After the 1978-79 Camp David Accords, Egypt took a back seat and Iran started becoming influential after the Revolution. Iran still is influential, but will Turkey, what with its leadership now speaking in a stronger tongue, contend for that role of leader? For the Muslims. Against the evil Zionist enterprise. Because if you stand up for that one cause you've pretty much earned heroic status in the Muslim world.

    I don't know if that's the case. It may just be that this flavor is unique to the present government (AKP). Maybe with the next government, things might change and go back to the way they were, i.e. relentless courtship of the EU and maintaining strong ties with Israel and the US.

    Another article I read recently pointed out that if Brazil and Turkey wanted to make a difference in the case of Israel and Palestine, they can use their position with Iran as leverage. The US wants to get through to Iran and Turkey is key. Could Turkey ask for the US to put pressure on Israel in return? Yes, would be the short answer.

  7. By the way, I wasn't aware that Turkey has buried the hatchet with the Armenian genocide question. Only recently it pulled its diplomats from D.C. because Congress passed a resolution recognizing that the 1915-1916 genocide did indeed happen.

    Also, do you really think Turkey is moving away from secularism because the leadership has an Islamic bent?

  8. @L
    The traditional domain of the leaders of the modern Muslim world has been harassing the Zionist entity. It seems fairly plausible to me that the reason Turkey is presently doing so is because the current regime is trying to ramp up its Middle East street cred.

    Turkey only buried the hatchet with the Armenians because it buried all the Armenians in Turkey; as such I doubt that they will accede wrongdoing over the circumstances.

  9. @ Haven

    I'm sure they are. I just don't know how successful it will be given Turkeys past slavish bent before the EU in preference of their Muslim/Middle Eastern neighbors.

  10. Here's a bit more on Turkey's growing stature in the Muslim street:

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