(January 18, 2019/KDJ) Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has successfully undermined the secular, Kemalist nature of the country. His Justice & Development Party (AKP), aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, has joined Qatar in spreading radical Sunni ideology throughout countries affected by the Arab Spring. This process was envisioned as the beginning of Turkey’s re-emergence as a dominant Middle East power. Instead, it has led to Ankara being isolated regionally.
In economic decline and surrounded by rivals, Erdoğan has had to watch as enemy leaders have united against him.
A New Energy Axis
Israel and Turkey were once close partners. Yet ever since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, Erdoğan has chosen to act as a champion of the Palestinian cause. Despite Arab leaders moving on from the issue and beginning the process of embracing Israel, Turkey has sought to become the regional leader on the “Palestinian cause.” The collapse of the Arab-led regional order in the 2011 Arab Spring put more wind to the Turkish sails. But in 2013, Egyptian General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo, leading to serious enmity between Al-Sisi and Erdoğan.
An Israeli natural gas pipeline that was originally to go through Turkey has now been canceled. The pipeline was to supply Europe with energy and economically benefit Ankara. Now, Israel and Egypt have bypassed Turkey. Both countries have linked up with Greece and Cyprus, two historic enemies of Turkey. Now, they will build a pipeline from Israel to Cyprus and Greece, leading to Italy and supplying Europe with clean energy. Israel and Egypt will also sell the gas regionally, and the UAE has invested in this scheme.
Tariffs & Tiffs with the West
Not only is Turkey denied a chance at economic integration via the gas pipeline to Europe. It has also isolated itself from Europe. Erdoğan’s ridiculous comparisons of center-left European Union leaders to Nazis has left him friendless in Brussels. His country’s slide towards religious authoritarianism has denied virtually any chance Turkey had of becoming an EU member-state. While it’s true that Brussels has long been biased against the idea of a non-White, Muslim-majority society joining the EU, Turkey’s human rights abuses and support for terror have only justified their views.
The United States has also been less than pleased with Ankara’s behavior as of late. Besides it cozying up to Russia, Turkey held an American pastor in prison. US President Donald Trump imposed harsh tariffs until he was released, yet the Turkish economy has not recovered. After Turkey threatened to invade Syria and destroy the Kurdish anti-ISIS coalition, Trump threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy, which officially entered recession in late 2018.
Turkey is trying to replace its historic pro-Western stance by cozying up to Russia and “rebalancing” towards the Middle East. Yet its interests differ vastly from most Arab countries, Iran, Russia, and Israel. Moreover, Russia and Iran–two countries Ankara has tried to inch closer to–are themselves embroiled in economic turmoil and isolated from much of the world. It remains unclear just how much Turkey would benefit from replacing its Western allies with such troubled countries.
Semitic Assistance to Kurds
To the south, Turkey also faces isolation. Much as Israel joined with Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt in the north to hinder a Turkish advance in the eastern Mediterranean, it has also joined forces with a number of Arab regimes in the Gulf to block Ankara.
A report by the Middle East Eye news website released information that Israel and its Gulf Arab partners see Iran as a power in decline, and view Turkey as the threat-in-waiting. According to the report, Israel urged Gulf Arab states to bring Assad back into the “regional fold” in order to isolate Turkey and Iran. The Jewish state also encouraged Gulf countries to strengthen their relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan and provide assistance to Syria’s Kurdish fighters. As this was going on, reports also trickled through that UAE and Saudi troops were sent to Rojava (Kurdish northern Syria) to bolster Kurdish fighters against Turkish-backed jihadists.
Israel and the Gulf states are united already against Iran and its so-called “Axis of Resistance.” They have also sought cooperation in terms of dealing with environmental problems, Sunni jihadism, and economic opportunity. It is clear that once ISIS and its ilk, along with Iran, are dealt with, Ankara will be the main challenge bringing the two sides together. Israel’s historic ties to the Kurds in the north can help create a situation where Arab countries see them less as problematic “Zionist agents” and more as partners and allies.
The history of Ottoman imperialism in Israel and Arab countries already provokes a sense of mistrust and resentment. Just at a time when Egypt and even Saudi Arabia are beginning to secularize and modernize, Turkey is joining Qatar to foment Sunni extremism throughout the Middle East, under the guise of “Muslim democracy.” Luckily, many in the region seem to have seen through this thinly-veiled disguise, and reacted accordingly.
Israel has skillfully crafted the situation to its benefit. It has expanded the nature of cooperation with Arab regimes in response to Turkish aggression. But it has also turned its ties with Cyprus, Armenia, and Greece from skeptical to positive. It has lobbied for more support for its friends, the Kurds, and made itself the lynchpin of a new regional alliance.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan has only himself to blame for the coming isolation of his country. His aggression towards Greece and Cyprus has turned many of his NATO allies against him. His economy is in turmoil. Qatar, his only regional ally of use, is dependent now on an economically-weakened Ankara and bankrupt Iran. The Palestinians are weak, divided, and inconsequential. Turkey has hitched itself to “frenemies” (Iran and Russia) who have different goals and are themselves economically weak. It has virtually no path to Brussels. The world has made it clear that Turkish aggression against the Kurds is not as acceptable as it once was.
As the noose tightens around Ankara, let us hope that a new, peaceful and progressive Turkish leader emerges from this chaos and takes a productive approach towards the Middle East.