TEL AVIV – The deadly fiasco of the Turkish-led “peace flotilla” to Gaza highlighted the deepening strain in the Israeli-Turkish alliance. But it mainly helped expose the deeper, underlying reasons for Turkey’s shift from its Western orientation toward becoming a major player in the Middle East – in alliance with the region’s rogue regimes and radical non-state actors.
Foreign policy cannot be separated from its domestic foundations. The identity of nations, their ethos, has always been a defining motive in their strategic priorities. Israel’s blunders did, of course, play a role in the erosion of its alliance with Turkey. But the collapse of its old “alliance of the periphery,” including Turkey, the Shah’s Iran, and Ethiopia, had more to do with revolutionary changes in those countries – the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power, the end of Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, and now Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic shift – than with Israeli policies.
The current crisis reveals the depth of Turkey’s identity complex, its oscillation between its Western-oriented Kemalist heritage and its Eastern Ottoman legacy. Snubbed by the European Union, Erdogan is tilting the balance towards the latter.
Kemalism always saw the Ottoman legacy as a burden, an obstacle to modernization. In Erdogan’s vision, modernization does not preclude a return to Turkey’s Islamic roots, nor does it require it to abandon its destiny as a Middle East power, even if this means flouting United States-led policies in the region.
Indeed, Erdogan responded positively to Europe’s conditions for Turkey’s EU membership. His reforms – economic liberalization, cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights, improving the Kurdish minority’s rights, and undercutting the army’s Praetorian ambitions – are major advances in the history of the Turkish Republic.
Yet Erdogan has also been eager to use Europe’s requirements as a pretext to curb the army’s capacity to check his Islamic revolution. The election of his political ally, Abdullah Gul, as president, against the army’s will – indeed, against the entire Kemalist tradition – is a case in point.
To block a move aimed at outlawing his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan also domesticated Turkey’s constitutional court – together with the army a watchdog of Kemalism – by arbitrarily changing its composition. Now a constitutional reform supposedly aimed at “promoting Turkey’s EU membership” would further curb the army’s role as the guardian of the secular state and strengthen government control of the judiciary.
Erdogan’s Islamic revolution has also expanded into the educational system with the introduction of a markedly religious curriculum. To back Turkey’s strategic shift, a new law has recently made the teaching of Arabic obligatory in schools. It is difficult to imagine a more symbolic blow to Ataturk’s vision.
Erdogan believes that, by exercising Turkey’s capacity for mediation, he will recover the burden of his Ottoman forbears as the guarantors of peace and security in the Mashreq. Turkey’s drive to serve as a peace broker between Israel and its Arab enemies, Erdogan’s vociferous championship of the Palestinian cause, and his pretension to be the mediator in the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West reflect Turkey’s changing perceptions of itself as a regional leader.
To both Israel and the West, the regional context of Turkey’s rise is especially disturbing. Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanism is not a return to an idyllic Ottoman Commonwealth; it is more a clash between a rising radical axis, led by two major non-Arab powers (Turkey and Iran), and the declining Arab conservative regimes.
Turkey put Israel in the dock of world opinion over the “peace flotilla” in a way that might still force Binyamin Netanyahu’s government to opt for credible peace negotiations, while providing a boost to Hamas and bringing about the imminent end of Iarael’s Gaza blockade. Such a spectacular success only serves to highlight the impotence of the West’s Arab allies.
Indeed, Turkey’s growing regional relevance is the measure of the Arabs’ failure. They failed to advance their peace initiative with Israel, and are complicit in the blockade of Gaza in the hope that Hamas will collapse, thereby humbling their own Islamist oppositions.
As Islamist democracies whose governments emerge from popular elections, Iran and Turkey – and their Hamas and Hezbollah allies – can claim an advantage over the incumbent Arab regimes, all of which suffer from a desperately yawning legitimacy deficit. They are all secular autocracies kept in power by intrusive, all-powerful intelligence services.
Erdogan’s strategy makes him complicit with the agenda of the West’s most vicious enemies. He even flirted with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s perverted Islamist rule, welcoming Bashir to Turkey after he was indicted by the International Criminal Court for massacres in Darfur on the grounds that “Muslims do not commit genocide.”
Iran and Turkey are bound to assert their Islamic credentials more and more as they reach out to the Arab masses. That a pan-Islamic discourse has now replaced the cause of pan-Arabism is a major setback for moderate Arab regimes.
Yet, despite Erdogan’s creeping Islamic revolution, Turkey is not a second Iran. The AKP remains a progressive, heterogeneous party that sees no contradiction between Islam and democracy. Nor has it entirely given up on Turkey’s European dream.
Moreover, an increasingly robust secular opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) under the vigorous leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is bound to help stem the Islamist tide. With Israel’s return to a sober peace strategy, and with an honest dialogue between Turkey and its NATO allies, the Turkish bridge between East and West can still be salvaged.