TEL AVIV – As the Islamic State militant group has advanced across Iraq and Syria, traditional regional alliances, long shaped by Western powers, have been upended. Particularly consequential is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s struggle to reconcile his country’s relationship with NATO with its image as a leading protector of Sunni Islam.
The Turkish government’s reluctance to join the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State’s extremist Sunni fighters has isolated it from other Sunni Arab powers, such as Saudi Arabia, that have joined the coalition. Moreover, it has further alienated Turkey’s Iranian allies, already estranged by Erdoğan’s obsession with toppling their man in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. And it appears to vindicate European Union countries, such as France and Germany, that never trusted Turkey’s capacity to reconcile its Islamist vocation with its European aspirations.
Indeed, a key NATO member state has become the paladin of radical Islam throughout the Middle East, led by a president whose core political constituency is ingrained with anti-Western sentiment. Erdoğan’s supporters dismiss Western campaigns against Islamist terrorism as a ploy to repress Sunnis. As one such supporter, Kenan Alpay, recently wrote, “Turkey cannot be a part of an international system that aims to dissolve all Islamic movements from the Muslim Brotherhood to…the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
A couple of weeks later, Erdoğan himself unleashed a furious anti-Western diatribe at Istanbul’s Marmara University. In his speech, he compared the West’s interference in the Middle East today with the British officer Lawrence of Arabia’s involvement in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I, and blasted the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which has since defined the Middle East’s political map.