Turkish Government Is Not Entirely Unhappy With The War In Gaza

November 9, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 9 November 2023
Turkish Government Is Not Entirely Unhappy With The War In Gaza

The Israeli retaliation against Hamas's attacks on its territory is resulting in widespread devastation for Palestinians in Gaza. While many Western governments offer unwavering support to Israel, there is a significant public outcry in the Middle East due to the high civilian casualties. Middle Eastern governments are struggling to manage public anger and are calling for a ceasefire. Turkish leaders have also expressed their discontent with the war, primarily directed at Israel. Although the conflict in Gaza may impede Turkey's efforts to normalize relations with Israel and the West, the Turkish government also derives some benefits from the war.

First, Ankara has strongly opposed the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a project aimed at connecting India, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Europe through railway and port facilities. One can argue that the realization of the project is doubtful because the well-functioning sea routes make IMEC redundant. But, Ankara’s objection stems from the fact that the project excludes Turkey. In Erdoğan’s words, “There is no corridor without Turkey. The most convenient line for traffic from east to west has to pass through Turkey.”

It is understandable why Turkey was not part of the project. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Involving Turkey in the IMEC project implies that the corridor should go through Iran, Iraq or Syria. And the conditions in these countries are not right to transport large amounts of goods for a variety of reasons. However, this principle applies to the IMEC project as well. The latest conflict in Gaza demonstrated that the corridor between the Arab countries and Israel may not be as reliable as once thought. This is a win for Ankara.  

Second, the conflict in Gaza has revealed Turkey's discontent with the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between several Arab countries and Israel. Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan warned his Arab counterparts that these accords are essentially a means of sidestepping the Palestinian issue. In the same interview, he went on to argue that “Israeli warmongers aim to transition from Gaza to Lebanon to confront Hezbollah and potentially even Iran in the future.” This line of reasoning considers the Abraham Accords as a prelude to war with Iran, which is not welcome by Ankara. Thus, the undermining of the Abraham Accords and Saudi Arabia's suspension of talks with Israel are a win for Fidan’s foreign policy understanding.

On the other hand, the war in Gaza could be an opportunity to raise Erdoğan’s image as a peacemaker and power breaker in the region, as he did with some success in the Black Sea, where Turkey facilitated a grain deal between Ukraine and Russia. In the war in Gaza, Turkey enjoys access to both parties. It has provided shelter and support to Hamas for a long time, and it has recently normalized its relations with Israel.   

Nonetheless, President Erdoğan and President Biden have not talked about the conflict at all. When Biden flew to Israel to show unwavering US support, he planned to meet with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, but not Turkey. (The meeting with the Arab leaders was called off anyway.) Nor did US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken include Turkey in its first trip to the Middle East, where he visited Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, some of them multiple times, to engage regional partners on efforts to help prevent the conflict from spreading. Blinken just spoke once with his Turkish counterpart on October 8 before his visit to Ankara on November 6, concluding the last leg of his second Middle East tour.

The fact that the US government and Israel have largely ignored Turkey’s pleas to offer help undoubtedly damages the Turkish government's sense of self-importance in regional politics. However, Turkey should not take it personally. What Ankara may not fully grasp is that, from the U.S. perspective, the Palestinian issue is essentially an Arab-Israeli conflict. Turkey is an outsider in this conflict, similar to many other Muslim nations. This is a squandered opportunity for Erdoğan.

If the war in Gaza drags on, none of Ankara's views will matter, and Turkey may find itself in an untenable position. On one hand, Turkey is in desperate need of normalizing its relations with Israel and the West, mostly for financial reasons. This is one of the main reasons why the AKP government in Turkey has largely restrained its responses to Israel and has been careful not to sever ties. On the other hand, due to its ideological leanings, whether it is Islamist, nationalist or leftist, the Turkish political leadership mostly sympathizes with the Palestinians. This is why Turkey has refrained from condemning Hamas, and President Erdoğan has even described Hamas fighters as liberators rather than terrorists. Wherever its sympathies lie, Turkey must act with restraint and avoid inflammatory discourse for its own sake and the sake of the reconstruction of Gaza after the war.

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