No one could have imagined that an ordinary passenger ship would have such a dramatic impact on Middle East politics. Until it became the leading ship of the aid flotilla aiming to break the hermetical blockade of Gaza, the Mavi Marmara operated in the serene waters of the Bosporus. On May 31, Israeli commandos raided the ship in high seas, brutally killing nine Turkish citizens and injuring more than 30 passengers.
Attacking a Turkish ship in international waters 77 miles off the coast of Gaza on the pretext of “defending” an illegal blockade drew harsh reaction from the Turkish government. The following developments have been considered to be “milestones” for the Palestinian issue and “change of balance” in the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
A visionary foreign policy approach
Turkey had been a “wing country” of NATO throughout the cold war era, its assigned role being to stop or slow a possible Soviet invasion of Europe. In the post cold war era, Turkish policymakers wanted to devise a new foreign policy concept to adapt to the changing strategic role of NATO. They first implemented a US-centred foreign policy approach to ensure strong ties with Washington.
Turkish policy makers were aware that if they needed US support, they had to develop strong bilateral relations with Israel. Hence, a rapid rapprochement between Israel and Turkey occurred in the 1990s.
Although, Turkey gained some modest benefits during this period, the pro-American policies caused immense repercussions for the Turkish economy and isolated Turkey politically in the region. The dreadful sanctions imposed on Iraq cost Turkey more than $100 billion primarily for shutting down the Kerkuk-Yumurtalik oil pipeline. Political problems with neighbouring countries put severe strains on the Turkish economy, which suffered three major crises in 1994, 1998 and 2001.
The turning point for Turkey’s foreign policy came in the post 9/11 era. US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a wakeup call for Turkish policymakers who felt their repercussions severely: instability in Iraq gave rise to demands by the Kurds for an independent state. Additionally, Northern Iraq-based Kurdish separatist group PKK that has been fighting against Turkey became significantly freer in conducting its operations against Turkey. Turks are worried about possible US attacks on Syria and Iran; considering the sizable Kurdish population in these two countries, it would inevitably lead to the declaration of a de facto Kurdish state.
Therefore, even before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, policy makers seriously considered changing Turkish foreign policy to survive in this volatile period. The new paradigm was devised by former academic and current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davudoglu. He outlined these ideas in his book, Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth) while teaching at the War Academy of Turkey. The book presented a new approach to Turkish foreign policy and when the AKP come to power in 2002, it was put into practice.
The new paradigm envisaged a dynamic multi-dimensional Turkish foreign policy in which Turkey would no longer be an appendage but a key regional if not a global player yet. As Davutoglu explains in his article published in Foreign Policy, Turkey’s new foreign policy consists of three methodological principles:
- A visionary approach as opposed to a crisis-oriented approach: Turkey wants to liberate itself from a defensive stance and positively get involved in issues taking place in its proximity, i.e., mediation efforts between Syria and Israel, involvement in the Palestinian issue, Iranian nuclear issue, and reconciliation between Iraq’s political groups.
- Basing Turkey’s foreign policy on a “consistent and systematic” framework. Approaches to a certain region should not be incongruous with Turkey’s interests in other regions. There will be concurrence in implementing policies in different regions.
- Adoption of a new discourse of diplomatic style (soft power approach) that prioritizes Turkey’s “civil-economic” power.
The entire paradigm was designed to counter regional instabilities and uncertainties that may further harm the “national unity of Turkey”, as well as turn the vacuum created by post 9/11 events into an opportunity to elevate Turkey’s position internationally.
No longer interested in negotiating
In the new foreign policy paradigm, Palestine plays a crucial role. Turkey believes that the root cause of conflict in the Middle East is the Israeli-Palestine conflict and must be solved through dialogue and peaceful means. So Turkey wants to establish negotiations with all sides, including Hamas, winner of the 2006 elections and thus the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That is why Turkey invited Khalid Meshaal to Turkey in February 2006, immediately after Hamas’ electoral victory.
Turkey also wanted to keep good relations with Israel and genuinely attempted reconciliation. Turkey’s peace negotiations between Israel-Syria and Israel-Palestine however ended after Israel attacked Gaza (2008–”2009). Consequently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Israeli President Simon Peres in the 2009 Davos Economic Forum. The incident was a critical turning point since it enabled Turks to realize that the real troublemaker in the region was Israel and if they wanted to achieve their vision of the Middle East they needed to confront the aggressive Israeli policies. Erdogan made this clear in his critique of Israel after the Gaza War, referring to Israel as the “main threat to regional peace”. He said “it is Israel that is the main threat to regional peace; if a country uses disproportionate force in Pales-ine, in Gaza, and uses phosphorus bombs we are not going to say ‘well done’.”
Turkey adopted an “isolation policy” against Israel to pressure Tel Aviv to abandon its war mongering policies. Also, Erdogan did not miss any opportunity to show solidarity with the Palestinians at international forums. In other words, with the Israeli assault on Gaza, Turkey gave up its role as mediator and decided to get actively involved in the conflict.
Israel committed a blunder when it attacked the Turkish ship in international waters. The attack provided Turkey a unique opportunity to intensify its isolation policy against Israel. As victim, Turkey gained the moral high ground and legitimacy globally to involve itself more deeply in the conflict. Domestic support for such action was always there to restored the Turks’ injured pride.
There is no doubt Turkey’s active involvement in the conflict has changed the regional power balance. Unlike Palestinians or Arab countries, Turkey would prove a formidable adversary for Israel, not only with its strong military but also its influential role in many international organizations. Turkey wasted no time in showing its political muscle after the Mavi Marmara attack. In an interview on Kanal 24, a private Turkish TV channel, Davutoglu said “We will isolate Israel on all grounds,” if Israel refuses to accept an international inquiry. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Turkey called an emergency meeting on May 31. The Security Council slammed the raid on the flotilla and demanded an end to the blockade of Gaza in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1860.
On June 2, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted 32–”3 to condemn “in the strongest terms the outrageous attack by the Israeli forces against the humanitarian flotilla of ships” and demanded an official investigation. Other influential organizations such as the European Parliament, Arab League, African Union and Organization for American States also condemned Israel.
As part of calculated Turkish policy, Prime Minister Erdogan was circumspect in his reaction. Although he made his harshest remarks to date he did not allow Israeli propaganda machinery to use it against Turkey. Rather, he presented the issue as Israeli aggression against the world and emphasized Israel’s breach of international law, demanding that Israel must be “punished” for its criminal behaviour.
“Despots, gangsters, even pirates have specific sensitivities, follow some specific morals. Those who do not follow any morality or ethics, those who do not act with any sensitivity, to call them such names would even be a compliment to them. Israel has, by attacking a ship with volunteers from 32 countries, in fact defied the world. World peace has been deeply wounded. This brazen, irresponsible, reckless government that recognises no law and tramples on any kind of humanitarian virtue, this attack of the Israeli government by all means –” but by all means, must be punished.”
In terms of domestic reaction, Turkey is expected to take strong action to increase pressure on Israel. Turkish Defence Industry Implementation Committee (SSIK) announced that unless Israel apologizes to Turkey, pay compensation to the victims and allow an international investigation, Turkey will annul 16 military agreements with Israel, including a $5 billion project to buy 1,000 Merkava-III tanks, a $757 million plane and tank modernization project and a missile project worth over $1.5 billion.
Turkish policy bearing fruit
Israel had already been under international pressure before its attack on the flotilla; the attack on Gaza and fiasco of the Dubai assassination brought Israel’s international reputation to an all time low. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that instead of having a list of goods allowed into Gaza, there will be a list of what is forbidden. If implemented, this will significantly reduce Palestinian suffering and lead to a possible end of the siege of Gaza in the near future.
This will definitely increase Turkey’s influence in the region. It will be viewed as Ankara’s successful policy to isolate Israel. And, it will strengthen the hand of the Palestinian resistance in its struggle for dignity and freedom.
However, Israel is trying to break its international isolation in an attempt to prevent Turkish policymakers from taking more drastic steps. Zionist lobbies in the US have already begun frenzied attacks against and intimidation of Turkey. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), for instance, has suggested that Turkey should be removed from NATO: “The United States should seriously consider suspending military cooperation with Turkey as a prelude to removing it from the organisation,” said JINSA.
The US has watched Turkey’s new policy and confrontation with its closest ally (Israel) quietly but closely. But the recent Turkey-Brazil brokered nuclear-fuel agreement signed in Tehran, and Turkey’s vote together with Brazil against Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Iran, rang alarm bells for US policymakers. There is now serious concern in Washington about Turkey’s increasing influence in the region.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates did not hide his disappointment about Turkey’s stance on the nuclear issue: “I was disappointed by Turkey’s vote in the Iranian sanctions. That said Turkey is a decades-long ally of the United States and other members of NATO.” He added, “Turkey continues to play a critical part in the alliance.”
The US has a few cards to play against Turkey. The Kurdish issue is the weakest spot for Turkey that the US and Israel could exploit. Prime Minister Erdogan has said the sudden escalation in attacks on Turkish soldiers has “external” supervision. Cancellation of a US-Turkey anti-terrorism meeting scheduled for June 17 could be an important signal for future US moves. Also, Washington could use the “Armenian genocide” legislation recently passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to exert pressure on Turkey.
However, 70% of supplies going to US soldiers in Iraq pass through Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase. The US must think twice before taking any hostile action against the “emerging superpower of the region.” Ankara also holds several crucial cards in its hand.