Turkey: An Ally No
"There is no doubt he is our
friend," Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
says of Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as he
accuses Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman of
threatening to use nuclear weapons against Gaza. These
outrageous assertions point to the profound change of
orientation by Turkey's government, for six decades the
West's closest Muslim ally, since Erdogan's AK party came
to power in 2002.
Three events this past month reveal the extent of that change.
The first came on October 11 with the news that the Turkish
military – a long-time bastion of secularism and advocate of
cooperation with Israel – abruptly asked Israeli forces not to
participate in the annual "Anatolian Eagle" air force
Erdogan cited "diplomatic sensitivities" for the cancelation
and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of "sensitivity on
Gaza, East Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa mosque." The Turks
specifically rejected Israeli planes that may have attacked
Hamas (an Islamist terrorist organization) during last winter's
Gaza Strip operation. While Damascus applauded the
disinvitation, it prompted the U.S. and Italian governments to
withdraw their forces from Anatolian Eagle, which in turn meant
canceling the international exercise.
As for the Israelis, this "sudden and unexpected" shift shook
to the core their military alignment with Turkey, in place
since 1996. Former air force chief Eytan Ben-Eliyahu, for
example, called the cancelation "a seriously worrying
development." Jerusalem immediately responded by reviewing
Israel's practice of supplying Turkey with advanced weapons,
such as the recent $140 million sale to the Turkish Air Force
of targeting pods. The idea also arose to stop helping the
Turks defeat the Armenian genocide resolutions that regularly
appear before the U.S. Congress.
Barry Rubin of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya not
only argues that "The Israel-Turkey alliance is over" but
concludes that Turkey's armed forces no longer guard the
secular republic and can no longer intervene when the
government becomes too Islamist.
The second event took place two days later, on October 13, when
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem announced that
Turkish and Syrian forces had just "carried out maneuvers near
Ankara." Moallem rightly called this an important development
"because it refutes reports of poor relations between the
military and political institutions in Turkey over strategic
relations with Syria." Translation: Turkey's armed forces lost
out to its politicians.
Thirdly, ten Turkish ministers, led by Davutoglu, joined their
Syrian counterparts on October 13 for talks under the auspices
of the just-established "Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic
Cooperation Council." The ministers announced having signed
almost 40 agreements to be implemented within 10 days; that "a
more comprehensive, a bigger" joint land military exercise
would be held than the first one in April; and that the two
countries' leaders would sign a strategic agreement in
The council's concluding joint statement announced the
formation of "a long-term strategic partnership" between the
two sides "to bolster and expand their cooperation in a wide
spectrum of issues of mutual benefit and interest and
strengthen the cultural bonds and solidarity among their
peoples." The council's spirit, Davutoglu explained, "is common
destiny, history and future; we will build the future
together," while Moallem called the get-together a "festival to
celebrate" the two peoples.
Bilateral relations have indeed been dramatically reversed from
a decade earlier, when Ankara came perilously close to war with
Syria. But improved ties with Damascus are only one part of a
much larger effort by Ankara to enhance relations with regional
and Muslim states, a strategy enunciated by Davutoglu in his
influential 2000 book, Stratejik derinlik: Türkiye'nin
uluslararasi konumu ("Strategic Depth: Turkey's International
In brief, Davutoglu envisions reduced conflict with neighbors
and Turkey emerging as a regional power, a sort-of modernized
Ottoman Empire. Implicit in this strategy is a distancing of
Turkey from the West in general and Israel in particular.
Although not presented in Islamist terms, "strategic depth"
closely fits the AK party's Islamist world view.
As Barry Rubin notes, "the Turkish government is closer
politically to Iran and Syria than to the United States and
Israel." Caroline Glick, a Jerusalem Post columnist, goes
further: Ankara already "left the Western alliance and became a
full member of the Iranian axis." But official circles in the
West seem nearly oblivious to this momentous change in Turkey's
allegiance or its implications.
The cost of their error will soon become evident.