Cold Turkey

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

“There is no doubt he is our friend,” Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even as Erdogan accuses Israeli 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 reveal the extent of that change. The first came last October with the news that the Turkish military—a longtime bastion of secularism and advocate of cooperation with Israel—had abruptly asked Israeli forces not to participate in the annual Anatolian Eagle air force exercise.

Erdogan cited “diplomatic sensitivities” for the cancellation, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of “sensitivity on Gaza, east Jerusalem, and Al-Aksa Mosque.” The Turks specifically rejected Israeli planes that might have attacked Hamas in the Gaza Strip operation of 2008–9. Syria applauded the disinvitation, which 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 Eitan Ben-Eliahu, for example, called the cancellation “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 if the government becomes too Islamist.

The second event took place two days later, on October 13, when Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, announced that Turkish and Syrian forces had just “carried out maneuvers near Ankara.” Muallem 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.

Third, ten Turkish ministers, led by Davutoglu, joined their Syrian counterparts in October for talks under the auspices of the just-established Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The ministers announced that they had signed almost forty agreements; that a joint military exercise bigger and “more comprehensive” than the first one would be held in April; and that the two countries’ leaders soon would sign a strategic agreement.

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.” Muallem 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 Damascus. But improved ties with Syria are only one part of a much larger Turkish effort to enhance relations with regional and Muslim states—a strategy Davutoglu laid out in his influential 2000 book, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position.

In brief, Davutoglu envisions reduced conflict with neighbors while Turkey emerges 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 from Israel in particular. Although not presented in Islamist terms, “strategic depth” closely fits the AK Party’s Islamist worldview.

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 officials in the West seem nearly oblivious to this momentous change in Turkey’s allegiance and its implications. The cost of this error will soon become evident.