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Turkey's Neo-Ottoman Foreign Policy

Pro-Palestinian activists hold down an Israeli commando on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship "Mavi Marmara." Nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israeli forces boarded the ship in international waters in 2010.
Pro-Palestinian activists hold down an Israeli commando on the Gaza-bound Turkish ship "Mavi Marmara." Nine Turkish nationals were killed when Israeli forces boarded the ship in international waters in 2010.
How does Turkey’s ruling Islamist party react when it gets a report it doesn't like from the United Nations?

By yanking diplomats, threatening military conflict with a neighbor, and menacingly eyeing that neighbor's new yield of natural resources.

If the General Assembly ever does something really provocative and votes on a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide or the right of Kurdish self-determination, you can bet that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will make the prison guard in "Midnight Express" look like Florence Nightingale.

Reacting to the leaked UN Palmer Report on the 2010 flotilla fiasco, which found that Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip is legal and that the passengers aboard the "Mavi Marmara" were cruising for a bruising, Erdogan’s government has taken to issuing thuggish pronunciamentos.

At issue is the fact that Israel refused to apologize to Turkey for killing nine Turkish nationals in the Mediterranean.

Israel reckons that to do so would be an insult to the commandos who abseiled onto the "Mavi Marmara" only to be bludgeoned, stabbed, and shot.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has tried to have it both ways on the flotilla. It banned its own members from participating in order to distance itself from what was obviously a blockade-running provocation.

Yet ranking AKP members are on the board of IHH, the Turkish "charity" that organized the event.

Anatolian Chest-Poundings

And Erdogan's refusal to let the 2011 flotilla start out from Istanbul -- at the urging of Washington -- complicates the government's claims of having no control over a supposedly independent NGO. Needless to say, bilateral relations with Israel have gone from lousy to dire.

“The eastern Mediterranean will no longer be a place where Israeli naval forces can freely exercise their bullying practices against civilian vessels,” one Turkish official said, promising a military escort for all future “aid” ships to Gaza -- assuming, that is, that these ships can outfox the savvy Israeli lawyers who made the sequel set-sail a busted flush.

From the sound of it, Turkey now wants to become the chief maritime bully. Part and parcel with its “more aggressive strategy” in the eastern Mediterranean is its attempt to stop Israel from mining its huge natural gas and oil fields, recent discoveries which some experts predict will make the Jewish state one of the largest -- and wealthiest -- energy exporters in the world.

The threat by a NATO member to skirmish on the high seas with a major U.S. ally follows other Anatolian chest-poundings.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoganyrian (left) had done "happy business" in the past with Syrian President Bashar Assad

Earlier in the week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose foreign policy vision used to be known as “no problems with the neighbors,” announced that Ankara would be expelling all Israeli Embassy officials above the rank of second secretary.

Erdogan wants to visit Gaza in the coming days to increase “international attention” on Israel’s siege of the strip.

This from the man who previously said that he doesn’t think Hamas is a terrorist group.

Erdogan's visit is sure to impress upon Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas which party the AKP would like see ruling the Palestinian state the UN is about to recognize.

A Dirty Little Secret

Finally, Erdogan vowed to suspend all military relations and defense industry trade between Turkey and Israel.

Years ago, this might have been significant. Yet here’s a dirty little secret: Greece, which diplomatically facilitated the second flotilla’s deep-sixing, is fast replacing Turkey as Israel’s favorite regional military partner.

Not only is flight distance between Israel and Greece the same as that between Israel and Iran, but the Hellenes have got S-300 antiaircraft missiles that the mullahs have been itching to buy from Russia in order to deter an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Joint Israeli-Greek military exercises are therefore seen as very valuable at the moment.

The Israelis and Palestinians have had their share of Turkish strong-arming, but so have the Syrians.

Indeed, the reason that a Syrian National Council was hastily announced on Al-Jazeera late last month, following weeks of oppositionist wrangling and backbiting at a conference in Istanbul, is that a faction of Syrian youth activists had grown tired of seeing the AKP trying to make their revolution a Muslim Brotherhood-led affair. (What better way to minimize the Islamists than to propose a secular French sociologist chairman of a Syrian National Council, as a group of youth activists did last month?)

Erdogan did happy business with Bashar al-Assad while he could, but he now wants to make sure that any post-Assad state consists of loyal Sunni ideologues.

That'd be one way to undercut Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and never mind that the people bleeding and dying in Syria are mostly apolitical kids who don’t trust neo-Ottoman power brokers any more than they do former regime apologists.

Turkish intelligence and the Muslim Brotherhood are also trying to co-opt the Syrian Free Army of rebel soldiers, according to Syrian sources.

"They are the only ones connected to them," one opposition activist told me recently. "I'd rather the Syrian Free Army connect to the CIA. Tell your NATO friends that I extend them an open invitation to Syria."

Michael Weiss is the communications director of The Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank based in London. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL