If there’s been an immutable rule in Middle Eastern power politics, it’s that whenever the region’s populist leaders, nationalist or Islamist, wish to make a bid for regional leadership, they reliably use Israel as a proxy theater.
On a certain level, this rule helps explain Turkey’s latest row with Israel. However, in the Turkish case, there is another element at play: a series of failures in Ankara’s foreign policy, especially in Syria, which has struck at the heart of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) doctrine of “zero problems with neighbors.” The escalation with Israel, therefore, can be read as an attempt to compensate for this failure. With continued US passivity and retrenchment, Turkey’s game could quickly become a dangerous affair.
From the outset, the uprising in Syria presented Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a critical challenge, as it risked unraveling the Turkish premier’s signature policy.
Until Washington’s recent shift toward a policy of regime change in Syria, the US and Europe had both deferred to Turkey when dealing with Damascus. Behind this decision to give Ankara the lead was the popular conviction that it possessed strong influence over the Syrian regime as a result of the policy of engagement that Erdogan had pursued with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Early on in the Syrian crisis, however, it became apparent to Turkish analysts that there was a fundamental flaw at the core of the AKP’s doctrine. The hype behind Turkish influence was built around its vaunted “soft power” and the appeal of the so-called “Turkish model.”
Turkish academic Soli Ozel took exception and told TIME in April that “It has become apparent that [Turkey] has little influence… This is the point where Turkish foreign policy hits the wall.”
Undeterred, Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, contested critics, arguing that, far from proving a failure, the AKP’s policy “has… deepened Turkey’s soft power capacity in the Arab world.” Other defenders of the policy similarly argued that it was precisely this policy that now enabled Ankara to consult with Damascus and to advise Assad to carry out reforms.
Six months into the uprising, and countless Turkish “ultimatums” later, it became rather obvious that Turkey’s supposed “soft power capacity” had been an abject flop. Not only were Erdogan and his Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu—the architect of the “zero problems” policy—repeatedly snubbed and embarrassed, but also, Syria and its Iranian ally had gone on the offensive—and for that they found an opening in Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
As Ankara’s troubles with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) escalated, especially following Erdogan’s reelection, a National Intelligence Organization report was made available to the Turkish press noting that Syria had begun to support the PKK, as it had done in the 1990s, even offering safe haven to some of the group’s most important leaders. Similarly, the report noted, Iran had suspended its intelligence cooperation with Turkey in the fight against the Kurdish group.
Turkish commentators quickly understood that Iran was playing hardball with the Turks through the PKK issue. As one columnist put it, Iran was sending Turkey a message: “It is willing to take action against the PKK in return for concessions by Turkey regarding the Syrian issue. … [O]therwise, we will become allies with the PKK.”
An argument could be made that, for all intents and purposes, Iran’s strategy has worked. Turkey has yet to take a single concrete, punitive measure against Assad, even as he has humiliated Turkish leaders at every turn.
The failure of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy is hardly confined to Syria. For one, Ankara has been up in arms at Greek Cyprus’ decision to proceed with exploring and developing its offshore oil and gas fields—in close cooperation with Israel, no less. Moreover, Erdogan was certain the United Nations report on the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident would vindicate Turkey’s position and force Israel to make a humiliating public apology. Instead, the report supported Israel’s claim to the legality of its blockade on Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The cumulative result of these setbacks was seen in Erdogan’s public rant, as well as in an announcement of an aggressive Turkish posture in the eastern Mediterranean—including threatening to deploy the Turkish navy to prevent Cyprus from proceeding with its maritime exploration.
Erdogan was seemingly deterred by the Iranians on Syria. But to adopt a hostile posture toward Tehran (and Damascus) would signal the official end of Ankara’s central doctrine of “zero problems” while also highlighting Turkey’s weakness. Lashing out at Israel, therefore, hits two birds with one stone: covering up the failure with Syria and Iran while still advancing the cause of Turkish regional primacy by flexing its muscles at Israel.
As such, we may now be witnessing a shift in Turkey’s posture away from its earlier, failed “mediatory” act to one of provocation. As one Turkish expert explained back in April, “One of the most important tools of foreign policy in the Middle East… is an operational and ‘provocative’ strength.” He added that Turkey is “unable to move forward sufficiently in this respect” as it “does not have powerful theo-political or geopolitical tools.”
In contrast, Iran’s reach has been based precisely on such tools. Ankara’s current aggressive statements indicate that it will now be forcefully seeking to accumulate these tools. Previous such attempts with Hamas had not fared well, and Erdogan’s endeavor this time around to make a grand entrance into Gaza also has seemingly been shot down by Egypt. Therefore, whether this push plays out in the Cypriot arena remains to be seen.
The politics of the eastern Mediterranean are in the throes of a major flux. The absence of clear and assertive US leadership means that all the middle-range powers will feverishly vie for position—which bodes ill for regional stability.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay