TURKISH policy, whether local, regional, European, or international, is passing through an interesting phase, if not a surprising one, reflecting a tactical change in the vision and strategy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The man who hardly admits mistakes apologized this week to Russia, and drank the poisoned chalice as he bowed his head down to Russian President Vladimir Putin over the downing a Russian jet several months ago.
The man who backed Hamas and challenged the Israeli leadership, and engaged in one-upmanship with the Palestinian leadership, decided this week to seek reconciliation with Israel and restore ties with Tel Aviv, claiming that Israel had met Turkish conditions, drawing ire both in Turkey and abroad. His policy on Syria has changed a lot, and the Turkish president is no longer the spearhead of the battle against his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, or the spearhead of the support for the armed Syrian rebels, as he appears ready to climb down from both these positions.
Moreover, ISIS’s war on Turkey did not come from a vacuum, but is the result of a radical change in Turkey’s dealings with fighters it reportedly allowed to cross into Syria via its borders, before it became a partner in the US-led coalition against ISIS, opening its airports for planes to strike the radical group in Syria and Iraq. The war being waged by ISIS on Turkish cities is a retaliatory war for what the group considers the betrayal of the Turkish leadership, whose backing ISIS assumed to have had.
Perhaps ISIS was infuriated by Ankara’s détente with Israel and Russia, its arch-enemy. But most likely, the radical terror group had prepared the attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul in response to Turkey’s new alignment on the side of the implicit American-Russian agreement in Syria and explicit agreement against ISIS. Today, following the results of the referendum on Britain’s EU membership in favor of Brexit, Turkey and Russia are likely to gain from European weakness and possibly fragmentation after London leaves the EU, each for its own reasons.
But clearly, the Turkish president has returned to the drawing board to review his policies that he had boasted of and pledged not to reverse. This requires a close watch on his coming positions, locally, regionally – e.g. vis-à-vis the Gulf, Iran, and Egypt – and internationally, for example as regards restoring ties with Russia and Israel.
One will also have to watch the implications for the Syrian opposition represented by the High Negotiations Commission (HNC) and the internationally backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprise both Arab and Kurdish factions. The deal struck by Erdogan with Hamas and Israel were a slap in the face of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority represented by President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt and its president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, given the direct Turkish presence in Gaza along the border with Egypt now and the boost it gives to the Muslim Brotherhood both in Gaza and Egypt.
Vladimir Putin has benefited from this about-face, not only because he enjoyed hearing Erdogan apologize, but also because he won him over in Syria
Practically speaking, the Turkish president dealt a blow to the reconciliation negotiations in Palestine and to Palestinian national unity, because he affirmed Hamas’s weight in the Palestinian arena at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership. He engineered a truce between Israel and Hamas, and an agreement among the three parties that it would be a permanent truce. The lifting of the blockade will normalize life in Gaza, into which Turkey will bring building material and build hospitals as a prelude to having a permanent say in Palestinian affairs.
This is a big achievement for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as it consecrates his role in Gaza and his support for Hamas, his understanding with Israel, his support for the Muslim Brotherhood, his challenge against el-Sisi’s Egypt, and his assault on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. There is no change here, but there is affirmation of Erdogan’s attitudes against the Palestinian Authority in support of Hamas. Erdogan converges with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the common desire to destroy the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian unity, and Hamas stands to benefit by acting as the guarantor of the common Turkish-Israeli vision.
Egypt will not be comfortable by this great breakthrough achieved by Turkey, and will see Turkish presence in Gaza as directed against Egypt. What will the Egyptian leadership and diplomacy do? They have started efforts with the Palestinian Authority and Israel but the proposals are not clear yet. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the issue is a very serious one for Cairo for both its Palestinian and Muslim Brotherhood angles, and it is no doubt preparing to respond in one way or another to Ankara.
Ankara made a demarche this week with Moscow, which considers Cairo a strategically important asset in its Middle East and North Africa outlook. Both Moscow and Cairo are categorically opposed to the rise of Islamists to power. Ankara adopts the opposite position, because Erdogan is the engineer of the rise of Islamists to power and a proponent of spreading the Turkish model of “moderate Islam” as the West views it.
The Russian leadership may not adopt hostile attitudes toward the Turkish leadership for challenging the Palestinian and Egyptian leaderships in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. But it will keep its gazed fixed on Egyptian-Turkish relations. For Russia, Egypt is a strategic friend while Turkey is a strategic rival.
The Russian leadership understands that Erdogan’s apology was out of necessity rather than volition. The Turkish president found himself in a predicament in Syria, and decided he needed Russia to extricate himself. Vladimir Putin has benefited from this about-face, not only because he enjoyed hearing Erdogan apologize, but also because he won him over in Syria.
Putin is fighting a fateful battle in Syria. He is determined not to make true the dreams of those who want him to venture into a quagmire. Putin knows he is not yet out of the woods, and thus sees a huge advantage in Erdogan reconsidering his Syria policies, where he has become a de-facto partner of the US and Russia in the war on ISIS, especially after the latter decided to target Turkey and its security and economy in retaliation.