Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is rarely at a loss for words. The man, by all accounts, is a dynamic public speaker, has a knack for connecting with his political base, and is capable of speaking for great lengths of time. Moreover, the Prime Minister, who is also campaigning for the 2014 Presidential election, is no stranger to using populism to rally domestic support. Israel, ever since Operation Cast Lead, has been a frequent target of the Prime Minister’s verbal attacks.
Thus, many of us Turkey watchers were waiting for Erdogan’s response to the latest flare up in Gaza. While most of the region’s leaders rushed to the nearest microphone to condemn Israel, the normally loquacious Prime Minister was atypically mute. Very strange indeed. While Erdogan was out touring the production facility for Turkey’s first home-made tank, Egyptian President Morsy had already put his stamp on world reaction by kicking out the Israeli ambassador and dispatching his prime minister to visit Gaza. While Turkey’s foreign minister had condemned the action, and President Gul had said he expected the U.S. to pressure Israel to stop, Erdogan’s silence was deafening.
Shortly after the visit by the Egyptian foreign minister, Erdogan finally broke his silence, and condemned the Israeli action. Erdogan is sure to ramp up his rhetoric when he meets with Morsy in the coming days, but the timing of his public statements suggests that the Prime Minister was showing deference to Cairo. Moreover, it also suggests that Turkey is happy to “lead from behind” on Gaza. Rather than trying to insert itself into the center of the storyline, Ankara appears willing to outsource the handling of this issue to the Egyptians and the Americans. Erdogan has canceled his trip to Gaza and is on record saying that he will call Obama to try and put a stop to the Israeli action.
Ankara, it should be noted, has its hands full with Syria. Erdogan remains committed to trying and brow-beat the international community to impose a no-fly-zone and will not want to risk irking Washington with too strong a response to Gaza. Turkey, for self-interested reasons related to its Syria policy, cannot be happy about the timing of the Israeli operation. It shifts media attention away from the Syrian conflict, may allow Assad to deflect some of the pressure he is facing at home, and distracts his primary target on Syria – Barack Obama.
Moreover, Erdogan’s response also indicates that he has gained a healthy respect for Egypt’s sphere of influence. The AKP’s previous efforts to deepen ties with Hamas were not a welcome site in Cairo. Gaza and Hamas, the Egyptians argued, was their turf and the Turkish efforts to deepen ties was seen as an encroachment on Cairo’s sphere of influence. The Egyptian reaction to Turkey’s public embrace of Hamas, combined with Morsy’s repeated refusal to accept a Turkish white paper on building democracy, reveal that Cairo is eager to retain its influence and independence. The AKP, after a series of “Turkish Model” inspired mis-steps, appears to have realized this and is taking a much quieter and more low-key approach to Egypt and Gaza. Within this context, Erdogan appears to be ceding control of the condemnations to Morsy and Egypt.
For Turkey’s immediate interests, this is a rather good policy. Erdogan has smartly outsourced his country’s criticism of Israel to Foreign Minister Davutoglu and the internationally liked Gul. This will allow him to remain above the fray and the leave the harsh rhetoric to the Egyptians and the other Arab states. This will give him some cover with Obama and the U.S. audience, who he still needs to execute his Syria policy. Erdogan would be making a big mistake if he were to harshly condemn the action, considering his words are sure to be translated internationally, and will have an impact on his standing amongst influential wings of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
Thus, Erdogan is well served to outsource the rhetorical handling of this conflict. It allows him flexibility with Obama, empowers Egypt, and tacitly acknowledges Cairo’s sphere of influence. Erdogan, on the other hand, looses little. His electoral standing remains relatively intact, his base will be happy with the international condemnation, and he’ll be able to side-step a lot of the criticism in the West. Erdogan, thus far, has handled this well. However, an Israel/Hamas escalation could force his hand and derail his attempts at trying to stay above the fray. Erdogan should try and keep as quiet as possible about Gaza and not let his populist tendencies get the better of him.