The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) – a London based think tank – asked me to write about Turkey’s handling of the latest conflict in Gaza. Below is an excerpt from the piece. If interested in reading the full article, click here
The AKP’s handling of the [conflict in Gaza] suggests that the Prime Minister was keen on the idea of using the conflict to stoke populist sentiment at home. Critically, Turkey tasked Hakan Fidan, the Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), to liaise with his Egyptian and Qatari counterparts. Fidan’s MIT is used for Turkey’s negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), so as to create the impression that the Prime Minister is removed from negotiations with representatives for PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Erdogan, who has re-militarised Turkey’s response to the Kurdish issue in recent years, has been intent on keeping his distance from the secret talks.
While Fidan may have been appropriate for the Gaza talks, he also allowed Erdogan to maintain that his country has no contact with Israel. Thus, the Prime Minister was faced with a situation that had very few domestic political risks. Erdogan’s outsourcing of the resolution to Morsi shifted the responsibility for resolving the crisis to a third country. In this context, Turkey’s frayed relationship with Israel, and Ankara’s lack of direct contacts in Tel Aviv, was a political asset. Erdogan’s only politically risky move would have been to act upon his deputy’s suggestion that Turkey should try and talk to Israel to help solve the issue. Such a move, should it have taken place, would have hurt Erdogan’s standing amongst critical constituencies that the Prime Minister needs for his political future. Moreover, it would have undercut Egypt and shifted some responsibility for a resolution to Turkey. Thus, Erdogan, from a domestic standpoint, had more to gain by outsourcing the resolution of this conflict than to actively engage.
The AKP is currently working to change the constitution, in order to transition to a stronger Presidential system. Erdogan is ineligible to run for re-election as Prime Minister, but, if implemented, the new system would allow the popular Prime Minister to run for a strengthened, executive Presidency in 2014. After the Prime Minister addressed the violence in Gaza and Israel in depth, his talking points, which included a number of themes Erdogan uses to deflect criticism of Turkey’s Syria policy, suggest that his expected candidacy for the Turkish presidency helped define his rhetoric. The AKP has intertwined foreign policy into its populist political messaging, relying on the image of a strong Turkey to further bolster its standing amongst the country’s conservative and nationalist voters. Images of Erdogan being greeted by thousands of Arabs and public opinion polls extolling the virtues of the Turkish model has a certain resonance amongst very important segments of the Turkish electorate. While the AKP’s popularity has increased, its base has changed tremendously. Erdogan and the AKP have lost the liberal reformists and replaced them with Turkish nationalists. This has allowed him to grow his party, but has also had a noticeable impact on his country’s politics.
Thus, Erdogan tied his condemnation of Israel to his new and aggressive critiques of the United Nations Security Council. These themes, which are littered with references to perceived Muslim inequality in international institutions, are then encapsulated into a broader message about the need for global justice. Thus, drawing a link between the AKP’s name, its political successes in bringing ‘more democracy’, and its promises to continue building on those successes in time for 2023 Turkish Republic centennial. Erdogan’s condemnations, for political reasons, are not directed at the international community, but at the AKP’s primary voter base. In total, this suggests that Erdogan has settled on nationalism as being the key to securing a majority for his expected run for the presidency in 2014. Thus, the world should continue to expect brash rhetoric and emotional photo-ops, rather than a concerted effort to repair Turkey’s troubled regional partnerships.
The trajectory of Turkish politics suggests that, the Prime Minister is likely to be consumed with domestic issues for the foreseeable future. Erdogan, therefore, is unlikely to risk his precious diplomatic capital to make concessions that could harm his chances for his expected run for President. It is likely that he will be more inward looking in his politics and remiss to risk alienating voters in his base. Turkey’s troubled relationship with Israel, therefore, is a political asset. While the two countries could re-establish some very quiet defence or intelligence ties, a more inward looking Turkey is unlikely to make any conciliatory steps to mend fences with the leadership in Tel Aviv.
If you liked what you read, click here for the full article.