The Brief – With allies like Erdoğan, who needs enemies?
By Georgi Gotev | Euractiv.com
“The main culprit behind the massacre unfolding in Gaza is the West.”
These are not messages by the Islamic State. These are words uttered before a crowd of 1.5 million people by the leader of a NATO member country that is also a candidate for EU membership.
On Saturday. addressing possibly the largest pro-Palestinian rally since the Israel-Hamas war began, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Israel’s allies of fomenting a civilisational conflict and said:
“Oh, West, I am calling on you, do you want to start a Crescent-Crusader conflict again? If this is your intention, you should know Türkiye is not dead, it is standing tall, with the same level of commitment we have in the Middle East, as we were in Libya and Karabakh.”
Standing above a sea of red Turkish flags, Erdoğan called Israel an “occupier”, a “war criminal” and “a pawn in the region” that was being used by Western powers to stamp their authority on the Middle East”.
Before that, Erdoğan also reacted negatively when the US decided to send an aircraft carrier closer to Israel.
Unlike the EU and the US, Turkey does not consider Hamas a terrorist organisation. Erdoğan called Hamas “freedom fighters” this week. Turkey calls terrorists only its perceived enemies, especially the Kurds.
Soon after Erdoğan’s remarks, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he had ordered a withdrawal of Israeli diplomatic representatives from Turkey. He added that there will be a reevaluation of the ties between the two countries.
By the time of publishing this Brief, there have been no similar reactions from EU and NATO capitals, to the best of our knowledge. But it must hurt even more when you’re backstabbed by an ally.
Turkey-Israel relations have always been difficult, but Turkey is a key ally in NATO and even hosts US nuclear bombs. Needless to say, NATO is a defence alliance that symbolises the West and everything it stands for.
Moreover, the pro-Palestine rally was meant to celebrate modern Turkey’s 100th anniversary, paying tribute to the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Atatürk symbolises the transition from the Ottoman Empire to a modern, secular Turkey, which became anchored to the West.
But Atatürk must be turning in his grave as Erdoğan goes about destroying his civilisational legacy while pretending to pay him homage.
Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, as was Libya and vast territories including Karabakh, where ethnic cleansing took place thanks to Turkey’s military support for Azerbaijan.
During a visit to Azerbaijan, Erdoğan developed the concept of “one nation – two states”, implying that his vision of Turkey was looming larger than its borders.
All these developments take place as different geopolitics blocs increasingly challenge the West – Russia, China, Iran and Turkey – with Sunni Turkey in direct competition with its Shi’a neighbour Iran.
Incidentally, Turkey is also becoming increasingly authoritarian, as if to better fit in this quartet of dictatorships. Like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan seeks to exploit what he perceives as the weaknesses of democracy.
As Erdoğan insults the West, there is little NATO or the EU can do. EU capitals are very aware that Erdoğan may decide – given the slightest pretext – to use migrants as a political pawn by opening its borders, as he has warned so many times.
Putting an official end to Turkey’s status as an EU candidate country would only unleash more Erdoğan fury and serve his agenda of taking distance from the West.
On previous occasions, such as the Turkish national elections, Erdoğan was successful in mobilising the Turkish diaspora in EU countries, and this should also be taken into consideration.
Internal divisions among Western countries, slowly emerging under the veneer of unity, would play into Erdoğan’s hands.
Some Democrats in the US have been openly critical of the Israeli government over its response to the terrorist attack of 7 October. NATO member Norway has criticised the total blockade of Gaza as unacceptable.
At the UN, EU countries did not vote in a uniform way over the need for a ceasefire in Gaza. And public opinion in the EU, especially regarding the Israeli response, is divided.
But let’s not get distracted. Today’s problem is not Erdoğan’s ego or his foolish ambitions. Today’s problem is how to avoid this turning into a civilisational war – precisely the type he seeks to fuel.
The article appeared in Euractiv.com on October 30, 2023