Turkey’s Response to the War in Gaza
Hamas’ unexpected and gruesome attack on Oct. 7 and Israel’s disproportionate effort to remove the group from power in Gaza constitute a watershed moment. Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are caught by the trauma of their interconnected histories and the violence of war. The myth of an invincible Israeli military and intelligence is broken. U.S. government efforts to recalibrate the regional order by facilitating Arab-Israeli normalization are disrupted, if not totally off the table in the near term. Arab states are worried about widening regional conflict and increasing public rage against Israel’s policy toward the occupied territories. Many in the so-called Global South are disillusioned by the unequivocal support the United States and the European Union give Israel. Given the prevalence of anti-immigration, xenophobic, and Islamophobic sentiments within the Western public, the violent conflict in Gaza might risk becoming a domestic issue in the United States and Europe.
The Turkish government also sees Oct. 7 and its aftermath as a critical juncture for the Middle East. In the hours after the attack, Ankara was cautious: the government condemned the loss of civilian lives, albeit without naming Hamas explicitly, and called on both sides for restraint. Since then, it has increasingly taken a critical stance toward Israel’s policy on Gaza. Unlike Turkey’s Western allies, Ankara does not consider Hamas a terrorist organization. In 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described it as part of the Palestinian resistance defending “the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”
The shift in Ankara’s rhetoric is driven by the logic of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership’s support for the Palestinian cause, its objection to a U.S.-led world order, and the government’s belief that the conflict will bring the United States back to the region. At the same time, the response is also a testament to the vulnerabilities of Turkey’s Middle East policy. Stuck between hegemonic aspirations and rapprochement efforts to break its isolation and repair its economy, Ankara lacks influence on either Israel or Hamas.
Democracy Promotion, Peace-making, and the Leader of the Ummah
Turkey was the first majority Muslim country to recognize Israel in 1949. It is also among the first to recognize the declaration of the State of Palestine. Notwithstanding its close economic, diplomatic, and defense relations with Israel, confrontational moments were not absent, even before the AKP’s rise into power. For instance, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit accused Israel in 2002 of “not recognizing the U.N. resolutions” and “committing genocide,” blamed the United States for its passivity risking “Islamic radicalism” and an “East-West confrontation,” and also criticized the “radical Palestinian elements” (Hamas) for hindering an independent Palestinian state.”
The AKP came to power only a couple of months after Ecevit’s criticism of Israel had sharpened. The AKP is a product of Turkey’s Islamist Nationalist Outlook Movement, which passionately sees Palestine as a critical file in Turkish foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an active component of the AKP’s Middle East policy on three grounds.
First, Hamas won the most seats in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election that the Middle East Quartet considered “free, fair, and secure.” While the United States and the European Union made the recognition of Hamas’ victory conditional upon it “renounce[ing] violence and terror, accept[ing] Israel’s right to exist, and disarm[ing],” Ankara saw the moment as an opportunity to position itself as a democracy promoter in the region.
Second, it has been one of the central pillars of the AKP’s foreign policy to push for Turkey to be a “peacemaker in the periphery of the international system.” The Turkish government’s ties to Hamas helped Turkey claim a mediator role during the Gaza war between December 2008 and January 2009 in the “vacuum left by the European Union’s and the United States’ policies,” albeit absent a concrete result. Its diplomatic relations with Israel concurrently took a downturn with the famous “one-minute” incident in 2009, and a year later, the Gaza flotilla attack that killed nine Turkish pro-Palestine activists. After a decade of frosty relations, diplomatic ties were restored in 2022.
Finally, safeguarding the rights of Palestine and Palestinians is, for the AKP, part of its quest to defend the interests of Muslims worldwide. The party elites and its core constituency believe that the liberation of Muslims (from Western cultural and political domination) started in Turkey (thanks to Erdoğan) and can spread elsewhere. Erdoğan has promoted this rhetoric. In 2020, after converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, he described it as the “harbinger of the al-Aqsa Mosque’s liberation.”
From Civilizationist Aspirations to Regional Isolation
The Arab uprisings in 2011 were a turning point for the AKP’s leadership ambitions. Erdoğan has sought to position himself — and the Turkish government — as the leader of the Muslim world by supporting Sunni Islamists throughout the Middle East. The AKP justified this policy by pointing to the democratic process and the very real fact that Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated parties were winning elections throughout the region. As part of this policy, Turkey has granted safe haven to many Islamist exiles and has generously supported their organizations operating in the country. During times of domestic strife, such as the failed coup attempt in 2016 or the controversial constitutional referendum in 2017, the AKP in turn welcomed support from Sunni Islamists for Erdoğan.
Yet ideology is not the only reason for Sunni Islamists’ sympathy for Erdoğan (and Turkey). Interests also matter. Turkey was often seen as an equalizing force to the Arab autocrats of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which see political Islam as a threat to their survival. Ankara’s increasingly confrontational foreign policy and expanding military footprint since 2016 have contributed to this view.
However, the perception of Turkey as a disruptive power simultaneously led to cooperation between Turkey’s partners, its old and new rivals. Trapped in the mismatch between its stated ambitions and actual capabilities, Ankara became increasingly isolated.
Limits to Turkey’s Regional Rapprochement Efforts
Since 2020, Turkey has been on a charm offensive to break nearly a decade of regional isolation. Turkey’s shift in policy was forced by a combination of factors, including Ankara’s economic woes, President Joseph Biden’s election, the geopolitical realignment in the region following the Abraham Accords, the Syrian government’s rapprochement with regional governments, and the mending of ties between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with Qatar. Ankara had also grown wary of the increasing cooperation between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Israel, and the Arab states in the eastern Mediterranean. The temporal overlap with the divergence of interests among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and the decreasing trust in the continued U.S. involvement in the region facilitated Turkey’s efforts at rapprochement.
As part of this policy change, Ankara was more cautious and distanced itself from Arab Islamists to help repair its relations with regional actors, including Israel. The Turkish government asked the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated media channels to tone down their criticism. One of the satellite television channels operating in Istanbul, Mekameleen, announced in 2022 the end of its broadcasting operation and the closure of its eight studios. Reportedly, Ankara also asked the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas members to leave Turkey. In a similar move, a Turkish court transferred in April of the same year the trial of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in Turkey.
Yet the most recent cycle of war in Gaza has revealed the limits to Turkey’s rapprochement efforts, particularly with Israel. In response to Turkey’s early proposal for mediation, the Israeli ambassador in Ankara made it clear that the time was not ripe. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken skipped Turkey during his shuttle diplomacy, courting the region’s Arab countries so that humanitarian access via the Rafah crossing is secured, hostage diplomacy moves on, and possible escalation into a regional war is prevented. Meanwhile, Ankara has increasingly adopted a critical tone toward Israel. On the night of the disputed attack on the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, which Erdoğan described as the “last example of Israel’s attacks devoid of humanity,” Israel asked its citizens to leave Turkey “as soon as possible.” There were demonstrations at the Israeli and American consulates in Istanbul and the military bases the United States has access to in Malatya and Adana. Two days later, Israel withdrew all its diplomats from the country.
Ankara’s relationship with Hamas also appears to be of little value. The Turkish government has reportedly been negotiating with Hamas the release of the hostages upon request from “many states, especially Western countries,” according to a Turkish intelligence officer. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock noted that her ministry is in contact with Qatar and Turkey, which “have channels to talk to Hamas,” to secure the release of the German hostages. Yet no concrete result has been achieved at the time of the writing, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan. Qatar appears to be the decisive actor in hostage negotiations.
Turkey and the International System
To reinsert Ankara into a fragile regional order, Fidan proposed on Oct. 17, in an interview at the pro-government daily Sabah, a “guarantor formula.” In line with the framework of a two-state solution within the 1967 borders and with a capital in Jerusalem, this formula would foresee a country from within the region, “including Turkey,” acting as a guarantor for the future Palestinian state. Fidan also noted that “other countries could play the same role for Israel” and mentioned the importance of a “potential unified position between China and Russia, as U.N. Security Council members” in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia and China recently voiced support for a two-state solution, which the international community has until recently considered unrealistic.
Turkey’s insistence on a two-state solution is intertwined with its criticism of the international system, which has, in the last decade, become a talking point for the AKP leadership. Ankara often criticizes the structure of the United Nations Security Council under the slogan “The world is bigger than five.” It also demands an international order that “treats every nation at the eye level, and in which every country can feel safe and an equal partner.”
This logic lay behind Erdoğan’s call to the West and the international community, during a conversation with U.K. Prime Minister Rushi Sunak, to “effectively object to the human rights violations in Gaza” and “to remember the promises made to Palestinians [referring to a two-state solution] instead of engaging in provocation that would further escalate the conflict.” Fidan voiced the same logic in the most extreme and direct way when he accused Israel of “theft of Palestinian land” (referring to Israel’s ongoing expansion of settlements, which the United Nations considers a violation of international law).
Discontent with a U.S.-Led World Order
Behind these statements also lies Turkey’s staunch opposition to a U.S.-led world order. Turkey’s ruling elites believe that “the West lacks strategic thinking and has increasingly become estranged from the rest of the world in the face of various issues including relations with China, migration and terror, and the shift in economic gravity from the West to the East.”
For Ankara, the unequivocal and unconditional support that the Biden administration gives Israel confirms this belief. Triggering a convergence between the policies of Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, pro-government journalists expect that the conflict would lead to an increasing isolation of Israel. Regardless of their ideological affiliation, most Turkish political actors tend to see the recent conflict in Gaza as one between the so-called West (led by the United States) and the East. Since the disputed attack at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, there have been calls on the government to ally with countries in the Global South to “stop the U.S.-Israeli alliance.”
Yet the proposed methods vary. Addressing an emergency session of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation on Oct. 18, Fidan called upon Muslim countries to act with “self-confidence” and “challenge the hegemonic narrative that has been imposed on them,” but without offering a concrete roadmap for how to do that. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the AKP’s junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, said Turkey should intervene militarily if there is no ceasefire. Those critical of Ankara’s civilizationist aspirations yet share its aspirations for a foreign policy independent from the West call for booting U.S. military members at Incirlik Air Force Base and the Kürecik Radar Station in Malatya.
Eastern Mediterranean Tensions: From Gaza to Syria
Even though the AKP leadership does not appear thrilled by these demands, it certainly feels pressured by the increased American presence in the region. According to Erdoğan, the Biden administration’s decision to send aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean hindered Turkey’s efforts to deescalate the situation.
Beyond its rhetorical criticism against the lack of American leadership to pressure Israel for a ceasefire, Ankara is intrinsically worried that a stronger U.S. presence in the eastern Mediterranean is detrimental to its regional interests. Pro-government journalists build analogies with Operation Provide Comfort, initiated in 1991 under American leadership to protect Kurdish refugees fleeing northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Iraq War and to deliver humanitarian aid.
There is indeed a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the return of the United States to the region is an act of deterrence not only against Iran and its proxies, but also against Turkey. The fear is that a stronger American presence will further disrupt Ankara’s efforts to prevent Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party and the People’s Protection Units in northern Syria, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Both the United States and Turkey regard the Kurdistan Workers’ Party as a terrorist organization. Ankara justifies its position on Hamas with that of the United States concerning the Kurds in Syria.
Exposing the Weaknesses in Turkish Foreign Policy
Overall, Ankara’s reactions to Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli civilians, Israel’s large-scale retaliation causing mass destruction and loss of life in Gaza, and America’s unequivocal and unconditional support of Israeli policy underline Turkey’s limitations. After two decades of policy to expand Turkey’s role in the Middle East, Ankara is effectively a marginal actor.
This is partially due to the fragility of Turkey’s relations with Israel, Hamas, and the United States. Turkey’s position also diverges from that of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are both careful in openly condemning Hamas violence and simultaneously criticizing Israel’s disproportionate retaliation and the position of the Western countries.
Yet Ankara’s seemingly little influence also concerns Turkey’s lack of leverage vis-à-vis the warring parties in the current conflict. A comparison with the Turkish position in the Black Sea is helpful. Ankara can continue a hedging policy in the Black Sea thanks to the Montreux Convention and its NATO membership. None of these is helpful in the case of the war in Gaza. Given the absence of similar instruments, the state of the Turkish economy, and the reputational costs that Ankara has incurred on itself in the last decade, its influence is limited to rhetorical outcries.
Sinem Adar is an associate at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Image: Turkish Presidency