Assertive Turkey is making enemies

Besides tensions with Israel, Ankara’s sabre-rattling against Syria isn’t going down very well with Tehran

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may arguably be the most popular leader in the Muslim world for his pro-Palestinian stance, but his foreign policy is turning once friendly countries into foes. Turkey’s relations with Israel has been at an all-time low since the government downgraded diplomatic relations in response to Tel Aviv’s refusal to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara in international waters.

In recent weeks, tensions between the two countries have suffered a further escalation. Israel accuses the Turkish leader of making a highly inflammatory anti-Israeli speech in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, during his visit to Egypt last month. More crucially, Israel doesn’t appreciate his threats to use warships to escort humanitarian aid-bearing vessels en route to breaking Israel’s blockade of Gaza and to disable the weapons systems of Israel’s military ships sailing outside the country’s 19.2-km limit. Tel Aviv believes Turkey is using Gaza as a pretext to prevent Israel from using its navy to protect its own deepwater hydrocarbons.

It appears that Erdogan has had enough of Tel Aviv’s bullying and is prepared to use his country’s military might to put Israel in its place. In confirmation of Turkey’s warning that its navy would assert its presence in the eastern Mediterranean, at the end of September, Turkish warships began ordering Israeli merchant vessels straying near Cyprus to alter course, eliciting aggressive buzzing from Israeli Air Force planes. Turkey responded by sending two F16s of its own to face-off against Israel’s.

Turkey has also fallen out with the Greek Cypriot government’s decision to instruct a US company, Nobel Energy, to drill for natural gas in its hydrocarbon-rich waters. Erdogan has termed the Greek Cypriot effort as “madness,” despite a promise that northern Cyprus would also benefit, as he believes such exploration should only begin once the divided island is reunited. In turn, the Cypriot president says Erdogan is “a troublemaker” and has vowed to veto Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU. Undeterred, Ankara has employed its own seismic vessel in the same area to grab its share of gas thought to be in the region of trillions of cubic metres.

As incendiary as the Turkish-Cyprus contretemps could become, it is unlikely to flare up due to the involvement of Nobel Energy. However belligerent Ankara is nowadays, the government will think twice before taking on Washington.

Most disturbing of all is Turkey’s sabre-rattling against the Syrian regime, which isn’t going down very well with Ankara’s long-time ally Tehran. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has announced, if necessary, his country is prepared for an all-out conflict with Damascus.

The Erdogan government is believed to be supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition and has begun military exercises along its border with Syria. Erdogan has turned against his one-time friend, President Bashar Al Assad, over the Syrian leader’s vicious attacks on demonstrators and there is speculation that he plans to temporarily annex part of Syrian territory to provide a safe haven for fleeing Syrian civilians. According to the website DebkaFile that has links to Israel’s Mossad, in the event Syria is attacked by either NATO or Turkey, it plans to retaliate together with Iran and Hezbollah by “flattening metropolitan Tel Aviv” with “thousands of missiles launched simultaneously by all three—plus the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad firing from the Gaza Strip.” DebkaFile also evokes a message from Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak last year to the effect that should a single Hezbollah missile hit Israel, “all of Lebanon would go up in flames.”

Turkey’s strategic alliance with Iran is also shaky, not only due to Ankara’s threats against Damascus but, more importantly, due to the Turkish government’s hosting of NATO’s early warning missile shield that is largely directed at Tehran. Iran has accused Turkey of kowtowing to the US and of safeguarding the interests of the Zionist regime, while warning that Tehran’s ties with Ankara are in jeopardy.

One thing for sure, the region has rarely been as unstable as it is now with many imponderables. Is Turkey merely muscle-flexing or does its threats towards Israel and Syria have real weight? Does Turkey have the military means to hold its own or is it punching above its weight? Will the US, which is currently on a diplomatic drive to quell Turkish-Israel and Turkish-Cyprus tensions, be forced to intervene?

Lastly, where do Arab states stand in all this? Will they throw their support behind Ankara, which would create a regional hegemonic bloc against both Israel and Iran and wean the Arab world from Uncle Sam? Or will they stay on the sidelines watching? Unfortunately, I think we all know the answer to that one.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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