External constraints: About-face in the Turkish position on Gaza

I hope this finds you well. Please find attached a policy brief on Turkey’s position towards the war on Gaza for online publishing. The system summary is: The Turkish position on Gaza was weak and lackluster in confronting the Israeli aggression on Gaza perhaps due to the external limits imposed on Turkish power.
7 March 2024
The image caption is: Widespread admiration for Turkey in the region and the perception of the country as a major world power were bolstered by Erdogan’s often muscular rhetoric. [AP]

Turkey’s inability to play an effective role in the war on Gaza has disappointed many admirers of the Turkish regime in the Arab and Muslim world, who could not help but notice that Ankara, like the Arab normalising states, did not sever diplomatic relations with Israel.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials denounced the destruction and killing carried out by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, and Turkish cities saw mass anti-war protests. But despite its friendly relations with the United States and its status as a major regional power, Ankara has been unsuccessful in pushing Washington to call for a ceasefire and has not played an effective mediating role like Cairo and Doha.

Additional questions about Turkey’s stance were raised when Erdogan made a surprise visit to Cairo in mid-February, with the goal of cementing the thaw with Egypt after a decade of antagonistic bilateral relations that followed the military coup led by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Observers wondered what prompted this shift in Turkey’s position towards the Egyptian regime. Does it signal a new posture toward the region as a whole, and is it related to Turkey’s inability to influence the course of the war in Gaza?

Over the last two decades, under governments led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has witnessed a remarkable economic and political renaissance. It has become a major destination for global investment and joined the ranks of the G20, while instituting political reforms that strengthened democratic governance and the powers of the elected civilian government.

Turkey has also adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy. With a stable military presence in northern Iraq, northern Syria, Somalia, Libya, Qatar and Azerbaijan, as well as Northern Cyprus, Turkey is one of the few countries in the world that is militarily active beyond its borders. Today, it produces 80% of its military needs and is a major player on the global arms market. In the past, the AKP government has not hesitated to marshal this power to protect allies and champion causes it supports, including the Palestinian cause. In the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, for example, Turkey suspended all security and military cooperation agreements with Israel.

These political, economic and military transformations have reverberated throughout the region, giving rise to widespread admiration for Turkey in the region and a perception of the country as a major world power—an impression bolstered by Erdogan’s often muscular rhetoric. But what many admirers failed to notice is that there are hard limits to Turkish power, which is generally constrained by three main external factors.

First, the Turkish economy is enmeshed in the US-led neoliberal economic order. Being highly reliant on Western investments and markets—more than half of Turkish exports go to Western markets—it would be seriously harmed by US or EU actions that spurred investor flight or placed restrictions on exports or vital imports.

Second, Turkish political effectiveness faces opposition from all major competitors in the region, particularly Iran, with which it has been at loggerheads in Syria for a decade. Iran’s support for Armenia could also have serious implications for communication and trade lines between Turkey and Azerbaijan. In addition, Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are working to curb Turkey’s influence in the Arab region.

Third, all crises in which Ankara succeeded in imposing its will, or providing support to its allies to achieve victory, were crises of a purely regional nature. When the direct interests of one of the three major powers was at stake—the United States, Russia and China—Turkey was unable to achieve its goals absent an understanding or accommodation with them. Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, for instance, was not decisive in the latter’s victory until Russia adopted a position of neutrality on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. In other words, Turkey is still far from securing a position among the elders, economically or militarily, and its latitude for political action is accordingly limited.

All these external factors are currently setting the parameters of the Turkish position on Gaza. They dictate that Turkey avoid a clash with the United States and maintain good relations with the Western states on which the Turkish economy depends, particularly given the severe financial and economic crisis that Turkey has been struggling with since 2019. Good relations with the West are also necessary to settle ongoing disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is both a key energy source and vital to Turkish security. These are long-term considerations that will continue to determine the Turkish position on the Palestinian cause and Gaza in particular for some time to come.

*This is a summary of a policy brief originally written in Arabic available here.