Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
Last week, BPC began a series on recent developments in Turkey. Previously, we examined the AKP government’s democratization package, Turkey’s attempts to cultivate better ties with China, the potential for a split between Turkey and the AKP’s most prominent leaders ahead of Turkey’s upcoming series of elections, and the recently announced U.S.-Turkish partnership to combat violent extremism. This week, we continue our coverage with the revelation that Turkey had broken the cover of an Israeli spy ring on Iran, and Turkey’s changing position towards the Syrian rebels.
For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, that will be released on Wednesday, October 23.
Turkey Breaks Israel’s Cover: Another Setback for Turkish-Israeli Relations
David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, reported that early last year the Turkish government disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians meeting in Turkey with their Mossad case officers. This incident reveals the meandering path Turkey’s foreign policy has taken under Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, Turkey was dominated by the Kemalist elite, subscribers to the philosophy of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who created Turkey in his vision of a modern, secular, ethno-nationalist republic. Kemalist foreign policy also avoided Middle Eastern entanglements, meaning that while modern Turkey might not have been friendly with Israel, it was also rarely at odds with it. In the 1990s, when Turkey and Israel faced similar threats from Syria and Iran, this allowed for friendly ties to develop between the two nations, including military sales and intelligence cooperation.
However, those ties deteriorated once the AKP came to power. The AKP’s ideology of Islamic populism led it to increasingly take up the mantle of the Palestinian cause and a foreign policy ideology that sought “zero problems with neighbors,” at the expense of its relationship with Israel. During this period Turkey reached out to Israel’s enemies—Iran, Syria, and Hamas—and grew increasingly critical of Israel on the world stage. Publicly, Erdoğan called Zionism a “crime against humanity,” and railed against the Gaza War before storming off the stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2009. Tension between Israel and Turkey came to a head in 2010, when Israeli naval officers raided the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief. Following the raid, in which nine Turks were killed, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Israel and suspended military cooperation, plunging Turkish-Israeli relations into a deep freeze.
At the same time, Ankara was growing closer to Tehran. Turkey stood on the sidelines of international condemnation of Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections and subsequent suppression of the Green movement. Turkey also began to defend Iran’s nuclear development and, along with Brazil, outlined a deal in 2010 that would have Iran ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey in return for fuel for a research reactor. The U.S. and its Western allies rejected the deal, as it would have allowed Iran to continue to enrich uranium, and proceeded with expanded sanctions against Iran.
More recently, however, that dynamic had begun to shift. The Turkish-Iranian relationship had deteriorated as the two countries found themselves on opposing sides of the emerging Syrian conflict. The strongest blow to their burgeoning relationship came in 2011, when Turkey agreed to host a NATO missile defensive system aimed at countering potential attacks from Iran. In an address to the nation, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed that Iran had “told our Turkish friends that they did not make the correct decision that that it’s to their detriment.”
Meanwhile, Turkey was making progress toward reconciliation with Israel, at President Obama’s insistence. At the conclusion of Obama’s visit to Israel in March, he pushed Netanyahu to call Erdoğan and apologize for the loss of life during the flotilla raid. Following Netanyahu’s apology, Turkish and Israeli officials held several meetings to discuss terms for restoring relations – namely reparations to the families of the victims, an ease in the Gaza blockade, and Turkey dropping criminal cases against IDF soldiers involved in the raid. Despite these meetings, and reports in early September that they were nearing their conclusion, Turkey and Israel have yet to agree on compensation or restore diplomatic relations.
The revelations made by Ignatius, complicate his narrative, however, showing that the AKP has been slower to pivot away from its Islamist and anti-Semitic tendencies than it has led the world to believe. In 2010, a close Erdoğan advisor, Hakan Fidan, took the helm of the Turkish intelligence service, called the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati, or MIT, and allegedly passed sensitive information collected by the U.S. and Israel to Iran. Ignatius asserts that this serious breach of intelligence formed the backdrop to other recent developments in the Turkish-Israeli relationship, namely Netanyahu’s reticence to apologize to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the loss lives during the flotilla raid. And, since Netanyahu’s apology, underlines the continued strain in the relationship and the inability to agree on a framework for reparations and the restoration of diplomatic ties.
Turkey railed against Ignatius’ article, and another article published by The Wall Street Journal describing Fidan’s role in funneling arms to Syrian extremists and intelligence to Iran, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu calling the articles “unfounded but also an example of very poor black propaganda.” An advisor to Erdoğan also tweeted that, since predictions that protests like those seen over the summer in Turkey would resume in the fall hadn’t panned out, foreign powers “have started a campaign against the reputation of the [Turkish] government and intelligence.” Another senior government official asserted that the article was an attempt to discredit Turkey and prevent it from playing a role in renewed negotiations with Iran.
While Israeli officials have yet to make an official comment, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin said that “the Turks made a strategic decision…to seek the leadership of our region, in the Middle East, and they chose the convenient anti-Israeli card in order to build up leadership” and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom questioned “who is going to trust or cooperate with them?”
Ignatius writes that the United States was aware of the intelligence breach but continued to deepen its relationship with Turkey, continuing its long-standing approach of “separating intelligence issues from broader policymaking.” While the United States has taken an active role in trying to repair Turkish-Israeli relations, most notably demonstrated by Obama personally orchestrating Netanyahu’s apology during his visit to Israel, U.S. officials allegedly saw the incident as a case of Israel misplacing its trust in Turkey, not a betrayal of one American ally by another. Still, U.S. officials appear to maintain hope that the relationship can be repaired, with President Obama saying in March that “we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between [Turkey and Israel] in order to advance regional peace and security.”