Within hours of announcing the normalisation of its relations with Israel, Turkey suffered one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent memory. Not for the first time, Istanbul was the target of indiscriminate violence, resulting in carnage of a kind witnessed in cities like Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and Orlando. Whatever its source, domestic or international, Turkey must not let this vicious campaign succeed because, quite clearly, it is intended to ruin the country’s economy and force it into international isolation. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clear objectives and must not allow itself to be pushed off course, for the people of the Middle East are depending on it.
Given its deep-rooted geographical, historical and cultural links to the region, Turkey will always be affected by events across the Middle East. Even if it wanted to, Ankara cannot escape the consequences of the political upheaval that has gripped its southern neighbours since 2011. Whether providing shelter for refugees fleeing war-torn Syria or humanitarian relief for Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, Turkey’s responsibilities are inescapable.
Of course, all of the disasters that have plagued the region are entirely man-made; overcoming them has always depended on human effort and sacrifice. To this end, Turkey has paid a heavy price. The terrorist attack on Ataturk International Airport this week is ample proof of that and, judging from the recent past, this may not be the last such atrocity. Hence, it was absolutely right for the Turkish government to review its policies and, in particular, the “zero problems with neighbours” approach.
There is no doubt that President Erdogan is acutely aware that Turkey has to choose its battles. I remember a private meeting with him in Istanbul in 2010 in which the issue of Israel’s accession to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was discussed. This was just after Israeli commandos had stormed the humanitarian Freedom Flotilla’s Mavi Marmara in international waters off the coast of Gaza and killed nine Turkish citizens (a tenth died of his wounds later). When asked whether Turkey would block the Israeli OECD bid, Erdogan’s answer was a firm “No”. Many people believed that it was perfectly justifiable for Turkey to use its veto, but for Erdogan it was one battle too many, and one that could be avoided.
Six years on, Turkey has had an apology from Israel, compensation for the families of the victims of the murderous Israeli assault on the flotilla and an easing of the blockade of Gaza. Nevertheless, official claims that all three of Turkey’s conditions for normalisation have been met are not reflected by facts on the ground. The third condition in particular remains unfulfilled, for everyone knows that there is a huge difference between “easing” the blockade and lifting it altogether.
As Erdogan said at that meeting back in 2010, though, there is only so much that Turkey can do for Palestine by itself; others must also step up and play their part. There is no doubt that the outcome of the recent talks with Israel over the blockade would have been different if other regional actors and the Palestinian Authority were fully supportive of Turkey’s demands. The truth is, they weren’t. Egypt’s military establishment wants to maintain the blockade because it regards the de facto Hamas authority in Gaza as part of the Muslim Brotherhood, which led the elected government that the Egyptian army toppled in the 2013 coup. Similarly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is content to keep the blockade in place because in his view Hamas staged a coup against his authority in Gaza in 2007, even though the movement was the legitimate, democratically-elected government of Palestine at the time.
When looked at in the wider context, then, the announcement by Prime Minister Binali Yeldirim that Turkey is also aiming to normalise its relations with Egypt was no surprise. If nothing else, this could be a major step towards ending the 10-year blockade of Gaza, which may be led by Israel but is — on the Rafah Border at least — enforced by Egypt.
At this stage it must be remembered that Erdogan has always insisted on the release of the jailed former President Mohamed Morsi as a primary condition for reconciliation with the Sisi regime in Cairo. This condition has to remain on the table.
Turkey’s spate of diplomatic about-turns did not end with its overtures to Egypt. It also featured an apology to Russia for the downing of an air force jet in November last year. This was a sensible and practical move, because as long as the Syrian civil war continues the return to stability in Turkey is unlikely. It is, therefore, right and proper that Ankara should reach out to Moscow which, at the moment, remains the only power capable of influencing both the Assad regime in Damascus and its Iranian backers.
As it picks up the pieces after the attack on Istanbul’s main airport, Turkey must not simply step away into the wilderness of diplomatic isolation. Such a move would be a victory for its enemies and a massive loss for the region. The Middle East would be worse off without Turkey, especially after the collapse and disintegration of Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
President Erdogan is facing a lot of criticism for the deal he has struck with Israel. He has faced such criticism in the past but has usually proved his critics to be wrong; he is nobody’s fool. As he steers Turkey through difficult waters, his detractors should keep this in mind and give him credit where credit is due. His country is needed even at the best of times — which these are not — so Erdogan should not allow himself to be pushed off course. Turkey is much too important for that.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.