Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey: Davutoglu’s Pebbles

by Steven A. Cook
February 4, 2013

An Israeli air force pilot poses near a F15-E fighter jet at the Tel Nof air base in central Israel (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).


A few years ago, a Turkish contact in a position to know regaled me with stories about the inner workings of the ruling Justice and Development Party—who was up and who was down, the personality differences, and who was positioning himself to be the next prime minister (this was at a time when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s health was thought to be failing).  Most of this stuff was harmless gossip not to be taken seriously.  When we veered into more substantive matters of mutual interest, Turkey-Israel relations came up.  My interlocutor indicated that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was the driving force behind the continued tension between Ankara and Jerusalem and that there was a growing awareness that while downgrading Turkey-Israel ties had been appropriate, a policy bordering on outright hostility was not benefiting Turkey even if its grievances had not been addressed.

I took much of this as posturing for an ambitious young Turk who was telling this American what he thought I might want to hear.  I filed it away as such, believing that while Davutoglu had distinguished himself for being very tough on the Israelis even as he occasionally stretched credulity, calling the Mavi Marmara incident “Turkey’s 9/11” (had he forgotten al-Qaeda’s 2003 Istanbul bombing?), there was a broad consensus within Turkey about the quality of relations with Israel.  In addition, given Operation Cast Lead, the Davos “One Minute” incident, and the very fact that Israelis killed eight Turks and a Turkish American aboard the Mavi Marmara, there was no political payoff for the AKP—except perhaps in Washington—in repairing relations with the Israelis.  The decline in Turkey-Israel relations diminished Ankara’s ability to play a role in Arab-Israel diplomacy, but the domestic benefits of this state of affairs outweighed this particular consequence.

Over the weekend, I was reminded of the conversation I had with my AKP contact when the editor of the Hurriyet Daily News tweeted an article his newspaper ran titled, “Why didn’t al-Assad even throw a pebble at Israel: Turkish FM.”  Perhaps I had made too much of my training and all that I had thought and written about the rationality of Turkey’s decision to downgrade its relations was just plain incorrect. Maybe Davutoglu has been driving the bus by himself on Israel all along.  During a visit to Belgrade, the foreign minister seemed to lament the fact that the embattled Assad did not retaliate for Israel’s January 30 strike on a convoy of antiaircraft weapons destined for Hezbollah, which also damaged a chemical weapons research facility, asking:

Why didn’t the Syrian Army, which has been attacking its own innocent people for twenty-two months now from the air with jets and by land with tanks and artillery fire, respond to Israel’s operation? Why can’t al-Assad, who gave order to fire SCUD missiles at Aleppo, do anything against Israel?

Typically, Davutoglu couched his criticism of Syria and Israel in the language of Muslim solidarity.  In and of itself, the statement is not outside the mainstream thinking of officialdom in the region.  After all, the Arab League condemned Israel’s action and part of Davutoglu’s grand strategic plan is to make Turkey a leader of the Muslim world, which means the foreign minister could not say anything less than what Arab League Secretary General Nabil al Araby would say.  Still, Davutoglu—the chief diplomat of a rising global power, EU aspirant, and longtime NATO partner—seemed blind to the differences between Israeli excesses of the past and the threat that Hezbollah and chemical weapons or some combination of the two pose to the region. Then in one of those moments when Davutoglu veers into absurdity, he implied that the Syrian and Israeli governments were working together:

Is there a secret agreement between al-Assad and Israel? Wasn’t the Syrian army founded to protect its country and its people against this sort of aggression? The al-Assad regime only abuses. Why don’t you use the same power that you use against defenseless women against Israel, which you have seen as an enemy since its foundation.

It is hard what to make of this statement.  Perhaps it is frustration with the fact that Assad’s military managed to down a Turkish F-4 operating off the Syrian coast last June, but has not come close to putting a scratch on Israeli aircraft in years. In 2003, Israeli jets punked Assad early one morning by rattling the windows of his summer palace near Latakia, bombed a Syria-based Islamic Jihad training camp the same year, pulled a repeat of the palace flyover in 2006, and wiped out Syria’s alleged nuclear program in 2007 all with impunity.

Regardless of whether Davutoglu is frustrated or he actually believes—against all evidence—that there is a deal between the Israelis and the Syrians, his statements are nothing short of irresponsible.  Even if they resonate with some Turks and Arabs, the foreign minister’s performance in Belgrade only increases tension between Ankara and Jerusalem, further removes Turkey from regional diplomacy, and contributes to an unstable environment in the Eastern Mediterranean.  It will surely raise questions in Europe and the United States about Davutoglu himself who is often regarded as an extraordinarily talented geostrategic thinker, but who seems so blind with rage at Israel that he is willing to call for an escalation of regional violence and embrace the oddest of conspiracy theories.


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  • Posted by Ed Webb

    I suspect that removing Assad has become such a high priority that finding any rhetorical club with which to beat him is first and last in the decision-making process in Ankara. Assad’s pose as defender of the minorities within and defender of Arab honor more broadly needs to be undermined, and this is an easy shot.

    As to the Israeli side of the equation, I reckon Turkey can see that there is no peace-making to be had in the near to mid-term, so there is no point trying to maneuver back into position to be involved. Better to keep banging the Muslim solidarity/leader of the Arab world by default drum.

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