Many nations are guilty of aggravating tensions in the Middle East, but of all of them, Turkey has posed a great threat in increasing the chaos. After seizing power in 2003, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began steering Turkey away from secularism, and in the direction of authoritarian Islamism. Naturally this evolved into a more draconian society within Turkey. And unsurprisingly, many onlookers have become increasingly concerned by this development.
Erdogan’s erratic behaviour has led to Turkey developing frosty relations with neighboring states. A truly narcissistic side of the Turkish president has been revealed. The Gaza flotilla escapade in 2010 led to Israel-Turkey relations plummeting even further than they were before , after an evident dislike of one another after Erdogan assumed power. Then of course, one cannot forget the notorious downing of a Russian plane by Turkey last November, after it was hovering over the Turkey-Syria border. More terrifying however was the prospect of Turkey — as a NATO member, further escalating tensions between its NATO allies in the West and Russia.
Yet the reader should not threat too much. This situation has been alleviated for the time being. And it’s due to one prominent factor — Erdogan has apparently sidelined his megalomaniacal aspirations. While the welfare of Turkey would be at the forefront of this, his actions will improve the situation in the Middle East.
This change began developing with Russia. Erdogan’s territorialism and fanaticism were highlighted after ordering the Russian plane to be shot down, especially as he vowed never to apologize afterwards. The possibility of a Russian retaliating was sure unsettling. But thankfully, Russia responded to punish Turkey with a non-violent approach, placing sanctions on trade and tourism with Turkey. Feeling the harsh effects of this, Erdogan realized he needed to resolve it. On June 27, the Turkish president actually went back on his word, and offered a full apology to Putin. After that, trade relations were normalized.
Then only two days later, a historic deal was struck. A deal that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and one which certainly would concern the reader. For Israel and Turkey not only agreed on a trade pact, but they normalized relations with one another. Israel took the lead by offering an apology and compensation for the Gaza Flotilla incident in 2010 — despite many Israelis and supporters of Israel across the world showing fierce antagonism towards it. Now as one can imagine, many Turkish civilians showed a substantial opposition towards it too — one Pew Research poll from 2011 shows that 87% are unfavorable towards Israel. No doubt many hard-line Islamists will lose favor towards Turkey too; Hamas is an obvious one, especially as it has had its activity shut down in Istanbul as part of the deal. Yet this normalization of ties between two of the West’s key allies is obviously more beneficial than appeasing some Islamists.
Speculation of Turkey and Syria reuniting has been raised– after Erdogan turned his back on Ba’ath President Bashar al-Assad after the 2011 Arab Spring began overwhelming the Syrian regime. Eventually, he strongly argued for the need to topple Assad from power, and acted upon this by intervening in the region, and arming rebels in the North. Allegedly, Erdogan had recently sent a letter of apology to the Assad government. While it’s too early to confirm the truth of such an action, it would not come as a huge surprise given Erdogan’s foreign policy has become more pragmatic lately.
So what exactly motivated this change in Erdogan? No doubt the economic ties that have been forged are a compelling element for the Turkish president. But remember, his drastic actions and ill-thought behavior did lead him to becoming increasingly isolated in the region. Perhaps this made him see sense, and realize the danger of his actions.
Of course, Erdogan still has many flaws which are worth highlighting. He has shown no desire to make peace with nearby Kurdish factions, and hostilities between both sides will surely rage on. Yet this new approach that the Turkish leader has taken can only be a positive one. Not only will Israel benefit from it, but peacemaking will be easier now, as major players are coming together in the region — potentially over Syria too, where unified action is of utmost importance.
This article was originally published in the Times of Israel.