Turkish Pride

In international affairs it is important to be cognizant of an actor's culture and history. Failing to do so sometimes leads to a situation where observers and commentators fail to truly understand the meaning of current events.

In the Middle East, for example, pride and honor are considered very important and signals of strength. And today there is probably no other country on earth that insists more on its pride than Turkey. The dirty little secret, however, is that this alleged pride is coupled with serious frustrations.

Following the May 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's Prime Minister, demanded an apology from Israel. Moving the goalpost he demanded also an end to Israel's sea blockade of Gaza. These demands were as much signs of national pride as they were political tools. If Israel had apologized despite the mostly favorable findings of United Nations (UN) report, it would have been seen as weakness and inevitably invited further demands. It did not matter to Turkey that Israel expressed regret and offered compensation. Ankara safely could assume that Israel would not fulfill his complete set of demands. That the UN report deemed the sea blockade legal shocked Ankara.

Erdoğan angrily, but in a calculated way, downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel, suspended military agreements as well as halted defense trade, threatened naval war and hinted at further measures. These steps, welcomed in the Arab world, will indeed harm Israel, as intended. The deep freeze of relations with Turkey highlights the increasing isolation in a region where popular uprisings leave Israel without any predictable allies. But despite the most recent declarations that Turkey will accompany future flotillas with naval warships, such a move would come at a considerably higher cost and will meet with strong disapproval by the West.

But Turkey, which so proudly strives to be a leader in the region, has also been profoundly damaged. It is clear that the country had benefited tremendously from the close relations with Israel. That is history now. Moreover, the popular uprisings in the Arab World undermined Ankara's ambitions to the point that the country's regional strategy is in shambles and its reliability as ally of Western democracies comes into sharp focus.

The so-called 'zero problems' policy fell apart and showed the limitation of Turkey's neo-Ottoman ambitions. This policy was devised by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and aimed a several goals: having good relations with all the countries neighbors; having maximum cooperation with all parties of the Middle East conflict; serving as a crucial meeting point between the Middle East, the Caucasus and the West; and strengthening Islamic civilization and its own position within it.

So Turkey sought to play a role in a variety of regional issues, such as mediation efforts in Iraq and over the Iranian nuclear program, between the antagonistic Palestinian factions and between Israel and the Palestinians. It was Erdoğan's ambition to dominate the region, to demand respect and to wield influence far beyond her borders. With these efforts blocked, the Prime Minister's blood is boiling.

The pattern of gaining popularity in Turkey, the Middle East and beyond at the expense of Israel became clear when the Turkish Prime Minister attacked Israel and her President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009 before storming off the stage. Turkey's popularity in the region was at its peak immediately following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in May 2010. But the flotilla incident also spelled the end of any Turkish ambitions to be a credible mediator in the Middle East conflict.

Erdoğan's instinct of gaining political stature through bullying Israel was spot-on because this guarantees popularity points in the Arab World. However, he was, like everybody else, taken by surprise by the popular uprisings in the region. He found himself, for an uncomfortably long time, in opposition to these uprisings, most notably in Syria, Libya, and Bahrain.

The Turkish Prime Minister sure tried to maintain his close relations with Syria once ordinary Syrian peacefully challenged the regime. Erdoğan did not cut the ties with the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad until the pressure to do so increased during the latter's ongoing bloody repression and refugees spilled onto Turkish territory. So Erdoğan not only slapped Israel and damaged the relationship but also lost Syria. With it he lost his hope to be the region's peace mediator between these two countries.

The rivalry with Iran is another example where there are far more than 'zero problems' with an immediate neighbor. While both countries have, at times and within limits, common interests they are rivals for regional hegemony. They are locked in a low-intensity sparring match. Iran did not take kindly Turkey's support of the Bahraini government against the country's Shi'a unrest and Iran had gladly stepped up its involvement in Syria to support the Assad regime. News that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Damascus to stop brutal crackdown and negotiate a solution are, while surprising, an attempt to appear as defender of human rights prior to his appearance at the UN General Assembly later this month.

Still, in Syria Tehran was doing what it could to undermine its rival and reduce its influence while at the same time retaining and widening its influence in its most important client state. Because of this fallout, the loss of his Syrian partner will be very frustrating.

In the case of Libya, Turkey again caved in only under pressure and supported the rebels only after NATO had decided on the military intervention. The Turkish Prime Minister plans a visit to Libya, in a clear effort to make the world forget his initial support of the regime.

In the Palestinian arena, Turkey made nice with Hamas, believing that a close dialogue was the key to achieve maximum cooperation by the rulers of Gaza. But while they sure made friends, Ankara certainly did not contribute to their moderation, a necessary precondition to any possible opening in the stalled reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) or negotiations with Israel. It could be argued that Turkey's interference contributed to Hamas's intransigence.

Turkey's ardent support of Hamas surely did not and does not endear it to the West. It is to be hoped that the Turks "will earn in their own time that being Hamas's patron is a loser's game." Also not enthusiastic about Turkey's cozy relations with Hamas was -- and is -- Egypt. Under now deposed President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt disapproved of Turkey's connections with the regime in Gaza. Hamas, an offspring of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, was seen as dangerous to Egypt's stability.

The military rulers in Cairo and Egyptians in general are supportive of the Palestinians, but not necessarily of Hamas. Because of his anti-Israel actions and rhetoric, Egyptians will enthusiastically welcome the Turkish Prime Minister during his upcoming visit while the leadership will make clear that even a weakened Egypt will not accept any portrayal of Turkey as a regional leader.

Like Israel, the United States was a recipient of a less-than-kind treatment by its NATO ally Turkey. One only needs to think of Turkey's refusal to allow the U.S. military to use its bases and territory prior to the invasion of Iraq. The joint air exercises with China last year also did not instill much confidence in Turkey's political instincts. While it is true that Turkey agreed to have parts of a NATO missile defense system against the threat of Iranian long-range missiles installed it is also true that NATO seems to be the one restraint that Erdoğan is not willing to throw off. And there is the calculation that the United States, at this moment in time at least, can be challenged without having to fear a reprisal.

What does that leave us with? It has rightly been pointed out that Turkey is leading the exclusive club of major players in the Middle East, "each with their own political and religious tradition, each in a state of internal political turmoil, and each vying with the other for preeminence through confrontational 'displays of power' [...] against a fourth -- Israel."

The 'zero problems' policy collapsed because of the fallout of the popular uprisings in the Arab World. Moreover, the Prime Minister shifted into crisis-mode vis-à-vis the Kurds and Cyprus. These setbacks cause Erdoğan serious frustrations and anger. His safest bet right now is to harm, threaten, and provoke Israel. Pride and honor are assured.

But it is astonishing that there is not the faintest hint of some soul-searching in Ankara, particularly in the wake of the UN report that also found fault with Turkey. So while Erdoğan calls Israel a "spoiled child" it seems that he is actually the spoiled child, throwing tantrums when his strategies don't work out as planned, he doesn't get his will or is actually blamed for his actions.