The most significant outcome of the Mavi Marmara incident is that there can no longer be any doubt that Turkey has joined the anti-Western bloc that includes Hamas, Iran and Syria. The Muslim country was once devotedly secular, an ally of Israel, and remains a member of NATO, but under the direction of Prime Minister Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (often referred to as the AKP), Turkey has gone in the completely opposite direction with enormous strategic consequences.
“Unfortunately, the AKP government of Mr. Erdogan and the oil-rich regime of Qatar joined the regional bloc opposing the more traditional governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco,” Dr. Walid Phares told FrontPage.
Erdogan’s turn to the other side is not the result of a single incident such as Operation Cast Lead or the Israeli raid on the flotilla, but is the culmination of an agenda long held by Erdogan and the AKP.
“In fact, it is not secular Turkey that we see moving against the U.S., West, Israel and Arab moderates. It is the AKP Islamist cabinet which is uncovering its long-term ideological agenda. The West should have projected this since 2002,” Dr. Phares said, referring to the year in which Erdogan’s party won a majority in the Turkish parliament.
Erdogan was imprisoned in 1998 for his involvement with the banned Welfare Party, which the Turkish government considered Islamist. Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy describes the Welfare Party as the “motherboard of Turkish Islamists since the 1980s,” saying it was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan was specifically punished for reading a poem at one speech with the lines, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.”
In 2001, he founded the AKP, which took a more moderate line, portraying itself as committed to separation of mosque and state but “faithful governance,” as Dr. Essam El-Erian, the chief of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political bureau, described the AKP’s “moderate Islamist” ideology. There was no anti-Western rhetoric and the party strongly supported membership in the European Union. The group won a large victory in the 2002 elections, resulting in Erdogan taking the post of Prime Minister.
Dr. El-Erian praised Erdogan’s victory, saying that it was the result of the “exposing of the failure of the secular trend.” El-Erian confirmed that the Muslim Brotherhood had close ties to the AKP, but the West treated Turkey as if nothing had changed. It wasn’t until Turkey steadfastly refused to allow U.S. soldiers to transit their territory to overthrow Saddam Hussein that the West began questioning the allegiance of Erdogan’s government.
The Erdogan government soon began a concerted effort to fuel anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment, knowing that such feelings help the AKP politically and hurt its opponents in the secular military that have long ties to the West. The Turkish media consistently reported alleged U.S. atrocities, fanning the already massive anti-war sentiment. The outrageous claims can only be compared to the anti-Israeli propaganda seen in the Arab world and Iran, echoing similar themes such as the use of chemical weapons against civilians and the harvesting of organs from killed Iraqis.
The AKP won an even larger share of the vote in the July 2007 election and had even more dominance over the government. Since then, the ideology of Erdogan has become more apparent as Turkish opinion has become less hostile to anti-Western Islamism. Shortly after the victory, Turkey’s moves towards Iran and other enemies of the West became more visible and aggressive.
Turkey began entertaining the prospect of Iran’s natural gas being delivered to European markets through its territory, and the two countries launched joint military attacks against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq. The Party of Free Life for Kurdistan, or PJAK, claimed it actually saw Turkish officers working alongside the Iranian military. Newsmax.com reported that eight Turkish officers were in Iran coordinating the attacks with the Revolutionary Guards.
In the spring of 2009, Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian-backed militia leader whose followers killed dozens of American soldiers in Iraq, met with Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul for “political consultations.” Most recently, Turkey has opposed sanctions on Iran and helped put together a deal with Brazil meant to delay any United Nations measures despite Iran’s lack of cooperation on the nuclear issue.
Erdogan’s government simultaneously became more anti-Israeli, particularly once the Israeli military offensive into Gaza began in response to the rocket attacks of Hamas. Erdogan went so far as to predict that Israel’s actions “would bring it to self-destruction,” saying “Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents.” He accused Jewish-controlled media outlets of “finding unfounded excuses to justify targeting of schools, mosques and hospitals.”
On January 29, 2009, Erdogan publicly confronted Israeli President Peres at the World Economic Forum over the Israeli offensive. When he was denied extra time to continue his criticism of Israel, he stormed out. Erdogan was a hero overnight in the Muslim world.
Soon after, an exhibit opened in a major state-controlled metro in Istanbul that included many viciously anti-Israeli and anti-American cartoons, portraying Israeli soldiers as massacring innocent people with American weapons. The AKP won the March 29 local elections, further cementing their hold and convincing Erdogan that he was politically safe to follow the agenda he held from the beginning. Later that year, Israel had to confront Turkey over anti-Israeli propaganda on prime-time state-controlled television.
In October, Turkey refused to allow Israel to participate in annual military exercises also involving Italy and the U.S. Instead, Turkey and Syria announced that they would hold their own joint exercises. The Turkish-Syrian alliance began shortly after Erdogan came to power, with Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting Turkey and a free trade agreement being signed.
Turkey has also moved closer to Sudan, refusing to describe the situation in Darfur as a genocide. Erdogan’s government also opposes the International Criminal Court’s indictment of President Omar al-Bashir for human rights violations. His defense of Bashir is that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”
Now, Turkey is taking center stage in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident. Turkey is openly considering cutting off all diplomatic ties with Israel and is saying that its warships will escort future convoys to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. There are reports that Erdogan himself may actually join a convoy. Erdogan now openly says, “I do not think that Hamas is a terrorist organization…They are Palestinians in resistance, fighting for their own land.”
He was among the first to accept Hamas after it was elected in Gaza, and he is calling their rule a “democracy” based on elections alone. Democracy is much more than elections, but Erdogan, like the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, want to equate democracy with elections so as to give themselves legitimacy as they move against the other pillars of democracy. Professor Barry Rubin says that as the AKP won election victories, the Erdogan government “repressed opposition and arrested hundreds of critics, bought up 40 percent of the media, and installed its people in the bureaucracy.”
Today, the government has begun the country’s “largest-ever crackdown” on the military, prosecuting 33 current and former military officers for allegedly planning a coup to overthrow the AKP government in 2003 including the former head of the special forces. Those arrested have been accused of planning to carry out acts of terrorism including the bombing of mosques, which they deny. Given the military’s pride in acting as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism, it isn’t surprising that elements of the military would desire to see the AKP overthrown. However, this could be an Islamist attempt to weaken the military and paint them as dangerous and anti-Muslim.
Erdogan’s defense of the vessel owned by the IHH, a Turkish Islamist group tied to Hamas and other terrorist activity, is particularly insightful. Any true opponent of terrorism and radical Islamism would ban the group or at least officially investigate them. In 1997, the Turkish authorities raided the IHH’s office in Istanbul and made numerous arrests. IHH operatives were found with weapons-related materials and the French counterterrorism magistrate said that they were planning on supporting jihadists in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.
“The essential goal of this Association was to illegally arm its membership for overthrowing democratic, secular, and constitutional order present in Turkey and replacing it with an Islamic state founded on the Shariah,” the French magistrate’s report said.
If the goal of the IHH is to establish Sharia Law in Turkey, and Erdogan’s government is describing them as a “charity,” what does that say about Erdogan’s plans? The Washington Post has raised alarm over this connection, noting the IHH leadership’s praise for Erdogan.
The West’s loss of Turkey has frightening strategic consequences. They are so frightening that the West refused to acknowledge the trend until it became undeniable in recent weeks. Professor Juan Cole, who already was a strident critic of Israel, bluntly states, “Strategically, if the U.S. had to choose between Turkey and Israel, it would have to choose Turkey.” The pressure on the U.S. to restrain Israel so as to court the stronger bloc has now become greater than ever.
The situation is even more precarious for other countries in the region previously bonding together to oppose Iran. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are hostile to Iran’s ambitions now face an even more threatening bloc that has been enlarged by the defection of Turkey. The temptation for them to surrender the mantle of leadership to the Iranian-Syrian-Turkish bloc in order to save themselves will now reach unprecedented levels, regardless of whether Iran obtains nuclear weapons or not.
To make matters worse, Erdogan’s prestige as the preeminent challenger of Israel will lead to competition with Iran, sparking an escalation where each side tries to establish superior anti-Israeli and anti-Western credentials. Israel is now in its most isolated and dangerous situation since its birth in 1948.