In this edition of Counter Terrorism Today at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Mr. Dan Diker invited several prominent experts in the fields of national security, counterterrorism and Middle Eastern studies to discuss Turkey’s unstable role in the Middle East. Col. (Res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Director of Research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya and former deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council, accurately outlined Turkey’s problematic relations with its neighboring countries in its attempt to bridge the gap between Western values and moderate Islamic schooling.
Dr. Michael Barak, Senior Researcher and Project Manager at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and the Team Leader of the Global Jihad & Jihadi Websites Monitoring Group (JWMG), was able to shed light on Erdogan’s endeavor to restore Turkey’s economic, political and cultural role in the region. As head of the Kurdish studies program at Moshe Dayan Center of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, Prof. Ofra Bengio accounted for the influence of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict on Erdogan’s policies. Lastly, Brigadier General (Res.) Michael Herzog, Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and former head of the IDF Strategic Planning Division, acknowledged the significance of the rapprochement deal between Israel and Turkey in stressing their converging interests and normalizing the relations between the two countries.
First off, Mr. Diker centered on Turkey’s acute situation: where is Turkey today and what situation does President Erdogan find himself in? Dr. Shay’s straightforward, yet precise answer juxtaposed Erdogan’s original policies with his current ones. He noted that Erdogan’s original policy was to ally with its neighbors, now however, Turkey witnesses conflicts with all its neighbors in addition to its domestic issues. Prof. Bengio, on the other hand, attested that “we are witnessing a real war between the PKK and the Turkish government or military,” a war that is both demoralizing to society and has immense repercussions on Erdogan’s foreign policies. Furthermore, by limiting the freedom of journalists inside Turkey, shutting down Gülenist universities and appropriating them, Erdogan, according to Prof. Bengio, is creating a totalitarian or at least an authoritarian system which cannot be stopped for the time being.
Mr. Diker proceeded to focus on the tension between the Ottomanization of Turkey and the forces fighting against it, inquiring if Erdogan is hoping to restore the greatness of the Ottoman Empire. In response, Dr. Barak asserted the importance of Vision 2023, a document that is meant to stimulate “Turkey’s role in the region, economically, culturally and politically” precisely 100 years after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, as Dr. Barak noted, Erdogan envisions “a new Turkey,” one that is more Islamic and has stronger ties with the Arab world at the expense of the Western world. Similarly, in Prof. Bengio’s opinion, Erdogan exploits the image of the “grandeur of Ottomanism” in an attempt to grow his influence in the surrounding regions. Prof. Bengio proceeded to shed light on the ‘Kurdish issue’ as she explained that the Western distinction between good and bad Kurds, namely the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as opposed to the PKK, renders this issue even more difficult. In her words, “since Erdogan allowed the West to use the Incirlik Air Base, the West feels indebted to Erdogan and it cannot change its policies as long as Erdogan himself looks at the PKK as a terrorist group.”
Mr. Diker subsequently turned to Dr. Shay to understand the extent to which Erdogan gained leverage by authorizing a temporary influx of 2.5 million refugees into Turkey. Highlighting the importance of Turkey’s geographical and ideological role in bridging the gap between the Western and Islamic world, Dr. Shay explained that Turkey plays a very distinct “double game”. On the one hand, “Turkey is the gate and the key to the problem of the refugees that Europe has to deal with” and, on the other hand, “without Turkey, the possibility to reinforce the Islamic State with these volunteers [foreign fighters] couldn’t work.”
Within the context of Erdogan’s position on the ‘Muslim issue’ today, Mr. Diker asked his guests “what do you see Erdogan needing to do in order to improve his position and what should Turkey do to improve its position to reengage as it had been reengaged 12 years ago?” Prof. Bengio reminded us that Erdogan’s intension to grant citizenship to Syrian refugees serves several purposes; to enable them to move to Europe so as to shed Turkey of its refugees, to change the demographics of the Kurdish area in order to “Arabize this region” and to reap the economic benefits of European aid amounting to 6 billion Euros. Offering a glimpse of hope for Turkey’s future development, Prof. Bengio argued that Erdogan is taking the right steps in mending fences with Turkey’s neighbors. More specifically, Turkey is witnessing a renewed wave of Russian tourism, it works on ameliorating its relations with Israel and Prime Minister Yildirim strives to resume correspondence with the Iraqi regime.
As General Herzog tuned into the discussion, Mr. Diker shifted the focus to assess the rapprochement deal between Israel and Turkey. General Herzog takes a clear stance on the issue, arguing that the agreement is crucial in exploiting interests common to both regional actors. In his words, “against the background of regional turmoil, ISIS in the heart of the Middle East, Iranian ambitions, instability and uncertainty, it makes sense to normalize relations and act on converging interests where they exist.” In the context of Turkey’s crumbling regional policies Erdogan, as General Herzog notes, acknowledged the importance of Israel as a regional partner. Hence, as part of the rapprochement deal between Israel and Turkey, “Turkey essentially gave up on its demand that Israel lifts the siege on Gaza” and learned to work within this framework. Dr. Shay and Dr. Barak both coincided with General Herzog on the matter, as they advocated for short and long term benefits of Israeli-Turkish relations. Nonetheless, Dr. Shay also expressed caution regarding the security cooperation on Turkey’s part; he noted that instead of selling systems like Iron Dome to Turkey, Israel should focus on “sharing intelligence regarding common enemies like the Islamic State.”
Mr. Diker thanked his guests for a captivating debate on Turkey’s unstable role in the Middle East and concluded the radio show with a very accurate expression: “embrace your neighbor in the Middle East, but keep your eyes wide open, never close your eyes.”
Audio version on SoundCloud
Image of Prof. Ofra Bengio from the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies: http://dayan.org/author/ofra-bengio
Image of Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog from the Washington Institute: http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/experts/view/herzog-michael