Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which hosts Hamas and has been supporting military invasions in Iraq, Syria and Libya in the past year, has suddenly changed its tune in the recent months. It now wants “reconciliation” with Israel, Egypt and basically everyone it has been alienating.
The sudden change can’t be put down to a change of heart, since the same ruling party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have compared Israel to Nazi Germany in the past; rather, it is a tactical shift designed to get something out of Israel and Egypt or to sink their relations with Greece and Cyprus.
Turkey’s ruling set of politicians have unchecked power. They have imprisoned or driven into exile all critical journalists, and they have been imprisoning opposition politicians and crushing protests.
This unchecked power, and a willing media that is mostly run by the government, means they can shift messages relatively easily. That means moving from condemning Israel as a Nazi country and threatening Egypt’s government to suddenly wanting to “mend” ties can be done without any critical questions.
In early March, Turkey trotted out Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to praise Egypt for a “maritime demarcation.” Turkey had begun the full-court press in February. “Time for normalization” with Egypt, an article at the Dayan Center asked in mid-February.
“Pragmatism” could enable the mending of fences, Bloomberg reported. Turkey announced a “reset,” VOA reported on March 12. Turkey and Egypt “resumed” contact for the first time since 2013, reports claimed. These were based solely on Turkish sources. Turkey announced the talks on the “reset” on March 13.
You can be forgiven for reading all these news reports and coming away with the impression a lot has happened in the last month. There is a “reset” and “mended fences” and maritime treaties and new relations. It’s amazing.
It’s also all Turkish media propaganda and deceptions by Ankara’s government designed to torpedo ties between Egypt and Greece.
“There is no such thing as resuming contacts,” Egypt’s Foreign Ministry was quoted at Egypt Today. Egypt denied the resumption of ties, Arab News reported. Turkey had announced all these talks and resets without talking to Egypt. Turkish media, TRT and Anadolu and Daily Sabah were then operationalized to move the narrative forward.
Then Turkey spoke to its friends abroad, its lobbyists in Washington and even its contacts in Israel and Europe to move the narrative forward more, to launder it through foreign media so that a statement becomes a “fact” even if nothing changed.
We can read the headlines to see the farce. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is quoted at Al-Jazeera claiming “diplomatic-level contacts.” Al-Jazeera in Qatar is close to Turkey’s regime because Qatar is an ally of Turkey. Turkey is supposedly seeking a “reboot” with the Arab world, Bloomberg news reported. Turkey did hold talks with Qatar and Russia about Syria. However, it hasn’t appeared to hold any real talks with Egypt.
For Egyptian officials like Cavusogly and Akar, being operationalized to spread a largely mythical “reset” is part of Ankara’s decision to try to undermine Greece-Egypt ties.
Turkey does this every time it sees how Greece is creating partnerships with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries. In February and March, Turkish media also spread propaganda about new ties with Israel. Turkey even pretended it was fighting Hezbollah in Syria as part of the campaign.
There were even reports of a “love affair” with Israel and Turkey regarding Syria in the spring of 2020. What was Turkey’s goal? To sabotage Israel’s East Med gas pipeline deal with Cyprus and Greece, which was being negotiated between December 2019 and July 2020.
Last May, Egypt, the UAE, France, Greece and Cyprus condemned Turkey for hostility in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel did not join the condemnation. Israel’s policy is to focus on Iran’s threats, but hints last year showed it is concerned about Turkey’s provocations.
Turkey’s real “reconciliation” with Israel was clear in August 2020 when it threatened to cut off ties with the UAE if it went ahead with a peace deal with Israel. Usually when countries are reconciling and resetting relations, they don’t try to destroy and isolate the relations of the other country. Ultimately, Turkey’s goal is to isolate Israel, Greece and Egypt through its claims of “reconciliation.”
Yet last December, Turkey tried its “reconciliation” story again, pretending it had sent a new ambassador to Israel. It turned out the person who was sent was known for extreme anti-Israel statements. Al-Jazeera and Turkish media were once again operationalized to spread the narrative. After the statements about reconciliation were revealed to be largely a myth, Ankara moved on.
It didn’t move on without leaving behind its agenda, a map it spread around showing Turkey and Israel with a maritime agreement that erases Cyprus. Maybe Turkey knew that Cyprus and Israel were discussing maritime issues and gas fields.
On March 11, Cyprus and France joined Israel and Greece for the first time in the Noble Dina naval drill. Turkey had tried its best to harm ties with Cyprus, even with a bizarre article at the Dayan Center claiming Turkey is Israel’s “neighbor across the sea.”
Turkey actually isn’t a neighbor with Israel across the sea; there is a large island country called Cyprus in the middle. Turkey invaded Cyprus in the 1970s and now seeks to pretend that Northern Cyprus has some huge maritime claims, and Greece and Cyprus have less of a claim.
Cyprus and Israel share gas reserves in the sea, particularly the Aphrodite field, which has a small part that stretches into Israel’s maritime zone. On March 9, reports emerged of a framework for the field. Turkey’s goal was to slow that process down.
Greece and Egypt also reached a maritime compromise on March 9. They already have a deal dating from last year. Turkey’s goal was to wade into the middle of this and also present a largely mythical concept for a maritime deal, similar to the one Turkey put in front of media for Israel’s consumption last December. It’s not like Ankara’s goal is not transparent.
It simply spreads stories about reconciliation to see if it can get them to stick and then will seek to slow down Israeli ties with Cyprus and Greece or ties with the UAE or Saudi-Egypt-Greek ties. Unsurprisingly, Turkey is disappointed to see Saudi Arabia working more closely with Greece. It comes after years in which Ankara was bashing Saudi Arabia in the media; now it somehow imagines Riyadh didn’t notice.
On the one hand, Turkey’s constant statements about resets with Israel and Egypt, or Saudi Arabia or the UAE or “engagement” in the Arab world, could be read as a genuine shift. However, none of the faces around Erdogan have changed in recent years. The same team responsible for incitement against Israel and Egypt and the Gulf is in power.
It’s not like there is some new shift in foreign-policy analysis, such as there was when Turkey went from its “zero problems” approach to invasions of several countries. Turkey also doesn’t present any concessions or changes on its part; it makes demands, and it appears to benefit from its maritime claims. It doesn’t compromise.
That its claims of a “reset” are often paired with seeking to prevent closer relations between Israel and the Arab states and Greece shows that the real agenda is more complex. Turkey understands that its attacks on the states in the region have led them to work more closely together.
Israel knows Turkey hosts Hamas, and Egypt sees it hosting the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Gulf knows Turkey has used its media to undermine their successes. Under Turkey’s regime, the last thing it wanted was for the Arab states and
Israel to work well together, since its goal was to isolate Greece, isolate Israel, isolate each Gulf state and Egypt and force them all to work with Turkey on Ankara’s terms.
That is why Turkey preyed on the weak government in Tripoli and also sought to co-opt the Syrian rebels to get them to fight for Turkey against Kurds. Turkey’s goal was not to help the Syrians, but use them, eventually recruiting them as mercenaries to fight abroad.
A longer-term view may be held by Qatar, which is seeking to regain influence in Syria and Lebanon, and dovetails with Turkey’s policies. Egypt and the UAE want to reengage more with Damascus.
That means there is a game afoot for new state-to-state discussions 10 years after the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s decision to try to somehow reenter into the region is part of that larger discussion.