US Wars Are Making Türkiye’s Relationship With the West Politically Untenable 

Turkish public opinion of the West dropped due to the Iraq War and has not recovered. There have been almost constant issues since, with both sides fanning the flames – the US with its arrogance and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for using the disputes for political gain. Beneath the surface, however, they continue to cooperate on a wide range of issues.

That might get more difficult. The fact is the US, by supporting Israel’s “plausible” genocide in Gaza, has managed to find an issue that could cause an irreparable break between the West and the vast majority of Turkish citizens, which could make it politically toxic for Erdogan or anyone else to remain partially aligned with the West.

For months after October 7, Erdogan paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while trade kept flowing between Turkiye and Israel. Voters forced him to take a firmer stand at the polls on March 31 when Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party lost the popular vote for the first time since 2002 – partially due to the government response to Israel’s war in Gaza (the other big issue was the economy).

The Islamist far-right New Welfare Party (YRP) left Erdogan’s ruling People’s Alliance and campaigned on ending trade with Israel, and as a result it became the third largest party nationwide with 6.2 percent of the vote and won 60 municipalities.

A contrite Erdogan said the AKP would begin listening more to voters’ concerns.

On May 2, the news broke that Türkiye is halting all trade with Israel, which in theory could be a major blow to the latter. Türkiye is the fifth-largest source of Israeli imports, which include high-value products like iron, plastic and steel in addition to basic goods such as food items and textiles. In 2022, iron and steel topped the list of Turkish exports to Israel, and were together worth $1.19 billion.

The US surprisingly bit its tongue over Türkiye’s announcement with State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller saying that “they are both allies of ours, and we would encourage them to work through their differences.” The fact is there isn’t a whole lot the US can do as Washington has already pushed so much on the Ukraine issue, trying to do so on the issue of the slaughter in Gaza, which has inflamed public opinion in Türkiye, would be unwise. Miller’s statement also ignores the fact that “their differences” could be solved by the US forcing Israel to put an end to its “plausible” genocide.

Israel’s Foreign Minister said on May 9 that Erdogan was retreating on his trade restrictions only for Ankara to deny that’s the case. That makes the statement from Israel sound either imprudent or like more of a threat.

There are still questions of just how firm Erdogan and the Turks are on the trade suspension.

On May 5, the Israeli financial daily Globes reported the following:

Türkiye has not yet halted the loading of oil tankers at Ceyhan port bound for Israel, according to Israeli sources. Azerbaijan is an important supplier of oil to Israel, via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, at the end of which the oil is loaded onto tankers that bring it to Haifa.

Azerbaijan and Türkiye are strong allies, and Israel enjoys probably its closest ties with a majority Muslim nation with Azerbaijan and is a major supplier of arms to the Caspian country. From 2016 to 2020 Tel Aviv accounted for 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s major arms imports, including loitering munitions (they have been likened to missiles that can hunt for a target while directed from a control station).  The weapons gained notoriety in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Israel is one of the top customers for Azerbaijani oil, importing $297 million worth in January.

If Erdogan really wanted to get tough on Israel and lead the Muslim world response as he’s claimed, he could not only stop the transit of Azerbaijani oil, but maybe even try to do something about other suppliers. After Azerbaijan, the second biggest exporter of oil to Israel is Kazakhstan, which sends it through the Chevron-, ExxonMobil-, and Shell-controlled Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

Article 5 of the 1936 Montreux Convention states that if Türkiye is a belligerent, neutral merchant vessels may transit the straits by day through designated routes, but only if they do not assist the enemy.

Instead, Israel is beginning to send back its diplomats to Türkiye, half a year after it withdrew them over security concerns, and there are also rumblings about Türkiye rerouting exports through a middleman:

One proposed solution is to transport the products through European countries, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Israeli shipping company iShip Forwarding has suggested a workaround to bypass the ban by establishing a new logistical route where Turkish products are first transported to third countries, and from there, to Israel.This solution allows Turkish manufacturers to continue supplying goods to Israel without violating the ban and without their knowledge that the products are reaching Israel. The shipping company has refused to disclose the specific third country through which the shipment passes, but the Israeli newspaper mentioned Bulgaria and Romania among others. This transit would incur additional costs on the shipment but ensures the continuous flow of goods.

If these reports of Türkiye already softening its trade suspension with Israel are true, more blowback can be expected as Turks are paying close attention to this issue – demonstrated by Erdogan being unable to get away with his usual talk-but-no-action strategy in the recent local elections.

And the longer Erdogan and the higher ups in Türkiye try to keep a lid on popular backlash against Israel and its partners in the West, the more likely it is that the situation explodes.

The Bigger Picture – Türkiye and the West

The number of issues between Ankara and the West over the past few decades are almost too numerous to count. Here’s just a brief list:

  • Sanctions and more sanctions. The US sanctions Turkish individuals and companies for “aiding Russia,” for “aiding Iran,” and the US is already threatening to slap on more sanctions over Turkish firms’ exports to Russia. A quick search on the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control site turns up a whopping 232 sanctioned Turkish individuals or entities.  This is not a great look when Türkiye is going through its worst economic crisis in two decades.
  • Türkiye was snubbed by the EU.
  • Since the 1990s, Ankara asked NATO multiple times to deploy early warning systems and Patriot missiles to Türkiye, but it never came to pass. In 2017 Russia sold Türkiye its S-400 missile defense systems, which are arguably superior to anything the West has. In response the US expelled Türkiye from its F-35 program and sanctioned the country’s defense industry organization and its leaders.
  • Possible US involvement in failed 2016 coup attempt.
  • US proxy forces in Ukraine have reportedly tried to sabotage pipelines between Russia and Türkiye over the past year.
  • Western support of Kurds to the point there exists the possibility of Turkish soldiers coming face to face in the field with American soldiers, who are supporting the YPG in Syria.
  • The US abandoned its largely neutral stance on Türkiye’s relationship with both Greece and Cyprus. Washington is ramping up military aid to Greece, turning a port near the Turkish border into a naval base, and sending weaponry to Cyprus after ending a decades-old ban on arms sales.

This has all taken place despite Türkiye’s status as the second most important member of NATO just based on its geographic position, which includes controlling access to the Black Sea. These issues highlight a fundamental difference in how the two sides view the alliance: while Türkiye views itself as something more than just a regional power and wants to be treated as such, the US essentially wants Ankara to follow orders.

For now, the relationship continues largely out of economic necessity. While Turkiye imports cheap and reliable energy from Russia, its factories produce goods for the European market.

But economic concerns can be overruled by popular opinion, as we have seen by Erdogan being mostly forced by voters to start taking more active measures against Israel despite Türkiye’s economic woes. There are no signs that the trajectory of US-Israel attitudes and actions are going to change, and as a result it’s difficult to see how Turkish public opposition to the US-led West doesn’t continue to stiffen.  Sinem Adar, an associate at the Center for Applied Türkiye Studies at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, writing at War on the Rocks:

Türkiye’s ruling elites believe that “the West lacks strategic thinking and has increasingly become estranged from the rest of the world in the face of various issues including relations with China, migration and terror, and the shift in economic gravity from the West to the East.”

For Ankara, the unequivocal and unconditional support that the Biden administration gives Israel confirms this belief. Triggering a convergence between the policies of Türkiye, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, pro-government journalists expect that the conflict would lead to an increasing isolation of Israel. Regardless of their ideological affiliation, most Turkish political actors tend to see the recent conflict in Gaza as one between the so-called West (led by the United States) and the East. Since the disputed attack at the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, there have been calls on the government to ally with countries in the Global South to “stop the U.S.-Israeli alliance.”

Yet the proposed methods vary. Addressing an emergency session of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation on Oct. 18, Fidan called upon Muslim countries to act with “self-confidence” and “challenge the hegemonic narrative that has been imposed on them,” but without offering a concrete roadmap for how to do that. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the AKP’s junior partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, said Türkiye should intervene militarily if there is no ceasefire. Those critical of Ankara’s civilizationist aspirations yet share its aspirations for a foreign policy independent from the West call for booting U.S. military members at Incirlik Air Force Base and the Kürecik Radar Station in Malatya.

While the main opposition remains committed to the West and even the usually nimble Erdogan has looked a bit slow in keeping up with public opinion on the Palestine issue, others are beginning to fill the gaps, speaking out against the lack of Turkish action on Palestine, as well as increasingly blaming NATO.

There were protests at the American Incirlik air base in November. Protestors tried to storm the base and fought with police in riot gear who fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse the crowds. The base in southern Türkiye is reportedly still used by the US to deliver weapons to Israel. There’s also the fact that Incirlik hosts US nuclear weapons, which has become increasingly controversial. Asked about it before the 2020 election, Biden said he is “worried.”

According to Nordic Monitor, the protests were at least partially organized by the Turkish intelligence agency MIT, which in a bid to give Erdogan more leverage in talks with DC, “engaged a jihadist charity organization to orchestrate a nationwide march.” Let’s hope MIT doesn’t lose control of its assets.

There have also been protests at NATO’s Kürecik Radar Station in southeastern Türkiye, where thousands chanted against Israel and NATO. Although Türkiye agreed to host the radar station under the condition that information gathered there only be shared with NATO member states, it is widely believed Israel also receives the information. Iran criticized Türkiye when the radar was being installed back in 2011, saying it would help to protect Israel from Iranian missile attacks in case of a war.

Seeing as the US and Israel are joined at the hip, Israel’s actions in Gaza also increase opposition in Türkiye to the US and NATO. And this trend predates Israel’s “plausible” genocide:

A poll conducted in December 2022 by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8% of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. By comparison, nearly 90% perceive the United States as a hostile country. It also revealed that 24.2% of citizens believe that Russia is hostile, while 62.6% believe that Russia is a friendly country. Similarly, more than 60% of respondents said that Russia contributes positively to the Turkish economy.

Those results are astounding. Russia and Türkiye share a long, difficult history, and as recently as 2016, Russia was seen by the public as the biggest threat to Türkiye. Only 16 percent of Turks had a favorable opinion of Russia in 2014. The major reversal is likely the result of a sustained campaign by Russia to improve ties through energy links and the construction of Türkiye’s first nuclear power plant. Further US heavy handedness haven’t helped, and there’s a strong possibility that due to the unpopularity of the US in Türkiye, that when Russia’s ties deteriorate with the West it is held in higher regard in Türkiye.

While low opinions of the West have persisted since the Iraq War, there are many differences between then and today that make the situation more volatile.

The US is seen as worsening Türkiye’s economic crisis by applying sanctions over a perceived lack of enthusiasm for the economic war against Russia. (Türkiye has not joined the West’s sanctions against Russia and has profited from acting as a middleman between Russia and other countries.)

But most of all, it is the fact that the US could put a stop to the daily carnage in Gaza that is widely reported across Türkiye day after day going on seven months now, and it chooses not to.

These issues helped propel the rightwing New Welfare Party (YRP) to third place in recent elections. YRP demands an end to trade with Israel and the closure of NATO’s Kürecik Radar Station in southeastern Türkiye. The YRP had also previously opposed Sweden’s NATO bid.

Erdogan is already moving towards the YRP position on trade with Israel – or at least is trying to make it appear as though he is. We’ll have to see if more is coming.

Erdogan has been playing this card of the big, bad West for years now, but he’s been in power for more than two decades. His problem is that voters believe him; they also see that not much has been done about it. And they’re increasingly starting to demand action – whether it comes through the democratic system or not.

The fact that Incirlik Air Force Base and the Kürecik Radar Station have become targets of public outrage is not a great sign for the US.

Leaders of Arab countries are getting increasingly nervous about their restive populations angry about their countries’ lack of action against Israel. US support for Israel has put a big target on US bases throughout the Arab world, and that is also the case in NATO-ally Türkiye where the ties holding Ankara and Washington together at arm’s length are increasingly fraying.

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11 comments

  1. Mikel

    Let a Greater Israel happen and I don’t see why the West wouldn’t think bringing back Constantinople is out of the question.

    Reply
  2. JW

    ‘Erdogan has been playing this card of the big, bad West for years now, but he’s been in power for more than two decades. His problem is that voters believe him; they also see that much has been done about it. And they’re increasingly starting to demand action – whether it comes through the democratic system or not.’

    Surely this should read (2nd sentence) …’they also see that NOT much has been done about it’…..

    Reply
  3. The Rev Kev

    ‘Turkish public opinion of the West dropped due to the Iraq War and has not recovered.’

    Got that right. I seem to recall reading about a book that became popular Turkiye at the time of the Iraq invasion where Turkiye was in military opposition to the US. In one part of the book, an Turkish agent sat down in a park near the White House with his luggage – containing a nuke – which he set off. That shows the level of dislike to how the US tried to bully Turkiye in this time period to let that country be an invasion route to Iraq – which the Turks denied them.

    But there can be few warm feelings with Erdogan and the west. During elections, both the US and the EU try to destabilize the Turkish economy in order to get a regime change which has not worked so far. But up to now his conservative Muslim followers have backed him – until Gaza. Now the demand to have the leadership do something, anything against Israel got too loud. And his won’t be the only country. I would expect to see a lot of instability in some Middle east countries in the next few years as what is happening is too blatant and cannot be ignored.

    Reply
    1. jan

      I would expect to see a lot of instability in some Middle east countries in the next few years as what is happening is too blatant and cannot be ignored.

      Neither can it be ignored in the west. But luckily we are democracies so we’ll fix that next election!

      /sarc

      Reply
  4. ISL

    I wonder what would happen if Erdogan told Biden to choose between Gazan genocide or Incirlik. Clearly hasn’t happened yet. Turkiye would be wise to develop SWIFT alternatives ASAP.

    Reply
    1. JonnyJames

      Or, if Turkey decides to withdraw from NATO and expel all US and NATO forces? That’s where the blah blah ends and the hardcore nitty gritty begins. I don’t see that happening any time soon though. As Conor writes, a lot of talk but not much action. That’s politics.

      Reply
  5. Paul Art

    Must give some points to Erdogan for surviving so long in power. Leaders who don’t always toe the US line usually get bumped off by the Company. That Russian nuclear reactor came as a surprise. Looks like the Neocons have a more cautious approach to Turkiye?

    Reply

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