Turkey poses the greatest challenge to American interests in the Middle East today as it seeks to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the expected demise of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Ankara is moving steadily to exploit the void in regional leadership and spreading its brand of radical Islam with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, said Dan Schueftan, director of the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center.
The United States underestimates the growing radicalism in Turkish politics and society and the danger that poses, he said. It should take more seriously the threat of a non-Arab Muslim state that wants to replace the weakened and distracted pro-Western Egypt and anti-Western radical Syria.
Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is turning Turkey away from the secular, democratic republic established by Kamal Ataturk in 1923 to an Islamist-dominated government.
He wants to become the principle leader in the region and replace the other secular regimes with ones resembling his own.
Many Arabs are likely to view Erdogan’s push for regional leadership with suspicion in light of the centuries-long Ottoman rule, plus the fact he is not an Arab. Even so, however, the Turkish prime minister remains a hero on the Arab street for another reason: his intense hostility toward Israel.
At times his bitter attacks on the Jewish state seem to rival those of his good friend, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Part of this may stem from a strong personal antipathy toward Israel, but more importantly it is part of a calculated campaign to position Turkey, a democratic state governed by Islamists, as a model for a new Middle East.
“Turkey threatens and tries to bully Israel into a position where Turkey will look good to radical Arabs who are impressed by such behavior,” said Schueftan.
Turkey calls itself a strong supporter of Palestinian statehood and insists it wants to help broker peace with Israel, but its actions say just the opposite.
Erdogan has virtually broken relations with Israel and aligned Turkey with the Islamist Hamas, which rejects peace with Israel and wants to replace it with an Islamist republic, while he disdains the nationalist Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.
Under Erdogan, the AKP has urged Western countries to “recognize Hamas as the legitimate government of the Palestinian people” and dismissed Abbas as the head of an “illegitimate government,” according to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).
Israel, the United States and most Western countries have classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Erdogan broke recently with Syria over its response to the uprisings there and has become a mentor to the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition movement, providing its leaders with sanctuary, housing and security. He also has had a hand in selection of SNC members, with Islamists and anti-American figures disproportionately over-represented.
“If Assad falls, the Muslim Brotherhood would take over, and they would be completely subservient to Turkey for strategic and political reasons,” Schueftan said.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the even more extreme Salafis did better than expected in recent parliamentary elections, and are expected to play a critical role in drafting a new Egyptian constitution.
“An axis of Muslim brothers in Turkey, Syria, Gaza and Egypt is very dangerous,” Schueftan said.
He warned of the possibility that the empowered Brotherhood allies in those states would link with their brethren and radical Palestinians in Jordan to undermine King Abdullah and change the nature of his pro-Western regime.
“If Jordan crumbles as a buffer state the whole Middle East will change radically,” he said.
The Turkish army has been the guardian of secularism and democracy, and it has kept the government western oriented, but Erdogan is changing that by replacing the country’s top military commanders, many with close relations with Washington and Jerusalem, with his loyalists, neutralizing the military as a significant domestic political player. Erdogan also replaced Turkey’s pro-Western intelligence chief with someone very close to the Iranians.
Americans fail to realize the depth of radical feelings in this Turkish government toward the West, said Schueftan. The danger Turkey represents to American interests and its allies is that it appeals to the most radical sentiments in the region. That is reflected in its approach to Hamas and Israel’s attempts to block missiles from entering Gaza.
Turkey’s increasingly anti-Western stance raises questions of the reliability of its continued political and military cooperation with NATO and the West.
Schueftan said the United States is deluding itself if it thinks Turkey is the right combination of moderation and Islam it would like to see throughout the Muslim world.
“If you are willing to work with Hamas and your ally in the region is a terror organization, and your enemy is Israel, it says a lot about who you are,” Schueftan said. “America should ask itself, ‘When someone is the very bitter enemy of your good friend, is that the basis for a strategic alliance?’” Washington must prepare for Turkey becoming increasingly unfriendly and ultimately hostile to the United States and not entertain any expectations that it can look to Ankara for help in maintaining regional stability, Schueftan said.