Days following the October 7 terrorist attacks, carried out by Hamas in Israel, killing over 1200 Israeli citizens, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to discuss “possible steps the countries can take to end the fighting between Israeli and Palestinian forces.”
Raisi should not be the first person on Erdogan’s call sheet. Arguably, Raisi should not even be on the call sheet of a NATO country leader in the first place. However, this is not an unusual move for Erdogan, as his desire to undermine Israel is becoming clearer by the day. For one thing, Turkey does not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization, and Erdogan describes it as a “resistance movement.” Moreover, since 2011, Erdogan has helped Hamas establish a headquarters in Turkey and harbored its operatives and senior leadership. “Coordinating a response” with Iran is an additional avenue for Erdogan to undermine the Jewish State’s security interests and an opportunist move on Turkey’s part to capitalize upon Israel’s traumatic experience.
This is visible in how Ankara openly supports Hamas. Since the attacks, the Turkish government has welcomed, and Erdogan personally encouraged, vitriol-filled pro-Hamas rallies in Turkey. The Israeli Consulate was surrounded by an angry mob of protestors, shooting a barrage of fireworks, with little attempt by Turkish law enforcement officials to ensure the security of the diplomatic outpost. Additionally, Huda-Par— a radical Islamist party and a partner in Erdogan’s governing coalition—also held a celebratory rally outside the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, chanting “Israel be damned!” A day later in Istanbul, IHH—a Turkish “aid” organization known for supporting jihadist causes, held a rally in Istanbul, where some of its supporters vowed to kill U.S. troops deployed in the region, and all denounced the United States as the “Great Satan” for its support of Israel. These are significant developments, as public rallies have largely been banned in Turkey since 2013. Apparently, if they are anti-Israeli in focus, they are permissible.
Such moves are likely to undermine Ankara and Jerusalem’s attempts to “normalize” ties, which Turkey has been attempting following its regional isolation after the signing of the Abraham Accords. Turkey’s core relationship with Israel deteriorated sharply after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Erdogan’s attempts to rebuild a substantive relationship with Israel have never been sincere to begin with. Although he hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Ankara and oversaw re-establishing diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level in 2022, he has made no sincere moves to designate Hamas as a terrorist organization. Why? Because Erdogan cannot go against his Islamist nature. As a leader schooled in Turkey’s Islamist movement, Erdogan is at his very core an anti-Semite and does not believe in the right of Israel to exist. Instead of standing with Israel in its darkest hour, along with Turkey’s Western allies, Erdogan is choosing to bandwagon with members of the Muslim world, who want to see Israel harmed. Hence the telephone call with Raisi.
Ankara’s increasing anti-Israel posture is also supported by Turkish public opinion. This is not peculiar to Turkey but largely representative of the regional Muslim world. For Erdogan to take an anti-Hamas line would isolate Turkey in the eyes of the Muslim world. It would also anger a sizeable portion of Turkish society, who are visibly angry with Israel and the United States. Over the last few days, hordes of angry Turkish citizens protested outside the Incirlik (NATO) airbase, where U.S. troops are stationed, as well as a NATO radar station in Malatya province, manned by U.S. servicemen/women. In both instances, the demonstrations spiraled out of control, with protestors throwing objects at security check-points-even trying to breach barriers. In response, the United States has temporarily closed its Consulate in Adana, while Israel decided to remove its diplomats from Turkey and encouraged all its citizens to leave. Given public sentiment, Erdogan is keen not to swim against the tide of public opinion.
This is part of Erdogan’s ongoing plan to delegitimize Israel, even though Ankara and Tehran are regional competitors. Following the eruption of violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in April, Erdogan, in a phone call with the Iranian president, remarked, “The Islamic world should be united against Israel’s attacks in Palestine.” This was followed up with law enforcement raids in Istanbul that allegedly uncovered a Mossad cell in Turkey that was keeping tabs on Iranian operatives. It is clear that even before the deadly events of October 7, Erdogan sanctioned activities to discredit Israel by coordinating with Iran.
Erdogan’s duplicitous stance on Israel is not surprising. Ankara has a long track record of working closely with the Islamic Republic. Just three years ago, U.S. attorneys for the Southern District of New York charged Halkbank, a prominent Turkish state-linked financial institution, with fraud, money laundering, and other sanctions violations related to the bank’s alleged participation in a scheme that yielded Tehran an estimated $20 billion of prohibited funds. Now known as the “gas for gold” scheme, these funds helped Tehran circumvent the height of pre-nuclear deal U.S. sanctions (2011–2012) through gold purchases that allegedly were made on behalf of the government of Iran using revenues earned by Iranian energy sales held in Turkish accounts. Worse, starting in mid-2013, the U.S. Congress caught wind of the exchange and the loopholes enabling it. The trade was masked using humanitarian exemptions in U.S. sanctions law for food and medicine, which were later revealed as never delivered.
Recently, Ankara was again implicated in another brazen scheme circumventing U.S. sanctions on Iran. Following an exclusive report earlier in December 2022 by Politico, Sitki Ayan, a Turkish businessman and acquaintance of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for facilitating “the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of oil for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF).”
At this juncture, it is essential to underscore Erdogan’s choice not to stand with its Israeli ally. At a basic level, he cannot see past his Islamist ideological convictions. This is why he ruined Turkey’s strong relationship with Israel in the first place. In 2009, he rebuked President Shimon Peres at Davos, accusing Israel of killing Palestinian babies. His decision to support Muslim-majority countries in criticizing Jerusalem is partly a function of his worldview and an opportunistic move motivated by domestic politics. He also desires not to swim against the tide of public opinion in the broader Middle East. Although Erdogan was re-elected as president in May, his party is seeking to win Turkey’s local elections of 2024. A visibly anti-Israeli stance fires up a decent portion of the voting public. The decision to call Raisi is one part of an opportunistic and callous move to portray Ankara championing the rights of “oppressed peoples.”
All this may make sense from the policymaking perspective of Turkey and Erdogan, but it will likely come at a cost. A growing body of U.S. lawmakers is likely to highlight Ankara’s enmeshed relationship with Hamas. This will pressure the Biden administration to call upon Turkey to end its support for Hamas. More broadly, it will call into question where Turkey sees itself in the world by revisiting pressing issues such as ratifying Sweden’s pending NATO application. A continued pro-Hamas stance and failure to ratify Swedish membership will widen the gulf in the U.S.-Turkey relationship and likely imperil Turkey’s desire to acquire new defensive capabilities from Washington.
Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Turkey Program and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). He is also an Associate Professor of Security Studies at the Command and Staff College-Marine Corps University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.