Turkey’s Hamas Drift Is Dangerous

January 26, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: GazaHamasIranTurkeyMilitaryDefense

Turkey’s Hamas Drift Is Dangerous

Erdogan is becoming a de facto partner with Iran and its proxies, supporting their destabilization agenda across the region.


The Gaza War is having ripple effects that stretch far beyond Israel and the Palestinians, with implications for U.S. diplomatic and security agenda throughout the Middle East. As the fighting approaches Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor, U.S.-Egypt ties are coming under strain. Qatar’s simultaneous roles as host of the Al-Udeid airbase, as well as the Hamas leadership, easily come into conflict. Yet it is above all in Turkey that the war is putting pressure on established alliance structures in ways that should be ringing alarm bells in Washington.

A long-standing NATO ally, Turkey boasts the second-largest military in the alliance. Turkey is also the site of the Incirlik Air Base, a crucial site of U.S. power projection in the region. It is, therefore, worrisome that rhetoric coming out of Ankara—and not only rhetoric—points to an opening toward America’s adversary in the increasingly regional war. It is time to ask which side Turkey is on.


Of course, one might argue that President Erdogan is only broadcasting his support for Hamas in order to garner popular support ahead of the municipal elections in June. Although he handily won the presidential vote in 2023, his AKP (Justice and Development Party) does not control the major cities. His embrace of Hamas might, therefore, be viewed as a ploy to mobilize Turkey’s Islamist and pro-Palestinian electorate. In support of this account, one can cite a series of primarily symbolic gestures, such as his emphatic defense of Hamas from the charge of being terrorists. He insisted instead on calling them “freedom fighters” and “mujahideen” (the latter term implying, presumably unintentionally, that the carnage of October 7 was justifiable as “jihad”). Similarly symbolic is his boast that Turkey supports South Africa in the International Court of Justice with the claim that Israel is engaged in genocide, despite his own government’s refusal to recognize Turkey’s historical crimes against the Armenian and Kurdish peoples. 

While embracing Hamas and endorsing the genocide accusations, there is a further, even more salient example of his appeal to mass sentiment on the Israel-Palestine War. After Saghiv Yehezkel, an Israeli soccer player, scored for the Turkish team on which he was playing, he displayed a wristband expressing solidarity with the hostages taken on October 7. As a result, he faced legal charges for incitement and was deported, which could not have taken place without Erdgoan’s support. The net effect is not only a further souring of Turkish-Israeli bilateral relations but also the intended bolstering of Erdogan’s standing in the eyes of the Turkish public as Israel’s opponent.

The focus on Turkish public opinion might be taken to suggest that Erdogan’s posturing is little more than a campaign strategy for the upcoming local elections in March. Reassuring as this claim is, however, it may be wrong. Whatever Erdogan’s domestic political goals may be, we may be witnessing his strategic repositioning of Turkey, step by step, toward America’s adversaries, particularly Iran. This would significantly loosen Ankara’s allegiance to NATO, tantamount to a departure from the alliance and an embrace of the Iranian “axis of resistance.” Such a development would shake U.S. regional security structures in the Middle East.

On January 21, the leader of Hamas, Ismail Hamiyeh, who is based in Qatar, held an official meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Ankara to align their positions on the Gaza conflict. Meanwhile, a member of the Hamas political wing active in Turkey, Suheil Ahmad Hassan al-Hindi, has organized anti-Israel rallies in Turkey, notably in coordination with Turkey’s Hizbullah. The point is not only the mobilization of anti-Israel sentiment, which could be consistent with Erdogan’s electoral agenda, but the emergence of Turkey as a site of collaboration between Hamas and other Iranian proxies, a clear sign of a political shift toward Iran and the anti-Western axis. 

That Iran has long been a major source of funding for Hamas is well established. The State Department’s Bureau of Counter-Terrorism reported in 2020 that Iran funds armed Palestinian groups, including Hamas, at around $100 million per year. Turkey is a significant conduit for this funding. The state-owned Turkish bank Halkbank was indicted in 2019 for facilitating a money laundering scheme designed to enable Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, Hamas benefits from considerable crowdfunding in Turkey and investment networks. Indeed, the Hamas investment portfolio secretary, Ahmed Sadu, is based in Turkey, managing various companies controlled by Hamas as well as the interests of Hamas officials. In December 2022, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned a network including Turkish business leaders close to Erdogan for organizing sales of Iranian oil to China, specifically in order to finance Hamas and Hezbollah. Furthermore, in December 2023, a Turkish export-import firm, Al Kargo, was confronted with sanctions for facilitating arms transactions for the Houthis in Yemen on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

The evidence is clear: in addition to Erdogan’s standard practice of vilifying an external opponent—currently Israel—in order to strengthen his appeal to the Turkish electorate, on his watch, Turkey is becoming a de facto partner with Iran, supporting its destabilization agenda across the region. Iran’s support for its proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, depends on Turkey’s collaboration. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Turkey, which not long ago played a positive role in Ukraine and seemed to be riding the wave of Israel normalization in the Middle East, is suddenly sliding away from the West. The consequences could be enormous. 

Reversing this course is an important task for U.S. diplomacy unless the Biden administration wants to be the one that “loses Turkey.” This does not mean directing an appeasement policy toward the worst of Erdogan’s instincts. Instead, the administration could use the promise of the economic support that Turkey desperately needs in order to repair the bilateral relations. Such an agenda will require considerable diplomatic attention at a time when the State Department is overburdened with the fool’s errand of pursuing the “two-state solution” for the Palestinians. Yet Turkey is too important a partner to ignore.

About the Author 

Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and a Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.

Image: Shutterstock.