TURKEY OUTRIVALLED BY IRAN

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by Daniele Santoro

Originally published on Limes 10/2023 Guerra Grande in Terrasanta

The proxy war launched by Iran against Israel through Hamas risks dismantling the approach adopted by Turkey toward the Middle East in the aftermath of its military victories in Idlib and Tripoli. Over the past two years Ankara has invested considerable geopolitical resources to settle feuds with Israel, the Gulf petro-monarchies, and Egypt – the poisoned legacy of Erdogan’s unscrupulous and unsuccessful attempt to ride the Arab springs to impose a regional order centred on the Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of Sunni International of which the Turkish president’s AK PARTİ was for a time the core of reference.

In symbolic terms, this transitional phase was inaugurated by the trip to Turkey of then UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed on 24 November 2021 and culminated on 20 November 2022 with the handshake between Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Doha. In between were visits to Ankara by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and by Erdogan himself to Jeddah, where the first face-to-face with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took place on 28 April 2022. During this time, the Turkish state progressively disarticulated the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood – Hamas included – on Turkish territory, in the belief that the Brotherhood was no longer useful to the cause, that the season of political Islam was behind them, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no longer the pivot around which the Middle East chaos revolved. With the assassination of Qasem Soleimani commissioned by US President Donald Trump, the Abraham Accords, and the recurring internal crises in Iran, the Middle East seemed to have entered a new era.

Also in the light of its relative regional isolation and continuing financial difficulties, Turkey needed a change of pace, facilitated by the military victories achieved in the first half of 2020, which induced Erdogan’s regional rivals to lower their pretensions and open the purse strings. In July of this year, Ankara and Abu Dhabi – which until three-and-a-half years ago were fighting each other with no holds barred in Libya – established a high-level Strategic Partnership Framework and signed trade agreements worth a total of more than $50 billion. These initiatives are in addition to the free trade agreement reached in March, which is expected to generate an interchange of around $40 billion. At the same time, Turkey closed with Saudi Arabia the most lucrative deal in its history ($3.1 billion) for the supply of combat drones and granted Riyadh the right to co-produce the famous unmanned aircraft locally. This happened just a few months after the sale of 120 Bayraktar TB2s to the Emirates. Meanwhile, Ankara and Jerusalem were discussing the prospect of bringing Israeli gas to Europe via an undersea pipeline and Turkish infrastructure, a project that if actually implemented would revolutionise the energy market in the Eastern Mediterranean. Also because the Turkish-Israeli understanding is fuelled by renewed, deep cooperation in the field of intelligence, and above all by the rediscovery of the military dimension of the ‘new alliance’ resurrected in the South Caucasus during the second Nagorno-Karabakh War. In 2020 – during the 44 days it took Azerbaijan to annihilate the defences of Armenia, a regional satellite of Russia and Iran – Turkey tested the formula with which it intends to unravel Middle Eastern complexity, proposing itself as the indispensable centre of gravity of a regional bloc structured on the axis with Israel around which Arabs of various natures and species would revolve, starting with the Gulf petro-monarchies.

Within the space of a morning, however, Iran reset the classical parameters of Middle Eastern geopolitics. By putting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back at the centre of the regional jungle, and by catching Erdogan in the middle, standing arm in arm with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – whom the Turkish president cordially met in New York, an unprecedented event until then, just over two weeks before the start of Operation Flood Al-Aqsa – while Israel spills rivers of Muslim blood in Gaza. This was a humiliating condition for the man who after the Mavi Marmara incident had become ‘the King of Gaza’, the undisputed master of the strip of the Middle East where the cross-over games between the regional heavyweights are played – and perhaps are decided.

Iran’s unscrupulous Palestinian move has therefore placed Turkey in front of an agonising dilemma, the strategic nature of which is the plastic manifestation of Erdogan’s ambiguous narrative since 7 October. In the early stages of the war, the Turkish President adopted a balanced and equidistant approach, castigating Hamas and the Tzahal’s actions with equal harshness. However, the increasing ‘atrocities’ committed by Israel against Palestinian civilians – culminating in the controversial bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza – forced the Reis to reshape his tone and exhume traditional anti-Zionist rhetoric. This happened in the wake of popular pressure, on the wave of indignation that led the Turkish masses to besiege the Israeli diplomatic representations in Ankara and Istanbul and to march united on the Kürecik radar station, a NATO military installation operated by American personnel. This spontaneous mobilisation persuaded Erdogan to harden his verbal attacks on the Jewish state, accused of war crimes, in the inspired indictment with which he harangued the more than one million Turks who flocked to the site of the former Atatürk airport on 28 October to express their anger at Israel, roaring ‘Mehmetçik in Gaza’ and furiously condemning the ‘atrocities’ committed by Jerusalem. For which Erdogan nevertheless intended to blame ‘the West’ rather than the Jewish state.

Precisely in the wedge (re)opened not so much between Turkey and Israel as between Turkey and America lies the measure of the Islamic Republic’s success – a success that is probably not ephemeral, but perhaps even strategic.

The rivalry between Turkey and Iran – or rather between Turan and Iran – is congenital, structural, and hundreds of years old. The confrontation between Turks and Persians has been the catalyst of geopolitical dynamics in West-Central Asia for a millennium. In the beginning was the advent of Islam, an event of epochal proportions that influenced the historical parabola of the two rival peoples in opposite ways. The invasion of Iran by Arab armies eradicated – without however completely unravelling – Persian statehood on the Iranian plateau, breaking down the Sasanian Wall and opening the southern passage to the west to Turkish nomads. But above all, it allowed the Ghaznavids, Kara-Khanids, and Seljuks to impose their dominion first on the Persian East (the Khorasan) and then on the heart of the Iranian plateau. An event of truly epochal significance, like the advent of Islam, since in the absence of the establishment of Turkish statehood in Iran, the Kayılar – the tribe of Ertugrul and his son Osman – would not have settled in Bithynia. The successors of the Ottoman emirate’s founder would not have subjugated Anatolia and Rumelia, either. And Mehmed the Conqueror, Selim the Terrible, and Suleiman the Magnificent would not have generated the empire that for centuries decisively influenced the Eurafrasian geopolitical balance.

The parameters of the current Turkish-Iranian competition were introduced by the nomadic Turkoman İsmail, who in the early 16th century – starting from Tabriz – began to restore Persian statehood on the Iranian plateau. He defeated the Uzbeks of Muhammad Shaybani at Merv in 1510 and four years later – with the indirect complicity of the Janissaries – resisted the offensive of the Ottoman Selim from the west, thus sealing the borders of the historical core of the Persian empires. The process of re-Persification of Iran was not immediate – perhaps it is still ongoing, as revealed by the Turkish origins of the current Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. So much so that İsmail’s successor, Tahmasp, treated Suleiman the Magnificent as a superior entity. The Iranian plateau only returned to being cloaked in a thick Persian veneer with the reign of Abbas the Great (1587-1629), after whose death, however, the Turks succeeded in re-imposing their sovereignty over Baghdad and Iraq, the focus of the confrontation between Istanbul and Isfahan. This led the Ottomans and Safavids to sign the historic Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin (Zuhab in Farsi) in 1639. This agreement established the final border between the Ottoman and Persian empires, which still runs along the Turkish-Iranian border today.

And it was in Qasr-e Shirin that the spirit came into being that informs the competition between Turkey and Iran in our times. It was founded on two golden rules jealously guarded in their respective state depths: respect for each other’s right to exist as an imperial state within the current national borders and rejection of any external interference in the traditional Turkish-Persian playing field. The duty to respect these geopolitical prescriptions explains Erdogan’s peculiar attitude towards the Iranian nuclear issue and the ensuing tug-of-war between Washington and Tehran. The imbalance is such that in 2010 the then Turkish Prime Minister seemed to be the Islamic Republic’s defence lawyer. If faced with a clear choice, Turkey prefers the Persian bomb to American bombs. Specularly, together with Russia, Iran was the first country to express (concrete) solidarity with Erdogan after the attempted American invasion of Turkey on 15 July 2016. Because for Tehran, a strategically autonomous enemy is far preferable to a US satellite on its border. And because Turks and Persians are perfectly aware that if caused by the superpower the misfortunes of the one will sooner or later end up being those of the other. Divided by their own imperial ambitions, Turkey and Iran are united by America, whose presence in the Middle East is a red line for both Ankara and Tehran.

It is precisely by leveraging the American factor that Ayatollahs and pasdarans are trying to corner Erdogan, exposing the ambiguous contradictory nature of his Middle Eastern posture. In the immediate term, the main geopolitical consequence of the latest round of clashes in the Gaza arena is indeed the return of the United States to the Middle East. Symbolised by the two American aircraft carriers cruising in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, by the two thousand marines that Washington intends to place at the disposal of the Jewish State with logistical and support tasks, by the armaments supplied by the superpower to the Tzahal, and by the visits of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden to Tel Aviv – the former intended to announce himself as ‘Jewish’. This dynamic threatens to break the eggs that Erdogan has been hatching for years in the Turkish basket. And this is why he addresses his angry rants at the Americans more than at the Israelis.

What broke the bank was Ehud Olmert’s betrayal. The former Israeli Prime Minister launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza without warning Erdogan, at the time an honest broker in talks between Damascus and Jerusalem. This was followed by the ‘one minute’ at Davos, the cancellation of the Turkish-Israeli Anatolian Eagle exercises, the humiliation of the Turkish ambassador to Israel, the Mavi Marmara incident, and the Arab springs. Which Ankara tried to ride to impose (on the Americans) a regional order structured around the offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. This project crashed on Obama’s unwillingness to overthrow the Syrian regime and allow Erdogan to recite Friday prayers in the Umayyad Mosque, as well as on the alliance forged by the superpower with the PKK in north-eastern Syria. A one-two that forced Turkey into a period of ‘precious loneliness’ – değerli yalnızlık, an expression coined by current Intelligence Chief İbrahim Kalın – that only ended with the failed coup of 15 July 2016.

These regional upheavals have not, however, dented the Turks’ conviction that the US should stay out of the Middle East and hand over the keys to Ankara. After the shows of strength given in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the Caucasus, Erdogan has therefore returned to the charge. Taking advantage of America’s desire to extricate itself from the Middle East quicksand and of its isolationist tendencies, embodied in the tragic figure of Donald Trump, Erdogan re-proposed Turkey as the guarantor of a regional order based on its military might. While the war in Gaza raged, Turkey increased its defence budget by 150%, re-exhuming the spirit of the 1990s. It thus identified in the tactical axis with Israel the instrument to impose Turkish hegemony in the region by developing an even deeper and geographically extended partnership with the Jewish state and playing side-by-side with Jerusalem from Gaza to the deepest Asias, from the Mediterranean to the ocean steppes. The immediate objective of this initiative is to stem the influence regional influence of Iran, the Jewish state’s existential enemy and Turkey’s strategic rival. But in the long run, at least in Ankara, the understanding with Israel is imagined as the potential nucleus of a geopolitical bloc capable of guaranteeing a Turkish-led regional order in the post-American Middle East. With all the paradoxes involved.

The least anti-Israeli of the Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh – so unaware of the 7 October offensive that as his militiamen launched the assault on the Jewish state he was about to embark on an unprecedented visit to Baghdad, complete with a scenographic pilgrimage to Shiite and Sunni tombs – has for years resided in Qatar, Turkey’s outpost in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Qatar is a de facto protectorate of Ankara: Turkey guarantees the survival of the Al-Thani dynasty through the five thousand soldiers deployed in the Tariq Ben Zeyad base, inducing Doha – impossible to establish with what degree of spontaneity – to finance Erdogan’s regional enterprises. Apparently, Qatar is the Jewish state’s main adversary in the Gulf: the only Arab petro-monarchy that has not even entered into under-the-table negotiations to normalise relations with Jerusalem, thus remaining irreducibly anti-Israeli. And yet, in the past few years, it was precisely Emir Al-Thani who, through the dollars poured into Gaza with the blessing of Israel, Turkey, and Egypt, prevented social, economic, and humanitarian distress in the Strip from exceeding the danger level, thus helping to guarantee the security of the Jewish State more than the Emiratis and Saudis. This happened in a peculiar declination of the model Ankara and Jerusalem experimented in Erdogan’s first decade, when the Israelis incentivised the then Turkish Prime Minister to publicly castigate Hamas and put the hat on them, in order to have a privileged channel of connection with the Palestinian movement and allow the Reis to stand as the leader of the Islamic ecumene.

The convergences between Ankara and Jerusalem are (always) also evident in Syria, where both see the entrenchment of Persian influence as smoke and mirrors. While Israel focuses on weakening the al-Assad regime – the military and civilian installations of which are regularly bombed by the Israeli Air Force – Turkey, on the other hand, has been forced by events to narrow its field of vision and focus on the threat of the PKK in Upper Syria. In principle, nothing would prevent Erdogan and Netanyahu from resurrecting the understanding of the first two years of the civil war. The weakening of the Russian position in the Levant and the anti-Israeli approach adopted by Moscow in the Israel-Iran confrontation through the intermediary Hamas will probably induce Jerusalem to be less sensitive to the Kremlin’s Syrian diktats. Like Erdogan, who out of courtesy to Putin initiated an unlikely negotiation with the Syrian regime and soon predictably got stranded. In the meantime, the Turkish Armed Forces are scrambling to launch a new incursion across the border against the PKK, whose links of convenience with Damascus are perfectly known to both Turkish intelligence and Israeli services.

The objectives of Ankara and Jerusalem in Syria tend to overlap. The problem, as always, is America. It was Obama who blew up the informal Turkish-Israeli entente in 2013, when he preferred to legitimise Syria’s pro-Persian regime rather than concede Aleppo and Damascus to Turkey. He then allied himself with the PKK east of the Euphrates and invited the Russians into western Syria, thus changing the rules of the Levant game, while hindering with the American military presence any joint Turkish-Israeli initiative. But more than the United States itself, the real problem is Israel’s excessive dependence on the superpower, which deprives the Jewish state of the strategic autonomy needed to pursue its interests in a long-term perspective. A circumstance that in the medium term may, however, fuel the Turkish-Israeli regional Turkish-Israeli understanding, given the evident unwillingness of the Americans to become structurally involved in the Middle East theatre of Big War. This refractoriness makes Turkey the only potential guarantor of Israel’s security.

The main divergence between Ankara and Jerusalem in Eurasia concerns logistics. The Israelis promote the India-Middle East-Europe corridor, which should connect the ports of Mumbai and Piraeus (paradoxically controlled by China) through Dubai, Saudi territory, and the port of Haifa (which Israel recently granted to an Indian company). At the same time, Turkey is sponsoring the ‘Development Road’ project, a multimodal infrastructure that aims to connect the Iraqi port of Basra and the Turkish port of Mardin through Iraq and south-eastern Turkey. Both of these initiatives are a manifestation of the increasingly widespread desire of Eurasian actors to link the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean by bypassing the Suez Canal. The proxy war between Iran and Israel has however upset Jerusalem’s and Delhi’s plans. For once, Turks and Indians are on the same wavelength: the conflict – which promises to be long and not without aftermath – risks nipping the Indo-Arab-Israeli project in the bud. This has led Erdogan to re-launch the Turkish-Iraqi initiative, using dynamics similar to those that allowed him to impose the Central Corridor on China: the partially unserviceable Eurasian land bridge caused by the war in Ukraine and western sanctions against Moscow.

Israel was territorially excluded from the Turkish infrastructure project, but became its de facto co-owner. Israel had every interest in guaranteeing the security of the Basra-Mosul section, as a geopolitical boundary to Iran’s influence in Syria. This dynamic was on the other hand the natural evolution of the deep cooperation Ankara and Jerusalem developed in Upper Iraq. Here Israeli secret services and Special Forces collaborate more or more or less (in)directly with Turkish Armed Forces, which deploy across the border about 10,000 soldiers spread in a few dozen bases and carry out frequent incursions with drones and warplanes into Iraqi territory. Israeli-Turkish cooperation aims to strengthen the Kurdish regional government and oppose the alliance of convenience made by the Shiite militias with the PKK under the aegis of Tehran. It is precisely in Iraq, incidentally, that the regional bloc envisioned by Turkey is taking shape, as demonstrated by the ever deeper economic and military relations woven by the United Arab Emirates with Erbil. In an unequivocally anti-Iranian key, see the messages that the Islamic Republic has sent to Abu Dhabi from the middle course of the Tigris.

However, the geopolitical heart of the Turkish-Israeli understanding lies in the Caucasus, where Ankara and Jerusalem succeeded for the first time in their history in a joint initiative that generated tangible strategic consequences. It was meant for them to move in unison and harmonise their interests. The military support provided to Azerbaijan in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the subsequent offensives with which Baku recaptured the irredenta, allowed Turkey to make more concrete the prospect of physically joining its sister republic, thus paving the way to the Turkish Asias. As well as forging with Azerbaijan a strategic partnership that preludes the birth of an imperial confederation in western Turkestan.

In the meantime, Israel has set up its armaments, military advisers and intelligence services on the northern border of the Islamic Republic. It thus pressed on Tehran from the north and opened a new front with its Persian rival, forcing the Ayatollahs to watch their backs. It tried to stimulate the pan-nationalist instincts of Iran’s large Azerbaijani minority (at least a quarter of Iran’s population), often and willingly tickled by the eclectic Israeli ambassador in Baku – curiously a Christian Arab. It is therefore no coincidence that the Ayatollahs have charged precisely from the Caucasus, by signing an infrastructure agreement with Azerbaijan that will allow the Caucasian country to connect the bulk of its national territory to the Autonomous Republic of Naxçıvan through Iranian territory. The signing took place the day before the start of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, proof of the profound interconnection between the theatres in Gaza and the Caucasus. They are both part of a single battlefield, as shown by Israel’s decision to continue supplying Baku with armaments even after the start of the Hamas offensive. Israel’s aim is to keep the northern front of the proxy war with the Islamic Republic warm. And possibly to fuel the Azerbaijani Armed Forces’ not unlikely incursion into Armenian territory proper – Turkey recently deployed F-16s in Naxçıvan. This will seal off the South Caucasus to Tehran and complete the Turan encirclement of Iran.

Anti-Iranian Turkish-Israeli cooperation is in fact not limited to Azerbaijan. In April this year, Israel opened its embassy in Turkmenistan, just 17 kilometres from the border with the Islamic Republic. After the inaugural ceremony of the diplomatic representation, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen casually remarked that it was possible to ‘open the embassy window and see Iran’. At the same time he announced the willingness of the Jewish state to help defend the Central Asian republic’s borders. Jerusalem already provides vital technology to Azerbaijan to desalinate and conserve water – a tool also used to beguile Uzbekistan, whose agricultural sector, like that of Turkmenistan, is structurally threatened by drought. All this is going on while Turkey clearly overpowers Russia as the main supplier of armaments to Ashgabat, which for its part has abandoned its irreducible geopolitical neutrality by joining the Organisation of Turkish States as an observer. These dynamics can make the most southerly of the Central Asian republics the new Azerbaijan, an eastern outpost from which Ankara and Jerusalem can squeeze the common Persian rival in a Turkish pincer.

Diametrically – if only apparently – opposite is the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, the heart of Turkey’s geopolitical hyperactivity. Here Israel militarily supports the enemies of its partner, Greece and (southern) Cyprus, while the Turks openly claim (a large) part of the waters currently under the sovereignty of Athens and Nicosia. In principle this contrast would make a Turkish-Israeli proxy war in Cyprus and in the hydrocarbon-rich waters surrounding the island of Aphrodite anything but far-fetched. But appearances are deceiving. And paradoxes abound. Now that, thanks to Jerusalem, it no longer has to fear international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) as an independent state, Azerbaijan is in fact preparing to officially recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, already accepted as an observer in the Organisation of Turkish States. At a stage when Lefkoşa has begun to openly claim sovereignty over all of Cypriot waters. In the light of the growing integration between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Northern Cyprus – encapsulated in the formula ‘three states, one nation’ – Israel’s double standard between the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean is patently unsustainable, not least because Jerusalem is perfectly aware of the long-term advantages of cooperation (especially with regard to energy) with Ankara. So much so that the Jewish state’s hostile attitude is evidently a tactical expedient to strengthen the Israeli position in the negotiations with Turkey.
After Biden’s scuttling of the EastMed project in order to export American gas to Europe – thus establishing the US as a key geo-energetic player in Eurasia – Israel has no choice but to take up Erdogan’s proposal and connect its fields to Turkish infrastructure by means of an undersea pipeline. This is but a prelude to an agreement on the delimitation of maritime borders similar to the one reached by Ankara with Tripoli in November 2019, which Cihat Yaycı – the architect of the agreement with the Tripoli government – proposed to the Jewish State three years ago. Such initiatives could revolutionise the parameters of Mediterranean affairs, as demonstrated by the nonchalance with which Turkey is tactically freezing the dispute with Greece in the Blue Homeland waters, not least because they would inevitably involve Egypt, and not only in terms of energy. In this sense, it is remarkable that after the recent reconciliation, relations between Ankara and Cairo have become cordial to the extent that al-Sisi has acted as an intermediary for the delivery of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones to the Sudanese regime implanted in Khartoum by Mossad.

The Turkish-Israeli axis has the potential to change the rules of the game between Central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean and establish a regional order independent of America, though of course not anti-American. In such a scenario, Iran would be the excellent victim. This is (also) why Tehran was forced to react. With the sophistication that traditionally characterises the manoeuvres of the Persians. They have unmasked the faithless Erdogan, caught flirting with the Zionists while posing as the protector of the dispossessed Muslims, putting the Turkish president immediately in front of a stark alternative. If he bets on partnership with Israel, he risks having his influence and moral prestige evaporate in the Islamic ecumene. This would bring incalculable geopolitical consequences, which would manifest themselves from Pakistan to Tatarstan, from the Bosnias to Africa. If, on the other hand, Erdogan decides to chase after Tehran and give in to the maximalist sirens of the Arab marketplace, he runs the risk of scuppering the strategic project hinging on the axis with Jerusalem. In both cases, Ankara’s global posture would be considerably weakened. Of course, in the name of their proverbial eclecticism, the Turks will manage to find an alternative route to the Palestinian crossroads imposed by the Islamic Republic. Attributing the responsibility for the ‘atrocities’ committed in Gaza by Israel ‘to the West’ – hence to the United States – is in this sense a cunning attempt to prepare the ground for a future reconciliation with the Jewish state after the tactical breakdown caused by the war.

Ankara’s room for manoeuvre – and this is the real problem – is, however, severely limited by America’s excessively pro-Israeli attitude. Iran has managed to draw the US back into the Middle East quicksand – exposing the genius of the Ayatollahs’ Palestinian move. By pulling in the superpower, Iran can force the Turks to be on their side, as in 2010 during the nuclear negotiations. Especially if a direct Israeli-American attack on the Islamic Republic becomes the issue on the agenda. Erdogan’s proposal to set up a system of guarantor countries for an eventual and unlikely Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is in this sense a far from negligible signal, particularly since Moscow immediately joined Ankara’s mediation initiatives, prefiguring a sort of Astana mechanism seasoned with Palestinian sauce.

In strategic terms, the main geopolitical consequences of Iran’s proxy war against Israel could be precisely (re)opening the wedge between America and Turkey and the cracks that have emerged in the Turkish-Israeli axis, which will come under deadly pressure in the coming months. But all is not lost. The convergences between Ankara and Jerusalem are deep and not without a strategic dimension. Between Turks and Israelis there is not an adolescent tryst but a marriage of convenience: there is no sentiment, there are only interests. The actions of the two states are guided not by instinct but by the full awareness of their respective gains. This is why in the coming months Turkey expects a test of maturity from Israel, called upon to demonstrate with unequivocal clarity the value it attaches to relations with Ankara. So first of all to understand Erdogan’s domestic political needs. The real problem is in fact the rational emotionalism that characterises Turkish public opinion’s reaction to the events in Gaza. The average Turk is overly sensitive to the suffering of the Palestinians. As stated by the Reis many years ago with his signature poetic verve, ‘A Palestinian child crying in Gaza wrenches a mother’s heart in Ankara’. After all, the moral justification of Turkish imperialism – to which TV series set in the Seljuk and Ottoman periods have granted retroactive value – is precisely the defence of the dispossessed, the overwhelmed, the wretched. Especially if they are Muslim. And the Palestinians are a universal symbol of the tortures that confer a salvific nature on the Turks’ inherent imperialist predisposition. Legitimising it morally.

This is why the buck stops with Israel today. If it wants to salvage its partnership with Ankara, Jerusalem must first convince Turkish public opinion that the Turkish-Israeli understanding – forged with the blood of the Palestinians – produces unequivocal benefits for the national interests of the Republic of Turkey. Patriotism is the only sentiment capable of prevailing over the Turks’ congenital imperialist yearning. Potential initiatives abound. By freezing the dispute with Greece, Erdogan has prepared the favourable ground for a shift in the Jewish state’s posture in the eastern Mediterranean, hence for an acceleration of Turkish-Israeli energy initiatives. At the same time, the risk of the conflict widening to the Syrian-Lebanese front favours the prospect of transposing the ‘Caucasus model’ to Syria.

The main obstacle to the full deployment of the potential inherent in the Ankara-Jerusalem axis remains America. Or rather Israel’s total dependence on the superpower, which nevertheless in the medium term could paradoxically feed Turkish-Israeli synergies. If Israeli decision-makers have not completely lost their strategic vision, they should in fact draw from what has happened since the morning of 7 October a fundamental geopolitical lesson: Israel is weak, vulnerable, exposed to the attacks of its enemies. Bluntly put, Israel is unable to defend itself. It is overly dependent on the United States, whose global influence is visibly shrinking and which in the medium term may not have the resources – especially mental resources – to protect an increasingly encircled and besieged Jewish State, which Turkey does not intend to destroy but to save (first and foremost from itself). Turkey is motivated by the historical responsibility that republican Turks derive from the Ottoman heritage, which now has become central to Erdogan’s geopolitical narrative and is imbued with traditional Turkish inclusiveness. Despite the upheaval caused by Iran, the strategic objective for Turkey is not to compete with the Islamic Republic to fight the Jewish state more or less (in)directly – as the masses of furious Turks in Turkish squares demanded – but to incorporate Israel into an imperial system that guarantees peace and prosperity to the Middle Eastern viceroyalty of the erstwhile republican empire. In short, Make Israel Türkiye Again. Because for the Jewish state the only chance of salvation lies in the prospect of allowing itself to be absorbed into the comfortable security of the imperial confederation centred on the Republic of Turkey.
(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)