The Arab Spring provided Turkey with a window of opportunity to project power in some Arab countries of the region that were traditionally neglected in Turkish foreign policy. Turkey’s pro-Arab Spring position drove a wedge between Ankara and the pro-status quo forces, namely the anti-Revolution axis comprised of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Nevertheless, Turkey attained considerable influence especially in Syria capitalizing on the vacuum emanating from the drastic changes transpiring in the country. Turkey’s hard power projections specifically in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean during this period were premised on the belief that Ankara was being excluded from an emerging regional order that was coming into existence with the inclusion of anti-Arab Spring forces&Israel and backed by the Donald Trump-led US. This belief and a number of factors also brought Tehran and Turkey closer, especially after the outbreak of the Qatar blockade.
That being said, Turkey started mending ties with its erstwhile regional rivals started in 2020. The deteriorating economic situation in the country, Joe Biden’s election victory in the US, and the ensuing regional geopolitical realignment all played a role in this situation. With the Biden administration taking office in the US a de-escalation process started in the MENA region and Turkey mended ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel and exchanged ambassadors with its rivals. The US orientation towards the Indo-Pacific region to contain China played an important role in the mentioned de-escalation process and regional realignment in the MENA region. Ankara followed the regional de-escalation trend which crystallized with the end of the Qatar blockade that was imposed on Doha by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. In this period, and right before the general and presidential elections in Turkey, Ankara undertook an initiative to mend ties with the Syrian regime too, but to no avail due to the Syrian regime’s negative attitude.
Before the outbreak of the Gaza crisis, Turkish-Israeli relations were improving with both sides exchanging ambassadors following cold bilateral relations that continued for a decade. In addition to this, both sides supported Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia, helping Baku regain its lost territories. Moreover, in September 2023, President Erdoğan for the first time met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person in New York, during his visit to the US to attend the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Additionally, energy cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv was also on the table, an initiative that was expected to boost existing ties and bring a new dimension to Israeli-Turkish relations. In the 1990s Turkish-Israeli relations primarily centered around the security realm.
However, with the Gaza crisis, the bilateral relations have started worsening. At the beginning of the crisis, Turkey tried to follow a balanced approach to the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Gaza. For instance, the Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the civilian losses following the ‘Aqsa Flood’ operation without naming Hamas in its first statement after the attack. Moreover, Ankara called on both sides for de-escalation, restraint, and a ceasefire. Through its shuttle diplomacy, Ankara also tried to put forth a proposal that could enable a structural change in the Palestine-Israel crisis through a multi-party guarantorship system at the Cairo summit, an initiative that has not been supported by the regional countries thus far.
As the vicious, deliberate, and indiscriminate Israeli attacks on civilian Gazans heightened, Turkey changed the tone of its rhetoric, and President Erdoğan asserted that Israel was acting like a ‘group/organization’ rather than a ‘state.’ Furthermore, Turkey also recalled its ambassador to Israel for consultations over Israel’s non-stop bombardment campaign. The Israeli side had also recalled its ambassador to Turkey. What is more, US Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken could get the expected treatment and result from his Turkish counterpart during his first trip to Turkey since the outbreak of the crisis.
In the meantime, Turkey does not recognize Hamas as a ‘terrorist’ group. Rather Ankara considers Hamas as a ‘liberation group’ and has a relationship with it. Nonetheless, Turkey does not have a huge influence/leverage on the group. Thus, it is unable to force the group the release hostages, for example. However, it can increase its efforts in this direction through Qatar which has good relations both with Hamas and Ankara.
Additionally, taking into consideration the fact that the Gaza crisis can be the final nail in the coffin of the unipolar world order, Ankara is likely to welcome an increased Russian role in the crisis, in an attempt to stimulate Russia to put some pressure on Tel Aviv, taking into consideration the good relations of Moscow with Israel. It is beyond doubt that the Gaza crisis presents opportunities both for Moscow and Beijing in the MENA region. Both sides, just like Ankara, voiced their support for the two-state solution to the crisis.
Ankara has long accused the West of exercising double standards in the face of Israeli attacks on Gaza, reminding the world of the Western reaction during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although traditionally, the Turkish political elites’ strategic inclination has been directed towards the West, Ankara now sees that the global order that was put into place following the Second World War is nearing its demise. Thus, irrespective of the discussion on whether Ankara would change its strategic direction or not, the Turkish political elites are seeing an opportunity in the fight for the emerging world order to increase its agency and status. Therefore, Turkey is capitalizing on the vacuum emanating from the global power rivalry between the US, China, and Russia like many other regional actors.
On top of these, Turkey is likely to accelerate its shuttle diplomacy to reach out to the Arab countries that have mended ties with Turkey to find a solution to the unfolding tragedy. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the first destinations for Turkey in this regard. Overall, it can be asserted that Ankara would continue to call for a ceasefire, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and entry of badly needed humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Taking into consideration the fact that Turkey does not have enough leverage either on Hamas or Israel, it is in Ankara’s best interest to continue its shuttle diplomacy with the heavyweight regional countries and continue its efforts concerning its ‘guarantorship formula’ that can bring about a structural change in the dire crisis. If the current conflict spirals out of control and gets a regional character through the inclusion of Iran-allied groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthis of Yemen, and the Iraqi al-Hashd al-Shaabi, the whole region can pay a heavy price in the upcoming period.