by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 12, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1434)
After two years of bloody conflict it seems Turkey’s position on the Syrian conflict has not changed. While addressing a gathering in the city of Gaziantep last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan fired another rhetorical volley at the Syrian government.
He was attending a solidarity event with the “Syrian people” in the city that shares a border with Syria. Erdogan indirectly criticized the US for holding Turkey back from invading Syria: “Actions of those who came from thousands, ten thousand kilometers’ distance and entered Iraq can be justified but we cannot stand still in the case of Syria with whom we share 910 kilometers of border.” A master rhetorical tactician, Erdogan was trying to fend off public criticism that has grown weary of the prolonged conflict in Syria. He was indirectly blaming the US for the inaction of Western countries, thereby attempting to cover up Turkey’s failure to deliver on its promise that the Syrian government would fall in a few months.
As usual Erdogan’s rhetoric will not affect Turkey's relations with the US or its position on the Syrian conflict. It is well known that Erdogan often resorts to such rhetoric to appease the public at home and maintain domestic support. Occasionally he might say something to ease tension at home but then do something completely opposite to pursue the government’s pro-Western foreign policy. A clear example of this was revealed in December by Abdullatif Sener, an ex-comrade of Erdogan. Sener, who departed from the Milli Gorus movement along with Erdogan, was one of the founders of the AKP and most prominent figure in the party after Abdullah Gul, the current President of Turkey. He served as Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in successive AKP governments. He left the party in 2008 after a series of disagreements with Erdogan.
Since then he has been a vocal critic of the AKP and Erdogan. His critiques have become more vocal vis-à-vis Turkey’s unrelenting support of the Syrian opposition. His criticism of the AKP is important because he provides an insider’s view of AKP policies. In a TV interview with CNN Turk, Sener dropped a bombshell when he pointed out AKP’s controlled spat with Israel. He revealed that there is an understanding between Turkey and Israel whereby Tel Aviv has granted permission to Erdogan to freely lambast the Zionist state in public but he must concur with Israeli actions in policy matters. To substantiate his claim, Sener gave an account of Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Meshaal’s first visit to Turkey in 2006.
There was heavy media pressure on the government due to fears that the visit would undermine Turkey’s relations with the US and Israel. Sener was a minister at the time and referred to a conversation that took place in the cabinet meeting. Addressing the foreign minister about the event Erdogan said “the media is making too much fuss about Meshaal’s visit and my colleagues (cabinet ministers) might have some reservations about it so let them know about (the background of) the visit.” The foreign minister then informed his cabinet colleagues that “Israel considers Hamas a ‘terrorist’ organization so they cannot talk to them. On the other hand, Hamas is representative of the Palestinian people and Israel needs to negotiate with them. They are in a difficult situation and have asked us to help them with this. So we have invited Meshaal to Turkey with the blessings of Israel.”
The Hamas leader came to Turkey and held meetings with the government as well as other AKP officials. When Meshaal left Turkey, then Israeli Ambassador to Turkey spoke against his visit and said “Turkey made a mistake by inviting Meshaal.” Following this statement the Turkish media strongly criticized the government for endangering relations with Israel and the US. This naturally upset Erdogan and he called Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister at the time and asked her for an explanation about the statement of her ambassador in Turkey. Erdogan said: “Have we not agreed on the visit of Meshaal? Yet your ambassador is now talking differently.”
Sener pointed out that at the time the government gave the impression that Turkey had invited Meshaal despite Israel’s objections and pretended that it was strong evidence of Ankara’s independent and pro-Palestinian policy. According to Sener this was typical of the government’s hypocritical policies as “there has always been a difference between what is being said and what is being done” by the AKP.
To further emphasize his point, Sener referred to Erdogan’s encounter with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Economic Summit in Davos in January 2009. According to Sener, if Erdogan was genuine in what he said to Peres in Davos, the question is why so many tenders have been granted to Israeli companies since then? Sener also makes connection to the Syrian conflict by arguing that the biggest winner of the collapse of the Syrian government would be Israel because it will weaken Hizbullah and the resistance front. Yet Turkey is the most ardent supporter of the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government. He then asks: “If the concern of the AKP is to confront Israel then why do they serve to the benefit of Israel?”
In another interview, Sener also talked about the NATO radar systems installed in Malatya. He argued that the systems have been installed to protect Israel against Iran and thus provide example of Turkey’s support for the Zionist State. According to Sener, the Muslim public and leaders are being turned into puppets of the Zionist regime. At no time in history have members of the Islamic movement in Turkey been so subservient to foreign intervention that poses a major threat to a neighboring Muslim country. He believes that most of the Muslim intellectuals in Turkey have become complacent with the benefits that came their way with AKP rule and are thus reluctant to criticize it. This explains why there is little reaction from the public against the foreign weapons and soldiers stationed on Turkish soil.
Sener’s statements have gained further credence after Turkey’s recent approval of the Zionist State’s participation in NATO seminars and workshops granting it “partner status” (Israel is not a member of NATO and if any member-state objected, Israel would not be able to participate). After Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara — lead boat in the aid flotilla taking food and medicines to the besieged people of Gaza — in international waters on May 31, 2010, the Turkish government announced a number of measures against the Zionist State. These included political boycott of Israel. Yet Turkey has agreed to grant partner status to Israel in NATO. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu found it very difficult to explain to the public why Turkey allowed Israel to gain such status in NATO and in the end blamed the media for “manipulating” the incident.
Further, according to media reports, Feridun Sinirlioglu, a civil servant working for the Turkish foreign ministry, met in February 2012 Yosef Ciechanover, an Israeli representative to the UN. The aim was to negotiate the opening of relations between the two countries in return for Israel’s help with Patriot Missile systems.
Sener’s account of events are based mostly on his personal testimony and thus there is no direct way to verify if his accusations are completely accurate. The fact, however, is that there has not been any comment or denial issued by the AKP. This is a strong indication that his criticism has merit.