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2018 Annual Assessment

The liberal-democratic character that once made Turkey a distinctive presence in the Muslim world is fading. Under President Erdoğan the country has become more and more autocratic. Recent elections (June 24, 2018) cemented Erdoğan’s status as Turkey’s sole ruler, equipped with powers that subjugate all governmental authorities to him. Erdoğan’s party, together with its allies, won 53 percent of the vote, giving him a comfortable parliamentary majority.

Although Erdoğan cancelled (July 19, 2018) the state of emergency he had declared two years earlier following an attempted coup, he is still pursuing a campaign of repression against all those whom he regards as enemies: in the media, in academia, and in the military, governmental, and judicial systems. Since the coup attempt, some 60,000 people have been arrested, and 150,000 ousted from their posts. The Turkish economy, whose performance was once a trump card for Erdoğan, is now in a state of crisis. Turkey’s currency has lost 60 percent of its value over the past five years. Inflation is rising, and the country’s external debt has reached a total of $453 billion. Over the recent six months, Moody’s Investors Service has twice downgraded Turkey’s credit rating, warning of the danger presented by the country’s large budgetary deficit, its high level of external debt, and its tense political situation.

The thwarted coup attempt also inaugurated a period of rising tension between Turkey and the NATO countries. Erdoğan is fanning the flames for domestic reasons and making use of anti-American rhetoric. Erdoğan’s refusal to release Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held on espionage charges in Turkey, intensified the rift with Trump who reacted by doubling tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum. In a signed article in the New York Times Erdoğan in response warned that Turkey has alternatives to its historical relations with the U.S. and may “…start looking for new friends and allies.”14

And so, although Turkish-Russian relations are marred by a history of suspicion and conflicting interests, Erdoğan has not been deterred from a rapprochement with Putin. He has been negotiating (April 2018) the purchase of a Russian nuclear reactor, and in a move that contradicts Turkey’s membership in NATO, Erdoğan purchased advanced aerial defense systems (S-400) from Russia (December 2017). The incorporation of these systems into the Turkish military may jeopardize the secrets of the American F-35 advanced stealth fighter jets also purchased by Turkey. Disapproval of Erdoğan does not negate Turkey’s importance to the West. Turkey is situated at a strategic intersection – it is a NATO member, it is significantly involved in the Syrian crisis, and it is a key factor in blocking or allowing waves of refugees to enter Europe. (On June 29, 2018 the EU decided to allocate another 3 billion euros to Ankara in order to curb migration into Europe).15

Turkey’s foreign relations are rife with difficulties and confrontations: the desire to see Assad deposed was not realized; Egypt is suspicious of Ankara due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas; Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have borne a grudge since Turkey supported Qatar in the face of a Saudi-led blockade. Erdoğan’s aspiration to position himself as a (Sunni) Islamic leader is ramping up tensions between Turkey and other regional actors, as manifested in his efforts to buy influence in East Jerusalem and to drive protest activity against the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem. (On December 13, 2017 Erdoğan convened a summit of Muslim leaders in Istanbul in response to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.)

Turkey suffers bloody terrorist attacks, some of which are perpetrated by ISIS and some by the Kurdish underground. It is worth noting that Israeli public statements of support for the Kurds have intensified the tension between the two countries. After Netanyahu announced that Israel supports the establishment of an independent Kurdish state,16 Erdoğan responded with a threat (September 26, 2017) to abort normalization of relations with Israel unless Jerusalem withdrew its support for Kurdish independence.17

In his effort to attain leadership stature within the Muslim world, Erdoğan is making use of the “Palestinian card” and supporting Hamas. Following an incident in which Palestinians who tried to break through the Gaza security fence were killed, Erdoğan declared that “Israel committed a massacre in Gaza” and called Netanyahu a “terrorist.” Netanyahu in due course responded that “someone who occupies Northern Cyprus, invades the Kurdish regions, and slaughters civilians in Afrin should not preach to us about values and ethics.”18 On May 14, 2018, Erdoğan recalled the Turkish ambassadors from Tel Aviv (and Washington), accusing Israel of “genocide.” The next day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry expelled the Israeli ambassador. Israel responded by expelling the Turkish consul general in Jerusalem. At the Islamic Summit Conference held a few days later (May 18, 2018), Erdoğan stepped up the rhetoric by announcing that the people “who were subjected to all kinds of torture in the concentration camps during World War II are attacking the Palestinians with methods similar to the Nazis.”19 In the same vein, following the approval of Israel’s Nation State Law, Erdoğan declared: “The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders.”20

Even after a reconciliation agreement was signed with Ankara in 2016, Israel harbored no illusions that there would be a return to the security and intelligence cooperation it once enjoyed with Turkey. Against this background and given the need to secure its gas fields and to prepare for bringing the gas to market, Israel has been nurturing for the last few years its relations with Greece and Cyprus in the security and energy realms. Israel and Cyprus are interested in exporting the products of their gas reservoirs to Europe, whereby Greece could constitute a vital transit point in this ambitious plan.