Skip to main content

A new message resounds in the Arab world: Get Ankara 

The intended target of the UAE-Israel alliance is not Iran but Turkey, whose regional clout poses a threat to Gulf rulers
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a news conference in Ankara
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a news conference in Ankara on 24 August (AFP)

Months before the announcement that the UAE was going to recognise Israel, breaking the status quo that normalisation would come only after Palestinians achieved statehood, analysts puzzled over US President Donald Trump's "deal of the century".

Why, they asked themselves, is the US president investing so much energy in a deal that Palestinian leaders boycott, that Arab states reject, and that will never work? The announcement by Abu Dhabi did not answer their question. 

Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have struggled to get other states in the region to normalise relations with Israel . 

So far only Bahrain, Serbia and Kosovo have said they will follow suit. The big, or populous, states have refused, with no buy-in from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, or Kuwait.

No amount of spin at the White House next week will disguise the fact that Israeli PM Binjamin Netanyahu will be shaking hands with the leaders of only two small Arab states in a ceremony that Trump will dub historic.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Trump blinks first

If Palestinians were never the intended target of this deal, who was? Kushner's aim is a Jewish national religious one; it is to establish Greater Israel as a permanent fact on the ground. 

But against whom is the Emirati-Israeli alliance supposed to be defending itself? Israel had been saying for some time to Arab diplomats that it no longer regarded Iran as a military threat. The head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, told Arab officials that Iran was "containable". 

There are foreign actors in this push to declare Turkey the new outlaw of the Eastern Mediterranean

Trump came nose-to-nose with a military confrontation with Iran, and he blinked first.

Iran openly launched a volley of missiles at US troops in Iraq in retaliation for the drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in January.

Israeli warplanes have repeatedly tested this theory in Syria and Lebanon, striking Iranian targets and Iranian-backed fighters with impunity, with no response from Tehran and scant response from Hezbollah.

Trump's response was to disband the strike force he had assembled in the Gulf. If Iran is not the target of this fledging alliance, then who is?

The Turks are coming 

The answer came this week in a heavily orchestrated series of statements from Arab leaders meeting in the Arab League. The real enemy turns out to be a member of Nato, for many decades a keeper of airborne US nuclear bombs.

The new foreign invader threatening the Arab world is not the Persian, nor indeed the Russian - but the Turk.

Is Turkey heading for a cold war with the EU over offshore Cyprus gas?
Read More »

As if thrown into action by a communal electric switch, the entire shoreline of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Egypt, is ostensibly up in arms against its northern neighbour with alleged pretensions of restoring Ottoman rule.

The charge has been led by UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash. Speaking at the Arab League, Gargash said: "The Turkish interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries is a clear example of negative interference in the region."

That is quite a statement from a minister of a country that toppled an Egyptian president, and whose planes have bombed Libya's Tripoli in an effort to oust another internationally recognised government.

Gargash accused Turkey of threatening the security and safety of maritime traffic in Mediterranean waters, in a clear violation of relevant international laws and charters and of the sovereignty of states.

Defining the enemy

Gargash was followed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who said that Turkish interventions in many Arab countries represented the most important threat to Arab national security.

"Egypt will not stand idly by in the face of Turkish ambitions that are manifesting in northern Iraq, Syria and Libya in particular," he said.

The meeting was chaired by the Palestinian delegation, which came prepared with an angry draft statement condemning the UAE-Israel agreement as treason.

Their statement was dropped by the council, which decided to set up a permanent subcommittee to monitor Turkish aggression and report back to it at each subsequent meeting.

UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash speaks in Dubai in 2018 (AFP)
UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash speaks in Dubai in 2018 (AFP)

The chorus of statements against Turkey last week, did not go unnoticed in Ankara. 

A senior Turkish government source also attributed it to the Christian-Zionist Evangelical alliance in the US.

“The UAE has been undertaking the job to isolate Turkey in operational levels," the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said

"They have been financing it. However, the real enablers of this strategy are Israel and some US politicians close to the pro-Israeli lobby.

“They have been part of any effort to establish an alliance against Turkey.

“They have been backing the UAE in the interest of the Zionist and Evangelical alliance, especially before the presidential elections in November which could bring electoral support for their offices.”

Turkish bases

The irony is that another Arab League subcommittee against normalisation with Israel still exists to uphold the land-for-peace principle established by the Arab Peace Initiative created by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

This committee was ignored. Israel is not the enemy of the Arab League; Turkey is.

The Jordan Times, the official voice of the kingdom, published an article that stated: "Turkish troops and Ankara backed militias are active in three Arab countries: Libya, Syria and Iraq. This is a geopolitical reality that the Arab world, as well as the international community, must acknowledge and react to. 

"In fact, Turkey's territorial, political and economic ambitions in these countries and beyond are advertised by top Turkish leaders including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Turkey now has military bases in Qatar, Libya, Somalia, Northern Cyprus, Syria and Iraq; and not all with the consent of legitimate governments."

Macron's crusade 

There are other foreign actors in this push to declare Turkey the new outlaw of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The French military's role in supporting the Gaddafi-era army general, Khalifa Haftar, in his war-crime-ridden attempt to capture the Libyan capital is as well-documented as the use of Emirati planes and Russian snipers.

Recently, however, during his forays into Beirut, President Emmanuel Macron has further spread France's rhetorical wings.

The fight is about the leadership of the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia's claim to it has now gone, no more so than when it finally normalises relations with Israel

On the first of two trips to the shattered Lebanese capital, Macron said: "If France doesn't play its role, Iranians, Turks and Saudis will interfere with Lebanese domestic affairs, whose economic and geopolitical interests are likely to be to the detriment of the Lebanese."

Macron flew on to Baghdad, where he launched his "sovereignty initiative" - a clear reference to Turkey, an Iraqi official was quoted as saying. Ankara launched a cross-border air and ground assault on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in June, infuriating Baghdad, which called it a violation of Iraqi territory.

In the meantime, French warships have been holding joint exercises with Greek ones amid an oil-drilling dispute off Cyprus, which Turkey claims violates its maritime borders.

"Turkey is no longer a partner in this region," Macron told reporters before a summit in Corsica this week, noting that Europeans must be "clear and firm" with Erdogan's government about its "inadmissible behaviour". European countries should lay out "red lines" with Turkey, Macron added.

Turkish unity 

Macron maintains that his dispute is not with Turks, but with Erdogan.

This tactic has been tried before and failed. The problem is that in confronting UAE-backed forces in Libya, or upholding Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, or bombing the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Iraq, or targeting President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, Erdogan has the full support of the Turkish army and all major Turkish political parties. 

This support is neither uniform nor constant. Doubts have been expressed domestically about the wisdom of Turkish troops entering Libya and Syria, but those have subsided as the Turkish army and drones have acquitted themselves. 

The Putinisation of Erdogan
Read More »

Whatever criticisms Erdogan's many domestic opponents have over the legitimacy of continued purges of civil servants and soldiers, routine arrests of journalists, the closure of newspapers and universities, and the way the presidency has subordinated parliament, they back Erdogan as a national leader in foreign policy - particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The man whose party is doing more to erode Erdogan's conservative Islamist base than any other Turkish politician, Ahmet Davutoglu, is a veteran of international negotiations and a former prime minister.

Davutoglu recently said: "Macron must abide by his borders and stop insulting Turkey and its president.

"I strongly condemn Macron's arrogant statements, which demonstrate his colonial mentality and ignore Turkey's democracy and the free will of its people."

Macron has several problems in declaring a new crusade. For one, he is hard put to shake off the history of French colonialism in North Africa and Lebanon. 

Secondly, his attempt to equate Erdogan with "Islamofascism" hits the buffers when the Turkish secular deep state is in lockstep with the president's project. It was a government dictated by the Turkish military that invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 after a Greek coup.

Confronting Ankara

Why is Turkey being confronted now? For all the domestic reservations over his role as president, Erdogan has created Turkey as an independent country whose armed forces are capable of confronting Russian forces in Syria and Libya, but one that keeps its place at the negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkey's economy is the size of Saudi Arabia's, and its military is self-sustaining. Turkey started manufacturing high-technology drones when Israel and the US refused to supply them. It is forgotten today, but Israeli planes once trained on Turkish airfields because of the shortage of airspace back home, according to informed Turkish sources.

A drilling rig passes on the Bosphorus Strait en route to the Black Sea in August 2019 (AFP)
A drilling rig passes on the Bosphorus Strait en route to the Black Sea in August 2019 (AFP)

When it discovers gas in the Black Sea, Turkish companies have the technology to develop the fields and supply the domestic market - unlike Egypt, whose reliance on British, Italian and US companies means it reaps a fraction of the rewards from its gas fields.

When confronted by armed soldiers, as they were in the 2016 attempted coup (funded by the UAE ), Turks are fiercely proud, and they fight.

All of this should cause western politicians to pause before creating another enemy and starting another conflict in this region. It is crystal clear where this agenda originates: it comes from Israel and the Gulf states, with no business or interests in Cyprus.

Dangerous adventurism

Israel tolerates no pushback against its central aim of establishing its borders over the territory it has illegally occupied. In its intelligence estimate for the year 2020, Israel's military intelligence division included Turkey among the list of organisations and countries that threaten Israeli national security.

Estimates, however, excluded the outbreak of a military confrontation between the two countries. 

Macron should learn from the collective experiences of Tony Blair, George W Bush, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, and stay away from this foreign adventure

The totalitarian and murderous Emirati and Saudi regimes have no such qualms.

They fear Turkey's pull over their populations as a Sunni Muslim leader. The fight is about the leadership of the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia's claim to it has now gone, no more so than when it finally normalises relations with Israel. 

France lacks the stomach or the stamina to start yet another conflict in the Middle East. At home, the wunderkind of French politics has become France's most unpopular president. 

Macron's France is as divided as any other western nation. It is as beset by Covid-19 and the inexorable rise of the right wing as Britain is divided by Brexit. Macron should learn from the collective experiences of Tony Blair, George W Bush, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, and stay away from this foreign adventure. It will not end well for him if he persists.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.