Tensions rise as the West and Turkey search for common ground

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council


The arrest by Turkish authorities of 15 individuals suspected of spying on behalf of Israel has raised concerns about an increase in tension between the two countries. So far, neither side has spoken out publicly. However, in another troubling event this week, the Turkish president threatened to expel 10 Western ambassadors. Once again, the disagreement was resolved before it could escalate further, though many worry that these incidents reveal an unstable relationship to which the United States might need to pay close attention.

Reports about the arrests have come from different quarters, many often at odds with each other. What is known so far is that, as this report by Albawaba indicates, “At least 15 people with links to an Israeli intelligence service have been apprehended in Turkey, sources said on Thursday. They were arrested as part of an investigation launched by the Istanbul public prosecutor’s office, according to Turkish judicial sources. The suspects were relaying information and passing documents to the Israeli spy agency, said the sources, who requested anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the media.”

Additional information is found in this article by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, which relies on Turkish government and newspaper reports, all of which seem to indicate that the “suspects, all of whom are Arab, have provided Israeli intelligence with information on foreign students in the country and were monitored for about a year. … The pro-government daily said that the suspects have provided the Mossad with information on foreign students who can potentially work in the defense industry in the future in exchange for money as well as spy on Palestinian organizations operating in the country. The report further claimed that one of the main cogs in the spy ring, identified only by the initials AB, entered Turkey back in 2015 and was in contact with a ‘field agent carrying an Israeli passport linked to the Mossad’ and was paid $10,000 a year for his work.”

However, despite the arrests, Al Monitor’s Fehim Tastekin insists that the Israeli-Turkish relationship is likely to remain the same, especially given Turkey’s increasing sense of encirclement in the Eastern Mediterranean: “The Turkish media may be abuzz with reports about the foiling of a Mossad-run spy ring, but Israel appears unimpressed, and observers see no further deterioration in the already frosty bilateral relations. … With Turkey not exposing any Mossad operatives and Israel putting on an air of indifference, the affair has not fueled fresh turmoil in bilateral ties thus far. … A number of factors have recently turned up pressure on Ankara to mend relations. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has courted Israel in a bid to improve the energy competition in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has left Turkey largely isolated against archrivals Greece and the Greek Cypriots.”

If the identification and arrest of a spy ring operating in Turkey did not push Mr. Erdogan over the edge, the interference of 10 Western ambassadors demanding the release of a Turkish businessman and political activist certainly provoked a reaction from the Turkish president. Threatened with expulsion, the ambassadors took a step back, leading Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran to warn that “Western governments who are unhappy with Turkey’s level of autonomy when it comes to defending its national interests must come to terms with the new realities here. To say the least, attempts to ‘discipline’ Turkey through public statements are simply doomed to fail. Moreover, the Turkish people are determined to uphold their sovereignty and look out for their interests. Indeed, Turkey’s membership in certain alliances or international organizations does not give certain nations license to impose anything on Ankara. … At a time when great power competition intensifies, Turkey’s own democratic dynamics alone get to shape its domestic politics. Like other democracies, the country is off-limits when it comes to foreign meddling.”

Turkish opposition parties jumped at what they considered an over-reaction on the part of Mr. Erdogan, painting it, as Asharq Alawsat puts it, as a desperate attempt to deflect attention “from economy woe. … President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political opponents said his call to expel the ambassadors of 10 Western allies was an attempt to distract attention from Turkey’s economic difficulties, while diplomats hoped the expulsions might yet be averted. … Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for two decades but support for his ruling alliance has eroded significantly ahead of elections scheduled for 2023, partly because of sharp rises in the cost of living. While the International Monetary Fund projects economic growth of 9% this year, inflation is more than double that, and the lira has fallen 50% against the dollar since Erdogan’s last election victory in 2018.”

Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman sees in the expulsion threat the further consolidation of Turkey’s bend towards authoritarianism, which has put the country on a collision course with its erstwhile allies: “Already a repressive authoritarian state, Turkey has become increasingly hostile to NATO and Western countries. … Ankara’s overall posture puts it increasingly at odds with democracy and Europe. It tends to use its far-right media and speeches of its ruling party to bash Europe. Europe and the US are seen as the enemy in Turkey, while Russia, Qatar, China, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Azerbaijan and other states are seen as allies and friends. Groups such as the Taliban and Hamas get a welcome in Ankara that is never afforded to Western democracies. This is symbolic of Ankara’s shift toward extremism.”

Louis Fishman, writing for the Haaretz, is equally critical of Mr. Erdogan. In a recent op-ed, Fishman suggests that Erdogan’s moves are calculated to create a schism between Turkey and its NATO allies, a schism that is already underway and can only worsen should the current trend in the relationship continue: “Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent shock waves through the world from a Saturday afternoon rally, by declaring he was ordering his foreign minister, Mevlet Cavusoglu, to declare ten foreign ambassadors persona non grata for their call to release the jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala. … Erdogan’s new agenda covers cratering the economy, busting terror-financing sanctions, unjustified jailing, declining in the polls – and now, provoking an unprecedented rift with NATO allies, with a touch of antisemitism.”

It is clear that the ingredients for an even bigger dust-up between Turkey and the United States, in particular, are already present. Despite the initial step-back, the US government has made clear that it doesn’t intend to shy away from confrontation with Turkey, a position restated earlier this week by the US Department of State: “The US vowed Monday to keep promoting human rights in Turkey, while also calling for cooperation, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel the American ambassador over his advocacy. … ‘We will continue to promote the rule of law and respect for human rights globally,’ State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. ‘We believe the best way forward is through cooperation on issues of mutual interest, and we know that we have many issues of mutual interest with Turkey.’”

It seems that US threats may be more than just words. As Rana Abtar argues in an op-ed published by Asharq Alawsat, the appointment of former US Senator Jeff Flake as the new US ambassador to Turkey, along with threats from Congress to hold back the sale of F-16 fighter jets in the event Turkey fails to recalibrate its relationship with Russia in line with US demands, signal the determination of the White House to get Turkey to change its behavior: “Members of the US Congress have threatened to block any possible sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. The lawmakers wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressing their strong opposition to any similar approach, due to ‘Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies and his rapprochement with Russia.’… The lawmakers called for imposing additional sanctions on Turkey if it goes ahead with purchasing the new system from Russia, a position approved by the US ambassador to Turkey, Jeff Flake.”

There are those, like Dania Koleilat Khatib, who believe the gap between the two countries is not that great. Khatib lays out a number of arguments in an Arab News op-ed, where she makes the case for a “more pragmatic approach” toward Turkey on the part of the Biden White House: “Despite what seemed like a rapprochement with Moscow, it was far from being one, as the rift between Russia and Turkey is far too wide to bridge. Despite the harsh rhetoric from Erdogan, Turkey is now more ready than ever for a grand bargain with the US. … As much as the US sees Turkey drifting away from its commitment to the Western fold, now is the right moment to offer Ankara a grand bargain to make sure the partnership is strategic and long term. … Ignoring Turkey will simply push Erdogan to act frantically and result in more instability, which needs to be avoided at all costs. It is time for the Biden administration to have a pragmatic approach toward the region and look beyond the rhetoric: A deal with Turkey is needed and can be crafted now.” 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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