What does Turkey’s policy on the Gaza war mean for the region?

In spite of its diplomatic activism, Ankara is careful that its role will not overshadow that of the Arab Gulf states

Expert comment Updated 10 January 2024 Published 8 December 2023 3 minute READ

On 4–5 December, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Doha to attend the ninth meeting of the Turkey–Qatar Supreme Strategic Committee and the 44th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit.

Erdoğan’s attendance at the GCC summit in particular underscores the direction of Turkey’s regional policy of recent years and its approach to the Gaza war. 

Indeed, Erdoğan’s presence at the GCC meetings reflects the sea change in Turkey’s relations with the Arab–Gulf states, bearing in mind that Ankara was engaged in a fierce rivalry with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi only a few years ago. 

Turkey’s presence at this summit also sheds light on its policy towards the Gaza war. Ankara has been active on the diplomatic front. It has called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, delivery of unhindered aid to the enclave, and said that the Palestinian question must be put back on the regional and international agenda.

The Gaza war as a global event 

To that effect, Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan has toured regional and international capitals. He has advanced the idea of a multi-country guarantor system as a way of dealing with the conflict – with Turkey, certain Arab states, and interested international actors serving as the role of guarantor for the Palestinian side. 

Dismayed at the west’s unequivocal support for Israel, Ankara has focused on regional diplomacy and tried to internationalize the conflict as much as possible

Plus, dismayed at the west’s unequivocal support for Israel, Ankara has focused on regional diplomacy and, in parallel, tried to internationalize the conflict as much as possible.

Ankara hopes for the deeper involvement of non-western powers such as China and Russia, and that international institutions such as the International Criminal Court will investigate war crimes in Gaza – all of which will bring balance to the west’s strong support for Israel.

Ankara has also tried to mobilize Arab–Islamic countries in designating Israeli settlers as terrorists and settler violence as a form of terrorism.

It hopes to capitalize on the fact that a significant part of the international community already regards settlers as in breach of international law, as well as global reaction to the high number of Palestinians killed outside of Gaza by Jewish settlers since the start of the war.

The US has indicated that it will impose a visa ban on Jewish settlers implicated in attacks on Palestinians and there is a call for the EU to follow suit. France has condemned the violence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and called it a ‘policy of terror’ – all indicating that Arab–Islamic countries’ lobbying on this front might bear tangible results.

The implications of this war on regional security has been another major concern for Ankara. Since the outset of the war, there has been much discussion about its regionalization, which effectively meant whether Iran and its network will enter the war.

Despite partial involvement of Iran-backed groups, most notably Hezbollah firing rockets into Israel from Lebanon and Houthis attacking US and Israel ships in the Red Sea, the direct involvement of Tehran has not yet happened and appears unlikely to happen anytime soon, despite the risks.

There is a considerable prospect of Gaza becoming a magnet attracting foreign fighters from across the region and the globe

However, the regionalization of war at the societal level is already happening. Not least, there is a considerable prospect of Gaza becoming a magnet attracting foreign fighters from across the region and the globe.

Given the symbolism of the Palestinian question, Jerusalem, and holy sites such as Al-Aqsa Mosque for the global Muslim community, the potential for this war to draw foreign fighters is significant, particularly if the invasion becomes long-lasting. This could trigger another phase of radicalism with implications on regional and international security.

Supporting Arab agency on the war

Since the start of the war, Turkey has made sure that it supports and complements roles of key Arab states such as Qatar, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, rather than overshadowing or competing with them. In other words, Ankara supports Arab agency on the Gaza war.

Erdoğan’s participation in the GCC summit confirms this point. Instead of undermining the process of normalization between Turkey and Arab Gulf states, the war appears to have underpinned it.

Had there been no thaw in Turkey’s relations with the Arab states, Erdoğan would probably have been more publicly critical of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s relatively low-key diplomacy on the war and apparent desire to maintain (the UAE’s) and normalize (Saudi Arabia’s) relations with Israel in spite of it. 

This illustrates that Turkey is not only sensitive towards the perception of the ‘Arab street’, but that of the Arab elites as well. This policy is more in line with Ankara’s pre-Arab Spring regional policy in which it tried to balance its appeal to Arab popular opinion, while maintaining closer relations with the ruling elites.

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In addition, despite its criticism of the Abraham Accords when it was signed in 2020, Ankara, in principle, does not oppose Arab–Israeli normalization. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel and restore relations.

Ankara’s criticism of the Abraham Accords was therefore reflective of the sore state of relations between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel.

Ankara was also concerned that the process had proceeded with no regard to, if not at the expense of, Palestinians.

When the idea of normalization pops up again, Ankara will almost certainly advocate for a stronger Palestinian dimension to be embedded within the process

In the future, when the idea of normalization pops up again, Ankara will almost certainly advocate for a stronger Palestinian dimension to be embedded within the process. This would also provide any such normalization with more regional legitimacy and acceptance.

The Gaza invasion will induce more crises and tension in Turkish–Israeli relations – heated exchanges are likely to become the order of the day. The idea of a thaw and cooperative phase in Turkish–Israeli relations prior to the Hamas attack on 7 October is now obsolete.

In contrast, Ankara is pursuing a foreign policy during this war which is likely to consolidate and deepen the normalization of relations between Turkey and Arab–Gulf states.