Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has endorsed Hamas and doubled down on his criticisms of Israel’s conduct, further straining transatlantic unity on the Israel-Hamas war as Tel Aviv reportedly gears up for a large-scale ground operation in Gaza.
"Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a liberation group, 'mujahideen' waging a battle to protect its lands and people," Erdogan told lawmakers last week, using an Arabic word that refers to those engaged in a holy struggle.
"The perpetrators of the massacre and the destruction taking place in Gaza are those providing unlimited support for Israel," he added, according to Reuters. "Israel's attacks on Gaza, for both itself and those supporting them, amount to murder and mental illness."
It is unclear if there is a strong domestic rationale for Erdogan, who has occupied a shaky political position since eking out a hard-fought victory in the Turkish presidential election earlier this summer, to occupy a position overtly in favor of Hamas. What little polling data there is on Turkish attitudes toward the Israel-Hamas War suggests that only a sliver of the population — as little as 11% — believes Turkey should intervene on the side of Hamas, with a plurality of respondents saying Turkey should remain neutral in the conflict.
Foreign policy concerns perhaps paint a more convincing picture of the Turkish leader’s priorities: Erdogan’s latest perspective on Hamas, while anathema to many Western audiences, enjoys widespread purchase across the Muslim world. Though delivered in too haphazard and inconsistent a fashion to comprise a coherent strategy or policy platform, pan-Islamist messaging has long been a part of Erdogan’s rhetorical toolkit.
Erdogan’s full-throated endorsement of Hamas also complements his populist image at home. Large-scale demonstrations taking a stance explicitly critical of Israel have erupted in Turkey — as with many Middle-Eastern countries — since October 7, including reports of fireworks and rocks flung at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul.
Erdogan’s stark statement is not without potential consequences. Not unexpectedly, Israeli officials have denounced the remarks: “Israel wholeheartedly rejects the Turkish President’s harsh words about the terrorist organization Hamas,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said in a statement. “Even the Turkish president's attempt to defend the terrorist organization and his inciting words will not change the horrors that the whole world has seen,” Haiat added.
Erdogan further announced he canceled an upcoming visit to Israel, suggesting that fledgling efforts by Turkish and Israeli officials to normalize relations between the two countries in 2022 are indefinitely suspended if not dead. This dramatic reversal of positive diplomatic momentum follows the suspension of normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a process that Erdogan supported prior to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
Ankara has likely abrogated its standing as a mediator in any potential future negotiations between Israel and Hamas by fully siding with the latter, drawing a vivid contrast with Erdogan’s delicate messaging and ironclad commitment to neutrality in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. But the move is on brand for Erdogan: The Turkish leader is no stranger to breaking with his western NATO allies on key global issues and pursuing policies directly at odds with the strategic objectives articulated by U.S. and European Union leaders.
His recent actions suggest that he currently prioritizes growing his clout in the Arab and Muslim worlds over any prospective program of rapprochement with Israel, dealing yet another blow to the Biden administration’s troubled vision of a Middle-Eastern security architecture that promotes productive, healthy relations between Israel and several key regional players.
Yet a core part of Erdogan’s modus operandi is a kind of ruthless pragmatism characterized by constant maneuvering and, occasionally, drastic policy reversals. The Turkish President, ever flexible in pursuit of his policy aims, may possibly seek to restart normalization talks under more propitious circumstances when the Israel-Hamas war ends. Whether Israel opts to reciprocate such advances is another question entirely.
Erdogan’s most recent challenge comes even as the Euro-Atlantic united front on Israel shows signs of fraying much closer to its core. As observed in RS by Eldar Mamedov, Europe’s shared messaging against Hamas and in favor of Israel belies growing policy differences as the conflict enters a new, volatile phase.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, has floated a “humanitarian pause” with the aim of providing succor to civilians in the Gaza strip. Germany and Austria are opposed even to this pared-down plan, which falls short of the formal ceasefire proposed by UN Chief Antonio Guterres last week. Top Spanish and Irish officials, meanwhile, have called for a humanitarian ceasefire, outlining the contours of a policy rift that could intensify if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) proceed with a large-scale ground campaign in Gaza.
Erdogan's posturing on Hamas, tactical as it may be, underscores a larger pattern of mounting tensions between Israel and many key regional actors in the wake of the October 7 attack. As Tel Aviv hunkers down for what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said will be a "long and difficult war,” there is a non-insignificant risk that these tensions could boil over into a larger regional conflict.
It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which Turkey, which does not share a border with Israel and does not have existential security interests at stake, would get directly involved, but Erdogan’s enmity contributes to an ominous regional mood that may embolden neighboring leaders who are already being pressured by protesters at home to assume a more active role in the conflict.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East will be to get Iran — the real culprit. And the only way to start building a state for Palestine is to keep pursuing Israeli normalization agreements in the Arab world — with a potential Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That effort at a U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal has been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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