Turkey’s cover for Hamas assassins poses difficult questions for the West

Revelations last week that Turkey is allowing senior Hamas operatives to plot attacks against Israel from Istanbul are deeply troubling.  They are also almost entirely unsurprising.  They form part of a pattern of events in which Turkey consistently acts in defiance of its obligations as both a member of Western alliance structures and indeed of NATO itself.  It is clear that questions have to be asked about Western powers’ ongoing relationship with a country that persists in acting contrary to their interests.  Such questions, however, are fraught with complication.

To recap, transcripts of Israeli police interrogations with suspects reveal that Istanbul is being used as a base by senior Hamas operatives from which to plan and direct terrorist operations against Israel in Jerusalem and the West Bank.  This comes hot on the heels of a meeting that the Turkish President, Recep Tayyop Erdogan, held last Saturday in Istanbul with the head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh.  Further revelations have revealed that Hamas’ deputy leader, Saleh al-Arouri, is able to travel to and around Turkey freely, despite having a $5 million US government bounty on his head, and that a dozen Hamas operatives have moved to Istanbul from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the past year alone.  Israel has repeatedly informed Turkey that its territory is being used to plan these attacks, however, Turkey’s only response to the revelations has been to declare that Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, but rather a legitimate political party, and to reject all claims that Turkey is being used for anti-Israel activity.  Hamas is officially considered a terrorist group by the US and EU, while its armed wing has been declared a terrorist group by the UK.

Aside from the obvious outrage of playing knowing host to terrorist activity, this raises further issues.  For a start, by allowing this activity to be carried out on its territory, it is hosting, if not itself posing, a direct threat to a key ally of the West and NATO.  Israel is one of the most effective military and diplomatic powers in the Middle East and a stalwart ally of the West – a crucial ally, given the geopolitical significance of the region and the rise in virulent anti-western feeling in the area over the last few decades (its significance as an ally highlighted perhaps most of all by the fact that even Saudi Arabia, a traditional opponent of Israeli statehood, is now feeling the need to forge ever closer relations with the country).  Turkey itself has even acknowledged the significance of attacks planned on its territory – it signed a deal with Israel in 2015, brokered by the US, to stop Hamas planning attacks from its soil.  Israel claims that Turkey has consistently failed to honour the agreement.

Moreover, the longer unrest and conflict goes on in the Middle East, the longer countries such as Iran and Russia, ever-more assertive rivals of NATO, are able to use the conflict to run proxies and to further their influence over the region.  The continued existence of Hamas prolongs that conflict.  Hamas is very clear about the fact that it has no interest in the the Israel-Palestine peace process.  In fact, the only solution or peace that it would be interested in would be one that involved the destruction of the Israeli state.  Iran shares this goal with Hamas.  The longer that Hamas is able to maintain its armed assault on Israel and the longer there is no peace agreed between Israel and Palestine, the longer that Iran has both a source of anti-Israel propaganda and a potential proxy in an assault further down the line against Israel.  Turkey’s support for Hamas makes a successful peace process less likely.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest incident in a pattern of behaviour by Turkey that is contrary to the interests of its supposed NATO partners.  Other such incidents include support for extremist rebels in northern Syria (lending support to highly unacceptable parties who harbour militantly anti-western ideologies) and the purchasing of a Russian missile system (raising the situation where a NATO member is using missiles that were specifically designed to shoot down US planes, the testing of which would provide invaluable insight to Russian arms-makers and strategists).  

For a country by now well versed in the ins and outs of having your cake and eating it, Britain should recognise the signs in Erdogan.  The Turkish president clearly subscribes to the Putin school of thought, that the West is too unwieldy and divided to respond effectively to actions that it disapproves of, and that a bit of short-term discomfort will pay off in the long term as democratic governments change and feel the pressure to reduce whatever small action they have taken. Politicians with such approaches have been both helped and emboldened by the West’s recent twenty-year attempt at imitating the three wise monkeys, seeing no evil, hearing no evil, and speaking no evil.  The only problem with such an ostrichian approach is that evil does exist, and when others pretend that it doesn’t, it flourishes.  Erdogan clearly feels that he can game the system, deriving the benefits of NATO membership while only abiding by the obligations he feels like abiding by.  So is it time to take action?  Maybe even to reconsider Turkey’s NATO membership?

Were some sort of response not to be taken, it would appear a vindication of Erdogan’s (and Putin’s) calculation that he can take such actions without much consequence.  Arguably, it would only embolden him to continue to take such actions, and perhaps even to push further as he does so.  It would also undermine the idea that NATO members have to play by the rules, which would set a bad precedent for other members who may now or in the future be weighing up the pros and cons of testing the limits of the agreement.  Far more dangerously, it would send a signal to rivals of NATO that the cohesion and discipline of the organisation is no longer in good condition, which could encourage them to begin imposing themselves at the expense of Western interests.  Not only would this be damaging for Western countries, but it would also raise the possibility of Western response – thus increasing the chances of a war that the existence of NATO was supposed to prevent. 

Yet there are substantial considerations that need to be weighed against any action proposed or taken.  Too great an ostracisation, or complete expulsion, of Turkey would likely lead to it seeking new partnerships and alliances with other powers.  The only powers with enough clout and power to be worth their while are the main rivals not NATO.  This is all the more significant because of Turkey’s geostrategic position.  The historic bridge between Europe and Asia, to hand Turkey over to our rivals would be to give them a direct and friendly route to the Mediterranean, opening up a new defensive frontier both for Europe and for NATO.  Furthermore, to kick Turkey out of NATO, were that to be the ultimate decision, would send its own signal of poor cohesion and ill-discipline within the organisation.  It could easily be presented as all other states being unified in their condemnation of a wayward member, but questions would then be asked as to why such a longstanding member (a member since 1951) had thought it worth risking its membership.  The value, purpose and and discipline of the organisation in the present age could be called into question, particularly in historically uneasy members, such as France.

It’s clear that some action needs to be taken to indicate to Turkey that its behaviour is unacceptable.  Yet its behaviour is not yet at the level where we should be kicking them out of NATO – for that to be a response, they would have to be hosting hostile troops and allowing the setting up of supply lines to the Mediterranean, for example.  The action taken must be carefully calibrated so that Turkey must take notice, but so that it is not, beyond some inevitable sabre rattling and counter-threats, pushed further towards NATO’s rivals. 

Through all of this, however, it is worth considering that Western leadership is not as toothless as it seems and that it may know what it is doing.  To outwardly chastise or punish Turkey would be to make its leadership lose face.  To do this, particularly in a part of the world where face counts for so much, would be to set them up against the leading states of NATO.  There is no reason why there may not, in actual fact, be discussions and hard-talking warnings behind closed doors.  It is also quite likely that the Western governments are very much aware of the real facts of the situation – NATO has Turkey more where it would like it than Turkey has NATO where it would like it.  While Turkey may feel it is stealing a march by enjoying the rights of membership but operating beyond that membership’s obligations, it is, in fact, by its continued membership in spite of its obvious disagreements with much of the organisation’s members, demonstrating that membership is desirable and wise in the modern world.  Moreover, while it is a member, it keeps an area of the world that has historically been opposed to the West free of the West’s enemies and secures the Mediterranean.  It also means that while Turkey is a member, NATO members have more of an influence on Turkey than NATO’s rivals do – part of the reason Turkey’s actions are so remarkable is how unusual they are.  Just because Turkey is buying missiles from Russia doesn’t mean that it is taking orders or hints from them – and let’s not forget that Russia and Turkey are longstanding traditional enemies, a fact that was on show until very recently and which will not take much to resurface.

Action must be taken in response to Turkey’s recent activities.  But this action must be careful and measured, and it is perfectly feasible that it has already been taken, just out of the public eye.  However, though such action must be measured, and though it is better, as things stand, to keep Turkey within NATO rather than to expel it, the leaders of NATO need to be clear about the nature of the current Turkish leadership and of Turkey’s membership – it has no love for the organisation and it feels no compulsion to abide by its rules, only doing so begrudgingly and out of necessity where it does.

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