NATO, Gaza, and the future of US-Turkish relations

Turkey’s backing of Hamas has left it out of diplomatic processes and further strained its ties with the US. However, its recent decision to approve Sweden’s NATO membership could be an opportunity for Western diplomats to patch things up

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, attends NATO Summit at LITEXPO Lithuanian Exhibition and Congress Center in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 12, 2023
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Beata Zawrzel

The Palestinian issue has always been close to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heart – and a rallying cry for his conservative base. During his two decades in power, Turkey’s strongman has had a tumultuous relationship with Israel, marked by periodic spars with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and occasional attempts at normalisation. All the while, Erdogan has never shied away from publicly displaying his support for Hamas, hosting its leaders in Istanbul and viewing the group as a legitimate part of the Middle East’s political map.

But after 7 October, Erdogan gravely miscalculated, failing to condemn its atrocities against Israeli civilians and reiterating that “Hamas is not a terrorist organization. It is a liberation movement.” Such strong endorsement of the group at such a painful time effectively led to Turkey being frozen out of hostage negotiations, regional diplomacy, and prospects of playing a greater role in a post-conflict Gaza. Outraged and shaken by Israel’s disregard for Palestinian civilians in its military offensive in Gaza, Erdogan has since blasted Israel for “war crimes” and “genocide,” while criticising the West for its perceived double standards and unequivocal support for Israel.

Had the Turkish president been more measured in his public endorsement of Hamas, slightly more diplomatic in his tone and less willing to endorse Hamas so wholeheartedly after 7 October, Ankara would have likely found itself at the core of international diplomacy on Gaza. In much the same way he did on the Black Sea grain deal and the prisoner swaps between Russia and Ukraine, Erdogan could have led the diplomacy around hostage negotiations and regional de-escalation. He also could have found a bigger global pulpit to make a case for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and grab the international community’s attention for Turkish proposals such as a trusteeship system for a future Palestinian state. 

Instead, 7 October highlighted Turkey’s diplomatic estrangement when it comes to Arab-Israeli matters, despite Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab street. In the aftermath of the Hamas attacks, Turkey was all too eager to play a role in regional diplomacy and emerge as the leader of a regional front that could isolate and pressure the Israeli government to abandon its hardline policies in Gaza. Instead, it was largely bypassed in hostage negotiations, and despite its links with the political leadership of Hamas, Turkey has not emerged as a diplomatic hotspot on the Palestinian issue nor in efforts to avert regional escalation.  

Worse for Ankara, the Gulf states and Egypt – despite their condemnation of Israel’s disregard for civilian lives in Gaza – have made it abundantly clear that they are not interested in entering a united anti-Israel front led by Turkey or abandoning the normalisation track with Tel Aviv.

Ankara’s tepid ties with Washington has not made it any easier for Erdogan. Once the lynchpin of US policy in the Middle East, for almost a decade now Turkish-US relations have been a drama shaped by mutual grievances, which range from Turkey’s objections to US support for Syrian Kurds to Washington’s criticism of Turkey’s human rights record and its burgeoning relations with Russia. To many in Washington, Turkey came to be seen as an “unfaithful ally.” Increasingly, Turkish-US relations look to be on the verge of a slow marital break-up, with deep suspicions and grievances on both sides.

The Biden administration started off in 2021 with a policy of keeping Erdogan at arm’s length, initially intended to better manage the relationship after four confusing years of President Donald Trump. But things have hardly improved much since then. There is little engagement at the leadership level between Erdogan and Biden and the strategic divergence between the two capitals on the emerging world order and its various challenges is stark.

With the war in Ukraine, Washington had to accept Turkey’s balancing act between Moscow and Kyiv and turn a blind eye to Turkish trade with Russia in violation of Western-led sanctions. Inside NATO, there is both appreciation (for closing off the Bosphorus to Russian warships) and frustration (for blocking Sweden’s membership bid for a time and trading with Russia) with Turkey.

When it comes to the Middle East, Erdogan’s pro-Hamas position has irritated the Israeli government and its public so much that it has rendered a potential Turkish role in Gaza is unrealistic, at least in the short-term. For the United States, this created a new level of regional tension that needed to be managed. The US secretary of state Anthony Blinken skipped Turkey in his first tour of regional diplomacy after 7 October, and Erdogan, angry at Washington’s unequivocal backing for Israel, refused to meet with Blinken when he visited Ankara in November.

When the two finally met in January, on Blinken’s fourth trip, the conversation was as much about Gaza as about getting Turkey to ratify Sweden’s NATO accession – a priority item for the White House ahead of the NATO summit in Washington this summer. Turkey finally did ratify Sweden’s accession – much to the relief of Sweden and NATO member states.

The question now is whether or not this provides enough of a basis for a reset in Turkish-US relations – one where the two allies can work together on a number of strategic issues, including European security. The period of estrangement has helped neither side strategically and is particularly glaring at a time when the US is trying to manage its diplomacy around two major wars – both in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood. Amid such geopolitical turmoil, both Turkey and the US need better relations with one another. But to get there, Washington and Ankara need to manage their divergences and identify common interests – especially on the geoeconomic front. They also need to accept that whatever partnership emerges will be ‘à la carte’ and very different from the perfect alignment of the post-cold war period.

The period of estrangement has helped neither side strategically and is particularly glaring at a time when the US is trying to manage its diplomacy around two major wars – both in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood

Getting the much-delayed ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession through the Turkish parliament has given a temporary boost to the relationship and created a feel-good moment within the alliance as it prepares for the 75th anniversary summit. Sweden’s ratification will now be followed by the US Congress signing off on the sale of F16s to Turkey – something that Ankara desperately wants.

But the real strategic conversation starts afterwards. Once the give-and-take is over, the two allies need to sit and talk about the future of Syria and Iraq and the worsening situation in Gaza. Ukraine and the Black Sea are also burning issues, as is Iran, and the tightening of sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration is painfully aware that Turkey is politically and geographically very close to it all – and more vulnerable than it would like to admit.

All of this ties back to Gaza. At some point, there could be a role for Turkey in the reconstruction of Gaza or within a multinational peacekeeping force. It is hard to imagine the current Israeli government agreeing to a Turkish role – but then again it is hard to see what will happen in the region in a year or two.

For now, Turkey and the US need to take baby steps – learn to talk again, rediscover each other and build some level of trust to better coordinate in the two wars raging on Turkey’s borders. This conversation is largely bilateral, but can benefit Europe and other NATO allies as well. Europeans in particular could benefit from a Turkey that is on better terms with the US by reaching out to Ankara off the back of this détente, and focus on nurturing closer cooperation with Turkey on key security concerns in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood and further afield in the Middle East. From this, they could also benefit from a deeper economic partnership with Turkey – both a top market and a production base for Europe’s. If Turkey manages to tilt towards transatlantic partners in Ukraine, and can play a constructive role in Gaza, it can once again emerge as a useful partner, indispensable for the US and for Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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