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Turkish ‘Diplomacy’ in Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East

avatar by James M. Dorsey

Opinion

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressing the congress of the ruling Islamist AKP Party in March 2021. Photo: Reuters/Umit Bektas.

Just in case there were any doubts, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demonstrated with his recent visit to Lebanon that improved relations between Middle Eastern rivals would not bury hatchets.

With his visit, Cavusoglu sought to fill a vacuum after Turkey’s geopolitical and religious soft power rivals, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with Bahrain and Kuwait, imposed an economic boycott on Lebanon and withdrew their ambassadors from Beirut.

A one-time middle-income country, Lebanon is teetering on the brink of collapse due to endemic corruption and an elite willing to protect its vested interests at whatever the cost. As a result, the United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the population has descended into poverty.

Aggravating Lebanon’s predicament, the boycott intends to loosen the grip on of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia and political party, which has become part of the elite. A Hezbollah protest in October, demanding the replacement of a judge investigating last year’s devastating Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people, descended into sectarian violence reminiscent of Lebanon’s 15-year long civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Cavusoglu traveled to Beirut in advance of a one-day UAE-Turkey business forum in Istanbul, and a visit by UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the first in 12 years. Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu met in Rome with his UAE counterpart, Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan, days after the Beirut visit on the sidelines of the Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly.

Turkey and the UAE have been at loggerheads because of Turkish allegations that the Emirates had funded a failed 2016 military attempt to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Emirati objections to Turkish support for political Islam, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey and the UAE have fought military and/or political proxy battles in Libya, Syria, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey supported Qatar and expanded its military presence in the Gulf state during the 3.5 year-long UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar that was lifted in January.

Similarly, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been seeking to tone down their differences with Turkey at a time of uncertainty over the United States’ security commitments in the Middle East, and the need of all Middle Eastern states to focus on some combination of economic reform, diversification, and expansion as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the demands of climate change.

Against that backdrop, Cavusoglu traveled to Tehran a day before arriving in Beirut. In Tehran, he sought to bolster his position as a potential mediator in Lebanon, manage Turkish-Iranian tensions in the Caucasus along the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, and find some common ground on Syria, where the two countries are also at odds.

Despite improving relations between Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, it was unlikely that the Gulf states would loosen their stranglehold on Lebanon or that they would trust Turkey to be an acceptable and unbiased mediator.

At the same time, Turkey appeared to be further drawing regional battle lines not only with Saudi Arabia and the UAE but also Southeast European states as well as Russia and Iran, with which it simultaneously competes and cooperates.

Add to all of this the diplomatic impact of last week’s arrest on espionage charges and the subsequent release of an Israeli tourist couple for taking pictures of Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace, one of the city’s major tourism attractions. The palace on the shores of the Bosporus served as the administrative headquarters of Ottoman sultans in the 19th century, and the place of death in 1938 of Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The couple’s release prompted the first phone call between Erdogan and top Israeli leaders in nine years, with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett phoning the Turkish president separately to thank him. Israel has until now cold-shouldered Turkish efforts to improve long-strained relations between the two countries.

Beyond the fact that Erdogan does not want the incident to scare off badly needed tourists at a time of severe economic crisis, it also provided an opportunity to break through to Israel and reduce the UAE’s geopolitical advantage in maintaining close ties to the Jewish state. Erdogan expects the Turkish move to be reciprocated. That is precisely what Israeli conservatives fear.

“Ankara’s accusations of ‘espionage’ and apparent threats to raise the price for the detainees show that it was using hostage diplomacy involving innocent tourists. This is how Hamas, which is backed by Ankara’s ruling party, has also behaved. … Normal regimes don’t detain innocent people,” thundered Seth J. Frantzman, an Israeli journalist and commentator.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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