Turkey exporting undeclared Islamic revolution

In a deal brokered by the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed announced on Aug.13 the planned normalisation of relations between their two states, in return for Israel taking the annexation of the Palestinian territories off the table.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, founding director of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates, believes this marked a breakthrough for which the three lead actors deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as a shift in how Arab countries view the Israel-Palestinian issue, as opposed to Turkey, which denounced the deal and said it is considering suspending diplomatic ties with the UAE.

Nuseibeh said the Israel-UAE agreement consolidates the division that has come to define much of the Middle East, between the Turkey-Qatar alliance on one side, which supports Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian-led bloc on the other, which has labelled the Brotherhood a terrorist group.

“The direction of travel we are seeing out of Turkey is moving away from normalisation and peacefulness and good relations with Israel and being open with the West,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “The direction of travel coming from moderate Arab states led by the UAE is in the opposite direction towards more peaceful coexistence.”

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, has historical links to the Brotherhood and welcomed many Muslim Brotherhood members following Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ouster of his predecessor Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013. Since then, Turkey has essentially swapped one group of Islamists, the followers of exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen , who Ankara blames for orchestrating a failed 2016 coup, for another, those of the Brotherhood and its proxies.

Turkey supports Brotherhood-linked groups in Libya, in Syria, in Niger and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Europe. In a recent op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Nuseibeh argued that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had learned from the widespread backlash to Iran’s 1979 revolution to gradually remake Turkey into an Islamic Republic rather than do so overnight.

Turkey still holds largely free, though not fair, elections, and is considerably less conservative than Iran, yet Ankara does seem to be increasingly expansionist while emphasising its Islamism domestically, as with last month’s re-conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque from a museum.

“The threat that is coming out of Turkey is similar in many ways to the threat that was coming out of Iran after the revolution,” said Nuseibeh. “The Islamists have been gradually taking over bits and pieces of the Turkish state and are now really controlling Turkish foreign policy...Turkey seems to want to export its own undeclared revolution.”

France has been the most active European Union member state in denouncing Turkish aggressions in the eastern Mediterranean, yet the EU and NATO have yet to take a strong stance. This may be because Germany, by far the largest EU economy, has been working to broker ceasefire talks on Libya and launch negotiations between Turkey and Greece on Cyprus, borders and maritime issues.

On Aug. 17, the defence ministers of Turkey and Qatar met with Germany’s foreign minister in Tripoli to discuss a possible ceasefire deal. In January, German Chancellor Angela Merkel organised Libya talks in Berlin, which made little headway. Early this month, German-brokered talks between Greece and Turkey were cancelled after Greece and Egypt announced their own maritime borders deal. Yet German parliamentarian Sevim Dağdelen, a member of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, sees Berlin as a less than ideal mediator.

“Germany is not very credible at this moment,” she told Ahval in a podcast, pointing out that Germany sold €345 million ($411 million) worth of weapons to Turkey last year. “Against the backdrop of maritime escalation off of Libya, Cyprus and Greece, I think it’s very irresponsible.”

Turkey has also escalated its out-reach in Europe of late. Among Germany’s nearly 5 million Muslims, some 3 million are of Turkish origin and today they face increasing pressure from the Turkish state, according to Dağdelen, whose Kurdish family is originally from Turkey.

In June, German television channel ZDF released a documentary detailing how Turkish intelligence relies on Germany’s largest Muslim group, the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) to chase down perceived opponents.

“Since the ascension to power by Turkish President Erdoğan, structures increasingly have been put in place in Germany that pursue a single goal, namely to fight opponents of the ruling AKP in Germany and promote the nationalist Islamist cause in Germany,” Dağdelen said.

Some analysts say the AKP’s Islamism is often overstated, arguing that Erdoğan mainly embraces conservative positions to curry votes or that Turkey’s intervention in Libya is less about Islamists, which only make up part of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and more about its maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean. This is why, they say, Turkey re-committed to its Libya intervention weeks after signing the maritime borders deal with the GNA.

“Erdoğan here is using Islamists to advance his aims,” said Nuseibeh, adding that these include the ideological objective of putting an Islamist in power in North Africa and a geo-strategic goal.

Libya has in recent years emerged as the gateway for migrants and asylum-seekers from across Africa and the Gulf to cross the Mediterranean and reach safe haven in Europe. If the GNA were to take full control of Libya, Turkey would gain considerable leverage on Europe beyond stronger maritime claims.

“Erdoğan’s threat of flooding Europe with refugees has now an added part. He can not only implement it by sending refugees from the east but also from the south,” said Nuseibeh, adding that Turkey could also interrupt energy flows. “Europe is now surrounded.”

Berlin continues to sell maritime weaponry to Ankara despite a supposed ban put in place after Turkey launched its military offensive in northeast Syria last October. Dağdelen called for a total ban, and Germany would not be the first.

U.S. Congressional leaders have blocked arms sales to Turkey for almost two years in response to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defences. Yet despite being legally bound to do so, the United States has yet to sanction Turkey for that deal. Similarly, the EU and NATO have yet to find a united position and act against Turkish aggressions.

“Europe’s inaction is creating greater risks by the day,” said Nuseibeh. “We’re beyond the wake-up call; we’ve reached the panic point.”

The NATO charter has no provision for expelling or suspending a member state. Yet Nuseibeh called on its members to find a way to take that unprecedented step against the country that he views as persistently looking to expand its borders and further the cause of Sunni Islamic extremism.

“NATO is about protecting the security and its borders of its member states. Here you have a member that wants to expand and therefore fundamentality is now a country that undermines the security of NATO,” he said. “There is no alliance really there. You’re just exposing yourself and becoming militarily incompetent by keeping Turkey in.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.