It’s been a frantic week in Turkish diplomacy as Ankara works to resolve deep-seated feuds with Israel, Russia and to a lesser degree, Egypt. Yet Turkey’s renewed regional engagement was immediately rocked by devastating bombings at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport.
The attack at Ataturk International Airport last night, which killed 41 and injured over 200 others, has shaken Turkey to the core and the triggered a strong wave of support and solidarity from around the world.
The bombings came just hours after Turkey soothed its relations with Russia, and days after it resolved a four year-long dispute with Israel earlier this week, in a forceful move towards reconciliation with old allies. Relations with both nations had devolved over the past few years, largely due to the infamous Mavi Marmara crisis and conflict over the Syrian civil war.
It is suspected, though not confirmed, that IS were responsible for last night’s attack, likely an effort to undermine peace efforts as well as in retribution for recent defeats in IS heartland Manbij, Syria, and Turkey’s slow but growing mobilization against the group.
Turkey has been feeling the pinch of Russian sanctions since shooting down a Russian plane in 2015, killing the pilot, for allegedly violating Turkish airspace. This week, Turkish president Erdoğan sent a letter to Russia’s Vladimir Putin in which he apologised and offered compensation to the family of the pilot killed. The Turkish Lira has already strengthened as a result and there were hopes that this may boost Turkey’s plummeting tourism sector prior to last night’s bombing, which will likely have devastating consequences for tourism and air-travel through Turkey.
Additionally relations remain tense in other areas of policy, as Russia and Turkey have increasingly butted heads via their limited proxy war in Syria, with Turkey working against Assad’s regime, which Russia supports. Last night’s attack, and prompt reconciliation with Russia, as well as greater coordination with the US however may contribute to easing these enduring tensions and lead to a more coordinated fight against IS.
Just a few days before last night’s bombing, Turkey had also made moves to suture the diplomatic rift with Israel, which has endured since Turkish activists and aid workers aboard the Mavi Marmara attempted to breach Israel’s blockade on the Gazan coast in 2010. Several Turkish citizens were subsequently killed by the Israeli Navy and bilateral relations have been in the deep freeze ever since. Turkey was Israel’s only Muslim ally and the two enjoyed extensive economic, security and military cooperation agreements prior to the incident.
On the Israeli side, the deal between Turkey and Israel was aimed at cementing an energy arrangement in which hundreds of billions of dollars worth of natural gas in Israel’s eastern Mediterranean will be piped via Turkey into Europe. The gas reserves are such wellspring of money that the recent deal has managed to smooth over the entrenched enmity of the past few years and bring two powerful states together in the face of regional insecurity.
The deal has been several years in the making, however has been constrained by Turkish and Israeli societal opposition, as well as by Turkey’s prerequisite that the Gaza blockade be lifted. US Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to have said Washington is “obviously pleased” and “a step we wanted to see happen.” Given the US’s occasionally tricky diplomatic relations with Ankara, and especially in light of the Syrian conflict, the coming together of two of its regional allies is a diplomatic relief.
Despite recent progress, Israel continues to refuse to lift the blockade on Gaza, which was one of Turkey’s terms for the deal. The other two terms which Israel accepted were an apology for the Mavi Marmara attack and compensation for those killed, as well as allowing Turkey to begin delivering humanitarian aid and non-military goods into Gaza through Israeli-controlled land ports. Turkey has reportedly already begun to do so already, and has plans for health and infrastructure developments within Gaza.
Critics of the deal argue that it legitimises Israel’s presence in Gaza however, as well as highlighting Turkey’s willingness to accept money in lieu of justice for the victims of the Mavi Marmara attack of 2010.
The deal has the potential to add to the AKP’s leverage on Palestinian issues. It seems Turkey will also act as a middleman for Israel in negotiations with Hamas, for example over Israeli civilians apparently missing in Gaza, and over retrieving the bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza. Turkey maintains that Hamas is central to peace efforts, and their rapprochement with Israel is likely illustrative of renewed attempts to establish the country as a regional mediator, reviving the active neighbourhood policy of the AKP’s early years.
As Turkey becomes increasingly isolated from its European and American partners, recent attempts to resolve ties with its old enemies-turned-allies (turned enemies again) represent logical steps towards re-establishing some semblance of regional stability.
Ankara’s work to suture regional rifts with Israel and Russia, as well as with Egypt – with whom Turkey has suffered a diplomatic crisis with since the ousting of President Morsi – also speak to continued efforts to cement Turkish presence as an international power. Recent rapprochement efforts may also reflect a relative revival of Davutoğlu’s long-lost ‘zero problems with neighbours’ paradigm in the face of ever expanding regional insecurity and upheaval.
Last night’s bombings can be read as a brutal reminder that there are strong forces in the region like IS who continue to sow chaos and instability in the face of diplomacy, almost a symbolic collective punishment for regional efforts at peace and certainly a retributive attack against Turkey’s growing involvement in the anti-IS fight in Syria.