The risks of Turkish rhetoric

Turkey's outrage over Israeli strikes in Syria undermine its own interests and diplomacy.

Morsy and Erdogan 300 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morsy and Erdogan 300
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The dust has yet to settle from Israel’s airstrikes into Syria last week. Given Israel’s rigid “neither confirm nor deny” stance, designed to avoid rhetorical provocations to respond, most pundits have been forced to speculate on the exact target and whether the embattled Assad regime will retaliate. Fear and speculation swirls over possible Iranian engagement. In the meantime, the responsible diplomatic world withholds comment and holds its breath.
The exception, once again, is  Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Saturday witnessed the remarkable spectacle of the Turkish Foreign Minister publicly taunting Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad to retaliate: “Why didn't Assad even throw a pebble when Israeli jets were flying over his palace?" asked Ahmet Davutoglu. Unless the Turks are much smarter and bolder than the rest of the diplomatic community--and if they genuinely hope that a Syrian retaliation will provoke a full-scale Israeli operation that would overthrow the embattled Damascus regime and rid Turkey of the Assad problem--then such statements undermine responsible diplomacy and Turkish self-interest.
First off, whether the Israeli target was Syrian missiles bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon or a chemical weapons plant, the Turks benefit from the destruction of either or both threats. Indeed, Ankara had demanded and received American Patriot missile defense systems to counter precisely this threat.
On the level of pride and honor –which more and more these days seems to inform Turkish foreign policy than statecraft – it appears that Davutoglu forgets that Turkey did not “throw a pebble" when Assad used his air defenses to shoot down a Turkish Phantom last year that strayed a little too close to the targets the Israelis just hit. The wounded pride would have cut deeper if Davutoglu considered that the Israeli operation developed the technical skills to avoid Syrian air defenses, while the Turkish Phantom – deprived of Israeli electronic upgrades since 2009 – did not.
The diplomatic rant is not exceptional forTurkey. In the midst of the Gaza conflict, Erdogan stood outside, banged his shoe, and called Israel a terror state while Egypt's Mohammed Morsi boosted his stock with quiet and successful diplomatic efforts to broker the ceasefire. No doubt, Morsi’s survival today in the constitutional crisis is bolstered by his success in Gaza. Morsi is no fool. To the domestic crowd the Jews may be “descendants of apes and pigs,” but in quiet backdoor diplomacy, the interests of state reign supreme .
The Turks under Erdogan however, continue to ignore traditional diplomatic protocol which yield predictable outcomes for Turkish stature. The leadership cannot maintain the public decorum that entitles leaders to trusted  back-channel diplomatic access. Most apparent in Turkey’s post-Flotilla rancor with Israel, the same dynamic surfaces in Ankara’s relations with historically  challenging partners. Turkish-Russian diplomacy is on edge. The French are labeled “Imperialists” as a result of Paris' recognition of the Armenian Genocide. All of Europe is dismissed as “racist” when Turkish overtures to join the EU face hurdles.
In simple terms, Turkey under Erdogan talks too much to promote its interests with traditional regional and international power-brokers. The policies and  interests of other states might be an affront to Erdogan’s moral compass, but more powerful countries with similar moralistic foreign policy drivers have learned the meaning of hubris.
With Israel, Turkey is still incensed over the Gaza Flotilla, of course. Despite Israeli warnings that the unfortunate outcome was predictable, and despite Israeli overtures to offer compensation, the Turks want Israel to grovel. That won't happen. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, too, has isolated his country and made foreign policy errors. Still, the one proven tactic that Netanyahu uses with great success  that  Erdogan has yet to consider, let alone master, is silence.
Turkey, therefore, will remain on the outside looking in as Israel and Greece close energy deals in Cyprus. Turkey will not be admitted to the EU. It will continue to be plagued with Kurdish unrest – consider the attack on American interests in Turkey -- which didn’t humble Davutoglu at all. Prodding Assad and chiding Israel are much more appealing but Turkey should be careful: It may just get what it wants.