Turkey flatly dismissed a US State Department objection to a recent Istanbul meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and two leaders of the militant group Hamas, whom the State Department has designated as “global terrorists”. The move will further strain relations in NATO and ratchet-up the already “fever pitch” tensions in the Aegean.
Instead, the Turkish Foreign Ministry called on the United States to use its regional influence for a “balanced policy” that will help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of “serving Israel’s interests”.
The United States strongly objected to Erdogan’s hosting of the two Hamas leaders on August 22, according to a statement issued by the State Department on August 25. The Turkish snub followed the same day.
“Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU and both officials hosted by President Erdogan are Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The U.S. Rewards for Justice Program is seeking information about one of the individuals for his involvement in multiple terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings,” the State Department’s statement said, before adding, “President Erdogan’s continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza. We continue to raise our concerns about the Turkish government’s relationship with Hamas at the highest levels. This is the second time President Erdogan has welcomed Hamas’ leadership to Turkey this year, with the first meeting occurring February 1.”
Dismissing the statement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said that it considers the US “Declaring the legitimate representative of Hamas, who came to power after winning democratic elections in Gaza and is an important reality of the region, as a terrorist will not be of any contribution to efforts for peace and stability in the region.”
This is more of Ankara’s posturing, as it is vying to be seen as the protector of Palestinian interests after the UAE and Israel reached a landmark agreement early this month to establish diplomatic relations, a senior Western analyst told New Europe.
The latest war of words between Washington and Ankara comes amid a conflict that appears to be waiting to happen in the Eastern Mediterranean and amid fresh negotiations between Ankara and Moscow over the purchases of a second battery of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
Ankara has already bought an S-400 battery for $2.5 billion in 2017 and installed it in 2019. The decision was a major snub of Turkey’s NATO allies who said the Russian hardware was incompatible with NATO anti-aircraft systems and its integration into Turkey air defense would enable Russian experts to study how to counter NATO gear and electronics. This prompted the US to threaten sanctions against Turkey and remove it from its F-35 Lightning II jet program in July.
To further deepen the rift, the Kremlin and Erdogan’s government signed a contract for a second delivery of S-400s to Turkey, Russia’s state arms exporter Rosoboronexport said on August 23.
The S-400 missile system is considered the most advanced of its kind in Russia, capable of destroying targets at a distance of up to 400 kilometers and a height of up to 30 kilometers.
Turkey is the first member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to purchase an air defense missile system from Russia. Ankara’s stubbornness and its blatant ignoring of NATO’s rules and guidelines are seen as a serious affront by most members. This will help many NATO members make up their minds to jump to Greece’s aid should the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean evolve into a full-fledged confrontation.
The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, who just visited Athens and Ankara in a shuttle diplomacy move that was aimed at defusing the tensions and to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, warned on August 25 that “The current situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is … playing with fire, and any spark – however small – could lead to a disaster,” Maas said after meeting with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias.
Though Greece and Turkey are two NATO allies, they are historically bitter rivals with a mutual animosity that dates back centuries. The two are pitted against one another over energy resources, both claiming exploration and exploitation rights in the Mediterranean and both have launched rival navy drills in close proximity of each other. Their militaries are on high alert and both countries have deployed warships to shadow each other.
The dispute has in drawn in the European Union, with Maas saying that Germany, and the whole of the EU, will stand by Greece “in firm solidarity”.
Cyprus’ Defense Ministry said warplanes and navy ships from France, Italy, Greece, and Cyprus would be holding air and sea military exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean starting on August 26. France and Greece will deploy both aircraft and warships as part of the drills, while Cyprus will activate its air defense system to test its capabilities.
Ankara seems to be overstretching its capabilities and is hell-bent on making fresh enemies by the day, a senior analyst told New Europe. The Turks are now involved militarily against the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and are providing active combat support to anti-Syrian government forces in Idlib. Erdogan also has his military involved in ongoing operations in Libya and now the Mediterranean, and is now stepping on everybody’s toes in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, parts of North Africa, and even as far as Afghanistan.
All of this suits Moscow just fine, for the moment, the analyst warned. It will continue to be that way until the time and price are right for the Kremlin to play a constructive role. At that moment Ankara finds itself alone and overstretched.