Has Turkey Abandoned Gaza?

Ankara's muted response to today's attacks provides a window into its domestic dilemmas and growing rivalry with Egypt.

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Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip on November 14th, 2012. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Since Israel's last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world's attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey's international stature, contributing to Turkey's efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey's reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel's new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey's position over the past few years.

But Turkey's situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

Much like Israel's fight against Hamas, Turkey's fight with the PKK has not been without civilian collateral damage. Last December, the Turkish military carried out an airstrike in Uludere that killed 34 civilians who the military thought were PKK fighters attempting to cross the border into Turkey. Earlier this year, the government sealed off the Semdinli district in the Hakkari province for months while it fought the PKK, not letting any information out or any journalists in.

Turkey's problem with PKK terrorism, combined with the inevitable civilian casualties that occur when fighting terrorist groups embedded amongst the general population, makes it harder this time around for Turkey to angrily denounce Israel as it once did. While I expected Turkey to issue a condemnation of Israeli actions, it is not surprising that it did not have the full force as it has in the past given the uncomfortable parallels that exist between Israel's actions against Hamas and Turkey's actions against the PKK.

Instead, Egypt is likely to step into the void that Turkey has left. Egypt under President Mohamed Morsi has adopted a similar strategy of attempting to increase its soft power around the region, with Morsi's trip to Iran -- in which he lectured the regime about its actions in Syria -- as a prime example. Between the demands of a population that is extremely hawkish on Israel and the prestige that comes from a greater involvement in foreign policy and global affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides fertile ground for Egypt to assert itself in a more forceful manner and try to be the face of the Sunni Arab world.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have long been vocal about the Palestinians, and this is a perfect opportunity for Morsi to try and wrest away Erdoğan's mantle as the Palestinians' main defender. Unlike Turkey, Egypt does not have to face uncomfortable comparisons between Israel's counter-terrorism actions and its own, and Egypt is better placed to blast Israel over its actions in Gaza given ties between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and the fact that it actually shares a border with Gaza.

It should also not escape notice that Egypt was the party attempting to mediate between Israel and Hamas earlier this week, while Turkey -- who used to aspire to the role of mediator and was in fact mediating between Israel and Syria when Cast Lead was launched -- was sitting on the sidelines. Morsi wants to raise Egypt's regional profile just like Erdoğan did for Turkey, and the Israeli strikes in Gaza give him a perfect opening to do just that. Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian foreign ministry and the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm) immediately condemned Israel's actions and the government recalled its ambassador back to Cairo. Notably, Turkey's response was late in coming and seemed driven by the responses from Egypt and the Arab League, which were immediate and more forceful.

Today's responses to Israeli military operations are a harbinger of things to come. The Egyptian condemnation and the lack of an immediate Turkish one demonstrate that the Palestinian issue is no longer the low-lying fruit that it once was for Ankara and that the Turkish response must be tempered due to its own operations against the PKK. Egypt is trying to carry out the same strategy that Turkey was just a few short years ago, and we should expect to see some increased tensions between the two countries as they vie for a greater regional role. When it comes to the Palestinians though, Egypt is finally taking the upper hand.