The Hamas attack on Israeli territory on Oct. 7, which tragically claimed the lives of many innocent civilians, and the subsequent Israeli airstrikes on Gaza mark the beginning of a new chapter in the politics of the Middle East. The airstrikes also resulted in further tragic casualties, including innocent adults and children. While Israel has announced its intention to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, such operations have yet to begin. Meanwhile, the United States has escalated its military presence, sending two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean and deploying significant numbers of fighter jets, Patriot air defense systems and special forces to American bases in Greece and throughout the Middle East.
Military tensions in the region are on the verge of escalation, potentially drawing Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and pro-Iranian factions into a multilateral conflict. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack, Turkey adopted a measured and diplomatic tone, attempting to mediate between Hamas and Israel. However, the parties, including Hamas, did not respond favorably to Turkey, and Qatar and Egypt came to the fore as mediators. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made diplomatic visits to countries in the region, his absence in Turkey and the fact that Turkey’s proposals for a solution to the Hamas-Israel crisis were not taken seriously by the actors led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to harden his language towards Israel. Erdoğan made the remarks at a party meeting in Ankara on Wednesday, saying Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a group fighting for their land. Erdoğan’s rhetoric contained expressions that made it seem like Turkey was siding with Hamas against Israel in the crisis.
On the day before President Erdoğan’s vehement condemnation of Israel, he forwarded Sweden’s NATO membership application to the Turkish Parliament for approval — a move of significant interest to the US. This strategic maneuver was seemingly aimed at mitigating potential US backlash in response to his critical remarks regarding Israel and Hamas. From Israel’s perspective, Erdoğan’s vocal response to the increasing Palestinian death toll was not unexpected given his previous stances during Israeli military operations in Gaza.
Israel imports 60 percent of its oil from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, with Azeri oil reaching the port of Iskenderun via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. From there oil tankers transport it to Israeli ports. For Israel the critical issue is the uninterrupted passage of oil tankers from the Gulf of Iskenderun to its ports and Turkey’s abstention from providing arms and military aid to Hamas. In this context, Erdoğan’s accusation that since Oct. 7 Israel has carried out one of the “bloodiest and most brutal” attacks in the history of the Palestinians and has committed war crimes holds little weight as the primary audience for these statements appears to be Turkish and Arab public opinion.
Erdoğan’s political ideology, heavily influenced by political Islam, has historically been intertwined with anti-Israeli sentiment. Consequently, politicians embracing this ideology often maintain commercial and economic ties with Israel behind the scenes while periodically employing anti-Israel rhetoric to galvanize their domestic base. However, they typically stop short of taking tangible actions against Israel.
But there is a critical aspect that has been overlooked. The current Palestinian-Israeli crisis differs markedly from previous incidents: It extends beyond just Hamas and Israel. Specifically, on Oct. 7, Hamas’s attack on Israeli territory also served to undermine the new US-led order in the Middle East, which is predicated on Arab-Israeli normalization. It is implausible that Hamas could execute an attack with such far-reaching consequences relying solely on its military capabilities. It is reasonable to surmise that Hamas received military and intelligence support from Iran for this operation. Furthermore, there is a possibility that Iran procured advanced electronic jammers and underwater vehicles from Russia and China to aid Hamas in this endeavor.
China is expanding its influence and clout in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, bolstered by its strategic partnership with Iran. This growing involvement is gradually eroding American dominance in the region. In March of this year Saudi Arabia and Iran took a significant step by deciding to normalize diplomatic relations, facilitated by China’s mediation. In particular Saudi Arabia has resisted US pressure to increase oil production, opting instead to align itself with Russia in managing oil supplies. This defiance has led other countries to entertain the idea that, with China’s backing, they, too, can resist US demands.
On Sept. 21, 2023, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad visited China, further cementing China’s presence in the region. In addition, on Jan. 16, 2023, China and Egypt agreed to elevate their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership. Iran, which already wields considerable political and military influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, serves as a conduit for China’s influence in these countries. In Yemen, particularly, Iran’s sway over the Houthi rebels indirectly allows China to exert influence north of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical link between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
China has strategically positioned itself with a military base in Djibouti, south of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, through which 20 percent of world trade passes. Establishing strong ties with Egypt would give China influence over the Suez Canal, the northern gateway from the Red Sea to the eastern Mediterranean. This scenario is one of the most unwelcome for the US. Maintaining American naval power and influence in the world’s seas and oceans depends on control of strategic chokepoints such as the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal. It is strategically untenable for the US to remain passive in the face of China’s growing influence at the Red Sea’s southern and northern ends.
The Hamas attack on Oct. 7 has thrown a wrench into the almost completed process of normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. At present, the US priority is to reduce China’s influence in the region by undermining Iran and the entities it supports. Israel is the US’s strategic partner in the region, and the US plans to strengthen its military presence there by providing military assistance to Israel. Should Iran attempt to obstruct US efforts directly or through its proxies, the US is prepared to target Iran directly.
China’s declaration of unwavering support for Iran in defending its territorial integrity and national honor and its strong opposition to any foreign intervention in Iran indicates China’s awareness of US plans and its readiness to respond.
In conclusion the Middle East is currently a battleground for influence between the US and China. The US is determined to use its military power in this power struggle. The US wants to reduce the influence of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran supports. Failure to do so could call into question US dominance in the Middle East. For Turkey, the prudent course of action is to remain on the sidelines of this conflict. The US has no expectations of Turkey in this matter and has not used Incirlik Airbase for military mobilization. President Erdoğan, maintaining his previous approach, is trying to bring Turkey into the discourse by intensifying his rhetoric against Israel. This time, however, the dynamics are different and the parties involved have changed. Erdoğan’s political ambitions risk aligning Turkey with the China-Iran-Russia axis, especially following Iran’s lead, which could potentially set the US against Turkey in Syria — a situation that serves no one’s interests.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.