The Soleimani Affair Reveals Turkey’s Directionless Regional Policy by Burak Bekdil
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,396, January 8, 2020
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s belated statement
in response to the Soleimani killing was dry in its language, reflecting the
government’s confusion over what position to take. While the government is
expressing itself with caution, the Islamist pro-Erdoğan press is expressing a
wide range of often contradictory responses. The lack of clarity in Ankara
over the Soleimani affair betrays Turkey’s directionless regional policy.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry, which is usually quick to weigh in on matters of
world affairs, was silent for hours after news broke of the killing by the US of
elite Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The killing sent messages on many wavelengths to Turkey’s Islamist
government. At the same time, it unveiled the conflicting strands of Turkey’s
regional and wider policy calculus, its deep inconsistencies, and its fractures.
Turkey has a deeply pro-Sunni sectarian nature. Iran, an expansionist Shiite
state, has thus always been problematic for Turkish Islamists. They are divided
over whether to support it against the American “Great Satan,” to support the
Great Satan against the Shiite Satan, or to simply support every conflict that
develops between the two Satans.
Soleimani’s killing has only added to Turkish confusion over Iran, with which
it fought its last war in 1639. The two states have ranged since then from
friendship to cold friendship to hostility, going through periods of conflict and
The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s belated statement was dry in its language,
reflecting the confused Turkish mind over what position to take—or, indeed,
whether a position should be taken at all. The ministry expressed grave concern
over the escalating tensions between the US and Iran and said increasing
hostilities in Iraq would destabilize the Middle East and hamper peace efforts.
It said the US move would increase instability and violence: “Turkey has
always been against foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian clashes
in the region. We call upon all parties to show restraint and act responsibly,
avoiding moves that can threaten the peace and stability in the region.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun,
said Soleimani’s killing posed a threat to regional security and stability, stating,
“Violence begets violence and hurts the interests of all sides—without
exception. We call on all parties to exercise common sense.” Presidential
spokesperson İbrahim Kalın called on all sides to remain calm and avoid steps
that would fuel tensions. Ankara would continue to use diplomacy to achieve
regional and global peace.
Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesman Ömer Çellik urged
all parties to show restraint. “The security and stability of Iraq is of vital
importance to Turkey and to the region. Actions that cause instability in Iraq
are detrimental to the entire region,” he said.
Erdoğan’s statement was no less dry. Turkey expends great effort to reduce
tensions between the US and Iran, he said. “Turkey always stands against
foreign intervention and considers the recent US attack in Baghdad with this
same understanding.” He predicted Iran will respond to the killing of
Soleimani, stating, “The choice of the US to kill a top Iranian commander will
fuel tensions in the region.”
Such were the official Turkish responses to the drone airstrike that killed
Soleimani. Nuances have been revealing themselves, however, in the
Fuat Bol, a columnist for Hürriyet, fears the killing will boost Israeli PM
Benjamin Netanyahu’s political popularity. Many commentators say the killing
should be celebrated if it boosts Donald Trump’s political popularity, as the US
president is “Erdoğan’s only friend in the US.”
İbrahim Karataş, columnist for the militant Islamist publication Yeni Akit,
wrote: “The deaths (of Soleimani and others in his motorcade) are good for the
ummah.” Karataş calls Soleimani a murderer and the mastermind of Shiite
expansionism in the Middle East. “[Soleimani] killed babies for the dangerous
ideology called Shiaism… The Shia do not view Christians or Jews as enemies.
Their biggest enemy are the Sunnis. What matters is not who killed [Soleimani].
It is who was killed… With that [killing] Iran will have to deal with the US
instead of Muslims.”
Ali Karahasanoğlu from the same daily has a different opinion. “[Soleimani]
was killed by an oppressor, not by the oppressed,” he wrote. “…As he was
killed by the US, he died a victim.”
According to Yakup Köse of the daily Star, “a Shia imperialist was killed by
Zekeriya Kurşun from Yeni Şafak wrote: “The killing will fuel hatred of the West
by the East, and Shia by the Sunni.”
Yusuf Kaplan of the same paper thinks the US is a rogue state, but adds, “The
Iranians have always conspired with the West against Turkey and stabbed us
from behind at every opportunity…Iran is a secret, useful ally of the US.”
Kaplan cautioned, however, that Turkey should maintain good relations with
Iran in order to avoid falling into a Western trap.
The confusion in Ankara over the killing of the Talented Mr. Soleimani betrays
the lack of direction in Turkey’s regional policy. Sentiments among Turkey’s
fiercely pro-Erdoğan Islamists over Soleimani’s death range widely and
include the following, among others:
“We should be happy because Soleimani was a staunch supporter of
Syrian president Bashar Assad, our regional nemesis.”
“Assad is our regional nemesis, true, but he is an ally of our new ally,
Russia, whose other ally is Iran. So we should be sorry for Iran’s loss.”
“We should be unhappy because our worst enemy in the region, Israel,
“We would have been happy if Soleimani had been killed by a Sunni
Muslim, but we can’t be happy about his being killed by the Great
“Russia and Iran support the Libyan National Army, which is our
enemy. So we should be happy to see Soleimani killed.”
“Soleimani fought against ISIS, but also against our less jihadi brothers
in Syria (the former Free Syrian Army). So we should be happy to see
“He hated Sunnis, so we should cheer his death.”
This list illustrates the contradictory nature of Turkish foreign policy, the
difficulty of defining Turkey’s regional interests, and the poisonous influence
of a Turkish Sunni supremacist worldview.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based columnist. He regularly writes for the Gatestone
Institute and Defense News and is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is also a
founder of the Ankara-based think tank Sigma.