The Israel-Hamas War, Türkiye, and the Risk of Broader Conflict 

By Mustafa Gül, alumnus of The Fletcher School


In a highly coordinated assault on October 7, 2023, Hamas militants killed at least 1,400 Israelis and took approximately 200 hostages, mostly civilians. In response to the single most devastating terrorist incident in the country’s history, Israel has mobilized around 300,000 reservists and commenced an aerial and artillery campaign in Gaza.

The attack took Israel completely by surprise. To say that it was an intelligence failure would be an understatement. Gaza has been subjected to an Israeli blockade since 2007 via land, sea, and air, supported by Egypt’s closing of the Rafah border crossing and reinforced with state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Reports indicate that Egypt notified Israel three days prior to the attack about “something big” being planned by Hamas, but its warning may have lacked specificity. The political and military ramifications of the attack are poised to reverberate through Israel for a long time.

Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief Herzi Halevi, have declared that not only Gaza, but also the entire Middle East, will undergo a transformation in the aftermath of the attack. The Israeli government has officially categorized the situation as a war, with the looming probability of an IDF ground invasion of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. So far, at least 3,478 Palestinians have been killed as a result of Israeli aerial bombings and shelling.

Given the interests, actors, and geopolitical conditions involved, there is a significant risk of the conflict expanding into a far-reaching regional crisis. Türkiye, as the sole NATO member in the Middle East, plays a pivotal role in this context.

Türkiye’s Position on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The timing of the attack could not have been worse for Türkiye. In recent years, Türkiye has made significant efforts to improve its relations with Israel, which had soured due to disagreements on core issues in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, including Türkiye’s support for Hamas. Türkiye’s efforts to normalize ties with Israel included a historic visit by Herzog to Türkiye in March 2023 and a bilateral meeting between Netanyahu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in New York during the UN General Assembly summit in September 2023. The two countries were finally on good terms after recent shifts in Türkiye’s foreign policy in the Middle East and based on the need for cooperation in critical policy issues, including Syria.

Hamas had previously established offices in Istanbul following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. This move aligned with Türkiye’s newly crafted “strategic depth” policy in the Middle East, which aimed to position Türkiye as a leading actor among Muslim nations but was not welcomed by key regional actors. Türkiye justified its hosting of Hamas offices as a counterbalance to Iran’s growing influence within the organization. Indeed, as Türkiye’s influence within Hamas diminished due to significant pressure from the United States and Israel, Iran consequently filled the void.

In the wake of Hamas’ latest attack in Israel, the Turkish foreign ministry and Erdoğan both strongly condemned the loss of civilian lives. However, they stopped short of offering either full criticism or full support for either Israel or Hamas. The Turkish opposition has generally taken a strong pro-Palestinian stance, while the government has opted to maintain a neutral position at the onset of the conflict. It is a tough political position for Erdoğan, as his backers are arguably the demographic most supportive of Palestinians.

Nonetheless, Erdoğan strongly criticized Israel for its actions, particularly its decision to cut off electricity and water supplies to Gaza. He called Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza a “massacre, not a war.” He also criticized the West for blindly aligning with one side, asserting that such a stance would “fan the flames” of conflict in the region rather than foster peace and stability. Erdoğan issued a decree declaring a three-day national mourning in honor of the Palestinian lives lost following the devastating explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.

Türkiye’s Regional Security Concerns

Beyond the political and humanitarian aspects of the conflict, Türkiye also holds genuine security concerns regarding the possible expansion of the conflict into a regional war.

Türkiye already maintains a delicate balance between supporting Ukraine and maintaining friendly relations with Russia to keep the Russia-Ukraine war away from its vicinity. Türkiye also continues to grapple with the repercussions of the Syrian civil war and the long-term fallout from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which both affect its southern borders.

Türkiye and Iran hold fundamentally different views on the Middle East as they compete for influence in the region. However, Iran ranks as Türkiye’s second-largest gas importer behind Russia, and the two countries share common interests in areas such as containing international drug trafficking and promoting political stability in Central Asia.

While the Turkish government has successfully maintained a balance between its relations with the West and Russia amid the Russia-Ukraine war, the evolving geopolitical circumstances will make it increasingly challenging for Türkiye to maintain a similar equilibrium between Iran and the West. Türkiye is therefore deeply concerned about the potential for Israel’s war with Hamas to escalate into a broader regional conflict involving Iran.

A war involving Iran could very well lead to instability in Iran’s northwestern regions, which are primarily inhabited by ethnic Kurds and Azeris and share borders with Türkiye and Azerbaijan. Türkiye might be worried about a possible surge in refugees from these areas, while it is already facing significant challenges dealing with Syrian refugees. Moreover, a potential power vacuum in these regions might necessitate Turkish action to prevent a military buildup linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or to intervene in the event of a potential ethnic conflict on behalf of Azeris in Iran, with whom Turks share robust cultural ties.

Additionally, Azerbaijan has reportedly played a key role in Israel’s covert operations in Iran over the past few years. Rumors have also circulated that Azerbaijan’s Sitalchay Military Airbase has been utilized to host Israeli air force assets to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the event of a conflict between Iran and Israel.

If a new front opens within Azerbaijan during a war between Iran and Israel, Türkiye might find itself compelled to come to the defense of Azerbaijan, a nation with whom it shares robust cultural and strategic ties. The Shusha Declaration, inked between Azerbaijan and Türkiye in 2021, represents a bilateral collective defense agreement, guaranteeing that if one of the signatories comes under attack, the other will come to its aid.

Furthermore, Iran also wields significant influence over Syria as a crucial component of its “axis of resistance” strategy to counter Israel and the United States in the Middle East. Concurrently, an ongoing Turkish military presence is based in northern Syria to confront the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK, and to maintain a buffer zone to prevent over 4 million displaced Syrians from entering Türkiye.

In the event of a war between Israel and Iran, Iran and its proxies might be motivated to challenge the Turkish military and its proxies in Syria to ensure their influence in the country. An attack by Iran and its proxies on the Syrian territories currently under Türkiye’s control could also be used as a threat to exacerbate the existing refugee crisis in Türkiye and put domestic pressure on the Turkish government.

Crucially, Iranian officials have explicitly stated that they would target Kürecik Radar Station, NATO’s early-warning system in southeastern Türkiye, in the event of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran. When U.S. officials were asked about this statement by Iran, they responded as expected: “If Türkiye is attacked, article five [of the NATO Charter] applies, regardless of what the circumstance is.” Iran’s threat is credible, as Iran’s missile arsenal is one of its primary deterrents, and it would be willing to neutralize any perceived threats that could undermine its capabilities. Should Iran and Türkiye get into an armed confrontation, Türkiye would be vulnerable to Iran’s missile capabilities, as the majority of Iranian missiles possess the necessary range to target Turkish territory.


If the humanitarian toll on Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas war continues to rise, the region could become entangled in a large-scale conflict with significant security implications for the United States and potentially the entire world. Türkiye would assume a critical role in this scenario as a NATO member, sharing borders with Iran, and holding various military and diplomatic commitments in Syria and Azerbaijan.

Iran recently sent a diplomatic note to the UN, expressing that it may intervene if Israel’s military operation in Gaza persists. The extent to which the war escalates will largely hinge on the boundaries set by the Israeli government for its actions. That underscores one of the key reasons why Türkiye calls for restraint from Israel, although whether that call will be heeded is uncertain.

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