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Turkey: Still Too Small, Still Too Threatened

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan (pronounced ‘rejep erdowan’ more or less) looked like Woodrow Wilson a year ago. Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)

Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.

All hope of reconciling the Kurds is now gone; Erdogan is increasingly reduced to retracing the faltering steps of past Kemalist wars against this restive (and demographically booming) minority.  As the FT reports,

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into battle against Kurdish rebels as violence in the country’s most intractable dispute reaches levels not seen for more than a decade and hopes of a settlement fade.

Mass detentions have put about 8,000 people under arrest, the Prime Minister is urging and threatening journalists not to report on the unfolding mess, and for the first time in many years some observers say that Kurdish rebels have established zones of control in remote rural areas of the country.

The shift from Kemalist ideology to Sunni piety as the basis for state identity helped Erdogan establish a new kind of relationship with the majority of Anatolian Turks, including a new wave of entrepreneurs who challenged the perquisites and power of the old Istanbul-based business elite. But that shift had a downside; the Kurds, after a period of hope, now see the new Turkish order as just a continuation of the old. And the Alevis, a large Turkish religious minority (perhaps 25 percent of the population), don’t like what many see as an emerging relationship between the state and a religious tradition that in the past has persecuted them.  The Syria issue tends to make things worse; the Turkish Alevis are religiously distinct from the Arab Alawites in Syria, but there are some sympathies there.

Meanwhile the international situation is looking tough. Relations with the neighbors are bad: Iran, Iraq, Russia and Syria are all more hostile to Turkey than they were two years ago. The connections with America and Israel have weakened, even as a newly active Russia, strengthening ties to Israel, Greece and Cyprus, creates new challenges in the Mediterranean. Even the economy has slowed; with revolutions in the region and recession in Europe, Turkey cannot go it alone.

With recession in Europe and revolution in the neighborhood, Turkey’s economy has dramatically slowed. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Turkey’s annual growth rate has fallen below 3 percent back to levels last seen during the 2008-9 crisis.

Above everything else, what Turkey wants in its region is calm. It doesn’t want the kind of chaos that creates refugee flows, arms smuggling and allows Kurds opportunities to develop autonomous regional governments and build supply networks and training centers. It wants to be able to trade and to find ways to build on its cultural affinities in the region to carve out a strong economic presence.

But the Middle East shows no sign of calming. The Sunni-Shiite struggle is not only convulsing politics inside countries around the region and polarizing major players like Saudi Arabia and Iran; it draws external powers in, especially Russia which has come to view the “Sunni surge” with great alarm and suspicion. Turkey wants these problems solved, and it has an important role to play, but Turkey cannot do enough on its own. As was true in the Ottoman days, Turkey needs allies to manage its complicated regional portfolio. And as in the Ottoman days, good allies are hard to find, and they always charge a price.

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