This is a guest editorial written for kamilpasha by Howard Eissenstat, an assistant professor of Ottoman and Republican history at St. Lawrence University. He writes frequently on Turkish foreign policy, political Islam in Turkey, democratization, and human rights issues. Here are some of his articles accessible online. (I highly recommend the article on metaphors of race in the early Republic.) His research focuses on the transformation of identities at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the nature of early Turkish nationalism. He has also done work on popular violence in the early Turkish Republic and the role of Muslim émigrés from the Russian Empire in the development of Turkish nationalism.
A year ago, Turkey was riding high. Its noisy divorce from Israel, begun at Davos and finalized on the Mavi Marmara, had raised questions about Turkey’s direction in the West, but won it broad respect in the Middle East. In the pro-reform movements of the “Arab Spring,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan stepped forward as an early advocate change, promoting Turkey as a model for democracy in the Islamic world. His visit to Egypt in September, 2011 had the feel of a victory lap. If Thomas Friedman was decrying Turkey’s break from the West in 2010, arguing that “Turkey [was seemingly focused on] joining the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran resistance front against Israel,” by 2012, he was describing it as “an island of stability.”
The regional popularity that Turkey garnered led to a lot of heady talk of Turkey’s new “soft power” and regional importance. Few noticed – or perhaps cared – about Turkey’s continued repression of activists, journalists, and opposition members, which has resulted in thousands of trials, or for its increasing reliance on its military to suppress Kurdish militancy. In recent poll of Arab public opinion by the Brookings Institute, Turkey was far and away the country most often cited as having “played the most constructive role” in the Arab Uprisings, while Erdoğan was the international figure most often named as “most admired.” Turkey’s reputation in Washington as a vital regional partner has never been higher.
Nowhere has Turkey’s regional importance been more clearly shown than in the international efforts to confront the al Assad regime in Syria. Yet, there is little question that those international efforts are crumbling… and with them, Turkey’s hopes of stepping forward as the Middle East’s leading power.
The close relations that had developed between Syria and Turkey in the previous 10 years quickly disintegrated as the Arab Spring sparked calls for reform in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seemed genuinely surprised that their calls for reform were ignored. The brutality of Syria’s response to the reform movement placed Turkey in a difficult position. Its inability to influence an erstwhile friend on its own border undermined a narrative of “Turkey ascendant” that had become as popular among Turkish elites as it had among Western journalists. Moreover, the Justice and Development Party’s base is comprised of devout Sunni Muslims who have been particularly outraged by the sectarian nature of the violence in Syria in which more than 30,000 are believed to have been killed so far. The conflict in Syria has exacerbated tensions within Turkey, both between Sunni Muslims and Alevis (a sect related to, but distinct from the Alawites of Syria) and the already hot conflict between the government and the Kurdish PKK. The vicious nature of the Assad regime’s repression has also created a refugee crisis for Syria’s neighbors, including Turkey. Turkey currently hosts approximately 100,000 refugees and it is estimated that this number will more than double by the end of the year.
Turkey has worked to play a leading role in a wider coalition to bring down the Assad regime. Turkey hosted a congress of Syrian dissidents in hopes of unifying the disparate elements of the Syrian resistance. While Turkey officially only admits to giving “humanitarian aid” to the Syrian opposition groups, there is little question Turkish intelligence also gives them military equipment and training. Turkey makes no secret of its alliance with the Syrian Free Army.
Syria has paid back in kind. In June, the Syrians downed a Turkish jet. The mortar shell that killed five Turkish women last week was not the first Syrian round that landed in Turkish territory, nor the last. While the main causes for an upswing in PKK guerilla activity are clearly internal to Turkey, Assad has supported the Kurdish nationalists on the Syria side of the border and may well be lending support to the PKK in Turkey.
Yet Turkey has no appetite for going it alone in Syria. Turkish troops occupying Syrian towns would sour its relation to parts of the Arab world (where Ottoman control is not always remembered fondly), exacerbate already tense relations with Iran, and further endanger Turkey’s relations with Russia. Domestically, nearly seventy percent of Turks have voiced opposition to military action. Part of this is strong distrust in Turkey of foreign adventures, part is based on a sense that any war in Syria would eventually target domestic enemies of the AKP as well.
The success of Turkish policy in Syria requires international cooperation that seems increasingly unlikely. UN action seems impossible, locked behind Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council. NATO action seems equally unlikely. Western powers were quick to voice support for Turkey after the Syrian shelling. Privately, they are urging caution. It is possible that, after the November elections, the United States will revisit its Syria policy with an eye to addressing the both the growing importance of Salafist elements within the resistance and the shocking loss of civilian life that the war has entailed. It is difficult to imagine, however, any groundswell in the United States for new campaigns in the Middle East.
A year ago, Turkey believed that through its “soft power” it could win for itself a dominant role in the “new Middle East.” In a sense it has succeeded; there is little question that Turkey now enjoys a regional leadership that it has not enjoyed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Yet few in Turkey are celebrating that victory this autumn. The Turkish moment in the Middle East is starting to turn a little sour.