The new geopolitics of Turkey, Syria, and the West

A Kurd living in Greece holds a poster depicting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a demonstration against the Turkish offensive on Kurdish forces in northwest Syria, in Athens, Greece, January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis - RC16FB9E79B0

As the turmoil in Syria enters its seventh year, its adverse geopolitical consequences stretch far beyond the Middle East. Developments in Syria have affected Turkey, too. Before the Arab Spring, Turkey was a rising star in its neighborhood, but has become a troubled nation in the years since. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is increasingly cited as a model for authoritarians around the region and the world, and if tensions between Turkey and the West lead to a fracture, more adverse geopolitical consequences could follow.

Upward spiral

Before the Arab Spring erupted late in 2010, Turkey was not without its problems, but it still enjoyed good standing in many respects. Its soft power and prestige in international affairs was at its peak. Its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” made it possible for Turkey to act as a mediator in the intractable problems of its region, most notably in the conflict between Israel and Syria. Membership talks with the European Union were well on their way, and many across the Middle East followed them with keen interest. Turkey even attempted to carry over some of the European experience in economic integration to the region, leading efforts to encourage “the free movement of goods and people taking place in a vast area stretching from the city of Kars in eastern Turkey to the Atlantic, and from Sinop on the Black Sea coast to the Gulf of Aden.” Culturally, the Turkish example had also made its way to the hearts and minds of the Arab populations through its highly popular soap operas, for instance.

It should come as no surprise that during his first official trip outside North America, in April 2009, President Obama went to Ankara with the hope of engaging Turkey into a model partnership based on shared values. The then-Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s emphasis on the virtues of a democratic and secular form of government, particularly as he addressed an enthusiastic audience in Cairo in September 2011, ought to be seen in the light of such a partnership. No Western leader at that time could have had the same effect making a similar speech to an Arab audience. He publicly advocated democratic values to an audience that was basking jubilantly in a recent regime overthrow. Such was the impact of Turkey in the region, at that time, in expanding the cause of democratic order in the Middle East.

Downward turn

Alas, this positive picture did not last long. The Arab Spring turned into winter almost in tandem with the start of the democratic and political regressions that have beset Turkey ever since. The Gezi Park protests of 2013, initially a peaceful reaction sparked out of popular concern at growing authoritarianism, only led to more repression—the freedom of the media being among its first casualty, along with many lives. This coincided with the overthrow of the popularly elected Mohammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, longtime ideological allies of Erdoğan. The West’s silence in the face of the coup in Egypt was not lost on the AKP, nor its leader Erdoğan. The fear that this could one day happen against their government led to the gradual abandonment of the democratic gains achieved in the earlier years of AKP rule, setting Erdoğan on a journey towards greater authoritarianism.

Turkey’s reaction to the turmoil in Syria also brought an end to the prestige that it enjoyed internationally. In the initial days of the conflict, the leaders in Turkey expected, like most of their Western counterparts, a quick demise of Bashar Assad, and felt confident that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would lead a transition to democracy. The United States was considered an ally until Obama failed, in 2013, to stand by his “red line” concerning the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Turkey, in a major departure from longstanding statecraft, then began to seek the violent overthrow of the regime of a neighboring country. This quickly led to growing involvement with extremist Islamist groups, which earned Turkey the reputation of a “jihadi highway,” a busy route for foreign fighters flowing into Syria. The AKP government repeatedly brushed aside the warnings coming from within the country and the international community against greater involvement in the Syrian quagmire. In response to growing disagreements with Western allies, government officials began to depict Turkey’s position as a state of “precious loneliness,” a romantic term intended to project the image that Turkey held moral principles above its allies’ requests, all in the service of a people awaiting desperate relief from the cruelty of a brutal regime. Domestic criticism also drowned in Turkey as the government quickly rolled back the free speech gains it had achieved just a few years prior. Ultimately, the misguided hope for a quick victory in Syria stemmed from a failure to foresee growing Russian and Iranian involvement on Assad’s side.

Turkey now finds itself in a camp opposite the United States. Ankara sees the U.S. policy of supporting Syrian Kurdish militants against ISIS as a serious affront, since the Turkish government makes no distinction between the Kurdish militia in Syria and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist organization that it has been fighting since the 1980s. Turkey sees its own national security threatened by the prospect of an emerging Kurdish region along its border that is governed by Syrian Kurds closely aligned with the PKK. Turkey’s military intervention into the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, an operation that began in January and still underway, has added a new layer of complexity to the conflict. The intervention comes against a backdrop of the reversal of the gains made with respect to Kurdish minority rights and the abandonment of efforts to find a negotiated political solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey. Violence, repression, and destruction reminiscent of the early 1990s have returned and also drawn Turkey into a military intervention into Syria.

This situation risks bringing Turkey and the United States into a military confrontation, unheard of in their 70-year long alliance. In the meantime, Russia remains steadfast in its support for Assad, allowing his regime to expand its territorial control by the day and continue inflicting untold suffering on civilians. In the face of these challenges, the Turkish government has been reacting by whipping up anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, while remaining utterly quiet on Russia, a facile way of diverting attention away from its own mistakes.

Turkey and the West

In short, Turkey is a far cry from where it was when the Arab Spring began, and this brings to the forefront two dramatic geopolitical consequences, which I describe in more detail in my recent book, “Turkey and the West: Fault Lines in a Troubled Alliance.”

The first is Turkey’s orientation away from the trans-Atlantic alliance and its loosening commitment to the tenets of international liberal order. The Turkish model, once full of promises, has come to an end. Instead, Turkey, especially Erdoğan, is increasingly cited as a model in reverse: setting an example for a growing community of new leaders with authoritarian aspirations in regions stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Second, if the current tensions with the United States and the frenzy of anti-Americanism do lead Turkey to break away or be pushed out of NATO, the picture could get worse. This would dramatically affect the security and stability of a whole region and possibly beyond in the face of a weakened and divided trans-Atlantic community. Surely, this would benefit Russia’s ability to manipulate its “near abroad” much more effectively. It would then be very difficult to defend the interests of Baltic countries down through Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and others who still aspire for democratic gains and national sovereignty, let alone support those who aspire to join the EU and NATO.

At this dire junction, there is an urgency for both Turkey and the United States to see the broader strategic picture that brought them together in the aftermath of World War II to defend national sovereignty against expansionist powers and promote democratic governance. The AKP’s Turkey was at its best when its relations were at their best with both of its trans-Atlantic partners, the United States and the EU. That was also the time when Turkey enjoyed its best influence in its neighborhood, especially among so-called Arab Spring countries. The glue holding it together was democratic governance, including improving minority rights (such as those of Kurds). If the international liberal order is to be defended, it will be critical for both the EU and the United States to reengage Turkey in support of its place in the trans-Atlantic community. In turn, the AKP will need to return to its founding principles that brought it to power and that endowed Turkey with so much prosperity, stability, and international prestige. It is only then that one day it might again be possible to revive the hopes that the Arab Spring had once engendered. Otherwise, the AKP would turn the region over to the influence of Russia and Iran, which clearly have no sympathy for a vibrant, diverse, and democratic Middle East. Ironically, this would be a betrayal of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which used skillful diplomacy to manage—for centuries—to check Russian and Iranian imperial expansion towards the warm waters of the Mediterranean, a legacy that the AKP has long held in high esteem and would do well to remember today.