The AKP’s ‘New Turkey’, a project of regional influence and aspiration, was going so well. Then came the Arab Spring, the violent mess of the Syrian civil war, and the rise of IS.
“Turkey’s stand is ethical. Our regional policy is one of values, human and democratic, which everyone should agree on. That’s why the coup against [Egyptian president] Mohammed Morsi [on 3 July 2013] was so disappointing.” Yasin Aktay, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy chairman for foreign relations, opened our conversation with Egypt and the government’s “ethical stand”, as did everyone I spoke with in and around the AKP. He went on: “We thought the West would isolate the new regime. But it sat and watched the murder of democracy — the massacre [of Muslim Brothers] in Rabia Square and the silencing of the media — which meant opening the way to IS [so-called Islamic State].”
Turkey saw the US failure to condemn the coup against Morsi in July 2013, and continued US aid to Egypt, as a betrayal. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a close supporter of Morsi and his Muslim Brothers, called for his release and said the government that succeeded him was not legitimate. Turkey’s ambassador was expelled. The row continued. Erdoğan told the UN General Assembly in New York on 24 September 2014: “Those objecting [to] the murders in Iraq, Syria and the murder of democracy in Egypt are … accused of supporting terrorism.” He criticised the UN “as well as the democratic countries [which] have done nothing but watch the events.” Egypt’s foreign ministry retaliated: “Such lies and fabrications are not something strange … from the Turkish president, who is keen to provoke chaos to sow divisions in the Middle East region through his support for … terrorist organisations” (Reuters, 25 September 2014).
Erdoğan, who went from prime minister to president in a direct election on 10 August 2014, is not a stranger to media outbursts. His plain speaking, particularly on behalf of the Palestinians, earlier won him great popularity in the Arab world. Now, with the Middle East in turmoil, Erdoğan’s appeal may have waned, but the charm still works among his core constituents at home — the 50% of Turks on whose votes Erdoğan counts in the June 2015 parliamentary elections: he hopes for a large enough win to enable a constitutional change to a true presidential system.
He has at his side Ahmet Davutoğlu, architect of the AKP’s foreign policy. Davutoğlu — an academic, not a politician — was chief foreign policy advisor when the AKP first came to power in November 2002; in May 2009 he became foreign minister; and when Erdoğan assumed the presidency, Davutoğlu became AKP leader and prime minister. Though they are said to be at cross-purposes sometimes, Davutoğlu is someone Erdoğan can trust, and a clever theoretician with an ambitious blueprint for Turkey’s future. He is also new enough to office to provide continuity for the AKP project at a time when many deputies are completing their third and final terms.
That project, a “New Turkey”, under an enhanced presidency, now governed from a brand-new palace with more than 1,000 rooms thought to have cost $615m (1), is based on ever-growing centralisation and authoritarianism. These are stifling freedoms of expression, protest and recourse to law, leading to the dismissal of journalists and even an attempt in 2014 to ban Twitter and YouTube; and they are introducing Islamising social changes (in education, the sale of alcohol, birth control, abortion). In December Erdoğan announced his intention of chairing cabinet meetings, another step towards a de facto enhanced presidency. Since the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, even questioning is perceived as a direct threat.
Rumours and second-hand information substitute for hard news, and a surprising number of people would only speak to me off-the-record. On 14 December, dawn raids on the Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu TV network led to 25 arrests, mostly of media figures known for their ties to the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen who is in self-imposed exile in the US. The EU, the US and local journalists’ unions strongly condemned the action. Gülen, once a close ally of Erdoğan, and his followers are under attack for leaking corruption charges against AKP figures (including former ministers and their sons) in December 2013, and Erdoğan has threatened to “overthrow this network of treason and bring it to account” (2).
For now, Erdoğan still has the trust of the 50% who feel included in his vision and have benefitted materially from his policies. But there are another 50% of Turks who, without any convincing opposition party to vote for, found their voices at Gezi. And what if the liberal centre-right of the AKP, to whom Erdoğan reached out in 2002 promising a more inclusive Turkey, tires of his growing authoritarianism?
The “New Turkey” also redefines the country’s place in the world, summoning up its Ottoman legacy and sponsorship of Sunni Islam. (There is now even a proposal to introduce compulsory Ottoman language (3) courses in high school.) All this chimes with Davutoğlu’s long-held vision of a Turkey that will rise to be a global power, drawing on the unity of Islam. As Behlül Özkan, assistant professor in international relations at Marmara University, explains, quoting Davutoğlu’s book Strategic Depth (4), for him “Turkey is not an ordinary nation-state ‘but the centre of [Ottoman] civilisation’ …[it must] ‘become a political centre that will fill the power vacuum which emerged after the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire’” (5). Davutoğlu believes that under Atatürk, founder of the modern republic, Turkey mistakenly “chose to become an element of the periphery under the security umbrella of the prevailing western civilization, rather than being the weak centre of its own civilization.” He criticises the “crisis of values in western societies”, believing that “‘western democracies are dangerous because they lack religious values to keep them in check’.” Davutoğlu thinks that “if Turkey bases its identity on Islam, its borders can be moved to a better point.”
‘Assad, my brother’
Turkey’s regional policies, for which Davutoğlu was responsible — “zero problems with neighbours” and “soft power” — had a promising start (6). Abdullah Gül, as foreign minister (2003-07), was a key player in EU accession talks, Central Asia and Cyprus, while Davutoğlu focussed on relations with the Arab world. The approach was pragmatic: Erdoğan, as prime minister, holidayed with the Syrian leader — then “Assad, my brother” — and received a human rights award from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Under Davutoğlu’s stewardship, across the Middle East, Caucasus and Africa, economic cooperation boomed, treaties were signed, borders opened, visa requirements lifted. The primary goal, to establish confidence in Turkey politically and economically, seemed accomplished.
Then came the Arab Spring. Davutoğlu believed the Islamist groups would come to power, and stay there, and that by supporting them Turkey would lead the Middle East. That ambition was boosted by the western view that Turkey could serve as a model for moderate Islam, which encouraged the AKP to overplay its hand. Ahmet Insel, a liberal academic, said: “Up till 2011 Davutoğlu’s ideas were romantic but we couldn’t say they were wrong. Now we have no ambassadors in Egypt, Syria or Israel.” Despite early close relations with Israel (Turkey was mediator between Israel and Syria), there have been rows, including Erdoğan accusing President Shimon Peres, during a televised debate in Davos in 2009, of killing Palestinians; then Israel’s attack in 2010 on the Mavi Marmara and a Turkish flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists. More recently, on 2 December, Israel’s defence minister condemned Turkey for “hosting members of Hamas”.
Here, ministers and advisers see this support as another instance of their “ethical stand”. “We are probably the only government outside the Arab world to support Hamas,” said one who declined to be named, but he denied any lack of even-handedness with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Throughout the rumpus, trade and tourism between the countries have boomed.
In the case of Iraq, dislike of the pro-Shia sectarian politics of the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki (2006-14), encouraged Turkey to improve relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. Turkey was taken by surprise by the advances of IS, especially into lands inhabited by Turkish-speaking Turkmen, and by IS taking Turkish citizens hostage: truck drivers, then 49 diplomats and others in Mosul in June 2014. Their release was secured later on terms that were not disclosed.
‘A blind eye was turned’
The crisis in Syria, with which Turkey shares a porous 880-km border, has led to the arrival of 1.6 million Syrian refugees, at a cost of $5.5bn according to Turkish sources. While the US sees IS as its main enemy, for Turkey the Assad regime is the principal foe.
After Egypt, it is in Syria that the AKP has suffered its biggest disappointments. Contrary to expectations, Bashar al-Assad failed to go. Soli Özel, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, was critical of the AKP’s handling of the situation from 2012, when it was clear Assad would not give in easily: “They failed to control the Free Syrian Army and other militant groups, and risked turning Turkey into another Pakistan with its own Taliban. Any group was good, so long as it fought Assad. We saw Al-Nusra and IS recruitment taking place here. A blind eye was turned at the very least.”
Now IS has become an uncomfortable fact of life, but one which a number of Turks accept, seeing it as a Sunni movement. As Etyen Mahçupyan, chief advisor to the prime minister, told me: “Where it is managing to entrench itself, IS is delivering on social and cultural issues, which means a kind of governance. Soon they may appear in suits and ties and start talking.” The Kurdish situation is equally complex (7): the Syrian Kurds of the PYD are an extension of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the Kurdish separatist group — called “terrorist” by the US and EU — that has been in armed conflict with the Turkish state for 36 years, and with which the government is now engaged in an important secret peace process. The tensions in Turkey’s southeast became clear in October 2014 when angry protests erupted among Turkish Kurds over the failure to relieve the IS-besieged town of Kobane; at least 35 died in the violence.
Turkey has therefore been unwilling to take a leading role in the US-led military coalition set up in autumn 2014, even if it responded to international pressure by tightening its southern border and allowing access to KRG Peshmergas through Turkish territory. That pressure can only increase with reports of Iran joining the anti-IS fight in Iraq (8), strengthening the Shia axis and signalling a de facto rapprochement with the West.
Disappointment over Syria and Egypt led the AKP to abandon its earlier pragmatism in favour of ideology — and rebrand it as an “ethical stand”. Ibrahim Kalin, the president’s chief foreign policy advisor, calls it “precious loneliness”.
Yet Turkey cannot afford so long a period of diplomatic isolation, as the case of Egypt demonstrates. “The relationship is asymmetric,” noted Mensur Akgün, professor at Istanbul Kültür University. “Turkey needs Egypt’s ports and markets, but Egypt can buy from anywhere it wants. We need to boost our economic exports and our diplomatic standing.” That is true elsewhere, since Turkey’s economy is likely to slow: the growth forecast for 2014 was lowered from 4% to 3.3%; in 2009, during the global crisis, it was 9%.
Turkey’s regional policy may have been taken hostage by the vision of a “New Turkey” grounded in Ottoman legacy and Sunni Islam. But perhaps the present difficulties may now incline the AKP leaders to rebuild their broken regional bridges. That was the thrust of deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç’s recent message of “friendship and brotherhood” to Turkey’s “neighbours” — Syria and Iran — and to “traditional friends and allies” — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt (9). The coming months, and parliamentary elections, will tell.
Wendy Kristianasen is editorial director of Le Monde diplomatique’s English edition.
(1) BBC News Europe, London, 5 November 2014;www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-eur…
(2) Hürriyet Daily News, Istanbul, 12 December 2014. On 18 December, a warrant was issued for Gülen’s arrest.
(3) A key reform of the republic was to modernise the language, romanising the Arabic alphabet of Ottoman Turkish and introducing French and newly discovered Turkish words (often in place of Arabic and Persian words).
(4) Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth), Küre Yayinlari, Istanbul, 2001.
(5) Behlül Özkan, “Turkey, Davutoglu and the Idea of Pan-Islamism”, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy,IISS, London, August-September 2014.
(6) Read Wendy Kristianasen, “Turkey’s soft power successes”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, February 2010.
(7) See Allan Kaval, “The Kurds’ changing alliances”,Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, November 2014.
(8) Hurriyet Daily News, Istanbul, 7 December 2014.
(9) Speech at the 5th Bosphorus Summit of the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly, reported by Hurriyet Daily News, Istanbul, 13 December 2014.