BACKGROUND: When the so called Arab spring revolts erupted, Turkey appeared well positioned to gain in influence in the reshaped Middle East and seemed set to benefit generally from the changes; for many international observers, Turkey was an obvious “model” for budding Muslim democracies, and the Turkish government promoted itself early on as a champion of democratic change in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, although it subsequently initially hesitated to join the alliance that brought about the downfall of the dictatorship in Libya.
The Arab spring has indeed resulted in a vastly increased role for Turkey in the politics of the Middle East; in Syria, Turkey is deeply involved in the efforts to end the Baath regime. However, the assumption that Turkey was going to influence the countries of the Middle East, contributing to their democratization may be proven wrong; instead, there is a very real risk that the opposite will happen, as there are signs that Turkey is increasingly being exposed to the political patterns and conflicts of its Arab neighborhood. Instead of the Middle East becoming more Turkish, Turkey may ultimately become more Middle Eastern.
Although Turkey has become a major regional player, having shouldered the role as one of the leading champions of the Sunni rebellion in Syria, Ankara has come to antagonize almost all of its neighbors. The Turkish foreign policy paradigm – “zero problems with neighbors” – is in tatters. Instead, Turkey is embroiled in confrontation with all of its Middle Eastern neighbors, save for the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Having positioned itself against the Shiite axis of Syria-Iraq-Iran, Turkey has come to invite those powers to exploit its internal vulnerabilities.
The terrorist attack in the southern city of Gaziantep on August 20, which claimed ten dead and seventy wounded, brought that painfully home to the Turkish public; one Turkish commentator wrote “Welcome to the Middle East.” It is generally assumed that the attack was carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on behalf of Syria and Iran. Indeed, Turkish authorities have come to publicly acknowledge that they see the hands of these two countries behind the recent surge in the attacks of the PKK. In a striking departure from its usual guerilla tactics, with its reliance on hit-and-run attacks, the PKK has since the end of July engaged the Turkish army in a sustained battle in Şemdinli in the province of Hakkari, where it has tried to occupy and then hold on to positions despite having suffered heavy losses. It remains unclear to what extent the PKK has been successful in its new tactic, since the Turkish authorities have imposed a virtual news blackout on what is going on in Şemdinli. Selahattin Demirtaş, the chairman of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) recently claimed that the PKK had come to exercise control over a 400 kilometer-long stretch of territory. Although that claim may indeed be vastly exaggerated, it is nonetheless obvious that the Turkish army is far from having succeeded in securing the area so far. It is equally obvious that the PKK would not have been able to stage such an offensive without outside support.
The question that is being posed by many Turkish commentators these days is if it really has come as a surprise to the Turkish government that the powers that it has challenged – the regime in Syria and its sponsor Iran – was going to reply in kind, retaliating by supporting those who rebel against Turkish authority. The answer may very well be yes; the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) may indeed have underestimated the degree to which Turkey was vulnerable to Iranian and Syrian counter-measures. Until the Şemdinli offensive, the PKK appeared to be on the verge of defeat; the Turkish military had been successful in the campaign that it had waged against the Kurdish rebels, while the political arm of the Kurdish movement had been crippled as a result of the mass arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists. So it could be that the Turkish government had calculated that it could take action in Syria with some impunity.
IMPLICATIONS: The new assertiveness of the PKK and the increased risk of new terrorist attacks like the one in Gaziantep mean that there is very little chance that the AKP government would try to seek a solution to the Kurdish problem that satisfies the Kurds’ demands for equality. The Turkish public is in no mood for such reforms, and it is highly unlikely that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who wants to be elected president in 2014, would take the risk of challenging Turkish nationalist sentiments. In fact, nothing suggested that Erdoğan was considering making any democratic opening to the Kurds before the recent surge in PKK attacks and terrorism; now, such a prospect seems utterly utopian. The new national security threat that Turkey faces in the wake of its involvement in the Syrian civil war in all likelihood means that constitutional reform – which notably would have addressed the Kurdish issue – will be postponed. The Syrian civil war thus contributes to further consolidating the right wing nationalist axis in Turkish politics: the Syrian and Kurdish policies of the governing AKP are fully supported by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and it is improbable under present conditions that the AKP would challenge the MHP by making any democratic concessions to the Kurds.
The Arab upheavals that are rocking the Middle East are indirectly contributing to arresting Turkey’s democratic evolution in another aspect as well: the escalation of the Syrian crisis, and its repercussions in Turkey, with a growing Kurdish problem and a deteriorating security climate, re-invites the military to a prominent role. The AKP government is displaying a willingness to mend fences with the military, with which it has been at odds since it came to power a decade ago, and which it had defeated in a fierce power struggle. Prime Minister Erdoğan recently stated that he finds it very hard to accept that İlker Başbuğ, the former Chief of the General Staff, who is accused of having attempted to subvert the government, is incarcerated while he is being tried; Erdoğan also said that he does not believe that Basbuğ is guilty. Another sign that the AKP wants to improve its relation with the military is that it has taken action to ameliorate the economic conditions of military personnel, something that it had neglected to attend to previously. It will not come as a surprise if the AKP takes further steps in a similar vein, notably affecting the military personnel that stand trial in the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon coup trials.
Yet while the AKP is moving to improve and normalize its relation with the military, once known as the vanguard of secularism, in order to meet the challenge of a deteriorated security climate in the wake of the Arab spring, the upheavals in the Middle East have concurrently had the effect of making the Sunni conservatism of Turkey’s ruling party more pronounced. With ideologically like-minded, Sunni conservative parties ascending to power in Tunisia and Egypt, the AKP has come to expect that this will enhance its role economically, politically and culturally in the region; the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Syria could not but seem exciting for the AKP. Erdoğan promptly abandoned his friend Bashar al-Assad when the opportunity to help bring an ideological ally to power in Damascus presented itself.
Turkey could obviously not have held on to al-Assad, but could nonetheless have chosen not to embrace the Sunni cause to the exclusion of all other ethnic and sectarian communities in Syria. While the Middle East before the Arab spring was a place where Turkey strove to enhance its influence and make profits by pragmatically developing good relations with everyone, regardless of sectarian affiliation, the Middle East after the Arab spring is a place where Turkey has elected to maximize its power by assuming the role as an exclusively Sunni power.
CONCLUSIONS: Present developments don’t suggest that it is likely that the rewards of that choice will ultimately outweigh the costs it incurs. Turkey’s embroilment in the Sunni-Shiite confrontation in the Middle East has invited Iran and Syria to exploit and exacerbate its Kurdish problem. That in turn strengthens the right-wing nationalist drift of Turkey, making the prospect of democratic reform even more elusive than it was before the Arab Spring upheavals enticed it to abandon caution and pragmatism.
In Gaziantep, Turkey had its first encounter with the kind of terrorism that is well-established practice in the Middle East: a car bomb that aims at killing as many civilians as possible. Meanwhile, the sectarian language of Middle Eastern politics has made its appearance in Turkish politics: the representatives of the AKP have taken to routinely assailing the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is critical of Turkey’s intervention in Syria, in religious terms, accusing it of doing so out of sectarian sympathy with the Alawites in Syria. The Arab Spring threatens not only to exacerbate – indirectly, through Turkey’s involvement in Syria – ethnic tensions in Turkey; it also indirectly produces new tension along Turkey’s Sunni-Alevi, fault-line. A Turkish winter threatens in the wake of the Arab spring.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and the Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst, and M. Kemal Kaya a Senior Fellow with the the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".