Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is used to prevailing over his foes. The once all-powerful Turkish generals who defied him now linger in prison. By all accounts, Erdogan is the most powerful leader of the Turkish republic—which celebrated its eighty-ninth anniversary on October 29–since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, its founder and first president.
In 2014, Erdogan is scheduled to become Turkey’s first popularly elected president. If everything follows the script, Erdogan would then go on to be reelected in 2019 and serve as president until 2023, when the Turkish republic celebrates its centennial. Barring health problems—and a deterioration of the Kurdish problem—nothing seemed to stand in the way of the fulfillment of the prime minister's vision. But now Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, may confound Erdogan’s plans.
Erdogan has assumed the leading role in the efforts to oust Assad. Working closely with the United States to bring about regime change in Syria, Ankara has provided sanctuary for the Sunni rebels and has helped to arm them. But the Obama administration has now taken its hand from the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has been sponsored by Turkey, declaring that it should no longer be considered the "visible leader" of the efforts to form a government to replace al-Assad. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has nurtured a close relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the SNC. This is one reason why a broader opposition coalition against the Baath regime has failed to coalesce, since non-Islamist elements in Syria were alienated by the precedence accorded—by the intervention of the Turkish government—to the Brotherhood.
Aided by his protector Iran, Assad has also managed to turn the tables on Ankara by lending support to the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. What was supposed to demonstrate Turkey’s, and thereby Erdogan’s power—the belief that Turkey, in the recent words of Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is the “master” of the Middle East which it supposedly “owns” and is going to “redesign”—has inadvertently exposed Turkish vulnerabilities and the limitations of its power. What had seemed to be a golden opportunity to project Turkish might has turned into a security nightmare for Turkey.
And for the first time since becoming prime minister, Erdogan is not in tune with public opinion. According to the polls, a vast majority of the population, around seventy percent, disapproves of the Syrian regime-change policy of the AKP government. An overwhelming majority is similarly opposed to any kind of Turkish military intervention in Syria.
This trouble with public opinion does not mean that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), stands to make any significant electoral headway based on opposition to Syrian entanglement. The secularist CHP holds little appeal for the majority Sunni conservatives, and is also identified with the Alevis, the heterodox Muslim minority that is despised by Sunnis. The sectarian dimension of the Syrian conflict has exacerbated Sunni-Alevi tension in Turkey, as the latter are treated as heretics related to the Arab Alawites. The representatives of the AKP have not refrained from inciting anti-Alevi feelings in order to reinforce the legitimacy of the Turkish engagement in Syria, a tactic they have employed before to mobilize Sunni conservatives.
But Erdogan’s political future may be threatened by the fragility of his own party. His foray into the Syrian civil war is contributing to widening the cracks among the coalition of Islamic movements that sustain the power of the AKP. The most powerful Islamic movement in Turkey, the fraternity of Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, last year openly mounted a challenge to the authority to Erdogan. In February, a prosecutor (assumed to be a Gulenist) attempted to indict the chief of the National Intelligence Agency, a close advisor to Erdogan; “next, they would have come after me,” Erdogan has said. The prime minister has responded by trying to curb the power of the Gulenists within the police and the judiciary. Now a new chapter in the power struggle seems to have opened. A campaign against the Syrian regime-change policy of Erdogan has started in the media flagship of the Gulen movement, the daily Zaman.
Ali Bulac, a prominent Islamic intellectual writing in Zaman, recently laid out the case against violent regime change in Syria. Replete with references to what Islamic theology instructs and against Erdogan’s “personalized foreign policy” in general, Bulac condemned Erdogan’s calls for the resignations of regional leaders Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The Zaman writer warned that a Turkish military intervention in Syria would give rise to an animosity between the Arabs and the Turks “lasting centuries.” He also asserted that it would once again subordinate civilian power to the military, make the Kurdish problem intractable, and “perhaps most dangerously,” embroil Turkey in war with Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The power struggle that has intensified between the Gulenists and Erdogan may explain why such criticism is voiced at this particular juncture. But the Syrian regime change policy of Erdogan is nonetheless at variance with the material interests—as well as with the attendant worldview—of pious middle-class Anatolians. These globally connected entrepreneurs are a core Gulenist constituency and have been the main sociological engine of the AKP’s rise to and entrenchment in power.
When the AKP government seized on the opportunity to promote regime change in Syria, expecting that its ideological affiliate, the Muslim Brotherhood, was going to ascend to power in Damascus, Fethullah Gulen did not come out in opposition. Like Erdogan, Gulen appears to have assumed that Assad’s fall was imminent, and that the power of Turkey was going to be bolstered. But as Syria has turned into a quagmire, Gulen seems to have reconsidered his support for Erdogan’s adventure.
Gulen’s emphasis on interfaith dialogue and international cooperation, which in turn is meant to promote Turkish soft power worldwide, resonates among pious middle-class entrepreneurs of urban Anatolia, who have a vested interest in a nonideological, business-friendly international environment, not in the perpetuation of sectarian and religious divisions that the Turkish foray into the Syrian conflagration is exacerbating.
The interests of that constituency were best served when Turkey sought to have “zero problems” with its neighbors. It is no coincidence that Fethullah Gulen has criticized Erdogan’s government for seeking a confrontation with Israel, and that commentators in his media flagship now warn against provoking a war with Iran over Syria. Turkey’s present blatantly imperialistic ambition to “redesign” the Middle East squanders Turkish soft power in the region.
Erdogan’s reckless neoconservatism is not attuned to the class dynamics of Turkish society; it has already come at a significant cost for the pious Anatolian middle class. The economic hubs in southern Turkey have suffered substantial losses in income as a result of the collapse of trade and business with Syria, which is bound to have an adverse effect on the electoral prospects of Erdogan and his party in the region.
Erdogan could be calculating that pious middle-class Anatolians have nowhere else to turn, but he may be proven wrong. President Abdullah Gul has advertised that he does not intend to quietly step aside in 2014, and some polls show Gul to be ahead of Erdogan in the contest for the presidency. Gul has positioned himself as the voice for reconciliation and democratic reform. He has not openly broken ranks with Erdogan over Syria, but speaking before parliament on October 1, Gul made a crucial point of reminding the parliamentarians of the historical importance that the European perspective has had for Turkey’s democratization, and he stated that he expected parliament to engage in a renewed effort to implement EU-inspired reforms. By calling for a return to the European path, Gul indirectly distanced himself from Erdogan’s Middle Eastern adventurism. That is a message that is sure to find a receptive audience.
Come 2014, Bashar al-Assad is not likely to still be president. The chances are that neither will Recep Tayyip Erdogan have succeeded in realizing his presidential ambition.
Halil Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.