Turkey's Precarious Position

Will the Syrian crisis, Kurdish issues and domestic political turmoil prove too much for Erdogan?

It once reveled in its economic success and foreign-policy ambitions, but today Turkey has fallen on tough times.

Turkey’s problems are not a replica of Europe’s economic afflictions but rather come from the disarray in its highly touted Middle East policies and the inability to resolve its century-old Kurdish issue. Managing these difficulties is complicated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to change Turkey’s political system to one dominated by a more powerful president, a position he hopes to assume after an election in 2014. He is still the kingpin of Turkish politics, but his problems are growing and so is criticism of him.

Zero Problems Meltdown

Turkey is increasingly consumed by Syrian difficulties. Its significant involvement in the effort to bring down Assad is unpopular and so far unsuccessful. Turks, including the military, have rarely wanted to involve themselves in military efforts in Arab countries. Despite an admirable initial effort to address the humanitarian crisis, Erdogan is finding it hard to deal with an unexpected, enormous refugee surge, so far roughly one hundred thousand and rising. A reported three hundred million dollars has already been spent, though it was never budgeted. The government, which rejected international aid in large part to secretly provide support in the camps to the Syrian opposition, is scrambling for foreign contributions and moving refugees away from sensitive areas such as the Hatay province.

Syria was the center of Turkey’s Middle East diplomacy. Erdogan had a long romance with Assad, at one point trying to broker an Israel-Syria peace agreement. But the Arab Spring upended his Syrian effort. Initially, Erdogan tried hard to get Assad to accommodate political change but failed, turning him into a fierce enemy he is determined to bring down.

In Iraq, Erdogan impressively changed a decade-long policy by ending Turkey’s hostility with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Trade and investment have grown enormously. He also asserted that good relations would help eliminate or reduce the home base of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. That never happened.

When the Arab Spring emerged, Erdogan quickly adjusted, touring the region preaching democracy and secularism and creating an impressive reputation for Turkey and himself. He became something of a rock star in the early months of Arab political change. While Turkey is still an influential player in the Middle East, Erdogan read too much into the approving editorials and exaggerated both his own personal standing and the extent of Turkish influence in the area, particularly given his unwillingness to use force. His turn against Assad has backed Turkey into a dangerous domestic political corner, and the United States has not offered the help that he expected. There is more and more questioning of Erdogan’s Syrian involvement—including within Islamist political circles— and a growing belief that he does not know what to do.

Sectarianism keeps rearing its head. Turkey’s Middle East policies, intentionally or not, have become more tilted toward fellow Sunnis, although the government strongly denies it. Turkey’s own Alevi population, particularly in the Hatay border region, feels more alienated from Ankara and reportedly resentful at foreign Sunnis streaming into the province. Most importantly, Turkey’s relations with Shiite-dominated Iraq and Iran have gone downhill over sharp differences on Syria and Turkey’s involvement in Iraqi affairs.

Turkey is still providing asylum to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bete noire, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, now sentenced to death for his alleged crimes. Ankara shows no interest in kicking him out. Relations with Iran, long a quiet competitor, have become openly hostile with Turkish allegations of spying and support of the PKK and Iranian threats of “consequences” for Turkish action in Syria.

A Kurdish Spring for Turkey?

Perhaps more politically difficult for Erdogan is the internal PKK war that has reemerged with a vengeance. After almost thirty years—and ten years of relative quiet—there is heavy, often sustained fighting and serious casualties for this still largely guerilla war. Despite an earlier effort to address Kurdish political and social grievances and his party’s considerable hold in the Kurdish southeast, Erdogan apparently never went far enough to resolve the issue. Now it is probably too late because of the increased fighting, developments in Syria and Erdogan’s own preoccupation with his political future.

Erdogan, like past Turkish leaders, stops reform when PKK violence grows, ensuring little progress. Turkey has returned to an unsuccessful military policy to solve this complicated problem.

Turkey’s Kurds don’t seem to have a clear idea of their bottom line, and many support the PKK while abhorring the use of violence. The PKK’s objectives have varied over the years and now are even less clear. Polling indicates PKK influence is waning among Turkey’s Kurds. There is a sense that the PKK wants to heighten the fighting while the area is in turmoil, and they may get support from Syrian and Iranian Kurds—more to maintain its own existence than to fight for an independent Kurdish state. Longtime PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan apparently has abandoned this idea in support of some sort of federal option. With another home once again in Syria and possible Iranian support, there would seem to be little incentive for the PKK to come to the table, even if the government again offered talks—which is unlikely amidst today’s growing violence and nationalist mood.

A new external pressure has been added by the emergence of quasi-autonomous Syrian Kurds. There is also a continuing political breakdown between Erbil and Baghdad, possibly presaging an effort to separate from Iraq. Turkey’s Kurds will be influenced by the events in Syria and even more if Iraq should break down. Separation in Iraq will not be easy—and is likely to be bloody. It is hard to believe either the Turks or the Americans will come to save the Kurds militarily. The Kurdish scene is making Erdogan look as if he is flailing, and his efforts to deal with the PKK appear frenzied and inadequate. He also seems to be focusing on throwing many Kurdish legislators out of parliament as PKK supporters, hardly a conciliatory measure. Erdogan is hurting, and, much like his predecessors, he is resorting to Turkish nationalism and finding support in the country’s nationalist party.

Domestic Politics

Throughout this turbulence, Erdogan has appeared determined to change Turkey’s constitution to a presidential system. A new constitution is being drafted to replace the one a 1980 military coup gave Turkey. This political question haunts Turkey and affects its domestic and foreign policies as Erdogan wants to avoid any bad spill over from them on his presidential aspirations. Many Turks think he will ultimately abandon the effort.

Political tensions are rising and mostly directed at Erdogan. Many have come to increasingly dislike not only his Syrian effort but also his continuing authoritarianism, his hatred of criticism and his war against the media under a patriotic mantle.

Additionally, there is continuing concern over Turkey’s increasing manifestation of Islamic practices, the change in the school system that can move more kids toward religious schools and Erdogan’s increasing personal involvement in issues of morality. He sometimes uses fringe domestic issues, such as his pronouncements on eliminating caesarian operations and abortions, to focus attention away from other serious problems.

The political opposition is still anemic, and no challenger matches Erdogan’s charisma or political prowess. But concern is setting in, even among his supporters. Senior AKP politicians are limited by AKP rules to three terms in office, and that will create many unhappy top people—unless Erdogan changes the rules. Nevertheless, if the Syrian and Kurdish situations do not go to hell soon, Erdogan should be able to maintain enough support to change the constitution to his liking. But if the economy—which has slowed but stood up relatively well—were to decline, his ambitions will be in real trouble

Where is it all going?

Turkey is still Erdogan’s country. He bestrides it like a colossus and retains high personal popularity whatever his miscues. Opposition parties find it difficult to bloody him. When he had a stomach cancer removed last year, the Turkish government virtually stopped for a couple of weeks. It is hard to see the AKP surviving in its current big tent without him.

The future is cloudier than usual. Politics will get worse if the Syrian war lasts much longer and perhaps even more complicated when the war ends. While Erdogan’s aspirations about changing the Middle East may have diminished, they have not been abandoned. Religion remains integral to his world perspective—he wants the Olympics in a Muslim country. But the Middle East may have a bigger problem with its apparent growing sectarianism. Erdogan is trying furiously to deal with the impact of the Syrian war and the possible breakdown of Iraq on all Kurds, including his own.

At the same time Erdogan has had enormous experience dealing with the West and now has a far better-informed perspective than when he took over. He remains a NATO supporter and has moved toward closer relations with the West. He and Obama have had an excellent personal relationship. But anti-Americanism—which he has profited from politically—is still a potent political force in Turkey. Erdogan is dedicated, but he has not departed reality. And the Kurdish issue in all its manifestations may well turn out to be his Achilles heel.

We have not seen a Turkish political upheaval for ten years. Today there are some shoots. Political change is hard to predict, especially given Erdogan’s dominance—and it is folly to bet against him. But by 2014, continuing turbulence at home and nearby may lead to the emergence of new parties and possibly even the decomposition of AKP. Meanwhile, Turkey remains an important, dynamic and endlessly surprising place.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: World Economic Forum/Andy Mettler