Few international leaders covered themselves with much glory this past year. Turkey’s prime minister did the trick.
In a year in which the Middle East was dominated by uprisings, violence, the fall of dictators, the rise of Islamic parties and changing alignments, Recip Tayyip Erdogan was left standing as the world’s most dynamic and impressive Muslim leader, with his country widely perceived as an increasingly important international player. His earlier intensive economic and political forays in the Middle East were a mixed bag, but this year he moved from initially wavering in support of democratic protestors to becoming a highly vocal advocate of popular democratic movements in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.
This impressed Europe, won the respect of publics in the Middle East and got the ear of President Obama. Indeed, despite his incessant criticism of Israel, Erdogan received a very positive welcome in the United States from Obama in September, more support for his war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and general approbation of his efforts in the Middle East, including the role of Turkey’s democracy in encouraging fledgling new ones. By all accounts he talks frequently to Obama, who values his views and efforts to support democratic insurgents. (Apparently Erdogan’s animosity toward dictators who attack their people does not apply to his support of the indicted war criminal who rules Sudan and gets significant Turkish investment.)
In the past decade, Erdogan has transformed Turkey and dominates the country like no figure since Ataturk. One prominent Turkish politician used to argue that Turkey needed a good driver to maneuver around all the potholes in the way of necessary change. Erdogan proved not only a great driver but also filled in many of the remaining potholes, most importantly beating the political stuffing out of the Turkish military, which permitted him to make major political and economic change.
Turkey has become a far more dynamic, democratic country with one of the highest growth rates in the world. That growth has enabled Erdogan to move with skill and authority in foreign policy, won him attention and mostly plaudits from much of the world, and put Turkey in the G-20. He is so dominant that for three weeks this month the country seemed to stop, and even his political enemies held their breath, from an ill-reported sudden stomach operation which left Erdogan temporarily house ridden. There were widespread fears that his majority AK Party simply would not be able to replace his absolute control and it would fall into factionalism, despite the party’s control of parliament for the next four years. The Turkish press lamented his absent dynamism.
How significant is Turkish influence in the Middle East? How applicable are the “Turkish model” and Erdogan’s leadership style to the area’s chaotic political change? These are questions that pervade policy discussions. Erdogan has brought to his Middle East efforts considerable personal advantages: the appeal of his strong religious beliefs within a secular state and a penchant for criticizing the existing global order that favors the West and Israel at the expense of Muslims. He also portrays himself as the voice of the oppressed. More practically, he has focused on expanding Ankara’s trade, investment and aid in the area, benefiting not only Turkey but also economic development in other difficult places such as Iraq, Libya, Syria (until recently), other Arab states and the Balkans. He used his break with Israel to fuel his popularity in the Arab world. He has not seen any negative consequences of this break because Turkey has become too important a player, and neither Israel nor or its American friends want to further escalate tensions with Turkey.
Erdogan also has shown a capacity to adapt quickly, to simply brush off his early mistakes in the Middle East by changing his stance in response to events. He has successfully done this on Syria, where only last year he was Assad’s bosom buddy.
The new year is likely to be a more difficult one for Erdogan, for Turkey domestically as well as in foreign affairs. Turkey has mostly escaped recession, but serious economic problems may be in store. Its trade deficit has reached extraordinary levels, and the lira has fallen sharply. Increasing incomes have been an essential part of his popular success, and they may fall with Europe’s decline. He has promised a new constitution next year to replace the current military-produced document, but it seems unlikely that he will get enough support from the political parties to do so. That will not help him with his most immediate and most difficult political headache, making peace with Turkey’s Kurds.
There also remains in Turkey and the West, fairly or unfairly, a dim view of Turkey’s domestic political scene: some claim that Erdogan has become a far more authoritarian leader with a strong religious agenda; that he dominates the judiciary; that he has imposed an increasing uniformity on the Turkish press, with an ensuing decline into self-censorship; that there has been widespread expansion of wiretapping; and that he has arrested numerous journalists charged with abetting coups. This perspective seems to worry the EU more than the United States.
In foreign affairs, Erdogan will face continuing faltering relations with the EU and fruitless efforts to resolve the Cyprus division. But most of his attention (and ours) in the coming year will be on the vast unfinished business in the Middle East—notably Syria, Iraq and Iran. In these areas, Turkey is increasingly in alignment and close consultation with the United States. That is a marked change from several years ago when many of the conservative cognoscenti declared Turkey was leaving the West. But the turbulence of the Middle East generates enormous uncertainty. Nobody is sure of what tomorrow brings.
Syria is the most immediate concern of Turkey and the West. Turkey’s strong denunciations of Assad, his support for the Syrian opposition, and his increasing but limited efforts to depose Assad have been welcome, but it is highly unlikely that Turkey would use its own forces to drive Assad out. It is open to question whether the allies can depose Assad in any short-time frame and then help create some decent political stability. But Turkey, the major frontline state here, will continue to move in close consultation and partnership with the West and the Arab world.
Turkey has a big economic stake in Iraq, an attachment to unity there and great concern for the balance of power in the region. The U.S. departure from Iraq has heightened Turkish concerns about Iraq’s future. Erdogan totally changed Turkey’s Iraq policy. Turkey now helps maintain the viability of the Kurdish region in the north and its autonomy, but also wants it to remain part of a united Iraq. Erdogan’s increasing war with the PKK in Northern Iraq puts Turkey at odds with the Kurdish regional government, but he is unlikely to mount a major invasion of the area. His efforts to solve Turkey’s own Kurdish problem are complicated not only by the Iraqi Kurdish region but also now by the restiveness of the Kurds in an unfriendly Syria and Iran. Turkey also seeks to prevent Iranian influence from dominating an increasingly Shiite government in Baghdad. The Iraqi scene has made Turkey an even more important ally for the United States.
While Washington will likely get little help from Turkey on the Iranian nuclear issue, the bloom has come off the rose on Turkish-Iranian relations. They were never close, and the two professed friends are at loggerheads over Syria and competing for influence in Iraq. The NATO antiballistic-missile radar in Turkey has unsurprisingly aroused Iranian ire, and all this has impressed the Obama administration.
Erdogan was a very poor boy who did not grow up schooled in foreign policy, but he has acquired enormous experience after eight years on the job, incessant travel and help from his ambitious foreign minister. Moving with assurance, he does not hesitate to assert himself, and he relishes the global stage.
Erdogan’s strong political support has permitted him to take risks, and his poll numbers remain impressively high even with concern about his authoritarian tendencies. He is determined to expand Turkey’s economic and political influence in the Middle East and beyond. But he is also practical and quick to change when events require. He remains attached to his coreligionists, though there are signs of divisions among these groups. He has gradually moved to closer relations with the United States, most importantly in the Middle East, Israel aside. The United States, in turn, has recognized and welcomed Turkey’s interest in playing a larger role. It is unfortunate that the EU continues to give Turkey the cold shoulder.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. He was ambassador to Turkey from 1989 to 1991.
Image: Πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας