The horror of the suspected ISIS bombing of a Turkish young socialist meeting in Suruc has highlighted how Turkey is bound-up with both Europe and the Middle East geographically, politically and culturally. The issues the country confronts are complex and multi-layered.
In this extract from his powerful new book Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring, Richard Falk, a world-renowned scholar of international law and former UN Rapporteur on Palestine, provides a highly informative and clear overview of developments in Turkey. He looks book at the historic developments in Turkey since 2002, and its shifting and complex foreign policy.
My relationship to Turkey is far closer than it is to any of the other countries in the Middle East. My wife is Turkish, we have made long annual visits to Turkey for the past twenty years, and I have had the opportunity to know a wide range of Turkish political personalities quite closely.
I have also been motivated to write about the Turkish government and its leadership because it has so often been misunderstood. Western perceptions of Turkish political life are distorted by several interacting factors: the hostility of Turkey’s secular establishment to the governing AKP (Justice and
Development Party) and its dominant leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Turkey’s tensions with Israel and the United States; and the global media exhibiting hostility to Turkey due to the influence of these political forces.
While I share some of the criticisms directed at the AKP and Erdoğan, especially since 2011, I am also much more appreciative of their political, economic, and ethical performance than their harsh detractors.
Turkey and the Arab Spring
Turkey’s relationship to the Middle East is particularly layered and complex. It neither belongs to the Arab world nor to the European Christian world, yet is deeply implicated in the history, culture, economic and politics of both. Since 2002, Turkey has had dramatic ups and downs internally, regionally, and internationally. During this entire period it has been governed controversially by the AKP, which has been attacked as both authoritarian and trending toward Islamism. Its supporters emphasize tradition, social justice, and rapid economic development.
After the upheavals of the Arab Spring in early 2011, Turkey was popularly viewed as a model of stability and development throughout the region, a country that had managed to reconcile secularism and religion. Its prime minister (now president), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was the most popular leader
in the Middle East; its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, became one of the most influential diplomats in the world, admired for his energetic efforts to promote peaceful conflict resolution and compromise and to enlarge Turkey’s political horizons in all directions.
Yet there were many bumps in the road. At home, the secular opposition has never been willing to accept the legitimacy of the AKP leadership, despite its extraordinary record of economic growth. At the same time this opposition was frustrated by its inability to produce either a credible alternative
program or interesting potential political leaders. As a result, the AKP has won election after election and the opposition became more and more embittered.
Since 2011, Erdoğan has relied on his electoral mandate and grassroots popularity to govern in a more overtly authoritarian style. He has especially agitated the secular ranks of “white Turks” with his rants about such social issues as abortion, alcohol, education, the role of women, and the desirability of population increase. Erdoğan seems increasingly to be abandoning any effort to lead in a manner that is inclusive of opposition concerns. To some extent, this is a reasonable reaction to the inflammatory behavior of the main opposition parties and media.
The Gezi Park uprising
The demonstrations in Gezi Park in 2013 showed the anti-Erdoğan fury that exists in Turkey, with its contradictory interpretations exhibiting the polarization ripping the country apart. There is no doubt that the Turkish police overreacted in a brutal manner and that Erdoğan handled the incident awkwardly, endorsing the use of excessive force. It is also the case that after the initial phase of the protests against turning an historic Istanbul park into a shopping mall, the second phase of the events in Gezi were more confrontational, apparently seeking to imitate the anti-Morsi street politics that created a crisis of governability in Egypt.
In the last year or so, the domestic scene in Turkey has been further roiled by conflict between the government and the Hizmet movement, led by an Islamic scholar and preacher living in Pennsylvania named Fethullah Gülen. The AKP accuses Hizmet of setting up a “parallel state” by deliberately
infiltrating its loyalists into the bureaucracy, especially the police and judiciary. Hizmet accuses Erdoğan of corruption, crony capitalism, and authoritarianism. As with the displaced secular opposition, Hizmet’s defection from the AKP cause has so far not diminished the AKP’s level of popular support.
The Syrian civil war
In recent years, Turkey has experienced a series of setbacks internationally. The AKP’s approach to Syria has been problematic in several ways that have weakened the overall credibility of Turkish relations with the region. Davutoğlu’s signature approach of “zero problems with neighbors” was
launched with fanfare as Turkey embraced al-Assad’s Syria, ending years of tension. When the Arab Spring arrived and Syrians rose up against the authoritarianism of the Assad regime in Damascus, Turkey first tried to urge democratic reforms. When these failed to materialize, Ankara sided with the
rebels and especially the Muslim Brotherhood component of the many-sided Syrian opposition, perceiving the conflict as certain to be quickly resolved in favor of the anti-government side. Damascus accused Turkey of intervening on behalf of the insurgency and promoting Sunni sectarianism.
Relations with Israel
A second vector of difficulty arose when Turkey criticized Israel after the breakdown of Turkey’s effort to mediate a solution to the conflict between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights. The initial criticisms focused on Israel’s behavior in Gaza, especially the military operations known as Cast Lead that began at the end of 2008. These tensions reached their climax in 2010 when Israeli commandos attacked the Turkish civilian ship Mavi Marmara in international waters, killing nine Turkish passengers. The ship was the lead vessel in a flotilla of small, unarmed ships seeking to challenge Israel’s unlawful blockade of Gaza by delivering humanitarian goods directly
to the beleaguered Gazan population.
The problems with Israel overlapped with and reinforced some tensions with the United States. It seemed that the U.S. government expected Turkey to be as submissive after the Cold War as it had been during it. The AKP clearly sought to maintain its role in NATO as part of the Western alliance.
It also sought continuity in its relationship with the United States, but felt entitled to act as an independent player in the region. This posture came up against Washington’s insistence on having a free hand in the Middle East.
When Turkey, in collaboration with Brazil, sought to defuse nuclear tensions with Iran in 2010, Washington reacted angrily, reminding Turkey not to get out of line, as President Obama called for strengthened sanctions as the centerpiece of its reliance on coercive diplomacy to gain its goals in relation to Iran’s nuclear program. The Turkish initiative, designed to lower tensions, ran directly counter to the belligerently anti-Iranian approach being advocated by Israel.
Eliminating the 'deep state'
What followed was a worldwide campaign to discredit the AKP leadership, portraying Erdoğan as a second Putin. In my view, the AKP deserves a more balanced treatment. Turkey’s achievements since 2002 far outweigh its shortcomings. Erdoğan is skilled in surrounding himself with highly capable
officials and advisors, especially in key positions. Turkey’s economic development has been sustained far more successfully than that of other countries in the region, or in Europe for that matter. Perhaps the greatest of the AKP’s achievements has been eliminating the “deep state” as a force that had lurked below the surface of Turkish politics ever since the republic was established in 1920.
Gaining civilian control over security policies repudiated the Atatürk tradition, which allowed the
armed forces to play a custodial role in relation to the elected government and had seemed a permanent feature of Turkish political life, producing periodic military coups as well as supervision over the behavior of political leaders. Challenging this structure required great political skill and commitment as well as accepting the risk of provoking a coup, which nearly happened in the early years of AKP governance. Turkey also did its utmost to bring greater stability and prosperity to the region, through diplomacy, cultural exchanges, and trade/investment relations.
Beyond this, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan were innovative in encouraging diplomatic and economic
relations with Africa and Latin America, regions Turkey had previously ignored. As with so many countries in this period, Turkey’s fundamental problem has been the polarization of beliefs and affinities within its own population, which has created intense negativity in the political atmosphere.
It is rather remarkable that the AKP has so far been able to ride this unruly horse of polarization without worse mishaps. The Turkish leadership is being daily challenged by a defamatory campaign by its opponents at home and abroad designed to undermine the legitimacy of the state, an undertaking aided by the international media.
The threat of ISIS
The 2014 emergence of ISIS near Turkey’s borders has added yet another destabilizing and daunting challenge, one further complicated by Ankara’s search for a peaceful resolution of its own long, violent conflict with its large Kurdish minority. Turkey finds itself pulled in opposite directions. ISIS is an effective force in the ongoing effort to topple the Assad regime, but is also guilty of massive atrocities and is the target of an American-led intervention.
ISIS poses a difficult dilemma for Turkey—to give priority either to sectarian objectives or to the defeat of extremist challenges to the status quo. These posts seek to explain AKP’s political strength at home and the innovativeness of its foreign policy while taking due account of its mistakes
and setbacks. All political actors, within the region and beyond, made mistakes during this turbulent period; while Turkey made important miscalculations, its intentions were constructive and its record stands up well compared to other main players in the region, including the United States.
I anticipate two notable challenges for Turkey in 2015. The first is to respond to the worldwide Armenian campaign associated with observing the centennial anniversary of the 1915 massacres. The Erdoğan leadership has been more forthcoming in acknowledging these tragic events than its predecessors, but has not been willing to accede to the Armenian demand that they be acknowledged as “genocide.” One post tries to interpret this open wound and how it might be treated for the benefit of both sides. The second challenge involves the December 2015 UN climate-change conference in Paris, expected to be a make-or-break occasion with respect to heeding scientific warnings about global warming. To date Turkey has been extremely passive about international limits on carbon emissions and gives the impression of being unwilling to burden its economic ambitions by acting in an environmentally responsible manner.
To buy Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring visit Zed Books.