Four years after embarking on its quest to become the hegemon of the Middle East, Turkey has ended up virtually friendless in the region.
Though Turkey’s citizens have enjoyed more than half a century of democratic rule since the first free elections in 1950 it has not been without its setbacks, with direct and indirect military coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. Hence the Islamist AKP, which became the ruling party in 2002, was initially seen as a force which would make Turkey a genuine European democracyand end its system of military tutelage. The US, in particular, expected an AKP-led Turkey to set an example for political and economic reform in Middle Eastern countries with decrepit authoritarian regimes, such as Syria, Egypt, and Libya. The so-called Turkish model – a freely-elected “moderate Islamist” government that believed in democracy and the free market – was also promoted as an alternative to radical Islamism in the Middle East.
The Turkish model – a freely-elected “moderate Islamist” government that believed in democracy and the free market – was promoted as an alternative to radical Islamism in the Middle East.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ahmet Davutoğlu, and their AKP colleagues went even further, dreaming that Turkey would become not just a model for Middle Eastern democracies, but their leader. After the start of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, they oversaw a radical transformation in Turkey’s foreign policy, backing Islamist parties throughout the Middle East and North Africa: Ennahda, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egypt, the AKP pursued a policy of engagement with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, while in Syria it played an important role in arming the Islamist rebels fighting al-Assad. Today, four years from the outbreak of the Arab Uprisings, little remains of the West’s, or the AKP’s, hopes for Turkey. There are three main reasons why these hopes were misplaced.
First, Turkey’s experience of political Islam has always been quite different from that of other Middle Eastern countries. A member of NATO since 1952, the Turkish state made the Islamists into a key ally in its Cold War-era struggle against communism. By contrast, the regimes of Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, Qaddafi, and others saw political Islam as an existential threat and refused to allow Islamist parties to operate. In Turkey, Islamists have had their own parties and taken part in elections since the 1970s; they have served in numerous coalition governments and seen their members become government ministers. Metropolises like Ankara and Istanbul have been run by Islamist mayors since 1994. Thus it was always inaccurate to view political Islam in Turkey as a marginalized, oppressed force which would change the system from the outside. On the contrary, Turkey’s Islamists have been an integral part of this system for 45 years.
It was always inaccurate to view political Islam in Turkey as a marginalized, oppressed force which would change the system from the outside.
Second, the AKP has inherited many characteristics of the authoritarian political regime that was shaped by Turkey’s military juntas during the Cold War. Describing itself as the sole legitimate representative of Turkey’s ‘national will’, the AKP has embraced, not pluralism, but majoritarianism. It has taken conservative stances on abortion and other women’s rights issues and sought to curb numerous individual freedoms. As its power steadily grew throughout its 13-year tenure, the AKP became increasingly more authoritarian, silencing all criticism on the individual, party, and societal level. This process accelerated considerably during the AKP’s third term, with its heavy-handed repression of the non-violent 2013 Gezi protests, its hushing up of allegations of high-level corruption and its brazen censorship of news outlets as well as social media like Twitter. The AKP is no longer a model for democratisation in the region – if it ever was.
Finally, Turkey never possessed the military, economic, and political resources to implement Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamist grand vision for his country. The clearest expression of this vision is found in Davutoğlu’s 2001 volume Strategic Depth. In this oft-cited work, Davutoğlu argues that Turkey – currently classified as a “mid-size power” by scholars of International Relations – must achieve dominance in the Middle East before it can become a “global power.” Unfortunately, much of the theoretical basis for Davutoğlu’svision consists of long-discredited ideas espoused by German, American, and British geopoliticians before the second world war. It is disconcerting, to say the least, to hear Davutoğlu describe the Middle East as Turkey’s “inevitable hinterland,” or appeal to his country’s need for “Lebensraum.” The fruits of Davutoğlu’s adventurist foreign policy are plain for all to see: Turkey now has no ambassadors in Yemen, Israel, Libya, Syria, or Egypt, and is currently hosting some 2 million Syrian refugees. ISIS controls one stretch of Turkey’s border with Syria, while another stretch is under the control of the PYD (the Syrian branch of the PKK, with which Turkey has been at war for years). In short, four years after embarking on its quest to become the hegemon of the Middle East, Turkey has ended up virtually friendless in the region.
Turkey now has no ambassadors in Yemen, Israel, Libya, Syria, or Egypt, and is currently hosting some 2 million Syrian refugees.
Even more crucially, the recent June 7 elections resulted in the loss of the single-party mandate which the AKP has enjoyed for the past 13 years. In order to form a government, the AKP will now have to build a coalition with one of the three opposition parties in parliament: the centre-left CHP, the Turkish nationalist MHP, or the Kurdish/left party, the HDP. All three parties are opposed to the AKP’s foreign policy. The CHP has promised that it “will remain impartial in the ongoing war in Syria”; the MHP, by contrast, has announced that it “will do its part to insure that Syria preserves its territorial integrity and attains peace and stability.” As for the HDP, it has declared that “the civil war in Syria must come to an end,” and that it will “take definitive steps to prevent jihadi elements from transiting Turkey on their way to [Syria].” In all likelihood, the AKP’s electoral upset will result in Turkey discontinuing its pan-Islamist foreign policy and adopting a more neutral stance in the Middle East. However, the road ahead is certain to be quite bumpy. The AKP still commands considerable support, having won 41% of the popular vote. 47% of Turkey’s MPs are from the AKP; the party controls the offices of president and speaker of parliament, and has filled all state institutions with its own supporters for the past 13 years. Whether a new coalition government will be able to restore Turkey’s democratic institutions at home – and reset its foreign policy abroad – remains to be seen.
Behlul Ozkan is an ECFR Counci Member
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.