October 30, 2017
Turkey’s current mood is one of gloom. Much of this is unpredictability related. We Turks don’t know what tomorrow may bring not to speak of the months and years ahead. We are constantly on edge, anxious and worried. Yesterday marked the 94th anniversary of the founding of the Republic, celebrated as our National Day. In the morning, Turkey’s political leaders assembled at Ataturk’s Mausoleum as they do every year. This was supposed to be a day of joy, celebration. Yet, none of them managed to put on a smile. All one saw was a group of tense people not even talking to each other. On the other hand, those celebrating the National Day with great enthusiasm were making a political statement in support of Turkey’s Republican traditions and their increasing numbers is a ray of hope.
Internally, we are still under emergency rule. With weak and submissive institutions our democracy is backsliding. Politics remain confrontational, polarized and the negative impact of all of that on the economy is becoming more and more obvious with each passing day.
In foreign relations, we no longer seem to know who are our friends and who are our adversaries. Bashar Assad, once a great friend, somehow became our number one enemy and now we are partnering with Russia and Iran, his principal supporters. In November 2015 we shot down a Russian military plane and rushed to Brussels to seek support from our NATO allies; now, we are buying Russian S-400 missile systems and accusing our allies of supporting terrorism and threatening our territorial integrity. On September 21, before his meeting with President Erdogan, President Trump said that Turkey and the US are as close as they have ever been. Yet, everybody knows that the relationship is at its lowest point in decades. Iraqi PM Ibadi was an adversary and Massoud Barzani a friend and now they have changed roles. Thus, a zigzag pattern at brief intervals has become the main feature of our foreign policy. We constantly hear, usually in equivocal language, of “external powers”, “higher minds” conspiring to prevent Turkey’s rise as a global power. We seem to be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Turkey is a country bordering on conflict areas.
For over ten years the Balkan mayhem kept us busy. Since the Balkans are Turkey’s gateway to Europe, our trade, transport and communications were adversely affected. Refugees traveled not only towards the west but also towards the east, to Turkey. The Balkans are peaceful today but only after having paid an extremely high price.
Instability in the Caucasus also created similar challenges for Ankara. And, these are not totally over yet.
But, the biggest share of our regional troubles has always been linked to instability in the Middle East.
In the past, Turkey was able to steer through these minefields with cool-headed policies but always paying a price for its “strategic location”. The Arab spring and our getting involved in the Syrian conflict, however, have led to unprecedented foreign and security policy challenges. And, the price has skyrocketed.
As a country experiencing internal strains and lots of trouble in its immediate neighborhood Turkey would be wise to avoid new confrontations. ISIS may have lost territory but it will not disappear and no one can predict exactly what is to follow when today’s alliances of convenience expire. In other words, ISIS’ defeat on the battlefield will not by itself usher in a period of stability in the Middle East. It will not heal Iraq’s and Syria’s internal divisions and Turkey will continue to get its share of the turmoil.
The JDP leadership may find it useful for internal political purposes, including the holding of its supporters in state of constant mobilization, to give the impression that it is waging war against the world. It may also find it useful to deter by putting the emphasis on military power. Altogether, this is bad strategy and runs counter to government’s professed policy of “more friends and fewer enemies”. It destroys the fabric of partnership with our traditional allies. Diplomacy and displays of military power are not mutually exclusive. In a neighborhood like ours they complement one another.
The JDP has been in power for fifteen consecutive years and its leadership may wish to earn itself a special place in country’s history. To attain this objective, it does not have to gather an army, fight the victors of a world war, fight foreign invasion, rebuild the country’s foreign and security policy infrastructures and economy from scratch. All of that was achieved with our War of Independence under Ataturk’s leadership, declaration of the Republic and his far-reaching internal reforms which earned us world’s respect and inspired peoples fighting for national liberation. Attempts at writing a new narrative for a “second war of independence” have no basis; they defy history.
To earn itself that special place in history, the JDP government needs to rapidly upgrade Turkey’s democracy and erase the downward spiral of recent years from public memory. This would require restoring the rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and freedoms including the pursuit of happiness, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and parliamentary oversight. These remain key to Turkey’s internal peace, unity and prosperity and reviving its status as a major regional player, one with an asset that others do not have: soft power.