TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s Woes Continue
January 7, 2016

Turkey’s Woes Continue

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Turkey has remained on the sidelines of the region’s Sunni-Shi’a rift, but will likely be dragged further towards supporting Saudi Arabia

• Turkey is still suffering the consequences of downing a Russian aircraft in November; Iraq too has become more hostile to Ankara

• As Turkish identity becomes more nationalist and conservative, the country faces increasing internal challenges

• While Turkey has made some moves to restore its fortunes, there is a limit to what it can do; nonetheless, Turkish engagement in the region is vital to its long-term stability.

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Turkey has thus far largely avoided taking sides in the spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran, though President Erdogan has expressed a more pro-Saudi position than his Prime Minister. Whereas Ahmet Davutoglu called on Tuesday for diplomatic efforts to resolve the difficulties between the two countries, offering Turkey as an intermediary, on Wednesday Erdogan roundly criticized Iran for not protecting Saudi diplomatic missions and noted that the execution of the Shi’a cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was an internal Saudi affair that had followed domestic law. More significantly, Erdogan commented that the rise in sectarian tensions in the region reflected the work of a ‘superior force’ that was trying to divide the Muslim world. He also questioned why the execution of Nimr had attracted so much more of the world’s attention than the death sentence passed by an Egyptian court on ex-President Morsi.

Turkey’s neutrality in the escalating quarrel between Iran and Saudi Arabia is important both nationally and regionally. Although Turkey has been drawn closer to Saudi Arabia by their shared opposition to the continued rule of President Assad in Syria, the relationship between the two countries has traditionally been cool; and unlike Saudi Arabia, Turkey does not view the Syrian civil war in sectarian terms. Turkey has also had a relatively normal relationship with Iran in recent history. Though relations are currently at a low point due to the Syrian conflict, they are generally based on trade, and Turkey’s border with Iran has been stable for centuries. In the struggle for regional hegemony, Turkey has presented an alternative focus to Saudi Arabia and Iran that is neither Sunni nor Shi’a, and neither Arab nor Persian. This does not make Turkey more popular, especially in light of its imperialist past and current neo-Ottoman ambitions, but it at least adds a different dimension to the regional arrangement.

Internally, President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have tapped into a particularly Turkish blend of religion and nationalism, in which the emphasis rests on what it means to be Turkish rather than what it means to be Muslim. While Erdogan’s interpretation of Turkish identity has strengthened Turkey’s core, it has alienated its Kurdish minority and worried its secular elite. These worries are compounded by suspicions that Erdogan’s push for the introduction of a presidential system is a thinly disguised power grab—a suspicion given further weight at the end of December by Erdogan’s reference to Hitler’s Germany as an example of a presidential system in a unitary state.

On top of these internal tensions, Turkey continues to suffer the fallout from its downing in November of a Russian SU-24 that briefly crossed the border while attacking Turkmen rebel groups supported by Turkey in northern Syria. Under pressure from Russia and Iran, Iraq has also shown some hostility towards Turkey, referring it to the United Nations Security Council in December when it reinforced a training mission near Mosul with 150 extra Turkish troops. In Syria, too, the tide seems to be turning against Turkey—both in the growing international consensus that Assad may continue as president, at least in the short term, and by the increasing success of rebel units that include the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkey has reengaged in a brutal war of its own in the southeast of the country. Turkey had attempted to set a red line for the YPG at the eastern bank of the Euphrates; however the threat of a hostile Russian response has severely limited Turkey’s options for enforcing this red line and the YPG may in due course manage to link under Kurdish control the whole length of the Syrian-Turkish border.

This would be a significant loss of face and influence for Turkey, and Erdogan has made various counter-moves. He has started to patch up relations with Israel—in tatters since Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2007 and the Israeli commando raid on the Turkish relief ship, Mavi Marmara, off the coast of Gaza in 2010. Paradoxically, it was Erdogan’s stand against Israel, famously symbolized by his row with Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009, that had given him such standing in the Arab world. Turkey has also made a deal with the European Union to stem the flow of refugees through the country and has made the transit of foreign fighters to and from Syria far harder, deporting or refusing entry to over 5,000 foreigners and interviewing another 5,000 at ports of entry. The visit to Ankara on Tuesday of U.S. General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is likely to lead to further areas of agreement in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Less publicized, Turkey’s release on bail on Tuesday of a Vice News journalist, whose four-month imprisonment on terrorist charges had become a cause célèbre in the West, was also designed to ease the pressure on the government from abroad.

Beset by problems for which it can find no quick solutions, Turkey may increasingly turn inward, intensifying its fight against its own Kurdish population and granting Erdogan sweeping presidential powers. Neither development will reassure the world that Turkey will be able to play the stabilizing regional role that is so badly needed.

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