Turkey at a Crossroads

istanbulblastAFPGE_3548337a-largeIn an article published last month for MENA Analysis, I review major developments in Turkey over the past few years and explore prospects for the country moving forward in 2016. Turkey is surely a country to watch: In line with its geographic position straddling the continents, it faces an identity crisis between its European and Asian halves. Over more than a decade of AKP rule, it seems to have swung back and forth on whether its priority is to become a member of the European Union or the Neo-Ottoman leader of the Middle East.

Turkey is back in accession talks with the EU, following an agreement to stem the flow of migrants entering Europe from its territory. But implementation of this accord now seems rather uncertain. Just last week, President Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” of Turkey to let hundreds of thousands of additional migrants reach Europe.

On the security front, Turkey is a key NATO ally, which joined the anti-Islamic State Coalition in July and has provided coalition partners with access to its strategic Incirlik Air Base. However, its position on the Islamic State (IS) diverges from that of Western powers when it comes to Syrian Kurdish groups. Western States view these groups as foot soldiers in the frontline against IS; in Turkey’s view, they are intimately tied to its internal Kurdish separatists, who are seen as posing an increasing menace since the breakdown of the ceasefire between the Government and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) this past summer. Some say that over the last few years, Turkey’s prioritization of the fight against Kurdish nationalists, along with the toppling of the Assad regime, has led it to neglect the fight against IS. Others go even further to accuse Turkey of a “double-game,” involving tacit support for the terrorist organization, paralleling similar allegations targeting Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

On the other hand, after a series of IS attacks within Turkey, including the most deadly one in its history in October (killing over a hundred) and at a major tourist destination last month (killing 10 German tourists), Turkey may be coming to greater awareness about the immensity of the threat. Already in the last quarter of 2015, Turkish police stepped up their arrests of IS militants. Still, cracking down on those who pose an internal threat is not the same as abandoning the targeting of those Kurdish groups themselves seen as vital to the fight against the terrorist organization.

The unpredictability of Turkey’s international relations mirrors the uncertain domestic environment over the past year. 2015 was a critical year for the AKP, during which it temporarily lost its mandate for the first time in over a decade, after it failed to secure a majority of seats in the June parliamentary elections. Its comeback in the November elections brought temporary calm, following this period of heightened instability, during which time the lira shot down to a record low. But, Turkey’s longer-term prospects remain an open question.

Many challenges are beyond the Government’s control, such as the fact that it shares a 900-kilometer land border with crisis-ridden Syria. The Syrian Civil War, of course, represents a geopolitical rupture not seen since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire—a situation that was doomed to impact Turkey. Turkey will face an increasing flow of refugees into its territory, with fresh waves fleeing the recent violence in Aleppo. The Government claims to have already spent several billion dollars on these migrants, even as the majority of them continue to live in precarious conditions. Moreover, Turkey appears to be stuck in a classic “middle-income” trap, struggling to find its way into the higher-skilled knowledge economy in order to open opportunities for its burgeoning population. And, like other emerging economies, it is rightfully nervous over the raising of interest rates by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

At the same time, much of the uncertainty regarding Turkey stems from President Erdogan’s increasingly mercurial personality. He ascended from the role of Prime Minister to President in 2014, but still appears to be calling the shots of Government. In recent years, Erdogan has been accused of a slide towards authoritarianism, especially by jailing journalists who dared to criticize his policies. In addition, he faces allegations of cronyism for rewarding political allies with lucrative contracts, as well as outright corruption. As for the internal conflict with the PKK, Erdogan vowed in December to wage a “decisive” campaign to put an end to it. In the meantime, the situation in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country has descended into urban warfare, leaving behind a trail of internally displaced persons.

The irony of all of this is that just several years back, the AKP was hailed as the party that was moving Turkey in a more democratic direction, bringing peace with the Kurds, and lifting the country from a low middle-income status to one on the threshold of becoming a high income economy.

It is hoped that the AKP will use its renewed political capital (it will not have to face elections again until 2019) to move the country back onto the pragmatic track. The Government is clearly concerned about wooing back investors and patching up its international relations. However, concerns remain that Erdogan could instead pander to the populists who helped his party win the most recent elections and prioritize his own interests and ambitions.


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