Five years ago, when the so-called “Arab Spring” erupted, Turkey’s hour seemed to have arrived. Having been humiliated by the European Union after years of accession negotiations – talks marked by a chain of false promises from the EU – Turkey’s then-prime minister (and now president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had the perfect plan for restoring his country’s pride and boosting its credibility: It would help to reshape a Middle East in turmoil. Needless to say, things have not unfolded exactly as planned.
Turkey was certainly in a strong position to make a difference. With its functioning democracy, booming market economy, and rich cultural history, Turkey seemed to offer an attractive economic, social, and political model for the region. Like Indonesia, it was living proof that Islam is, in fact, compatible with both democracy and modernity – an observation that was not lost on the demonstrators in, say, Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Even then, however, there was cause for concern. Erdoğan was already giving the impression that he might seek to concentrate power in his own hands, thereby undermining Turkey’s democracy and, in turn, its regional leadership ambitions. Unfortunately, that is precisely what has happened.
It began when Erdoğan attempted, with the utmost self-assurance, to demonstrate his regional clout; he insisted, for example, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom Turkey had previously had friendly relations, step down. He was so confident that his call would be heeded, and that he would emerge as an indispensable regional leader, that he felt free to distance himself from the West and toughen his stance toward Israel.
In fact, Erdoğan’s influence proved far weaker than he had anticipated. Making matters worse, widening turmoil in the region began to expose Turkey’s deep-rooted problems; in particular, Kurdish nationalism, which Erdoğan had taken great pains to subdue, was reinvigorated. As the democratic dream of the Arab Spring degenerated, first into confusion and then into violence, Erdoğan’s dream, too, crumbled.
But, instead of taking the lessons of this experience and creating a new vision for his country, a disappointed, if not deeply frustrated, Erdoğan doubled down on his effort to consolidate power. By 2014, he had taken over the presidential palace and surrounded himself by a guard meant to evoke Ottoman splendor, a fairly transparent effort to compensate for his inability to shape regional developments according to his – much less his country’s – interests.
This approach mirrors that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who uses the sumptuous trappings and immense resources of his office to claim credit for restoring his country’s national pride, particularly when he is trying to persuade ordinary Russians to make economic sacrifices. Likewise, Erdoğan has positioned himself as a kind of protector of Turks’ dignity and sense of themselves as constituting a great power.
With the Syrian conflict raging next door, however, Erdoğan’s claims are far from convincing. Turkey is facing a refugee crisis that dwarfs the one confronting Europe; a proliferation of terrorist attacks on its territory; and heightened tensions with the Kremlin, following its downing of a Russian warplane near its border with Syria in November.
Clearly, Erdoğan’s approach has exacerbated a bad situation. Despite having made up with both the West and Israel – a move that presumably required him to swallow some pride – he has refused to prioritize the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) above the need to keep the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in check. This has put distance between Turkey and its Western allies, which view the Kurdish question as a domestic issue.
From Turkey’s perspective, however, this is not strictly true, owing to the influence that international developments – particularly with regard to ISIS – have on the PKK. As the Kurds have emerged as a powerful force in the fight against ISIS, they have secured increased independence in Syria and Iraq. While the West, which much prefers the Kurds to ISIS, welcomes Kurdish gains, Turkey is watching them with anxiety, convinced that they prefigure a bid for Kurdish independence.
In this context, Erdoğan seems to have no intention of changing his approach, even though it is increasing Turkey’s isolation from its Western allies. He apparently remains convinced that the West needs him – both to control NATO’s southern flank and to filter and stem the flow of Syrian refugees toward Europe – more than he needs the West. But this would not be the first time Erdoğan’s self-assuredness backfired.
The reality is that, thanks largely to Erdoğan’s relentless drive to strengthen the presidency, Turkey is losing diplomatic clout and becoming increasingly vulnerable to terrorism. It would be premature to write off Erdoğan, who has demonstrated more than once his extraordinary political resilience; but it is not too soon to condemn his approach. After all, a fragile Turkey makes for a more vulnerable West – and an even more vulnerable Middle East, which desperately needs pillars of stability.
Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London. He is the author of The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.