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Turkey’s Role in the Arab Spring

Sunday 16 September 2012, by siawi3


New Left Review 76, July-August 2012

Turkey’s Role in the Arab Spring

by Cihan Tuğal

The political upheavals of the Arab Spring and electoral victories of
Islamist parties have brought a resurgence of talk about the ‘Turkish
model’—a template that ‘effectively integrates Islam, democracy and
vibrant economics’, according to a gushing New York Times article last
year, which hailed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as ‘perhaps the Middle East’s
most influential figure’. White House officials stressed the positive
example that Turkey could play, as a Muslim country that maintained
diplomatic relations with Israel; in 2009 Obama hailed the Justice and
Development Party (akp) government as a ‘model partner’ and pillar of
the nato order on a much-trumpeted visit to Ankara. The International
Crisis Group describes Turkey as ‘the envy of the Arab world’,
delighting in ‘a robust democracy, a genuinely elected leader who
seems to speak for the popular mood, products that are popular from
Afghanistan to Morocco—including dozens of sitcoms dubbed into Arabic
that are on tv sets everywhere—and an economy that is worth about half
of the whole Arab world put together’. Tourists from elsewhere in the
region flocked to witness ‘a Muslim society at peace with the world,
economically advanced and where Islamic traditions coexist with
Western patterns of consumption’. [1]

The praise is echoed by Tariq Ramadan, who declared the Turkish Prime
Minister’s September 2011 visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya ‘an
immense popular success’—‘Arabs and Muslims looked on with amazement
and admiration’ as Erdoğan spoke up for Palestinians’ right to exist.
‘He is on the right side of History’, Ramadan proclaimed. ‘Turkey can
and must play an important role’, helping ‘to reconcile Muslims with
confidence, autonomy, pluralism and success’. [2] Meanwhile, Turkey’s
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has prided himself on bringing a new
pax ottomana to the region, a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ approach
that would expand Ankara’s influence across the Caucasus and the Black
Sea, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, while helping to broker
better relations between Israel and the Arab states. This vision
disavows any neo-Ottoman imperial ambitions; rather, it is described
by its proponents as a matter of ‘soft power’, underlining the smiling
face they wish to set on it. As an emergent structure of feeling, the
pax ottomana has been embraced by layers of the intelligentsia and by
popular culture, extending far beyond akp ranks. [3] A nostalgia for
all things ottomanesque has swept even secular Turkey, leading to
record ratings for a soap opera about Sultan Süleyman and his harem’s
intrigues; banalized and sexualized forms of imperial splendour have
become part of the air one breathes.

After a decade of akp rule, an international consensus has portrayed
Erdoğan’s Turkey as the ‘successful’ alternative to both secular Arab
authoritarianism and the revolutionary Islamism of Iran. Opinion polls
reveal a more cautious assent: some 60 per cent of Arabs are reported
to see Turkey as a model. To what extent does a cool-headed
examination of the akp’s foreign-policy and domestic record support
these claims?
The new Ostpolitik

The akp entered office in November 2002 as an outsider party,
capitalizing on the crisis of the political establishment after the
meltdowns of the Turkish economy in 1999 and 2001. Its origins lay in
a conservative social movement, built on the basis of street politics,
religious schools and popular mobilizations; its ideology combined
business ethics, religious piety and parliamentarianism with a
standard pro-Muslim, therefore pro-Palestinian, line, opposing
Anglo-American military intervention in the region. But the new akp
leadership—Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül, Bülent Arınç—were also vociferously
pro-eu and made frequent visits to the United States. [4] In the
November 2002 elections, the akp swept 60 per cent of seats in the
Meclis, the Turkish parliament, albeit with only 34 per cent of the
vote. Its first foreign-policy test came in spring 2003 with the us
invasion of Iraq—opposed by an overwhelming majority of the Turkish
population. The results of the three Meclis votes on the war hardly
need repeating. In February 2003, akp deputies supported a ruling to
allow us bases in Turkey to be upgraded, preparatory to the invasion.
The second vote, held in Erdoğan’s absence in March 2003, saw a
rebellion by akp backbenchers, who joined with the Republican People’s
Party opposition to vote down the government motion permitting us
troops to launch the invasion from Turkish soil. By the time of the
third vote a few weeks later, Erdoğan had whipped his party into line:
a massive majority of akp deputies now voted in favour of the war—and
for sending Turkish forces to support the Anglo-American occupation of
Iraq (this in addition to the troops that had long patrolled the Iraqi
Kurdish region under the Anglo-American no-fly zone).

In the event, the deployment of the Turkish military as part of the
occupation force in Iraq was blocked by the Iraqi Kurdish leader
Massoud Barzani, and perhaps also by the Bush Administration, as
punishment for the Meclis’s short-lived rebellion. Most striking,
however, and a measure of the hegemony that the akp enjoyed, was the
level of popular support for Erdoğan’s pro-Bush position, which was
read as a strategic masterstroke: a short-term concession that would
ensure American support for Turkey and the reward of major prizes in
the longer run. The third vote was also hailed by Turkey’s Atlanticist
liberals as a welcome step towards fuller participation in the
‘international community’s’ military interventions, not least in
former Ottoman lands. This support has stood the Erdoğan government in
good stead as it has lent its backing to successive Western military
interventions in Muslim countries. Thus in 2006, when the Turkish
population almost unanimously condemned Israel’s invasion of Lebanon
and bombardment of southern Beirut, Erdoğan and Gül, then Foreign
Minister, insisted on Turkish participation in the un force sent to
contain Hezbollah, which the idf had signally failed to do, on the
grounds of ‘coming to the aid’ of suffering Lebanese.

Similarly, Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arınç has explained that the
Turkish military is in Afghanistan to help nato ‘protect peace’. When
twelve Turkish soldiers were killed there recently in a helicopter
crash, the government’s liberal supporters—the ex-Maoist Şahin Alpay
prominent among them—rushed to point out the inseparability of Turkish
and ‘global’ interests, in response to a pointed inquiry by the new,
pro-left leader of the rpp, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as to whether Turkish
troops were in Afghanistan ‘to defend our nation’s interests’. Islamic
conservatives, meanwhile, argue that the Turkish contingent of isaf is
there to protect Afghans from the excesses of Western imperialism—an
excuse frequently used when defending Turkey’s participation in us-led
occupations. [5] They also emphasize the need to protect the Turkish
model of Islam against an alleged al-Qaeda version. Turkey’s
participation in isaf, along with that of Jordan and the uae, is
plainly of symbolic rather than military value to the us: the presence
of predominantly Muslim countries’ troops supposedly proves that this
is not a Christian crusade against Islam. In fact, it helps to lock
Turkey into its accustomed role as ‘bridge’ between Western
imperialism and the Muslim world—a bridge for nato forces to tramp
over. A minority of more radical Islamic forces, along with the
much-depleted left, still resist Turkey’s Western-guided involvement
in the region and call for independent diplomatic and military action.
But a far larger number of Islamic intellectuals and activists support
the government in its attempt to claim Islamic leadership while
remaining an extension of the West.

Once the akp’s central foreign-policy goal of eu entry had been
stalled—following Cypriot voters’ rejection of Kofi Annan’s plan for
circumnavigating the stark fact of Turkey’s 40-year military
occupation of the island—Ankara’s Ostpolitik took on new salience. In
2007, when French and German leaders made election-stump speeches
about ‘Christian Europe’, Erdoğan, Gül and Davutoğlu could gesture to
Turkey’s new role in the East. During the Cold War, Ankara’s
foreign-policy efforts had been almost exclusively West-oriented (if
long-standing relations with Israel can be included under this term).
The breakup of the Ottoman Empire had left a legacy of mutual distrust
across the region once ruled from Istanbul. Turks accused Arabs of
‘stabbing them in the back’ by cooperating with Western powers in the
aftermath of World War One; Kemalist modernization (and Turkification)
aimed at a decisive break with Islamic and Arab culture, including the
romanization of the alphabet and the de-Arabizing ‘purification’ of
the language. Similarly, historical Turkic domination was a negative
leitmotif for Arab states, whether secular republics or conservative
monarchies; Arab textbooks referred to Turks, not just Ottomans, as
imperialists. Just as Kemalists attributed Turkish ‘backwardness’ to
the decadent influence of Arab culture, so Arab nationalists blamed
Ottoman colonialism and exploitation for the low levels of their
countries’ economic development. It is true that some Arab Islamists
detected virtuous aspects in the Ottoman past, while some Turkish
Islamists were also nostalgic for the times when Turks, Arabs and
others coexisted under the banner of Islam. But if there was
widespread sympathy for the sufferings of the Palestinians, there was
little practical pro-Arab solidarity among Turkish Islamists, while
the country’s most influential religious organization, the Gülen
community—run by the cleric Fethullah Gülen from self-imposed exile in
Pennsylvania—espouses an explicitly Turkish-nationalist cultural
agenda. [6]

By the early 2000s, however, three developments were starting to cast
Turkey in a more positive, if still mottled, light for the Arab world.
Firstly, Turkey had combined its shift to neoliberalism with a partial
democratization, while neoliberalizing Arab regimes insisted on
authoritarianism, justifying their repressive security apparatuses to
the global elite as constituting a bulwark against radical Islamism,
and to the Arab masses as a defence against the Israeli threat [7] (a
preposterous excuse, given that Arab rulers systematically turned a
blind eye to Israel’s depredations in the occupied lands, contenting
themselves with anti-Zionist demagogy). Secondly, as its economic
recovery from the crash of 2001 picked up, Turkey began to enjoy
record inflows of fdi, not least from Gulf states, and started posting
higher growth figures—though also faster-widening inequalities.
Thirdly, the advent of akp rule aroused the curiosity of the Arab
world: Turkey’s Kemalist tradition was customarily portrayed as
atheistic and anti-Arab, but akp leaders were demonstratively pious
and, in Erdoğan’s case, had the popular touch. Thus, as police
brutality, poverty, inequality and unemployment intensified under
authoritarian neoliberal Arab regimes, Turkey re-emerged in the Arab
popular imagination as an ambivalent entity. The Erdoğan government
became a symbol of Muslim strength, but it also evoked uneasiness
about Turks’ imperial arrogance.

That arrogance has been amply displayed in the Erdoğan government’s
treatment of Turkey’s Kurds. Since 1984, the Turkish state has killed
an estimated 40,000 of its Kurdish citizens—comparable at least to the
deaths attributed to Bashar Assad—and repression of the Kurdish
language and culture has been more savage in Turkey than in Syria,
Iraq or Iran. [8] The first two years of akp rule brought some
measures decriminalizing Kurdish culture, including permission for
limited Kurdish-language tv broadcasting and private tuition, though
these fell short of what Kurds have been calling for. But by 2005, the
akp was starting to take a stridently Turkish-nationalist turn,
stepping up military repression in the south-east and swathing the
cities with giant Turkish flags. Concomitant with this, and encouraged
by the de facto Kurdish autonomous region created under the auspices
of the us occupation in northern Iraq, the pkk ended its five-year
ceasefire. Turkey duly stepped up its air raids on pkk camps in Iraq,
angering Massoud Barzani’s regional government there. The Bush
Administration stepped in to bang its allies’ heads together in
January 2005 and again in October 2007, brokering deals whereby
Barzani’s palm would be greased by Turkish construction firms, granted
huge government infrastructure contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan, including
the $40m Sulaymaniyah airport, while the Turkish military was given a
free hand to shell pkk militants sheltering in northern Iraq. [9]
After successive waves of arrests, activists estimate there are now at
least 3,000 Turkish-Kurdish students in prison, along with journalists
and university teachers, not all of them Kurdish, accused of
‘terrorist propaganda’ or ‘insulting the Turkish nation’.
‘Zero problems’

It was against this background that Erdoğan, Gül and Davutoğlu
launched the diplomatic initiative they dubbed ‘zero problems with
neighbours’, aiming to impress Middle East states with Ankara’s
influence in Washington, and Washington with its new influence in the
Middle East. A great deal of money was spent on upgrading Turkish
embassies, and much time and energy on shuttle diplomacy around the
region. The ‘zero problems’ policy had a substantial business
component. Economically, Turkey still remains overwhelmingly oriented
to the north and west: in 2010, Turkish trade with the eu was nearly
$125bn (Turkish exports of $52.7bn, imports of $72.2bn), while trade
with Russia and other former Soviet republics was $35.1bn. By
contrast, trade with the gcc and Yemen was $10.3bn ($6.7bn exports,
$3.6bn imports); trade with North Africa was $8.2bn; with Egypt,
$3.2bn; with Syria, $2.5bn, of which three-quarters was composed of
Turkish exports. Nevertheless, by 2010 trade with the Middle East and
North Africa was substantially greater than it had been in 2002—up
threefold with Syria, nearly fourfold with North Africa, fivefold with
the gcc and Yemen and sevenfold with Egypt. [10] Much of this was
represented by the Turkish construction industry, with projects often
facilitated by loans from Turkish banks; Turkish food and textile
companies have invested in Egypt, Syria and the Gulf. Davutoğlu’s
‘zero problem’ diplomacy also led to a welcome relaxation of visa
restrictions for Arab-state visitors to Turkey, putting them on a par
with tourists from the eu and Russia. Visa requirements for Moroccans
and Tunisians were eased in 2007, for Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians
and Libyans in 2009. The following year, Turkey steered through an
agreement with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan to create a four-country
free-trade zone, the Close Neighbours Economic and Trade Association.
Turkey’s diplomatic offensive naturally involved warmer relations with
the Gulf rulers, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Assad, Gaddafi and so on. In 2010
Erdoğan flew to Tripoli to be honoured by the Libyan leader with that
year’s Al-Gaddafi Human Rights Prize.

‘Zero problems’ with Israel was a central plank of Davutoğlu’s policy.
Bilateral trade with Israel almost tripled under the akp, rising from
$1.3bn in 2002 to $3.4bn in 2010. Turkey made large purchases of
Israeli arms, joint military exercises were extended, and the Israeli
Air Force was offered free use of the airspace over Konya for its
training missions. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan invested a good deal of
effort in attempting to mediate between Israel and its neighbours.
Erdoğan was particularly entranced by his imagined role as
‘facilitator’ in a new Syrian–Israeli peace initiative in 2008.
According to local diplomats, his busy shuttling between Bashar Assad
and Ehud Olmert allowed ‘Turkey to feel important’ and Israel to
demonstrate its ‘peaceful intentions’. Erdoğan was reported to have
felt ‘shocked and betrayed at what he felt were personal commitments
by Olmert’ when the Israeli Prime Minister launched the Operation Cast
Lead offensive on Gaza in late December 2008, a day or so after a cosy
five-hour discussion-cum-dinner with Erdoğan, during which the Turkish
leader had made a long phone call to Assad. Naturally Olmert had made
no mentions of the idf’s Gaza plans. This was the background to
Erdoğan’s protest at Davos a few weeks later when, taking part in a
panel with Shimon Peres, he began to read out criticisms by Avi Shlaim
and others of the assault on Gaza, and left the platform when the
moderator tried to get him to wind up. This won Erdoğan copious praise
in the Arab press for ‘standing up to Israel’, even though Israeli Air
Force exercises in Turkish airspace continued, and in 2010 Tel Aviv
duly fulfilled delivery of refurbished M-60 tanks and Heron drones,
for the akp regime to use against the pkk in northern Iraq. [11]

Turkish-Israeli relations were strained rather more by the Freedom
Flotilla affair in May 2010, when Israeli commandos shot nine Turkish
activists aboard the Mavi Marmara as it sailed towards Gaza to break
the Israeli–Egyptian embargo. Many of the activists onboard were
affiliated with an Islamic aid organization, i·hh, which provides
relief for Muslims afflicted by war. The ship’s send-off had featured
a large-scale demonstration organized by the Felicity Party, the rump
of the more intransigent Islamist grouping from which Erdoğan and the
other akp leaders had split in 2001, and which has since been only a
minor political player. Several akp parliamentarians had apparently
also attempted to go aboard, but the government had called them off
shortly before the Mavi Marmara embarked on its fateful journey. While
commentators in Turkey speculated that the ship’s route was approved
by the government, the akp has denied any links to it. Meanwhile, in a
rare press statement to the Wall Street Journal, Fethullah Gülen,
Turkey’s most influential Islamic leader, accused the Flotilla
activists of ‘defying authority’, a grave sin for conservative
interpreters of Islam. [12] In fact the akp has been able to have it
both ways: in response to the Israeli and American critics who said it
should have stopped the ship from sailing, it could argue that it had
no control of the situation; among its Islamist constituency and
Muslims worldwide, however, it could take credit for an attempt to
break the Gaza embargo. In line with this approach, Gül called for an
official un inquiry into the fate of the Freedom Flotilla.
Unsurprisingly, the un’s report, chaired by former New Zealand Prime
Minister Geoffrey Palmer, concluded that the blockade of Gaza—a
population of nearly two million locked in ghetto-like conditions,
with supplies dependent on Israeli whim—was perfectly acceptable under
international law. [13]
Arab Spring

The akp’s ‘zero problems’ diplomacy was thrown into further disarray
by the Arab revolts of 2011. Along with the us and most of the eu, the
Turkish government remained silent in January 2011 as protests against
the Ben Ali regime mounted in Tunisia, in contrast to the immediate
support for the movement offered, for different reasons, by Qatar,
Iran and Hezbollah. Erdoğan made a more notable intervention on Egypt.
Speaking on Turkish tv on 1 February 2011, a week after the first ‘day
of rage’, he advised Mubarak to ‘meet the people’s desire for change
with no hesitation’—‘you must be first to take a step for Egypt’s
peace, security and stability, without allowing exploiters, dirty
circles and circles that have dark scenarios for Egypt to take the
initiative.’ [14] This was broadly in line with the Obama
Administration’s call on 30 January for an ‘orderly transition’, and
indeed followed Mubarak’s announcement that he would not stand in the
scheduled September 2011 presidential election. But it served to
position Erdoğan as a friend of Tahrir Square.

Like Washington, again, Ankara was silent as protests erupted in
Bahrain in mid-February and turned a blind eye as demonstrators were
shot and gassed at Pearl Roundabout. On 20 March, just a week after
Saudi tanks rolled down the causeway to crush the democracy
protesters, Erdoğan announced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia ‘provide an
important contribution to regional peace and stability, and exhibit a
model cooperation’. [15] Indeed, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu moved to
consolidate Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia as the Arab Spring
wore on, serving to strengthen the sectarianization—Sunni versus Shia
and Alawi—of the region. Ankara was prudently silent about the
uprising in Yemen, too, where Saudi and American interests might have
been endangered had demands for jobs, living standards and
democratization been satisfied. As repression took its toll, the
divisions within the ruling tribal elite took on greater salience,
eventually pitching tribe against tribe, rather than activists against
the dictatorship. [16] Tribal brokerage ultimately led to the removal
of President Saleh without any major change in the state apparatus,
which was still fit for purpose as far as the Saudis and the Obama
Administration were concerned. [17]

The geo-politics of the Arab Spring underwent a decisive change with
the militarization of the Libyan uprising, under the auspices of the
nato powers. On 17 March 2011, the ‘international community’
authorized itself to impose a no-fly zone—in effect, aerial warfare
against the Gaddafi regime—and take ‘all necessary measures’, under
unsc Resolution 1973. Here, the Erdoğan government was torn. [18] At
first Erdoğan himself had been opposed to nato intervention, to the
dismay of his liberal-Atlanticist supporters. On 15 March he announced
in a tv interview that he had personally telephoned Gaddafi and
advised him to listen to the people and appoint a new president. A lot
of swerving followed, once the nato operation was underway. On 25
March, a Turkish naval force was sent to enforce the blockade of
Gaddafi-held ports. The Meclis approved the dispatch of further
forces, including troops if necessary. Turkish officials protested at
France’s Operation Harmattan stealing a march on the combined action
of nato powers, and the airbase at Izmir was offered for the
bombardment. The French countered that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu were
piqued at not having been invited to the summit Sarkozy had called
after unsc Resolution 1973 was passed. Sarkozy moved to block a
leading Turkish role in the assault. This was not difficult, given the
mixed feelings and internal divisions among pro-government forces in
Turkey. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu grudgingly settled for giving logistical
support to nato. In early July 2011 Davutoğlu flew to Benghazi to meet
the Transitional National Council leaders and announce Turkey’s
recognition of the tnc as the legitimate representative of the Libyan

These inconsistencies were in good part caused by the difficulties of
reconciling Davutoğlu’s ‘zero problem’ approach with the realities of
Turkey’s Western alliances, in the context of what was, for
Washington, Paris and London, an optional peripheral war. Along with
the us and other major Western states, Turkey had developed good
business as well as diplomatic relations with Gaddafi, profiting in
particular from the post-2009 Libyan construction boom. It was not
clear that the violent overthrow of the regime would benefit Turkey,
whereas the Western powers, more in control of the transition, could
count on their ability to divide and manipulate the new Libyan power
holders. But the Turkish government’s lurches had another source: the
ideologues and activists from Islamist backgrounds, who still formed
the ideological vertebrae of the akp, had fought dictatorships; but
they had also opposed Western military action in the region, which
since 1990 had adopted, however selectively, the agenda of toppling
dictators. As we have seen, many of these akp supporters were now
making their peace with Turkey’s sub-imperial role in the region, as a
bulwark of the nato order. This has been the diplomatic and
geo-political dimension of a larger process of absorption that I have
elsewhere described as a ‘passive revolution’. [19] In May 2011—a
month in which over seven hundred Libyan civilians were killed by nato
airstrikes, according to Tripoli—Davutoğlu summarized the position of
these former Islamist anti-imperialists with respect to the radical
upheavals of the Arab Spring:

A revolutionary spirit, a culture of rebellion has developed in
this region . . . If I were not in this post, or if I were young, I
would chant, ‘Long live the revolution’. But as the big power [büyük
devlet] that guards stability in the region, we have to make sure that
the people are harmed as little as possible. [20]

A mature, ‘disenchanted’ empathy with youth and rebellion combined
with a eulogy of order and stability; an ‘ethics of responsibility’
that upholds the state as the protector of powerless populations, even
as its missiles rain down upon them; such are the achievements of the
akp’s Turkish model. Of course, one can point to similar conversions
in Paris, London and Berlin.
War on Damascus

To some extent the Erdoğan government’s response to the upheaval in
Syria has followed a comparable path. Here, the very free-market
policies that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had been promoting through the
regional Economic and Trade Association had helped to worsen the
plight of youth in the run-down agricultural towns, from Daraa in the
south to Homs, Hama and Idlib, that would be the centre of the revolt,
while a tiny elite had grown spectacularly rich. Initially, in late
March and April 2011, as the Damascus regime met demonstrations with
tear gas and water cannons, Erdoğan again tried to position himself as
a mediator, attempting to persuade Assad to negotiate with the
political wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and schedule
elections. Even as Turkish naval ships were readied for the nato
operation against Gaddafi, Erdoğan was informing the international
press that he had urged Assad to take ‘a positive, reformist’
approach—‘it is our heartfelt wish that there should be no painful
events here as in Libya’. [21] Ankara’s aim was a managed democratic
transition that would broaden the base of the Assad regime—a strategy
of passive revolution which recognized that, if things were to stay
the same, things would have to change. [22]

This was in stark contrast to Riyadh’s line, as conveyed to a former
State Department operative by a ‘senior Saudi official’, who noted
that ‘from the beginning of the Syrian upheaval, the King has believed
that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests,
particularly vis-à-vis the Iranian threat. “The King knows that other
than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken
Iran more than losing Syria.”’ [23] As the Saudi position gained
traction in Washington, however, the Turkish line also began to
change. [24] While maintaining contact with the Assad regime, the
Erdoğan government allowed the leader of the military wing of the
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to give a May 2011 press conference in
Istanbul; in June 2011 Turkey organized a conference of the Syrian
opposition. In July 2011 the Free Syrian Army, aiming at the military
overthrow of the Assad regime, was established in the southern Turkish
province of Hatay, with us logistical support and Saudi money and
arms; fsa leaders were given the protection of the Turkish police.
This could only serve to confirm Assad’s fatally destructive decision,
based on the Baath view of Syrian Sunni Islamists as owing allegiance
to Gulf powers, to attempt to shore up the existing order by force.
The principal demand of the fsa was for a no-fly zone; that is,
Western bombardment of Syrian defences. Its campaigns, focused mainly
in the vicinity of Homs, were waged with one eye on the Western media
embedded in its ranks; the greater the atrocity, the more likely it
was to create international pressure for us airstrikes. The death toll
duly rose, as Syrian forces shelled fsa positions in residential
areas, and a multitude of sectarian militias, both Alawite and Sunni,
looted and killed amid the destruction.

In Turkey, the jingoism of the liberal and conservative Islamist press
rose to a crescendo by early 2012. Calls for Turkish intervention also
came from conservative forces in the Arab world, not least the
London-based daily, Sharq al-Awsat, whose main precondition was that
there should be Western approval beforehand. The Muslim Brotherhood
and other Islamist forces were happy to play the anti-imperialist card
themselves when Erdoğan spoke of separating religion from the state,
but played the humanitarian-intervention card when they wanted to get
rid of a regime. At the time of writing, neither Turkey nor the us
have been ready for a land incursion—euphemistically described as a
‘buffer zone’—or an aerial bombardment, a.k.a. no-fly zone. This seems
to suit Israel, too. It has been argued that:

A weakened but stable Assad regime as opposed to a regime under
‘Islamist rule’ seems preferable for Israeli policymakers . . .
Although Israel sees advantages in a reduced Iranian influence in
Syria, it also sees a bleak future in a post-Assad Syria where
Islamist groups might take centre stage. As a consequence, Israel’s
less-than-wholehearted endorsement of Assad’s fall has helped to
reduce the sense of urgency among American policymakers. [25]

Amidst this uncertainty, the more pro-Western wing of the Turkish
government went along with us initiatives. In early March 2012, Gül
was favouring the ‘Yemeni road’ for Syria: Assad should appoint one of
his aides, as Saleh had done, and step to one side, leaving the
governing structures intact; the notoriously divided Syrian opposition
was not yet ready to rule the country. The following week he warned
against military intervention, calling for a ‘political solution’ and
an expanded ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Ankara that would include
Russia, thereby ruling out a military option. [26] During the same
period, Erdoğan gave his backing to the demands of the Arab League,
which significantly included a ‘humanitarian corridor’—meaning a land
invasion by Turkey, which would inevitably lead to armed conflict with
the Assad regime. Thus, despite its pretensions to regional
leadership, Turkey failed to articulate a coherent position of its
own. The best Erdoğan could come up with was to counterbalance Gül’s
position with that of the Arab League, i.e. a cleaned-up version of
Riyadh’s. Turkey did not lead, but followed. The government’s lack of
clarity allows conflicting interpretations of its actions. Even among
the columnists of the pro-government daily Yeni Şafak, some see ample
‘proof’ that the akp is trying to push Assad out of power as quickly
as possible, while others believe the government’s priority is
stability on its borders and a quick ceasefire. [27]
Sunni communalism

Overall, the Islamic Turkish press has been much warmer to the idea of
intervention in Syria than in Libya, and for the worst of reasons. In
addition to the sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist
forces in Syria, heavily targeted historically by the Baath regime,
there is an identification with Syrian Sunnis against the Shia
(neither of which had prevented the akp from developing close ties
with Assad). Pro-Turkey voices have argued that the sectarian or
tribal divisions present in Libyan, Bahraini, Yemeni or Syrian society
make Turkey’s mildly Islamized, parliamentary-constitutionalist model
all the more desirable, showing a way out of the quagmire. But rather
than staying above these rifts, Turkey got further bogged down in its
own complex ethnic and sectarian set-up, as the political turmoil
moved closer to its borders. The peaceful hegemony of the akp is based
not least on the fact that Turkey had forcibly eradicated its 20 per
cent Christian population, through the extermination of Armenians and
expulsion of Greeks, between 1915 and the mid-1950s; not such a good
model for Syrians and Lebanese to follow. And although Turkey’s
marginalized and impoverished Alevis have different religious
practices from Syrian Alawis, and very few ties with them, the Syrian
Sunni hatred of the ruling Alawite minority in Damascus can easily be
reproduced against them. The Turkish Islamist movement has been led,
staffed and overwhelmingly supported by Sunnis, despite the existence
in the country of this sizeable Muslim sectarian minority. In 2012,
Turkish Alevis once again found chalk marks on their doors,
reminiscent of those of the 1970s when Sunni mobs—led by the
right-wing nationalist Grey Wolves, but drawing in conservatives and
Islamists—carried out major sectarian massacres.

The Syrian conflict has complex implications for Turkey. The two
countries have a very long border; Syria is a major Turkish trade
route into the Arab heartland, and Sunni Turks have many business
links along the way. Above all, the possible birth of another Kurdish
statelet haunts Turkey’s ruling order. In northern Syria, the Party of
the Democratic Union (pyd), the Syrian wing of the pkk, is the best
implanted and most tightly organized of the Kurdish forces. In the
summer of 2011, as the Erdoğan government gave its support to the fsa,
Assad offered a citizenship deal to Syrian Kurds and stopped sharing
intelligence on the pkk with Turkey. Ankara tried to get Barzani, the
Iraqi Kurdistan ruler, to impose his hegemony on the Syrian Kurds but
the results were short-lived. When Assad pulled back his forces from
the northern and southern borders to drive the fsa out of Aleppo in
July 2012, the pyd was left in control of a string of Kurdish border
towns: Ayn al Arab, parts of Qamishli, Efrin, Amude. Damagingly for
the exemplarity of Turkey, Syrian Kurds’ protests against Ankara’s
role have been one of the reasons for the ructions in the Syrian
National Council, the West-backed opposition grouping, along with
differences over external intervention and internal democracy. [28]
Indeed, as political prisoners were set free in Egypt and Tunisia,
Kurdish civilian prisoners—as well as non-Kurdish journalists,
students and teachers—continued to populate Turkish prisons. In
December 2011, acting on intelligence from us drones, Turkish jets
launched an airstrike on a group of impoverished Kurds humping
contraband cigarettes across the mountains near the Iraq border,
killing three dozen. How could a country that treated its own Kurdish
citizens in this way act as a model for those of its neighbour?
Targeting Iran

Finally, any revision of Turkey’s relations with Syria also means a
redefinition of relations with another neighbour, Iran. In the years
leading up to the Arab Spring there had been a significant
rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran, despite American (and
Israeli) scepticism. The emergence of Iraqi Kurdistan helped the
rulers of both countries converge in fighting Kurdish insurgency.
Bilateral trade has increased significantly in the past ten years;
Iran is now Turkey’s second-largest natural-gas supplier, after
Russia. [29] In May 2010, Turkey and Brazil brokered a low-level
uranium-processing deal with Iran, both apparently thinking they had
Washington’s green light for it. By September 2011, however, Turkey
had agreed to site a nato missile-defence radar system near its border
with Iran, albeit pleading that there should be no mention of Iran’s
nuclear programme as a rationale. Joost Lagendijk, former co-chair of
the Turkey–eu Parliamentarians delegation, has suggested that the us
‘needs Turkey’ not just to topple Assad but also to challenge Iranian
control over Iraq. [30]

In the aftermath of the us occupation of Iraq, Israel’s long-standing
campaign to maintain its nuclear monopoly in the region has coalesced
with Saudi hostility to Iran and to the ‘Shia crescent’ that Riyadh
sees extending from Iran, through Maliki’s Iraq, to Syria and
Hezbollah-run southern Lebanon. With the growing sectarianization,
Turkey appears to be playing an increasingly open part in a
Western-backed Sunni coalition whose ultimate target is Iran. If there
were rumblings of discontent in the us, and among secular as well as
conservative circles in Turkey, that Ankara was getting too cozy with
Iran and even Ahmadinejad himself in 2009–10, the pendulum has now
swung back, gaining added momentum from the Sunni background of the
akp and the broader Islamist movement. There is growing talk of a
possible war with Iran, especially if Turkey decides to send troops
into Syria. Simultaneously, the Sunni Arab press has been celebrating,
with some caution, the arrival of ‘Sunni Turkey’. Arab commentators,
and some of their Turkish counterparts, like to invoke the historical
rivalries between the Ottoman and Persian empires, as if the akp
regime needed any inflation of its imperial pretensions. [31] Some
Islamist intellectuals assert that there is already a sectarian war
going on, and that Iran, Iraq and Syria have started it. They are
jumping on the bandwagon of sectarianization, claiming that we cannot
ignore this ‘fact’ and that Turkey should be preparing to fight this
out as a Sunni–Shia war. [32]

In Iraq, it is suggested, this could mean a coalition of Iraqi Sunni
and Kurdish forces, with broader Arab and Turkish Sunni backing,
aligned against Maliki’s Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. There
was a hint of this in April 2012, when the (Sunni) Vice President of
Iraq, Tariq Hashemi, took shelter in Turkey after first ‘visiting’, or
escaping to, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, after the Maliki regime had
issued an arrest warrant for him. [33] The Iraqi government responded
with a verbal attack, and Turkey retaliated in kind. In the middle of
this cross-border shouting match, Massoud Barzani chose to visit
Turkey and tensions rose still further. Despite the akp’s official
position against the partition of Iraq into three states, feverish
speculations proliferated: was Erdoğan’s real project the creation of
a Kurdish confederation, under Turkish tutelage? [34] There was no
doubt that the akp government descended from its self-appointed throne
of supra-sectarianism when it decided to harbour a high-profile figure
internationally accused of sectarian massacres, even if some of the
charges are fabricated (and others might be laid at Maliki’s door).
The regime confirmed, once again, the Sunni self-identification of the
Turkish state.

Turkey needs to confront its own problems of sectarian and ethnic
repression, state coercion and economic inequality before it can offer
itself as a model to anyone. The real-estate and credit bubbles that
have lifted its growth rates over the past years cannot be expected to
last; its social provision is threadbare, and its income distribution
is the most unequal in the oecd, worse than that of Egypt or Tunisia.
[35] On the civil-liberties front, it is true that the akp has led a
determined struggle against the far-reaching powers that the military
High Command enjoyed under the old regime; but this has increasingly
taken the form of replacing Kemalist militarism with a new police
state. Turkey’s most powerful religious organization, the secretive
Gülen community, exercises extensive influence within the police and
the judiciary; some suggest this is now being extended to mit, the
intelligence service. Gülen is believed to be behind the imprisonment
of a number of critical journalists over the past two years. [36] In
2010 the Erdoğan government pushed through a notably ambiguous set of
amendments to the authoritarian 1980 Constitution, retaining some of
its most repressive, nationalist components: ‘insulting the Turkish
nation’, readily extended to any criticism of the state, remains a
criminal offence.

In 2002, many Turkish liberals had imagined that the akp offered the
country’s best bet for ‘modernization’ and ‘integration with the
world’, and especially for joining the eu. ‘Libertarian left’, or
özgürlükçü sol, intellectual circles played a crucial role in
strengthening consent for the akp’s conservative liberalization
project. They threw themselves behind the akp during its struggle with
the military, and for a long time extended this unquestioning support
to the government’s other policies as well, including its
constitutional amendments. Influential liberal intellectuals
celebrated the role of the police in Turkey’s ‘democratization’—read,
chipping away at the power of the military—and discovered the human
face of the new police cadres. This naivety betrayed a reductionist
reading of the Turkish state, whose authoritarianism was attributed to
‘military tutelage’, and an inability to analyse it as a
differentiated set of institutions and social actors with now
overlapping, now conflicting, concerns and interests. The liberals’
strategy of ignoring the Erdoğan government’s authoritarian tendencies
backfired when the constitutional amendments were followed by the
heaviest wave of repression in many years. Some have now become
critics of the akp–Gülen regime.

Internationally, proponents of a Turkish model for the Islamic world
often counterpose it to the examples of Iran or Saudi Arabia, set at
the opposite end of the spectrum. The developments of the past year
suggest a different picture. The main demarcating lines in the region
are getting less ideological and are no longer drawn between the
‘moderate Islamists’ and the conservatives. The exacerbation of the
Syrian conflict has begun to crystallize supposedly ‘primordial’
sectarian differences. Unlike as they may be in some respects, Saudi
Arabia and Turkey now find themselves in the same camp, with Iran as
the common enemy. But though the situation may change, it is Saudi
Arabia, with barely a third of Turkey’s population, that seems to be
having the greatest success in shaping the current political flux in
its own interests. Not a murmur is raised by the ‘international
community’ when it subjects its own Shia population to the same
treatment Assad metes out to Syrian protesters. Erdoğan made a big
show of his September 2011 tour of the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan
capitals, accompanied by 280 Turkish businessmen ready to tap into
cheap supplies of labour and declaring his intention to triple Turkish
investment. [37] But the visit also demonstrated the limits of Turkish
influence. The Muslim Brotherhood had no objection to citing akp
Turkey as an economic model, but Erdoğan’s call for a secular state
incited a bitter ‘anti-imperialist’ response from the Brothers: the
organization told him not to meddle in Egypt’s internal affairs.
Meanwhile President Morsi’s first foreign visit was to Riyadh.

The akp’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy is in tatters,
whereas King Abdullah’s vituperative campaign against Iran is now the
order of the day, waged not just by Washington, Israel, the Sunni
world and the eu but by Wall Street, too, with only Russia and China
holding out against the international vendetta. While the convulsion
of Syria confronts Ankara with the sudden strengthening of its
domestic enemy, the pkk, the House of Saud can expect to see Lebanon
back in its pocket if Hezbollah is undermined by Assad’s weakness or
fall. Moreover, the Turkish leadership has consistently demonstrated
its willingness to put sectarian Realpolitik before the principles of
democratization and self-determination. Bahrain, with its Shiite
majority and Sunni autocratic monarchy, served as a litmus test. Not
only did Turkey turn a blind eye when the monarchy violently crushed
the protests; in the first months of 2012, as a prelude to increasing
cooperation with the Gulf regimes, Gül visited the United Arab
Emirates and demanded democracy for Syria during his friendly meetings
with the autocrats there. Nothing could better illustrate the nature
of Ankara’s commitments to democracy and non-intervention in the
region. Throughout the Arab Spring, Turkey only solidified its
relations with the Saudis; it is tail-ending not just Washington’s and
Israel’s policies, but Riyadh’s as well—further strengthening the
forces of reaction in the region.

[1] ‘In Turkey’s Example, Some See Map for Egypt’, New York Times, 5
February 2011. See also International Crisis Group, ‘Turkey and the
Middle East: Ambitions and Constraints’, 7 April 2010, p. 20. I would
like to thank Aynur Sadet for comments on the text.

[2] Tariq Ramadan, ‘Democratic Turkey Is the Template for Egypt’s
Muslim Brotherhood’, New Perspectives Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 2, 2011.

[3] Soner Cagaptay, ‘The Empires Strike Back’, nyt, 14 January 2012.

[4] See Tuğal, ‘nato’s Islamists’, nlr 44, March–April 2007, on which
this draws.

[5] Sedat Laçiner, ‘Neden Afganistan’dayız?’, Star, 22 March 2012.

[6] Hasan Kösebalaban, ‘Making of Enemy and Friend: Fethullah Gülen’s
National-Security Identity’, in M. Hakan Yavuz and John Esposito, eds,
Turkish Islam and the Secular State: The Gülen Movement, Syracuse, ny

[7] See for example Alfred Stepan and Graeme Robertson, ‘An “Arab”
more than “Muslim” Democracy Gap’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 14, no.
3, 2003.

[8] Estimates of the Kurdish population vary widely, but conservative
figures suggest 14 million in Turkey, 2 million in Syria, 6 million in
Iraq and 7 million in Iran.

[9] By 2010, Turkey’s trade with Iraq had risen to $7.4bn, of which
$6bn was accounted for by Turkish exports, nearly all to Iraqi
Kurdistan, where Turkey now controls 95 per cent of the construction
market. See Kemal Kirişci, ‘Turkey’s “Demonstrative Effect” and the
Transformation of the Middle East’, Insight Turkey, vol. 13, no. 2,
2011, p. 38.

[10] Kirişci, ‘Turkey’s “Demonstrative Effect”’, p. 38.

[11] icg, ‘Turkey and the Middle East’, pp. 14–15, 24.

[12] ‘Reclusive Turkish Imam Criticizes Gaza Flotilla’, Wall Street
Journal, 4 June 2010. This was the first time the staunchly pro-Israel
Gülen had openly come out against the government.

[13] Coordination between Turkish and Israeli air forces was
suspended, but restarted by late 2011: ‘Turkey, Israel reinstate air
force coordination mechanism’, Today’s Zaman, 22 December 2011. For
international comments on Mavi Marmara, see Lemi Baruh and Mihaela
Popescu, ‘Communicating Turkish-Islamic identity in the aftermath of
the Gaza flotilla raid’, New Perspectives on Turkey 45, 2011, pp.

[14] ‘Erdoğan’s Cairo Speech’, Foreign Policy blog, posted 2 February
2011, citing Nicholas Noe’s MideastWire blog.

[15] ‘Erdoğan: “Suudi Arabistan’la tam bir iş birliği içindeyiz”’,
Milliyet, 20 March 2011.

[16] Khaled Fattah, ‘Yemen: A Social Intifada In a Republic of
Sheikhs’, Middle East Policy, vol. 18, no. 3, 2011, p. 81.

[17] ‘us Teaming With New Yemen Government on Strategy to Combat Al
Qaeda’, nyt, 26 February 2012.

[18] As was the un Security Council, with temporary members Germany,
India and Brazil abstaining on unsc 1973; however, permanent members
Russia and China allowed the resolution to be passed by consenting not
to use their veto powers. The Americans were also divided: Defence
Secretary Robert Gates opposing intervention, Obama’s close advisors
(Susan Rice, Samantha Power) urging it; Congress unconsulted, in
breach of the law.

[19] Tuğal, Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to
Capitalism, Stanford 2009.

[20] Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, ‘Davutoğlu’yla zor sohbet’, Milliyet, 5 May 2011.

[21] Delphine Strauss, ‘Erdogan urges Assad to hasten reform’, ft, 28
March 2011.

[22] Erol Cebeci and Kadir Üstün, ‘The Syrian Quagmire: What’s Holding
Turkey Back?’, Insight Turkey, vol. 14, no. 2, 2012, p. 16.

[23] John Hannah, ‘Syria: The King’s statement, the President’s
hesitation’, Foreign Policy blog, 9 August 2011.

[24] In April 2011 Hannah wrote, with reference to Riyadh’s man in
Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan: ‘Working in tandem with the
United States, Bandar . . . could prove a huge asset in efforts to
shape the Middle East revolts of 2011 in a direction that serves us
interests . . . Bandar working without reference to us interests is
clearly cause for concern. But Bandar working as a partner with
Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.
Drawing on Saudi resources and prestige, Bandar’s ingenuity and bent
for bold action could be put to excellent use across the region in
ways that reinforce us policy and interests: through economic and
political measures that weaken the Iranian mullahs [and] undermine the
Assad regime.’ John Hannah, ‘Bandar’s return’, Foreign Policy blog, 22
April 2011.

[25] Cebeci and Üstün, ‘The Syrian Quagmire’, p. 20.

[26] ‘Suriye’ye Yemen modeli’, Sabah, 3 March 2012; ‘Mu‘arada
Tunisiyya-Turkiyya li ay Tadakhkhul min Kharij al-Mintiqa fi Suriyya’,
Sharq al-Awsat, 9 March 2012.

[27] See I˙brahim Karagül, ‘Suriye için “Misak-ı milli”’, Yeni Şafak,
27 March 2012 and Akif Emre, ‘Suriye açmazında yeni dönemeç’, Yeni
Şafak, 27 March 2012.

[28] ‘Akrad Suriyya yatawaqqa‘un fashal mu’tamar Istanbul al-muqbil’,
Sharq al-Awsat, 29 March 2012.

[29] Daphne McCurdy, ‘Turkish-Iranian Relations: When Opposites
Attract’, Turkish Policy Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 2, Summer, 2008.

[30] Joost Lagendijk, ‘Using Turkey’s expertise to deal with Iran’,
Today’s Zaman, 29 February 2012.

[31] ‘Adil al-Tarifi, ‘Turkiyya “al-Sunniyya” . . . wa Fashal Siyasa
al-Ihtiwa’, Sharq al-Awsat, 25 April 2012.

[32] For example, see I˙brahim Karagül, ‘Korkulan oldu, bölündük . .
.’, Yeni Şafak; Ali Ünal, ‘Terör ve dış gelişmeler’, Zaman, March 26,

[33] ‘Baghdad turji’ muhakama al-Hashemi mujaddadan’, Sharq al-Awsat,
11 May 2011.

[34] Ruşen Çakır, ‘Özal’ın hayali gerçekleşiyor mu?’, Vatan, 24 April 2012.

[35] ‘Social Justice in the oecd—How Do the Member States Compare?’,
Gütersloh 2011.

[36] The Gülen community has received remarkably sympathetic coverage
in the mainstream Western media. See, for example, ‘Turkish Schools
Offer Pakistan a Gentler Vision of Islam’, nyt, 4 May 2008; ‘Global
Muslim networks: how far they have travelled’, Economist, 6 March
2008; ‘Meet Fethullah Gülen, the World’s Top Public Intellectual’,
Foreign Policy, 4 August 2008.

[37] ‘Turkey, Egypt form strategic cooperation council’, Today’s
Zaman, 13 September 2011.