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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

Turkey at Crossroads: Confronting Domestic and External Challenges in a Turbulent Region

Monday 28 January 2019



by Purusottam Bhattacharya


Turkey has been a nation in turmoil in recent times. It was buffeted from one crisis to another ever since the beginning of the civil war in Syria—with which it shares a long border—in March 2011. It has been grappling with the fallout of the Syrian civil war—primarily the influx of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the wanton brutality at home as also their usage of Turkey as a gateway to Europe—its recent involvement in Syria initially as a part of the Western (mainly American) strategy to counter the terrorist onslaughts of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East and Europe—especially in Turkey itself—and in the failed coup attempt by a section of the Turkish armed forces on July 15, 2016 which had almost toppled the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since then Erdogan went on a spree of suppressing all voices of dissent jailing hundreds of thousands of his opponents from political parties, the media, academia and the armed forces.

It all culminated in what some observers called a constitutional coup by Erdogan backed up by a questionable referendum held on April 16, 2017 which endorsed a massive accretion of power in the hands of the President. Erdogan further consolidated his stranglehold on the country by holding presidential elections on June 24, 2018 under the new constitutional changes which mandated that the President will be both head of state and head of government. In the elections Erdogan won, according to many observers, a questionable victory as the Opposition was not allowed a level playing field. Despite domestic and international protests Erdogan has largely held sway in domestic politics since his election and has turned the country into a notable regional actor.

Turkey and the Regional Turmoil

ERDOGAN who has a political Islamist background (he has rejected modern Turkey’s secular heritage) has a history of resorting to repressive measures, especially against those who have challenged his authority. He started his career in government as the Prime Minister but became the first directly elected President in August 2014. A strong, dominant, charismatic personality in Turkish politics for nearly two decades, Erdogan is considerably responsible for turning Turkey into a regional hotbed of conflict in recent years. Apart from taking an extremely hard line against the Kurdish PKK (the outfit which is fighting for a separate Kurdistan in Turkey’s south-east), Erdogan involved Turkey (after initially deciding against playing a front-line role in the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ to counter the expansion of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the Syrian civil war by openly backing the Islamist opposition of Syrian President Basher-el-Assad. There was of course provocation for Turkey as millions of Syrian refugees were streaming into the country with many of them trying to make their way into Europe to escape the nightmare at home and in search of a better life. The EU struck a deal with Turkey in late 2015 which promised to restrict the flow of migrants to Europe through its territory in exchange for Euro 3 billion and an acceleration in talks for Turkey’s entry into the EU (which was a pivotal agenda in Turkish foreign policy since the early 1960s).

The Turkish vision under Erdogan has been that of an influential regional actor which had successfully reconciled its secular, democratic and Islamic identities and which could be a model for the Arab states in the Middle East. Turkey prided itself as a country with ‘zero problems with neighbours’. After the AKP (Erdogan’s party) came to power, Turkish foreign policy underwent a considerable reorientation which was accelerated by the Iraq war of 2003 when Turkey and the United States had a divergence of approach towards the American determination to remove Saddam Hussein. Turkey refused the use of its bases to US planes and troops which came as a signal for Turkish eagerness to diversify its foreign policy portfolio while acting independently of its longstanding ally, the United States. Since then Turkey increasingly focussed its attention towards the Middle East, especially its neighbouring states of Syria and Iran, to a large extent for commercial and economic reasons. It also began to cultivate its relationships with other Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya as also Israel. (The AKP Government however took a more cautious approach towards Tel Aviv scaling the bilateral relations from ’hyperactivity to normal ties’ obviously in deference to improving relations with the Arab world.) In the regional perception it was viewed as Turkey returning to its roots—the Middle East. (Mehmet Ozkan: 2013: 166-167)

With the outbreak of the Arab Revolutions in January 2011—the so-called Arab Spring—Turkey saw an opportunity to extend its influence in the region by projecting itself as a model. However Turkish policy changed with the beginning of the civil war in Syria in March 2011. Basher-el-Assad was initially an ally of Turkey, a relationship Ankara had cultivated assiduously from 2003 onwards which saw a flourishing of ties between Ankara and Damascus in all fields, political, economic, commercial and cultural. In fact Turkey became Syria’s second largest trading partner. However, when the civil war broke out, Turkey tried to persuade Assad to initiate reforms to stem the tide of the rebellion. (Mehmet Ozkan:2013: 173-175) When this strategy failed Turkey aligned itself with the Western countries and the Gulf Sunni monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This change of stance by Turkey has been called by one analyst as a miscalculation since Ankara sensed, wrongly, the imminent collapse of the Assad regime and it wanted to be on the right side. Ankara backed the Sunni opposition of Assad and even hosted the Syrian opposition on its territory offering material support to them. The result was that Turkey ceased to be a neutral player in the evolving regional scenario and was turned into an interested party in the Syrian conflict. (Valeria Talbot: 2014:2-3)

This change of stance by Ankara was perceived to be driven by a sectarian logic. Firstly, Turkey (a Sunni-dominated country) broke its close ties with Syria of nearly a decade to align with the Gulf Sunni monarchies in the Syrian conflict. This was later subsumed in the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran—the two giants of the Middle East representing the Shia-Sunni divide that has wracked the area for quite some time. Secondly, Ankara has supported, along with Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab countries, especially Egypt. This was considerably responsible for the cooling of ties between Ankara and Cairo after Muhammad Morsi, the Egyptian President belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, was overthrown in July 2013 by the Egyptian Army. This was a setback to Turkey’s hopes of cultivating a more substantial relationship with Egypt which could be an important destination for trade and investment as well as a gateway for Turkish exports to Jordan, the Gulf states as well as other Arab and African markets. As a result Turkey’s relationships in the region have undergone a complete reversal and Ankara does not have a resident Ambassador in three important regional capitals—Damascus, Cairo and Tel Aviv (Turkey’s relations with Israel soured after Erdogan strongly criticised Tel Aviv on Israeli actions in Gaza and vociferously championed the Palestinian cause). Turkey’s relations with Iran—the principal regional backer of Damascus—which had flourished during the first decade of the present century, primarily on account of their energy cooperation, was also shaken when Ankara sided with the anti-Assad forces in the Syrian conflict. The relations remain strained though both sides have appeared keen to make amends in recent times. (Valeria Talbot: 2014: 4)

Strangely enough, the only substantial working relationship Turkey was able to establish in its neighbourhood was with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq which is largely autonomous of Baghdad though earlier Ankara was suspicious of them on the ground that they were in league with PKK, the Kurdish organisation in the south-east of the country which is engaged in a bloody campaign for secession from Turkey. This ‘marriage of convenience’ took place primarily on account of Turkey’s energy needs to fuel the increased growth rates of its economy. Around 2200 Turkish firms are present in Iraqi Kurdistan which absorbs about 70 per cent of Turkey’s trade of $12 billion with Iraq. While the Shia dominated government in Baghdad does not like this nexus between Ankara and the KRG, Turkey in its turn is critical of what it considers the sectarian policy of the Baghdad regime as well as its dependence on Iran. (Valeria Talbot: 2014: 5)

The regional isolation of Turkey, which a foreign policy advisor of a former Turkish Prime Minister preferred to call ‘precious loneliness’, has eroded Ankara’s ability to influence the regional dynamics and contribute to regional stability as an effective player. At the same time Turkey’s image in the Arab world also suffered, especially as a model, following the repressive policies of the Erdogan Government and the corruption investigations. The positive perception of the Arab people of Turkey dropped to 59 per cent in 2014 from 78 per cent in 2011. This downturn in Turkey’s ties with the Arab states was also reflected in its trade relations with the region. While the region still occupies the second place in Turkey’s overseas trade, next to Europe, in recent years its exports have declined especially after the ISIS captured Mosul knocking a hole in Ankara’s trade with its largest Arab partner, Iraq. (Valeria Talbot: 2014: 6)

The emergence of the ISIS, the establishment of the self-proclaimed Caliphate and its rapid advance in Syria and Iraq introduced a fresh element of instability in Turkey’s neighbourhood. By initially hesitating to join the US-led coalition against the ISIS, Ankara raised questions about its role and priorities in confronting the IS challenge. It seemed that Turkey was more concerned about its own interests in taking an ambivalent stand vis-a-vis the IS than confronting it head on. It refused to be drawn into what it called ‘a Syrian adventure’ unless the international community could get its act together on the Syrian crisis. While making clear its demand for the replacement of Assad, Ankara conditioned its involvement against the IS on the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ and a buffer area in Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The domestic public opinion in Turkey also did not favour a Turkish military intervention in Syria on the apprehension that this will sink the country in the Syrian quagmire. Moreover the Kurdish issue has complicated the scenario along Turkey’s southern border. As already noted, Turkey is wary of the aspirations of its own Kurdish minority who form about 15-20 per cent of the country’s population. The PKK-led insurgency has made the situation very challenging for Turkey in the past three decades claiming about 40,000 lives. Since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis the Kurds in Northern Syria have established a certain degree of self-rule under the guidance of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD). Turkey is apprehensive that the PYD would join hands with the PKK (which has been declared a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU) as the former is considered a branch of the latter by Ankara. Turkey is also concerned about the international sympathy the PKK could garner in view of its military performance against the advance of IS fighters in Northern Iraq. While Erdogan can claim credit as the first Turkish leader who clearly recognised the existence of the ‘Kurdish issue’ in Turkish politics, negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish Government did not make much headway and a 2013 cease-fire between the government and the PKK broke down in July 2015. The Turkish military has since bombed the PKK positions in Syria and Iraq while the PKK militants have staged multiple attacks in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul and Ankara, claiming many lives. (Valery Talbot: 2014: 8). (Time: 2015: 9)

AS the Syrian crisis dragged on and the ISIS strengthened its stranglehold on the territories it had captured in Syria and Iraq, Turkey could no longer maintain its ambivalence about the Islamic militants and, under US pressure, it launched an offensive against the IS in August 2015 by bombing their positions. The consequences were devastating as Turkey suffered its worst-ever terrorist attack on October 10, 2015 when twin bombings at a peace rally in Ankara killed at least 97 people, mainly Kurdish demonstrators. The government blamed the Ankara bombings on the ISIS which was suspected of seeking retaliation for Turkey’s August offensive. However some observers claimed that ultra-nationalist “deep state” forces were behind the attacks. (Time: 2015: 9)

Domestically also Turkey found itself in a state of turmoil. It was gripped by unrest since the general elections held in June 2015 resulted in an uncertain verdict with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its parliamentary majority while the moderate Kurdish party, HDP, won 13 per cent of the vote. After failing to form a government, Erdogan called a snap election on November 1, 2015. When the elections were held the AKP scored a landslide victory. Clearly voters were impressed by Erdogan’s scare-mongering tactics before the elections (“It’s me or chaos” warned he) as a result of the fearful October bombings at Ankara which seemed to point to the existence of ISIS cells in Turkish cities, according to experts. The end of the two year cease-fire by the PKK with a new campaign of violence inside the country also looked like an apocalypse to many Turks. The debilitating effects of the Syrian civil war with a no clear end in sight also had its effects. (Time: 2015: 10)

 Erdogan has always been a polarising figure in Turkish politics since his advent on the scene due to his domineering style of functioning. However he more than doubled his country’s per capita income by expanding its economic growth potential beyond the major cities and familiar families that had dominated modern Turkey. In the process, he won admirers across the country’s Anatolian heartland. His success in extending Turkey’s influence in the Middle East has already been noted. More significantly his importance was also being felt internationally with the US recognising his vital role in fighting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq—or at least allowing NATO forces to use the Turkish air bases. The European Union leaders also know that Turkey’s assistance was crucial if the tide of Middle Eastern refugees heading for Europe had to be stemmed. The EU-Turkey agreement in this regard has already been noted. (Time: 2015: 10)

However Turkey’s woes continued. In spite of the initial agreement with Ankara in November 2015, European leaders were not happy with the outcome. There is suspicion in Europe that despite receiving more money and concessions Erdogan will do little to keep his side of the bargain by stemming the flow of migrants from Turkey. Ankara also got into a spat with Russia late in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian plane that strayed into Turkish air space while flying from Syrian territory. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, quickly announced sanctions that made a real impact on Turkey’s banking, tourism and construction sectors. The Russian tourists who visited Turkey in large numbers every year simply vanished leaving the tourism industry high and dry. However, the situation changed quickly following the failed coup in Turkey in July 2016 when Erdogan resorted to repressive measures which were denounced by the Obama Administration and the EU leaders but attracted sympathy from Russian President Vladimir Putin who sensed an opportunity to prise Erdogan apart from the West with which he had his own scores to settle. After a visit to Moscow by Erdogan the Russo-Turkish relations underwent a dramatic transformation the sheet anchor of which was their common anti-Western stand though for different reasons—Syria for Putin and criticism of Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism by the West. (Time: 2017)

Ankara’s NATO allies also had other complaints apart from Erdogan’s domestic repressions. Washington was angry with Turkey for dropping many more bombs on Syrian Kurds—Ankara’s antipathy towards them has already been noted—than on the ISIS, the focal point of US air attacks. Domestically, the Turkish business community looked forward to the end of sanctions on Iran—following an agreement between Tehran and the West in July 2015 on the Iranian nuclear issue—as the tourism industry hoped visiting Iranians will replace the Russians who stopped coming. Yet Erdogan continued to tighten ties with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, because Ankara and Riyadh have common interests in Syria. (Time: 2016: 8)

However, with the arrival of the Donald Trump Administration in Washington on January 20, 2017 the scenario changed once again. Being the maverick that he is, Trump apparently does not have any qualms about Erdogan’s domestic record and would be happy to do business with him as long as it serves American interest as defined by the US President who trusts his instincts more than tradition on where and when to intervene. (Time: 2017)

During the course of 2017 and 2018 the Syrian civil war has undergone many twists and turns. With the full backing of Russia and Iran the Syrian President, Basher-El-Assad, has been able to turn the tide of the war in his favour by driving out the Sunni-led opposition forces from most of their strongholds. From a situation where it appeared a few years ago that the ouster of Basher was only a matter of time, it is increasingly clear that the Syrian President can sense an eventual victory against his enemies. Turkey, which was one of the main backers of the Syrian opposition from the start of the civil war and was advocating the ouster of Basher, has been ambivalent in recent times on whether Assad should be allowed to stay in power in a final peace deal. Turkey’s interests in the Syrian conflict and the region as a whole is to block the Syrian Kurdish territorial gains achieved during the war against Assad’s forces and prevent them from gaining autonomy in any post-war settlement. The Syrian Kurds have been supported by the West as they bore a substantial brunt of the fighting against Assad’s forces as well as the ISIS. However, Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish fighters are tied to the PKK which, as we noted, has fought a three-decade war in South Eastern Turkey. Ankara also wants to defeat the ISIS and other extremist groups which have committed terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.

The recent announcement of US President Donald Trump of the withdrawal of the remaining 2000 US troops from Syria has raised apprehensions among security professionals of considerable losses to be borne by the Kurds as a consequence, the most likely beneficiaries being the Assad regime, Russia and Turkey. The announcement was followed by another twist when John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, promised that US forces would remain in Syria until the ISIS was finally defeated and Turkey provided guarantees that it would not strike the Kurds. As things stand now, Turkey, Russia and Iran have a common interest to see a complete Western pull-out from Syria so that they can pursue their own divergent objectives—Turkey’s being to ensure that the Kurds do not succeed in establishing any autonomy in the Kurdish inhabited regions of Turkey, Syria and Iraq and Russia and Iran hope to have a free run in ensuring the final victory of the Assad regime. (Colin P. Clarke and Ariane M. Tabatabai: 2019)


TURKEY has a special position because of its geo-strategic location as a bridge between Europe and Asia, since it is a leading member of the NATO and since it is now an important actor in the Middle East, especially in the Syrian civil war. Some commentators see a major departure from the Kemalist legacy on the part of Turkey since the 1990s while others think that Turkish democracy is now established on a more firm footing with the empowerment of the masses who had been dominated by the secular elite. That perception now faces serious challenges with recent developments. The West till very recently and probably still does see Turkey as a part of the solution to the troubles plaguing the region, especially the Syrian civil war. However, Turkey’s trouble are not over. Apart from the external isolation, the coup attempt of July 2016 shook Erdogan and his administration and his response was the harsh crackdown on perceived enemies within the state. Ironically the incident also demonstrated his mass support in the spontaneous show of solidarity by the Turkish people which ultimately foiled the coup attempt proving that the Turkish people will no longer accept military rule which had been the natural order in that country. Nevertheless it also proved Erdogan’s vulnerability, especially to accusations that he was seeking to sabotage Turkey’s democracy by accumulating more and more powers in his hands, as also to repeated terrorist attacks. To Erdogan’s own mind, the coup attempt was a culmination of the conspiracies hatched by Turkey’s enemies, internal and external, against his administration and the country at large. The only way, he felt, to foil these efforts by Turkey’s enemies was to transform the country’s constitutional set-up from a parliamentary to a presidential system in which the President would wield great executive powers.

Externally, Erdogan will be less sure of Turkey’s position regionally and internationally. While the Turkish state made desperate attempts to secure its citizens from terrorist attacks by the ISIS and the PKK, the Syrian civil war, from which a great deal of Turkish insecurity emanates, still shows considerable uncertainty for an early resolution. Ankara now finds itself in a cleft stick—the West and its regional allies against Russia and its regional allies. As already mentioned, in an extraordinary display of showmanship Erdogan mounted a fence-mending operation when he visited Moscow on August 9, 2016 to patch up the rift with Russia whose sanctions, following the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish fighters, had seriously damaged the Turkish economy. Apart from restoring ties with Russia, Ankara’s second largest trading partner, Erdogan wants to demonstrate his anger against the West-US and EU—which criticised his response to the coup attempt. (Pro-government Turkish newspapers had even accused the US of orchestrating the coup attempt.) It is to be noted that Vladimir Putin had expressed support for Erdogan’s government during the coup’s early hours and remained silent as Erdogan jailed those his government accused of treachery. The West, by contrast, was slow to support Erdogan that night and subsequently sharply criticised his crackdown.

However, Turkey’s honeymoon with Russia will have its limits as Putin and Erdogan were on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war (Putin backed Basher-el-Assad while Erdogan denounced Assad as an enemy; the Turkish President, however, has assumed a more ambivalent position on the future of Assad of late). Erdogan is unlikely to withdraw from the NATO from which Turkey derives a lot of benefits and also isn’t likely to cut ties with the US which he needs to find a solution to the Syrian crisis that has hobbled Turkey in numerous ways. But he will improve relations with Russia and China where he can to counter Western—US and European—pressures. An unpredictable Trump Administration has added a new element of uncertainty and the face-off between Turkey and the EU in the last two years and the EU’s unfavourable response to the referendum and Erdogan’s subsequent repressive measures appear to shut the door for EU membership for Turkey at least for the time being. While it would appear that Turkey is stumbling its way through the turmoil—domestic and regional—which enveloped it, a wise commentator cannot ignore the inherent strength of its democracy, polity, economy and society built over the years which is however currently on trial. If Erdogan opts to look beyond conspiracy theories and seeks a solution to Turkey’s present woes through a dialogue and consensus with his opponents, there may yet be hope for the country to wriggle out of the troubles it finds itself in.


1. Aswini K. Mahapatra, “Turkey’s Democracy as a Model for the Arab World” in Rajendra M. Abhyankar, ed., West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

2. Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Oxford University Press, 1968.

3. E.J. Zurcher, Turkey: A Modern History, London/New York, 1993.

4. F. Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, London, 1993.

5. Mehmet Ozkan, “Turkey, Islamic Politics and the ‘Turkish Model’”, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, October, 2013. Available at http: //

6. Mehmet Ozkan, “Turkey’s Religious Diplomacy”, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, November 2014. Available at http:// Ozkan/235

7. Mehmet Ozkan, “Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Arab Revolutions” (with Hasan Korkut), SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, March 2013. Available at http://

8. Mujib Alam, “The Recent Democratic Reforms in Turkey: Implications for the Military’s Role in Politics and Society” in Rajendra M. Abhyankar, ed., West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

9. Purusottam Bhattacharya, “In Pursuit of a European Identity: Turkey and the European Union” in Rajendra M. Abhyankar, ed., West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role. Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

10. Purusottam Bhattacharya, “Turkey: A Nation in Turmoil”, Mainstream, July 22-28, 2016.

11. Valeria Talbot, “Turkey in the Regional Turmoil: Walking on a Dangerous Path”, Analysis No 274. November 2014. ISPI.

12. Colin P. Clarke and Ariane P. Tabatabai, “Withdrawing from Syria leaves a vacuum that Iran will fill: Shiite Militias are in the Region to stay”, Foreign Affairs, January 8, 2019.

13. Time, January 23, February 6 and April 10, 2017.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a retired Professor and former Head of International Relations as well as erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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