By Nuray Mert
Politicians are notorious about avoiding telling the truth; maybe that is why they need to apologize when they happen to tell the truth. At least this is the case with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who apologized after saying “the biggest problem for the U.S. is its allies; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.”
In fact, after the tide turned against Sunni radicalism due to the failure of the so-called “Arab Spring,” these three countries insisted on supporting radical Islamists in the region as a result of their respective political calculations, or rather “miscalculations.” The allies became more of a problem, since one can directly address and fight against “the enemies,” but it is terribly difficult to engage with “friends” in the same way.
Turkey’s situation is even more problematic, since the country is not only a long-time friend and ally of the West, but also a NATO member and a candidate for EU membership. Nonetheless, it is now an open secret that not only “love” but also “trust” (and convenience) has been lost between the U.S./Western powers and Turkey for some time. After all, if marriages of love come to an end, it is a romantic tragedy, but if marriages of convenience come to an end, it is a serious crisis.
It all started with Turkey’s stubborn support for radical Islamist groups in Syria, after the Western powers decided to differentiate radicals from the “Syrian opposition” (even then, though, it ultimately proved to be almost impossible to draw clear lines). Nevertheless, Turkey has been very determined to destroy the Bashar al-Assad regime by all means, even if it meant going it alone in Syria and supporting anybody fighting the regime. Moreover, Turkey became desperate to find a zone of influence and a role to play in the region after failing on many fronts to effect regional affairs, especially after the fall of the much-supported Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria was thought to be a new opportunity for Turkey to assume a role in the Sunni world, as the occupation of Mosul by ISIL was thought to stem from a growing Sunni backlash.
That is why the supporters of the governing party in Turkey claimed that ISIL was a temporary phenomenon, while the Sunni response (against the growing influence of Iran) was a permanent issue to be taken seriously.
Indeed, they took it too seriously and became less serious about the issue of ISIL. We are not in the position to claim direct links between Turkey and ISIL for the time being, but at least this is the claim of Kurds, especially after the Kobane siege by ISIL. Nevertheless, Turkey’s reluctance to take a position directly against ISIL can be explained by Turkey’s political (and miscalculated) aspirations to play a role in Sunni spheres of Syria and Iraq, and also by Turkey’s concerns about the rising Kurdish political status in the region.
In short, Turkey ended up by almost parting ways with its Western allies on regional issues, which culminated in more major disagreements over the Western-centred international system and its institutions. Nowadays, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey styles itself as the defenders of the “oppressed” victims of Western imperialism in general and of the Muslim Ummah in particular and challenges Western dominance and the global order. Indeed, it sounds like an oxymoron to be an anti-Western, “supposedly anti-imperialist” NATO member, but that is the case of Turkey nowadays. Moreover, it is also a very serious issue of domestic politics since the present rule justifies all anti-democratic politics in terms of this new anti-imperialistic rhetoric. In short, Turkey is not only parting ways with the Western alliance in regional or international issues, but also distancing itself from universal democratic values, in the name of rebelling against the dominance of Western values.
That is why I think Turkey is increasingly becoming an important part of the problems and coming close to becoming the centre of crises in the Middle East – not because Turkey under the AKP is challenging the Western powers, as its supporters claim. Instead, it is because Turkey’s rulers have ultimately turned the country into a volatile and unpredictable political actor for both its friends and foes internationally and increasingly autocratic domestically.
Finally, authoritarian sway is not only a domestic problem of the democracy deficit but also poses problems in the regional and international field, since authoritarian politics often lead to instability and chaos.