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Spilling wider
Unrest in Turkey may impact balance of equations

The anti-government protests in Turkey have posed a grave challenge for Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan’s grip on power. Its ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is being accused of pushing conservative and Islamic influenced policies under the leadership of an authoritarian Prime Minister even though it is a secular republican democracy.

The unrest has been on for a month and the movement shows no sign of abating as protests have met with severe government crackdown. This is a serious challenge for Turkey, which lies at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe politically, geographically and culturally.

Even though its neighbours experienced revolutionary protests the case of Turkey cannot be dubbed as the spread of the Arab Spring because the nature of the country and the movement are unique and different.

Nevertheless, it can have sound implications for a region that is already experiencing unrest. There could be further instability in an already fragile region. In addition, Turkey is in a state of many social and political paradoxes. The state is secular, but 99 per cent dominant religion is Islam.

The government is elected democratically although its leader is viewed as authoritarian and its democracy is viewed as far from ideal. Culturally, it is in the middle of a Middle-Eastern cum European flux. The issues thus brought out by the protests are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon as Turkey fears an identity crisis.

Keeping in mind the already ongoing unrest in the region, it is import to look into the relations Turkey would have with major regional players such as the United States of America, Israel and the Middle Eastern countries.

An assessment of the implications of Turkey’s Foreign policy amidst internal unrest is important to analyse Turkey’s way forward as a regional player, and more importantly, as a secular and democratic state.

Turkey is in turmoil after a protest against the removal of 600 historic trees in Gezi Park, Taksim, Istanbul transformed into a larger social movement. The transformation brought thousands of Turkish citizens to protest on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, it’s most populous and capital cities respectively.

The turmoil

The protests have taken an anti-government identity as the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has come under fire for its unwillingness to bring democratic reforms to the country and its indifferent attitude to the rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey.

But largely, the people are protesting against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions which are increasingly being viewed as authoritarian.

The secular population in Turkey has been out rightly dismissive of Erdogan’s Islamic approach to law and governance. However, these reasons only surfaced by the spark created by the simple protest of environmentalists.

The Gezi Park is important to the people of Istanbul as historically it has been a place for assembly-both for protest as well as social and cultural reasons. However, as part of the government’s ongoing ‘Urban transformation’ the people fear an increase in commercial activity at the cost of destruction of cultural spaces and displacement of people.

The ruling Justice and Development party is planning to uproot the Gezi Park to build a shopping center. Being the last green spot available in
the populous city of Istanbul the environmentalists indeed protested.

However, while this was the incident that sparked the protests, it was not the main reason of the start of the social movement. The role of the outburst at Gezi Park was to highlight and expose the real frustration the people of Turkey have been feeling with an increasingly conservative government, at a time when the people are experiencing the complete opposite of conservative.

Turkey’s geographic location at the confluence of Europe and the Middle-East has indeed influenced the country’s culture and society. Protecting a cultural space is sacred to Europeans and being true to the European thinking, the citizens of Istanbul would hate to see a mall instead of a cultural centre at the Park. Albeit is the case with religion.

While 99 per cent of the citizens of Turkey follow Islam as their faith, the people have widely adopted a liberal and secular approach to life. Regressive or conservative rules that derive their justification out of religious doctrines are not something the forward looking Turks would like to be consumed in.

Over the time, they have developed a broad, free thinking and liberal attitude toward culture and society. Therefore, protesting heavily against the Islamic inclinations of the current government is more so because they would have vehemently opposed any attempts to curb their freedom.

This is not to say that there is an overwhelming opposition to Islamic policies, something that suggests the religious and cultural tensions between the mostly secular population and the more Islamist, conservative population.

Democratic reform

It is evident from the demographics of the protest that this is not only against Erdogan’s conservative policies, but also his way of leadership and notably, his anti-Kurdish policies.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most successful leaders in Turkey’s democratic history. He has held office for three terms as the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

During his eight years of power, Erdogan has been credited with bringing economic and political stability as he faced down Turkey’s powerful secularist military establishment, which previously overthrew elected governments whenever it felt the need.

He and his government have ardently championed Turkey’s wish to join the European Union. Although the AKP has Islamic roots, he insists that it is committed to a secular state and, although they are conservative, they are Pro-West.

However, the policies of Erdogan’s government are increasingly being viewed by secular and cosmopolitan Turks as a complete reversal of Ataturk’s legacy-the father of Modern Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was known for his secular bearings and his vision for a modern European- like Turkey.

Early modern Turkey was founded under his leadership. He was an authoritarian who drove his country to adopt social, legal and political reforms. In a sense, the people are now protesting to save his legacy from being overrun by a government that is becoming increasingly conservative and backward looking.

Erdogan’s policies, by contrast are based on religious doctrines coupled with authoritarianism in a so called democracy.

He has restricted the sales of alcohol, counseled couples to have at least three children and made abortion punishable. Naturally then, a society that has developed a sense of political and ideological freedom and liberalism will not take constraint and interference too well.

What Turkey is experiencing is quite similar to what many countries in its neighborhood have experienced. However, in many ways, it is distinguishable. Although some analysts suggest that the Arab Spring may have finally reached Turkey, the nature of Turkey’s protest movement and its demands are significantly different.

For one, unlike the case of countries experiencing the Arab Spring whose people are protesting against the long standing tyrannical and authoritarian rule of family based sultanates, the people of Turkey are protesting against an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister who has been elected democratically.

Secondly, although the West has hailed Turkey’s democracy as a model to be followed by its neighboring countries, their democracy is far from ideal. Therefore, the people are looking for democratic reform, unlike its neighboring protestors who are fighting to put an end to autocratic rule and embrace democracy.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that the functioning of the democracy has been enough to curtail the power of the military. This was the case especially under Erdogan’s rule. Thirdly, unlike the Arab Spring countries, Turkey’s economic conditions are decent and stable as the economy has consistently grown.

With the world’s 17th largest GDP, the Turks have not complained much over the state of the economy. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya feared that the economic problems faced by their country were directly impacted by the authoritarian rule.

Also, Turkey is a more liberal country and its culture is inclined and influenced by the West rather than by its Eastern neighbors. That is why the social movement has been named after Western movements (Occupy Gezi) and not by the name of the ‘Turkish Spring’.

The last and most important point is that because Turkey is a republican democracy, the international pressure mounted on the government to contain the protests will only be through talks and diplomacy.

The situation in Turkey is not expected to spiral out of control like in the case of Syria where war is also constantly being hindered by overt international interference.

However, though the Arab Spring cannot be experienced by Turkey, it can impact it. In addition, Turkey’s own experience with protests can have serious implications for the Middle-Eastern region as a whole and the international players with interests there.

Impact on relations

Therefore, it is important to assess the impact Turkey’s protests are likely to have on its relations with key players such as the US and the West, Israel and Middle-Eastern countries. What is invariably clear regardless of its consequences is that the unrests will cause a new level of instability in the region

Turkey is a rising global and regional power and US realizes its geo-strategic importance, especially in light of the conflict in Syria and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Although US does not regard Turkey as a traditional European ally, it seriously wants to make the most of Turkey’s prosperity.

However, with the current protests, USA’s concerns have heightened. It was mainly concerned about the deepening fascist attitude of the Turkish police force, the prosecution and detention of journalists and the questionable pursuits of the military.

The US administration has held up Turkey as a model for the Middle-East, but the protests have only reaffirmed their belief that the current government has steered away from its pro-democratic and pro-secular footings towards a more authoritarian and conservative outlook.

This is something that does not work well in USA’s favour. Moreover, it is a sticky situation for the US because, having been an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Erdogan, his declining popularity and ability to control the people can strain the relationship between Ankara and Washington.

Therefore, the US government has avoided directly criticizing Erdogan and have voiced their concerns on general issues relating to police crackdown and violence.

Although US has been publicly supportive of such protests in the Middle-East, the lack of leadership creates a vacuum that threatens to leave the region even more unstable. America thus brings out contradictory policies in the region and the current position on Turkey is proof to that.

The US supports the allies until it is no longer tenable, like the case of Egypt and Tunisia. In the case of Syria and Libya, the US directly intervenes to secure its interests. However, Turkey is an important strategic base for US, and as a NATO ally it helps in counter-terrorism efforts, limiting Iran’s nuclear programme and helping in the Syrian civil war.

Therefore, in the case of Turkey, it will be difficult for Washington to put its relationship with Ankara in jeopardy. So, its approach toward the ongoing protests seems to be one of paying lip service to seek calm and non violence, while patiently waiting for the public anger to die out.

That US foreign policy is bias and inherently contradictory in the Middle-East is undeniable. If we look at the case of Bahrain, the US government continued normal relations with the ruling Al-Khalifa family despite the monarchy’s brutal crackdown on the protests and violation of human rights.

Bahrain is militarily significant to the US. In contrast, the US condemned the violent suppression in Syria and called for Bashar-al-Assad to step down. Syria is considered by the US as a perceived enemy.

Recently, the US government began directly providing military aid to the rebels, a precarious move that will obviously escalate the situation.

Therefore, the impact of US foreign policy on Turkey, on the Middle-East and on the tension in Turkey will depend largely on the outcome of the protests. It is a premature stage for US to disrupt good relations with the Turkish government.

In any case, beyond their loathe to Erdogan’s increasing conservatism and authoritarianism, the demands of the protestors are somewhat unclear. It will also closely watch Turkey’s possible induction into the EU, which for now has been put on hold due to the protests.

However, what is important for US is not whether Erdogan’s suppression will continue or be disrupted by elections, but that a pro-democratic, pro-west and secular government is placed in Ankara at all times. Whether that will be Erdogan’s government or another’s is not necessarily US’s chief concern.

Turkey has had vigorous relations with Israel since its founding in 1948, including a wide range of trade and commerce, military relations and significant tourism. Strategic and diplomatic ties were accorded high priorities by both countries.

Turkey was also the first Muslim majority country to recognize the State of Israel. However, relations between the two deteriorated after the Gaza war (2008-2009) and the Flotilla raid (2010) after which Turkey snapped diplomatic ties with Israel and the two countries severed their relations.

Consequently, the two countries, considered by US as its strongest allies in the Middle-East, decided to resume their relationship, after an American brokered peace initiation. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister apologized to Erdogan, and the two countries have begun to assume the strategic importance of their relationship since then.

The protests in Turkey have significant implications for Israel-Turkey relations. It hadn’t been long since Israel and Turkey resumed their friendship that domestic political instability hit Turkey.

Amidst rising tensions in the region with respect to the Syrian civil war and Iran’s aggressive nuclear program, their strategic alliance might be the need of the hour.

But if Erdogan’s wish to continue following his conservative policies based on religious doctrine for hopes of being the leader of the Sunni Muslim world is coupled with his authoritarian ruling style, not only will it severe relations with Israel but also it will add to further instability in the region.

In Israel, there are two main opposing views on Erdogan’s government. The first view is the extreme view that as long as Erdogan stays in power reconciliation efforts between the two states is a waste of time.

They believe that Erdogan did not decide to severe his relationship with Israel because of the Flotilla raid, he made it long before that. Erdogan is an Islamist and he wants to severe ties with Israel so that he can become the Sunni leader of the Middle-East.

By humiliating Israel, Erdogan would manage to empower his image, just like Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah once did.

The other view point is a lot more moderate and argues that there is still considerable room to restore peace between Israel and Turkey.

Whilst it is true that Erdogan is trying to bring Turkey closer to Islam, it does not mean that he has no strategic interests in the Middle-East.

Given the escalating conflict in Syria, Turkey’s failure in Libya and Iran’s nuclear pursuits, Turkey would do well with maintaining a strategic tie with Israel throughout. Just like the Muslim brotherhood came to power in Egypt and talks still continued with Israel, the same could be the case with Turkey.

Nevertheless, Israel is watching the developments taking place in Turkey with some amount of ambivalence. As Erdogan led Turkey away from a close alliance with Israel, a popular uprising that leaves Erdogan politically hurt could be welcome news for Israel.

The Middle-East is the most volatile region in the world. The ongoing issues in the region, ranging from the spread of the Arab Spring to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the constant interference of the West contribute significantly to the instability in the region.

Turkey is considered to be the meeting point of the West and the Middle-East. It is one of the only countries in the Middle-Eastern region who could broker issues between the West and its neighbouring countries for the larger interests of a secure region.

However, with the recent protests that has put a question mark on power and control of Erdogan’s government in Turkey, Turkey could lose the clout with which it once negotiated the interests of the regional players.

Regional dimensions

Turkey’s foreign policy could have a profound impact on the volatile nature of affairs in the Middle-East because the future of Turkey will give a plausible insight into the future of the Middle-East dimensional politics, for which it is important to assess its foreign policy in the region.

With the GCC countries, the little hyped partnership of Turkey is underrated. Five years ago, Turkey became the first country to have a strategic dialogue with the GCC.

It was a significant step towards greater institutionalized collaboration between the prosperous Sunni Arab monarchies and the NATO member Turkey. The significance of such a partnership could have immense geo-political consequences for the Middle-East.

Economically, a partnership between the most prosperous countries of the region would obviously give advantage to the nexus.

In addition to giving the West enough leverage to act without much problem, Turkey also advanced eastwards, intensifying ties with other forums such as the Organization of the Islamic Council and the Arab League.

As far as Iran goes, neither Tehran nor Ankara would have imagined such a radical transformation in their region that would have a drastic impact on their relationship.

Turkey’s alternative approach to Iran’s nuclear program troubled the West a little bit as they feared Turkey shifting its axis eastwards, but what they failed to acknowledge was that Turkey and Iran had to secure their regional interests first.

However, following the Syrian conflict, their conflicting perspectives on the issue has severely strained their relationship.

In addition, mounting pressure from the West to stop Iran’s nuclear program has also left Turkey playing it down. Therefore, the multidimensional Iran and Turkey relations has fallen victim to the regional developments that are shaping the Middle-East.

The economic relations between the two have always had an upward trend (despite Iran’s economic hardship under sanctions, largely due to Turkey’s purchase of oil and natural gas from Iran).

Turkey continues to play a facilitator role in the Iranian nuclear issue, their divergent views on the transformation of the Arab region, especially the impact of the Arab Spring can result in a power struggle.

As of now, the biggest wall between the two is the result of their differing stand on Syria and as the conflict in Syria intensifies their troubled relationship will also intensify.

Iran may be at an advantage following the protests in Turkey, because that will divert Turkey’s attention to problems at home and give Iran enough room to progress with its ideas for the region.

Also, the emerging alliance between Egypt, Turkey and Iran in the face of the Arab Spring could easily threaten the global balance of power and not just the region alone.