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Erdogan, Peres (AP/Alessandro Della Bella/Keystone)

Turkey's complex position

International | Prime Minister Erdogan's outburst in Davos and the future of the Turkish state

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded during a public discussion with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. Erdogan did not blow up at Peres, but rather at the moderator, Washington Post columnist and associate editor David Ignatius, whom Erdogan accused of giving more time to Peres. Afterward, Erdogan said, "I did not target at all in any way the Israeli people, President Peres, or the Jewish people. I am a prime minister, a leader who has expressly stated that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity."

Nevertheless, the international press focused not on the finer points of Erdogan's reasoning, but rather on his attacks on Israeli policy in Gaza and his angry exit, which many thought were directed at Peres and Israel. The confusion, we suspect, suited Erdogan quite well. Turkey is effectively an ally of Israel. Given this alliance, the recent events in Gaza put Erdogan in a difficult position. The Turkish prime minister needed to show his opposition to Israel's policies to his followers in Turkey's moderate Islamist community without alarming Turkey's military that he was moving to rupture relations with Israel. Whether calculated or not, Erdogan's explosion in Davos allowed him to appear to demonstrate vocal opposition to Israel-directly to Israel's president, no less-without actually threatening ties with Israel.

It is important to understand the complexity of Erdogan's political position. Ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Turkey has had a secular government. The secularism of the government was guaranteed constitutionally by the military, whose role it was to protect the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk-the founder of modern, secular Turkey, who used the army as an instrument of nation-building. The Turkish public, in contrast, runs the gamut from ultrasecularists to radical Islamists.

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Erdogan is an elected moderate Islamist. As such, he is held in suspicion by the army and severely circumscribed in how far he can go on religious matters. To his right politically are more hard-line Islamist parties, which are making inroads into Turkish public opinion. Erdogan must balance between these forces, avoiding the two extreme outcomes of military intervention and Islamist terrorism.

Meanwhile, from a geopolitical perspective, Turkey is always in an uncomfortable place. Asia Minor is the pivot of Eurasia. It is the land bridge between Asia and Europe, the northern frontier of the Arab world and the southern frontier of the Caucasus. Its influence spreads outward toward the Balkans, Russia, Central Asia, the Arab world, and Iran. Alternatively, Turkey is the target of forces emanating from all of these directions. Add to this its control of the Bosporus, which makes Turkey the interface between the Mediterranean and Black Sea, and the complexity of Turkey's position becomes clear: Turkey is always either under pressure from its neighbors or pressuring its neighbors. It is perpetually being drawn outward in multiple directions, even into the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has two different paths for dealing with its geopolitical challenge.

Secular isolationism

From the army's point of view, the Ottoman Empire was a disaster that entangled Turkey into the catastrophe of Word War I. One of Ataturk's solutions involved not only contracting Turkey after the war, but containing it in such a way that it could not be drawn into the extreme risk of imperial adventure.

In World War II, both Axis and Allies wooed and subverted Turkey. But the country managed-with difficulty-to maintain neutrality, thereby avoiding another national catastrophe.

During the Cold War, Turkey's position was equally difficult. Facing Soviet pressure from the north, the Turks had to ally themselves with the United States and NATO. Turkey possessed something the Soviets desperately wanted: the Bosporus, which would have given the Soviet navy unimpeded access to the Mediterranean. Naturally, the Turks could not do anything about their geography, nor could they cede the Bosporus to the Soviets without sacrificing their independence. But neither could they protect it by themselves. Thus, left with only the choice of NATO membership, the Turks joined the Western alliance.

There was a high degree of national unity on this subject. Whatever the ideologies involved, the Soviets were viewed as a direct threat to Turkey. Therefore, using NATO and the United States to help guarantee Turkish territorial integrity was ultimately something around which a consensus could form. NATO membership, of course, led to complications, as these things always do.

To counter the American relationship with Turkey (and with Iran, which also blocked Soviet southward movement), the Soviets developed a strategy of alliances-and subversion-of Arab countries. First Egypt, then Syria, Iraq, and other countries came under Soviet influence between the 1950s and 1970s. Turkey found itself in a vise between the Soviets and Iraq and Syria. And with Egypt-with its Soviet weapons and advisers-also in the Soviet orbit, Turkey's southern frontier was seriously threatened.

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