Geopolitical consequences stretch far beyond the .

Developments in Syria have affected , too. Before the , was a rising star in its neighborhood, but has become a troubled nation in the years since. Its president, , is increasingly cited as a model for authoritarians around the region and the world, and if tensions between and the West lead to a fracture, more adverse geopolitical consequences could follow.


Before the erupted late in 2010, was not without its problems, but it still enjoyed good standing in many respects. Its soft power and prestige in international affairs was at its peak. Its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” made it possible for to act as a mediator in the intractable problems of its region, most notably in the conflict between Israel and Syria. Membership talks with the European Union were well on their way, and many across the followed them with keen interest. even attempted to carry over some of the European experience in economic integration to the region, leading efforts to encourage “the free movement of goods and people taking place in a vast area stretching from the city of Kars in eastern to the Atlantic, and from Sinop on the Black Sea coast to the Gulf of Aden.” Culturally, the Turkish example had also made its way to the hearts and minds of the Arab populations through its highly popular soap operas, for instance.

It should come as no surprise that during his first official trip outside North America, in April 2009, President Obama went to Ankara with the hope of engaging into a model partnership based on shared values. The then-Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s emphasis on the virtues of a democratic and secular form of government, particularly as he addressed an enthusiastic audience in Cairo in September 2011, ought to be seen in the light of such a partnership. No Western leader at that time could have had the same effect making a similar speech to an Arab audience. He publicly advocated democratic values to an audience that was basking jubilantly in a recent regime overthrow. Such was the impact of in the region, at that time, in expanding the cause of democratic order in the .


Alas, this positive picture did not last long. The turned into winter almost in tandem with the start of the democratic and political regressions that have beset ever since. The of 2013, initially a peaceful reaction sparked out of popular concern at growing , only led to more repression—the freedom of the media being among its first casualty, along with many lives. This coincided with the overthrow of the popularly elected Mohammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, longtime ideological allies of Erdoğan. The West’s silence in the face of the coup in Egypt was not lost on the AKP, nor its leader Erdoğan. The fear that this could one day happen against their government led to the gradual abandonment of the democratic gains achieved in the earlier years of AKP rule, setting Erdoğan on a journeytods greater .

’s reaction to the turmoil in Syria also brought an end to the prestige that it enjoyed internationally. In the initial days of the conflict, the leaders in expected, like most of their Western counterparts, a quick demise of Bashar Assad, and felt confident that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood would lead a transition to democracy. The was considered an ally until Obama failed, in 2013, to stand by his “red line” concerning the use of chemical weapons against civilians. , in a major departure from longstanding statecraft, then began to seek the violent overthrow of the regime of a neighboring country. This quickly led to growing involvement with extremist Islamist groups, which earned the reputation of a “jihadi highway,” a busy route for foreign fighters flowing into Syria. The AKP government repeatedly brushed aside the nings coming from within the country and the international community against greater involvement in the Syrian quagmire. In response to growing disagreements with Western allies, government officials began to depict ’s position as a state of “precious loneliness,” a romantic term intended to project the image that held moral principles above its allies’ requests, all in the service of a people awaiting desperate relief from the cruelty of a brutal regime. Domestic criticism also drowned in as the government quickly rolled back the free speech gains it had achieved just a few years prior. Ultimately, the misguided hope for a quick victory in Syria stemmed from a failure to foresee growing Russian and Iranian involvement on Assad’s side.

now finds itself in a camp opposite the . Ankara sees the U.S. policy of supporting Syrian Kurdish militants against ISIS as a serious affront, since the Turkish government makes no distinction between the Kurdish militia in Syria and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the terrorist organization that it has been fighting since the 1980s. sees its own national security threatened by the prospect of an emerging Kurdish region along its border that is governed by Syrian Kurds closely aligned with the PKK. ’s military intervention into the Syrian Kurdish enclave of , an operation that began in January and still underway, has added a new layer of complexity to the conflict. The intervention comes against a backdrop of the reversal of the gains made with respect to Kurdish minority rights and the abandonment of efforts to find a negotiated political solution to the Kurdish question in . Violence, repression, and destruction reminiscent of the early 1990s have returned and also drawn into a military intervention into Syria.

This situation risks bringing and the into a military confrontation, unheard of in their 70-year long alliance. In the meantime, Russia remains steadfast in its support for Assad, allowing his regime to expand its territorial control by the day and continue inflicting untold suffering on civilians. In the face of these challenges, the Turkish government has been reacting by whipping up anti-Western and anti-American sentiments, while remaining utterly quiet on Russia, a facile way of diverting attention away from its own mistakes.


In short, is a far cry from where it was when the began, and this brings to the forefront two dramatic geopolitical consequences, which I describe in more detail in my recent book, “Turkey and the West: Fault Lines in a Troubled Alliance.”The first is ’s orientation away from the trans-Atlantic alliance and its loosening commitment to the tenets of international liberal order. The Turkish model, once full of promises, has come to an end. Instead, , especially Erdoğan, is increasingly cited as a model in reverse: setting an example for a growing community of new leaders with authoritarian aspirations in regions stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Second, if the current tensions with the and the frenzy of anti-Americanism do lead to break away or be pushed out of , the picture could get worse. This would dramatically affect the security and stability of a whole region and possibly beyond in the face of a weakened and divided trans-Atlantic community. Surely, this would benefit Russia’s ability to manipulate its “near abroad” much more effectively. It would then be very difficult to defend the interests of Baltic countries down through Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and others who still aspire for democratic gains and national sovereignty, let alone support those who aspire to join the EU and .

At this dire junction, there is an urgency for both and the to see the broader strategic picture that brought them together in the aftermath of World II to defend national sovereignty against expansionist powers and promote democratic governance. The AKP’s was at its best when its relations were at their best with both of its trans-Atlantic partners, the and the EU. That was also the time when enjoyed its best influence in its neighborhood, especially among so-called countries. The glue holding it together was democratic governance, including improving minority rights (such as those of Kurds). If the international liberal order is to be defended, it will be critical for both the EU and the to reengage in support of its place in the trans-Atlantic community. In turn, the AKP will need to return to its founding principles that brought it to power and that endowed with so much prosperity, stability, and international prestige. It is only then that one day it might again be possible to revive the hopes that the had once engendered. Otherwise, the AKP would turn the region over to the influence of Russia and Iran, which clearly have no sympathy for a vibrant, diverse, and democratic . Ironically, this would be a betrayal of the legacy of the , which used skillful diplomacy to manage—for centuries—to check Russian and Iranian imperial expansion tods the m waters of the Mediterranean, a legacy that the AKP has long held in high esteem and would do well to remember today.

Originally published in