Four hundred years after the birth of Christ, so the story goes, Nikolaos of Myra sailed into the eye of a great storm that swelled over the Marmara Sea, carrying the word of God to new shores. His crew soon lost faith, as swells rose above the ship, tearing it apart. But there was one who was willing to lash himself to the mast, tighten the ropes to stop it from falling and give up his own life. The storm, as Nikolaos had been promised, died down — and as he prayed, the dead man rose again to life.
The church of Nikolaos — patron saint of sailors and merchants, repentant thieves, brewers and pawnbrokers, and of the children who know him today as Santa Claus — stands near the picturesque town of Kas. From its beaches, and others near it, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war in Syria and Iraq have headed to the islands of Kastelorizo, Lesbos and Rhodes, risking their lives to reach Europe.
For weeks now, the world’s attention has been focussed on the giant tide of refugees from Turkey. Little attention has been paid, though, to the country at the heart of of the crisis: one that has been pushed towards implosion by the wars the refugees are fleeing.
One stark fact is clear: the war in Iraq and Syria has given birth to a jihadist core in Turkey, long considered the one stable, democratic force in the region. Four-hundred Turkish citizens, the government estimates, have been killed in combat with the Islamic State. The Soufan Group, which monitors foreign combatants in Syria and Iraq, estimates that upwards of 1,400 Turks are in the ranks of the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra. The country hosts over 2 million refugees — to which it has extended exemplary hospitality — and some fear they could, in the long term, add to the problem.
In addition, Turkey faces another war: this one sparked off by the growing power and reach of Kurdish nationalists, whose dreams of statehood have been ignited by their frontline role in the war against the Islamic State. Launching attacks from Kurdish-held bases across the border, insurgents of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdish Workers Party: PKK) have killed 120 Turkish police personnel, and several soldiers since fighting began.
From its famous “zero-problems-with-neighbours” foreign policy that Turkey’s Islamist Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Peace Party: AKP) ushered in when it came to power in 2002, the country has gone to what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, calls “precious loneliness”.
How the plan backfired
How Turkey ended up besieged is a cautionary tale, one that warns of the catastrophic consequences of foreign-policy hubris. From 2003-2009, Turkey’s foreign policy was led by Western-educated pragmatists within the AKP — first, Abdullah Gul, and then the Ali Babacan. The two foreign ministers both saw economic partnerships and regional alliance-building as key. Long-standing problems with Iraq and Syria over the Kurdish issue were resolved.
These changes were widely read as a sign of the AKP’s desire to democratise Turkey’s institutions, and lead it into the European framework. Evidence existed early early on, though, of the AKP’s illiberalism. The commentator Nuray Mert has noted that the AKP’s struggle against the military’s power in Turkey was driven not by principle, but “by the desire of eliminating a secularist power centre”.
In 2009, came the so-called Arab Spring — and the new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, saw in it the opportunity to push forward an ideological agenda aimed at rebuilding West Asia with Turkey at its centre. Turkey’s new project, Davutoglu declared, was to build a kind of born-again Ottoman Empire, in which Istanbul would “reintegrate the Balkan region, Middle East and Caucasus” by backing democratic Islamist parties.
Former Turkish ambassador Umit Pamir asked: “The question that many people are asking now is: Has Turkey changed the definition of its national interests? They wonder whether Turkey is redefining these interests in accordance with religious motives”.
The plan backfired badly. Egypt’s military, panicked by the Islamist excesses of its elected government, cracked down hard. Saudi Arabia, fearful of the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its weight against the Islamist sunrise. Tunisia and Algeria, too, grew increasingly fearful of the Islamist tide. And most important, as the Turkish-backed rebellion in Syria degenerated into chaos, the Islamic State and al-Nusra swatted Turkish-backed Islamists to take centre stage.
Out of control
Even as Turkey contemplated its next steps, things began to spiral out of control. In 2012, the AKP had moved to end fighting with a weakened PKK, hoping to put an end to an insurgency which has claimed thousands of lives since it began in 1984. The ruling party opened negotiations with the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan. In 2013, Öcalan issued a letter calling for an end to armed struggle, and the PKK had said it would comply — ceding ground to new democratic Kurdish political formations.
The Arab Spring, however, transfigured power equations: helped by the growing power of Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, the PKK began to demonstrate its presence in Turkey’s Kurdish areas. Turkey’s generals began to push President Erdogan to act.
Late last year, as Islamic State forces besieged the Kurdish town of Kobane, Turkish Kurds rioted in several cities, demanding intervention against the genocide. Police action against the protestors claimed 37 lives. Then, in July, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 33 left-wing Kurdish activists, marching from the Turkish town of Suruç to help rebuild Kobane. Kurdish groups claimed that Turkey’s intelligence services were aiding the Islamic State. Fighting involving the PKK, and right-wing vigilante attacks on Kurdish civilians, still continues.
For Turkey’s security establishment, there are now few good options. Turkey’s air force has been carrying out air strikes against the PKK·but that’s led to a wave of retaliatory terror strikes, including one on the iconic Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul.
Fears of the internal destabilisation that is being caused by Islamic State’s recruitment and fundraising activities, meanwhile, has also forced Turkey to begin taken on the jihadist group. Though the Islamic State has yet to stage large-scale retaliation, fearing disruption of logistics channels through Turkey, few expect the truce to last.
There’s little sign that the Turkish government has a plan to lead the country of the vice-like hold of its enemies. In November, the country is scheduled to hold fresh elections — the consequence of the failure of the AKP to forge a coalition after elections this summer threw up a hung Parliament. In a party summit earlier this month, the AKP purged moderates like Sadullah Ergin and Besir Atalay. New stars like Abdurrahim Boynukalin — in the news for attacking the offices of the progressive newspaper Hurriyet — will spearhead its campaign.
Issues like a campaign to restore Islamic prayers at the great Hagia Sofia in Istanbul — declared a museum by the country’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk — have acquired increasing visibility. AKP leaders have increasingly involved themselves over debates on the sale of alcohol, piety and sexuality.
The scholar Volkan Ertit believes these debates will not reshape Turkey. “Society is not becoming more pious, the political arena is,” he writes. “The number of woman wearing Islamic headscarves is actually decreasing. If scientific developments, capitalism and urbanisation are taking place in a society, then it is very difficult for that society to be altered from above.”
Yet, the fact remains that the fabric of Turkish modernity, woven by wars and revolutions a century ago, is being pulled by the savage turmoil around it. Its durability will be tested in coming years as never before.
Trouble on all sides
Initially, Turkey backed the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, hoping to install a regime of moderate Islamists. Backed by the West, it routed weapons and logistical support to groups that emerged from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. As events unfolded, though, the Turkish-backed groups were swept aside by the jihadists who capitalised on the funds and weapons Turkey had funneled. Turkey now fears its own citizens could form the core of a potent domestic jihadist movement — a threat the country, unlike others in the region, has never had to face before.
The war in Syria and Iraq has ended up strengthening its most bitter enemies — the Kurdish nationalists. In his effort to build a Turkish nation out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ruthlessly suppressed markers of Kurdish identity, including the language. In the 1970s, Marxist students formed the kernel of what would flower into a Kurdish insurgency. From 1984, fighting broke out which would claim thousands of lives. In the 1990s, though, Turkey began gaining the upper hand, and eased restrictions on the Kurdish language. That, and a process of dialogue begun by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, seemed to have stilled the crisis by 2012. But the rise of the IS saw the Kurdish group emerge on the frontlines of resistance to it — and global support also empowered the PKK. A ceasefire announced in 2013 has now collapsed, and fighting has claimed over 200 lives.
European states have drawn global attention by welcoming Syrian refugees but Turkey’s role as a host has been largely unnoticed. UN statistics show the country is now home to over 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The real number is almost certainly well over 2 million, likely 3 million — no small number for an emerging-economy country of just 80 million. Istanbul and other Turkish cities are full of Syrian refugees, and women and children can be seen begging from tourists. Turkey provides a small subsistence allowance for all refugees, and has also allowed them to work. Its policies were based on the hope the Syrian war would be short, but there’s little chance the refugees will be going home soon.