Turkey once was looked to, with good reason, as a model for the Middle East. It was a well-established republic, more stable and more democratic than much of the rest of that region. The legacy of modernity of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, has given his country a lasting advantage over most of the Arab world. Straddling two continents, Turkey was well-suited to be a cultural, economic and political bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Turkey also is predominantly Muslim and, as such, all the more equipped to be a model for majority Muslim countries of the Middle East. The rise to power 14 years ago of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, generally described as mildly Islamist, enhanced the model. The party demonstrated how it is possible not only for such a party to assume power through peaceful democratic means in an avowedly secular republic, but also, as AK-led governments did in their first several years in office, to compile a solid record of good governance and economic growth.
The tough neighborhood in which Turkey lives gives Ankara an incentive to reach out to the countries to its south, if only to help prevent their troubles from spreading northward, and AK-led governments have done exactly that. Even the longstanding problem of Kurdish separatism seemed to become less of a problem, as Ankara made overtures to Kurds within Turkey while also taking a more positive attitude toward the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq.
Within the past few years this favorable picture of the Turkish role has fallen apart, largely for two reasons. One is the increasingly authoritarian ways of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The former prime minister moved to the presidency with the intention of transforming that office into a strong executive, but any such constitutional change matters less now than a disturbing erosion of basic civil and political rights. The press is being muzzled, and courts are being hobbled. The latest move by Mr. Erdogan to crush any challenge to his accumulation of power has been to declare a former ally, the influential movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, to be a terrorist group — a groundless charge.
The other major reason that Turkey’s role has changed has been the civil war in Syria, on Turkey’s southern doorstep. The fluctuating relationship between Ankara and the Assad regime in Damascus has settled into one of strong antagonism, with Mr. Erdogan’s determination to oppose the Syrian regime getting in the way of efforts by others to counter the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. The Kurdish problem has flared anew, with Ankara opposing any cooperation with a Kurdish militia in Syria that others have found to be an effective opponent to Islamic State, but one that the Turkish government considers to be an arm of a rebellious Kurdish group in Turkey.
The effects of these developments on Turkey’s relations with outside powers have been profound and uniformly negative. To the West, the same Turkey that has been a valued partner on many diplomatic and security matters (and still has the second-largest army in NATO) now presents a significant human rights problem. The main reason Western relations with Turkey have not gotten any worse than they have is European dependence on Turkey in stemming the flow of migrants from the Middle East to Europe.
The downturn in Turkish-Russian relations has been even sharper. A decade ago that relationship was warming significantly, notwithstanding the historical enmity that included several wars between the Ottoman and Russian empires. The Syrian civil war, with Moscow and Ankara backing opposing sides and with fierce fighting very close to the border with Turkey, has thrown the relationship back into the freezer. The worst episode came last November, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had flown briefly into Turkish airspace during a mission against Syrian rebels. A recent poll shows that the Russian public now considers Turkey to be one of Russia’s three most significant adversaries, along with the United States and Ukraine. The Russian government insists that Turkey must take responsibility for the November incident before relations can get back to normal.
What all outside powers should remember is that, however difficult their relations with Mr. Erdogan’s government have become, Turkey is still an essential player in the Middle East. Its active participation certainly is critical to any de-escalation and resolution of the highly destructive war in Syria. Ankara also has a major role to play in the stabilization of Iraq. Turkish cooperation is important in countering Islamic State and other forms of Islamist extremism and terrorism. As one of three major non-Arab states, along with Iran and Israel, in the area, Turkey is a key part of any balance of power in the Middle East. And Turkey still can set an important example as a modern, democratic, majority-Muslim state.
Other powers need to work hard, despite understandable disagreements with the Turks, to respect the fears and sensitivities that are prevailing in Turkey today — and that go far beyond Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions — while looking for avenues for practical cooperation with Ankara. For the West, this does not mean overlooking the infringements of civil and political liberties, which debase the very good example that Turkey could and should be setting for the region. It does mean not focusing narrowly on the migration problem and instead actively engaging with Turkey on other aspects of instability in the Middle East.
For Russia, this kind of engagement will require greater flexibility in getting past the shootdown of the Russian jet. It is expecting too much for Turkey to take sole blame for an incident in which the plane did enter Turkish territory. Russia and Turkey need to get back, and soon, to a normal relationship. Too many important interests of both countries are at stake.
⦁ Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor of the National Interest and nonresident senior fellow of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
US-Russia Crosstalk is a joint initiative of the Kommersant newspaper and Valdai Club in Russia and The Washington Times and Center for National Interest in the United States aimed at fostering a dialog on strategic engagement between the two countries.
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