By Bruce Mabley
The following is a list of suggestions on how to make Turkey great again. The aim is not to restore it to the stature of the Ottoman Empire of past glory but, at the very least, improve its political leverage in the region. This is not a call for a neo-Ottoman future based on nostalgia of Empire. Most of these suggestions attempt to counsel Turkish leaders and officials on the wisdom of democratic outreach and the ability to harmonize it with Turkish nationalism. In terms of international scope, the ruling AK Party has already promoted Turkish soft power assets abroad but there remain situations that require attention and some fixing.
As a former diplomat posted to Ankara in 2010, I had the good fortune to familiarize myself with the Turkish people and its institutions and government. It is far from perfect but it deserves our interest and attention in view of its strategic importance in several critical regions of the world.
Turkey has been much maligned by those who seek to label it an example of political Islam or a totalitarian society. Such observations miss the mark and tend to sell the Turkish people short. This article does not ask why Turkey should become great again. Given its historic and strategic situation, a strong democratic Turkey is an indispensable asset to NATO and for lasting peace in the region.
Let us start by solving the Armenian genocide question by relegating it to study by a comité de sages. This notion has already been raised elsewhere but it needs to be actualized in order to get it out of the political sphere and into the hands of historians and academics. If the genocide did happen, Turkey should make an apology and move on. Every year in France, Canada and the United States, the Turks fight a rear-guard diplomatic action against parliamentary resolutions condemning the alleged Turkish genocide. Its impact on Turkish-American relations is disastrous given the pro-Armenian lobby and its power in both the state and federal legislatures.
Release the journalists. Let the Chinese be the standard bearer for this dubious practice. Journalists are a threat to regime stability when they are in jail. Left to their own designs, they promote a healthy democratic airing of views. It is an error to imagine that journalism is revolutionary and it can hardly be interpreted as a danger to Turkish nationalism or political stability.
For example, in Canada, we have a Vice-Prime Minister and ex-Foreign Minister who is a former journalist. There has never been a more partisan supporter of state power and partisan politics than Chrystia Freeland. Her pervasive influence over the present government reflects the hand of an ambitious, crafty and intelligent manipulator of truth. Nothing of a courageous maverick or firebrand rather the exact opposite.
Make some sort of enduring peace with the Kurds. You already do business with the Kurds in Irbid and they are a significant minority in Turkey with regional political clout. The surest way to prevent the establishment of a separate country called Kurdistan would be to make intelligent concessions on the educational and linguistic front.
A peace agreement would assist Turkey’s Syrian allies who must expand their opposition outreach to embrace anti-Bashar Kurds. It will take several generations for the wounds of civil unrest with the Kurds to heal but the international and regional benefits are undeniable. Again, Turkish nationalism is in no danger and the AK Party can use its political capital to increase the internal flexibility and stability of the regime.
Move to become once again a key player in the Arab-Israeli conflict. For this, President Erdogan can begin by bringing the two main Palestinian parties together – PLO and Hamas. Turkey has a unique role to play here in foiling Israeli efforts to split the Palestinian front and put off reform. Becoming an active player in the resolution of this conflict will raise Turkey’s international role and secure allies for itself in the region and beyond. It would provide bargaining chips for Turkey in the Astana Group and NATO.
The absence of US involvement in the region provides an excellent window of opportunity. The abject failure of the recent Kushner peace initiative demonstrates this point. The only caveat is if international inaction on solving this conflict has destroyed any hope of a two-state solution. The question is stark: are we dealing with an apartheid state of Israel? Has peace policy bungling and hypocrisy brought us to this unenviable point?
Overall, the Syria policy, including the requirement to oppose the regime of Bashar al-Assad and take on millions of fleeing Syrian refugees, was not a mistake. Many Turkish intellectuals and observers disagree and interpret the AK Party’s Syria policy as part of some pro-Salafist plot to position Turkey as the savior of Islam. In short, it is a denial of Turkey’s Kemalist origins and reflective of an attempt to erase secularism.
Despite this, I would argue that Turkey has mobilized considerable resources in a grand humanitarian effort to aid Syrian refugees at a time when the West has done little to help. In the absence of any significant NATO support, Turkey has justifiably recalibrated its strategic interests in the region and joined the Astana process with Russia and Iran. Throughout the second decade of this century, the Europeans have dumped the Syrian problem on Turkey and expected the Turks to take responsibility.
Concessions to Turkey were few and it was assumed that the Turks would take on all the responsibility while paying lip service to the various and sundry human rights commissions and bodies of the European parliament engaged in finger pointing.
Re-habilitate the Gulenists. No one knows for sure whether the Gulenists were involved in the 2016 summer coup d’état in Turkey. If they were, they have been punished enough by the present regime and deserve to be re-habilitated politically. If they were not, it is high time to relent. After all, the Gulenists were some of the best of what Turkey’s change from military rule to civilian government symbolizes.
They also represent a formidable economic power behind most of the soft power assets and successes at home and abroad. Despite their anti-Kurd attitude, which will have to be contained and re-thought, the Gulenists represent a large section of the Turkish bourgeoisie and business sector. In the public sector, they are the brains behind the bureaucracy and educational system. Their propensity for secrecy is no worse than that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Turkish regime was quite prepared to lead its anti-Bashar effort with them as the vanguard. Bringing the Gulenists closer to the regime will have to be done on a concession by concession basis with the Gulenists contributing by divesting themselves of former policies on Syria and the Kurds.
Finally, a word has to be said about Europe, and Turkey’s relations with the European Union. As fractious and conflictual as they can be, Europe remains a key economic partner for Turkey and a market for its goods.
Remittances from Europe are essential for many Turkish families’ survival at home. However, many Turks feel misunderstood by Europeans. The claim is that Europe fails to adequately understand the history and religious sentiments of its non-Christian neighbor.
Among the non-aligned regional state actors, one of the most important in the world is Turkey. It straddles key trade routes. It has a hand in every regional conflict. Europe’s understanding of just how key of a partner Turkey could be is desperately lacking. A confident and revitalized Europe knows how important its relationship with Turkey is, yet in the face of an isolationist America, Europe is drawing inward.
Brexit is not just English arrogance speaking. It is also European indolence and lack of moral fiber. Syria is an ongoing example of Europe’s defeatism and lack of moral and strategic vision. Catalonia is a glaring example of the consciousness of Munich, which pervades European international strategic vision. Perhaps that is why relations with Turkey are very much not what the international democratic order demands.
President Erdogan’s constitutional mockery and grab for power notwithstanding, the domestic opposition to such efforts might have profited from European encouragement and assistance had they been made available without provisos and high-minded conceptual thinking that Europe itself is unable to support or promote effectively in its own geographical sphere of influence.
*Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.