By Damla Karagoz
Omer Taspinar and Bulent Aliriza spoke at a panel titled “Turkey in the Middle East: Role, Influence, and Challenges” on November 5, 2012 at the Elliott School of International Affairs.
Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power with a landslide victory in 2002, it has succeeded in continually gaining public support. Nonetheless, because of the Syrian conflict and the Kurdish issue, a foreseeable shift is possible in the success of the political party. It is clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will continually face an increasing challenge in retaining his influence in the Middle East and in Turkey. After great economic and political developments in the country, a gloomy atmosphere has appeared as Erdogan has begun to witness the limits of Turkey’s influence in the Middle East.
Though Syria used to be a part of Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy, it currently causes strains on Turkish politics internally and externally. Even though Turkey has increased its power in the region in the past decade, Syria has been a destabilizing force and has caused Prime Minister Erdogan to realize that he has no influence over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many people in Turkey do not agree on Erdogan’s actions with Syria; he has lost public support for the first time because of his inability to show change in Syria. Currently there are 100,000 Syrian refugees living in Turkey and nearly 400 million Turkish liras have been spent for government finances on accommodating refugees. Though it is an exaggeration to say that if Assad survives Erdogan must go, it has become clear that if Syria continues at the pace it is currently moving; it will become a great challenge for Erdogan’s future.
The main problem Turkey will face in the future however is its inability solve the Kurdish problem. Kurds are currently the largest ethnic group in the Middle East, with a 35 million population, half of whom live in Turkey. Though AKP has tried to solve the Kurdish problem in militaristic ways, they have been unable to solve the issue on a political platform. The new Kurdish generation is not like the old one; they are extremely nationalistic and have very high expectations, especially after seeing what has happened to the Kurds in northern Iraq. Giving language rights is not enough for this generation; Kurds in Turkey demand autonomy and citizenship rights. The domestic effects of the Kurdish awakening have weakened Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iraq.
Turkey must focus on the conflict with Syria and the Kurdish issue if it desires to stay a strong power in the Middle East. The balance of power is changing around Turkey’s neighboring states and Prime Minister Erdogan will have a bigger challenge in sustaining influence regionally which will also question his support domestically. Because of his charisma and self-confidence, he has accomplished persuading the Turkish population that the country is better off than it used to be. However, turmoil in Syria and the Kurdish awakening both will make it increasingly difficult for Erdogan to pursue his highly charismatic and confident persona.