Less than a decade ago, many Western statesmen and pundits were racing ahead to praise Turkey's Islamist leaders as "post-modern, democratic, reformist, pro-European Union Islamists" who could play the role model for less democratic Muslim nations in the Middle East. It was "The Rise and Rise of Turkey," as Patrick Seale put it in the New York Times in 2009.
In reality, the "post-modern Islamists" were just Islamists gift-wrapped in a nicer package. Today, Turks are paying a heavy price for the neo-Ottoman, revisionist, miscalculated strategic vision of their leaders.
In July, a Turkish-Kurdish suicide bomber murdered more than 30 pro-Kurdish activists in a small town along Turkey's border with Syria. Three months later, jihadist suicide bombers murdered more than 100 pro-peace activists in the heart of Ankara, in the worst single act of terror in Turkish history. The Turkish government manipulatively put the blame on a "cocktail" group of terrorists, including Kurds. In January, jihadists murdered 10 German tourists in Istanbul in another suicide bomb attack.
Most recently, on February 17, a Kurdish militant murdered nearly 30 people, including military personnel, just a few hundred meters away from the Turkish parliament in Ankara.
In a span of only seven months, more than 170 people have lost their lives in bomb attacks. This number excludes the more than 300 security officials killed by Kurdish militants, and more than a thousand Kurdish militants killed by Turkish security forces since a Turkish-Kurdish ceasefire ended last July.
Outside its borders, Turkey is floating on a sea of chaos too. The country is in an increasingly dangerous proxy war against a bloc of Shiite and Shiite-dominated governments in Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, plus their Russian supporters. In addition, for Turkey's neo-Ottomans, Lebanon, Libya, Israel and Egypt are all "hostile lands."
Government officials privately claim that Turkey's enemies were using terror groups to launch attacks on Turkish targets. "It's like you know well who is behind the attacks but cannot prove it ... The masterminds can be one or more of the countries we have locked horns with," a senior security official told this author recently. Not a nice feeling to be the common target of a number of thuggish-to-rogue states with the capability of manipulating terrorists.
The players in the eastern Mediterranean theater, including Turkey, are running after a bigger slice of a smaller pie. Turkey's sectarian ambitions are no secret. Nor are Iran's. Today there are nearly 50,000 Shiite militiamen fighting in Syria, where a majority of the population is Sunni (as in Turkey).
Russia, on the other hand, since September 30 has been bombing targets hostile to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian aircraft have carried out about 7,500 sorties, 89% of which have hit Assad's opponents from groups other than the Islamic State (IS). Only 11% have targeted IS, which is everyone's common enemy.
Russia has also piled up a very serious military inventory around the Caspian Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Russia is in the process of encircling Turkey militarily -- in Syria, the Crimea, Ukraine and Armenia. Most recently, Moscow announced the deployment of a new batch of fighter aircraft and attack helicopters to an air base outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, 25 miles from the Turkish border.
Turkey looks helpless. Even its NATO allies look deeply reserved over any help they would be prepared to extend to Ankara in case of a conflict with Russia. Recently, Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, warned the Turkish government that it cannot count on NATO's support if its tensions with Russia escalated into an armed conflict.
Russia's fight is not about defeating the Islamic State, but about expanding its sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean, including the mouth of the Suez Canal. In a way, Russia is challenging NATO through Syria -- the same way Turkey is challenging the Shiites through Syria, or Iran is challenging the Sunnis through Syria.
There are a number of questions concerning the possibility of peace returning to this part of the world.
- Will the Muslims ever stop hating and killing each other, including bombing their mosques, along sectarian lines and end their 14-century-long war?
- Will there be functional governments in Damascus and Baghdad any time soon?
- Will the Sunni world ever stop its own radicalization without peace being imposed upon it from the non-Muslim world?
- Will the Shiite world ever control its own sectarian expansionist ambitions?
- Will the Sunni and Shiite worlds ever stop hating Jews and committing themselves to annihilating the State of Israel?
- Will Turkey's Islamists ever realize that their neo-Ottoman ambitions are too disproportionate to their power and regional clout?
- Will the Western world be prepared to challenge Russia, the new thuggish kid on the block called the eastern Mediterranean? If yes, how?
- Will the players in the eastern Mediterranean ever be happy with a bigger pie and their slices not necessarily getting smaller?
The answers of this author to those questions are negative.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.