Judy Asks: Is the Turkish Political Crisis Dangerous for the Region?

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Every week a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Daniel DombeyTurkey correspondent, Financial Times

Many people agree that it is, to say the least, unfortunate for the rule of law in Turkey that things have come to their present pass, in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is confronting legions of police and prosecutors. If one wants an active, engaged Turkey in the Middle East—let alone a model for the region—this is not the obvious way to go about it.

In response to the clash, government supporters have unleashed a host of conspiracy theories—usually focusing on foreigners. That hardly helps relations with the rest of the world.

Still, there are caveats. Turkey’s regional policy was in pretty poor shape already: ties are strained with almost all of its Middle Eastern neighbors, although there has been a recent uptick in relations with Iran.

In addition, now that prosecutors appear to be actively seeking to embarrass the government, Erdoğan may have to modify his behavior. Government authorities recently managed to prevent police and prosecutors from searching a truck suspected of carrying weapons to Syrian rebels. But the sequence of events increased international scrutiny all the same.

Moreover, the Turkish prime minister is a past master at changing the subject when it suits him—and a diplomatic shift might do that. One possibility is a further step toward reestablishing relations with Israel, a breakthrough diplomats say was very close when the corruption probe exploded on to the scene on December 17.


Marc PieriniVisiting scholar, Carnegie Europe

The current political crisis in Turkey is essentially an internal one, and is mostly linked to upcoming elections in the country. However, the crisis within Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s conservative camp seems so deep and recent accusations of corruption and bribery are so serious that international repercussions are unavoidable.

The main repercussion is that, for the second time in seven months, Turkey is losing much of the international prestige it had gained from a decade of economic success and political stability. One specific reason for Turkey’s prestige was its ability to entertain accession negotiations with the EU—negotiations that were difficult and protracted, but real nonetheless. The talks brought benefits for Turkey in terms of modernization, bank ratings, and foreign direct investment, but are now in troubled waters due to the negative impact of the country’s internal crisis on the rule of law.

In one particularly damaging episode of Turkey’s current turmoil, accusations of irregularities have involved a purported breach of international sanctions against Iran. That is bound to create difficulties with both Iran—where an inquiry has been launched into wrongdoings in an oil-for-gold trade deal with Turkey—and Western countries, keen to check any evasion of UN sanctions.


Hugh PopeTurkey/Cyprus director, International Crisis Group

The Turkish political crisis seems to be less a danger for the region and more part of a general healthy correction.

Since early 2008, Turkey’s government had increasingly diverged from the country’s regional policy norms, which usually aim to play things safe. For instance, Turkey backed the armed insurgency to oust neighboring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; espoused a partisan Sunni Muslim, pro–Muslim Brotherhood line in the region; and needled the United States by feuding with Israel. Ankara also flirted with alternative partnerships to NATO like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and threatened to buy Chinese air defense systems. In its EU accession process, partly in reaction to European hostility, Turkey did less and less toward the reforms needed to adopt the body of EU law.

However, Turkey’s political crisis, which began in summer 2013 with the Gezi Park protests, has proved to be a turning point. Since October, the government has started to return to a more balanced foreign policy. It has reached out once again to Iran and Iraq. A normalization with Israel seems possible. And the prime minister has declared 2014 the “year of the EU.”

It remains to be seen whether this is rhetoric or reality, but these are all steps in a more balanced direction. They also better reflect Turkey’s traditional foreign policy reflexes, and will likely match the longer-term direction of Turkish domestic politics.


Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar, Carnegie Europe

The future course of Turkey’s foreign policy will have an important impact on the evolution of the Middle East. Ankara’s recent, more assertive tendencies are not what the region needs.

In its relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors, Turkey traditionally adopted an approach that emphasized mediation. That was possible thanks to Turkey’s secular tradition, which allowed Ankara to transcend the region’s deep-rooted religious and sectarian cleavages. This strategy became the cornerstone of Ankara’s regional policy. Mediation efforts between Syria and Israel or among the different factions of the Palestinian entity are some of the concrete achievements of that period.

But since 2011, when the ruling Justice and Development Party won its third general election, Turkish foreign policy in the region has become less predictable and more assertive and ambitious. After Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu described Turkey’s role as an “order setter” in the region, Turkey departed from its long-held tradition of being either neutral or an arbiter of conflicts, and adopted a much more activist policy. This was the case in Syria, in Iraq, and also in relation to Egypt.

As a result, regional actors started to view Ankara as taking sides. But the Middle East does not need yet another party to become prey to its intractable cleavages. Turkey’s added value in the region will be a return to its more secular tradition, which would once more allow Ankara to bridge the many divides that continue to bedevil the Middle East.


Özgür ÜnlühisarcıklıAnkara office director, German Marshall Fund of the United States

The current Turkish crisis carries an opportunity cost for the region: the loss of an important source of inspiration.

Until recently, Turkey had been praised for becoming a regional soft power that inspired its southern neighbors in particular. Turkey’s economic success and the democratic reform agenda that formed part of its EU accession process had turned the country into a source of encouragement for others.

Unfortunately, the recent crisis, as well as the way the government chose to deal with last year’s Gezi Park protests, may now be reversing those gains. The reformist enthusiasm in Turkey is long gone, but what is unfolding now is perceived as a trend in the opposite direction. The international community is questioning not only Turkey’s media freedom but also its separation of powers and judicial independence.

These developments are inevitably affecting the Turkish economy adversely. The Turkish lira has depreciated by 15 percent since summer 2013, growth forecasts have been revised down, and inflation forecasts have been revised up. Turkey’s private sector is intimidated by the tense political atmosphere, and the Turkish market has become less attractive for foreign investors. Having lost its economic momentum and democratic progress, Turkey is hardly the shining star it was just a few years ago.



Comments (7)

  • anonymous
    Turkish crisis is no danger neither for Europe nor the Middle East nor any country.
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    • Bryan Holmes replies...
      Very interesting no mention of Cyprus, a country Turkey is occupying, does not recognize and threatens on a regular basis. No mention of Greece, a country of which Turkey violates its airspace, and marine borders, and every so often makes false claims of Greek islands. No mention of Armenia and the ongoing blockade of Armenia. Someone please define region to me.
  • Dino Gerousis, Chicago IL
    Judy Dempsey’s question above is: “Is the Turkish Political Crisis Dangerous for the Region?”. No-one seems to be truly answering it. And almost all analysts seem to only address Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Israel, but they seem to leave out from their analysis the 3 countries Turkey has bullied the most the last 20+ years. The fact is that Turkey has threatened military action several times against Cyprus and Greece, and Turkey on a regular basis violates their airspace and territorial waters of both. Greece and Cyprus are often used in Turkish politics to distract the Turkish masses. Turkey also bullies Armenia, and threatens economic and political retaliation against anyone that recognizes the Armenian genocide. It is interesting that all 3 nations were left out of this analysis by all writers.
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    • Dino Gerousis, Chicago IL replies...
      Here is an example, they flew over the Greek island of Samos Turkish helicopter and 12 jets violate Greek air space http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_10/01/2014_535376 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samos
    • Istanbul replies...
      Greece unilaterally declared 12 miles sea border in such a tight and geopolitical critical sea that is called Aegea. If Greece thinks they can violate Turkish Strait's free access to the Mediterranean, they should not be surprised from Turkish retaliation. - Turkey saved the ethnic Turks from an onslaught with its invasion to Island of Cyprus. And it will remain in Cyprus until the rightful interests of the Turks within the Cyprus are restored to the 1960 status. - Armenia unlawfully occupied 1/5 of Azerbaijan, a cultural relative and strategic ally of Turkey. It has nothing to do with the Question of Armenian Exodus.
    • Dino Gerousis, Chicago IL replies...
      “Istanbul replies", Turkey has declared 12 Nautical Miles based on the International Law of the Sea. Greece has the right to do so also, and Greece doing so does NOT limit access to the Mediterranean. Turkey has an Aegean coast their military ships simply have to stay in their territorial waters; commercial ships will have absolutely no problems travelling in the Aegean just like they do today. Your argument on this topic has no grounds, and is one of a bully “should not be surprised from Turkish retaliation” and is not based on the international law or fairness. On Cyprus, Turkey was looking for an excuse to invade, and they did, and your comments are off here, you can learn more on the topic here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_invasion_of_Cyprus Might want to also review this since Turkey invaded 40% of the island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ethnographic_distribution_in_Cyprus_1960.jpg Good luck trying justifying the invasion to anyone that believes in ethics, the law or logic. Also kind of hypocritical considering how strong Turks feel about a Palestinian country. While you’re at it you can learn about Greek-Turkish relations here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_turkish_relations As you review the list of issues you find a pattern with a small exception of a large bully bullying a much smaller nation. And it is apparent from your response that you need education on this topic as well http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide
  • Hasan
    Turkey must stay strong and stable.
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