Turkey, a country that’s stuck between a path toward strict Islamism and transition to a contemporary European nation, now finds itself in the middle of two major global crises. It’s been elevated in importance while raising new questions about its role in international affairs.
For years, Turkey has been at a crossroads. It’s a member of NATO and has flirted with the European Union for years (it recently revived its ascension strategy into the union). However, each time Ankara, a city literally divided between Europe and Asia, appeared to be ready to move toward a closer relationship with the European continent, Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- the former prime minster, current president, and dominant force in Turkish politics for years -- moves the country back toward secular Islam.
For instance, in 2013, violent protests erupted in Turkish squares over Erdogan’s plans to ban alcohol, kissing in public, and adultery. He cracked down on the arts, and openly declared his desire to “raise a religious youth.”
Erdogan uses religious language to crack down on what he perceives as out-of-control secularism among Turkish intellectuals and youth. However, these crackdowns have done little to hurt his popularity; he was elected president this year, and formally took office late last month.
His importance as a world leader has come into sharp focus with the ISIS crisis in Iraq. Perhaps no other country has more at stake than Turkey. It shares a border with northern Iraq and Syria, and is currently the site of a worsening refugee crisis. Iraq also serves as a buffer from Iran’s Shiites. Nearly 100 percent of Turks are Muslims, and 72 percent are Sunni, according to the CIA.
Until recently, circumstances have not permitted Turkey to join the coalition fighting ISIS, as the group was holding 49 Turkish hostages. Now that the hostages have been released, the world is waiting to see what skin Turkey would put into the game.
So far, Erdogan has remained silent. However, Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at STRATFOR Global Intelligence, said in a recent interview that he believes Turkey would assist in the fight.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to do some military operation working with the Kurds in Iraq,” Bokhari said. “He’s known to be this maverick. He’s known to surprise people. He’s working against a perception of reality that Turkey is all talk and no action.”
Officially the Turks are never going to fight ISIS publicly, added Joshua W. Walker, an expert on Turkey and director of global program at the consultancy APCOForum. “It’s suicide for any Turkish government to equip and train Iraqi troops. It’s impossible to guarantee that they wouldn’t be used against the Turks in time.”
“Unofficially they are absolutely working together,” Walker said. “Special forces are in northern Iraq to determine what their next steps are. I know for a fact they are doing these things.”
Counter to Russia
Bokhari added that the Turks also had energy interests in the Middle East. Right now, Russia supplies 58 percent of Turkish natural gas, making Moscow its largest supplies.
“Turkey needs to diversify its energy resources. It’s too dependent on Russia,” Bokhari said. “Iraq is one such area in which Turkey can have energy investment. That’s why its been so focused on … exploring Kurdish oil without upsetting Baghdad.”
Bokhari added that the ISIS crisis also gives Erdogan an opportunity to emerge as a regional leader.
“There’s not much opening in the Caucuses and the European Union that’s attractive anymore. And his heart is with the Middle East,” Bokhari said. Erdogan “wants to be seen as the leader of the Middle East. In Iraq, there are threats, but there’s a lot of opportunity.”
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