Turkey’s ended 2016 with what has all the hallmarks of an Islamic State-inspired terrorist attack on an Istanbul night club. This follows 15 major terrorist attacks in Turkey in 2016, eight of which claimed 10 or more lives. Throw in a failed coup, a nationwide crackdown on freedom of Press and political dissent, and an increasingly autocratic reign by President Recep Erdogan, and it would seem things could not get worse for Turkey.
One reason for Turkey’s problems is its location: Right at the crossroad of West Asia, North Africa, Europe and Russia – none of which are bywords in terms of political and economic stability. Another is that it borders Syria, presently the bloodiest battleground in the world and a hub of sectarian and great power rivalries.
However, Turkey’s problems are also a parable on the country’s own hubris regarding its own regional and religious ambitions. Mr Erdogan’s political rise is a testimony to his genius: Developing a brand of Islamist politics that embraced secular constitutional law that has allowed him to dominate Turkish electoral politics since the early 2000s. But his foreign policy has been a testimony to what happens when a medium-sized country seeks to pretend to be a superpower.
Mr Erdogan saw an opportunity in the chaos of the popular revolts that marked the Arab Spring to make Turkey the dominant power in the Levant. He found a partner for his brand of moderate Islamism in the Muslim Brotherhood. But this pact required him to join in the violent overthrow of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. This has since proven his undoing. The US declined to join the war, he found himself entangled in a Syrian conflict, facing both an Iranian-backed Shia alliance and a rival Sunni alliance built around Saudi Arabia. Throw in the Islamic State and a quasi-independent Kurdish state sprawling across Iraq and Syria, and Turkey was in a geopolitical maelstrom well beyond its power to control – or even withdraw from.
Turkey has responded by first tacitly supporting the IS to defeat the Kurds and the Assad government, and then been forced to abandon the IS to keep the US on its side. Mr Erdogan had formed an alliance with the Kurds in Turkey, but has had to turn on them because of his overseas adventures. He has fought and now embraced Russia’s intervention in Syria. And has both rejected and then cozied up to the Saudis.
The consequences of all this has been that both militant Kurds and the IS now target Turkey and Mr Erdogan is seen as untrustworthy and fickled by almost all governments in the world. There is nothing to indicate that 2017 will improve Turkey’s fortunes – other than a Syrian ceasefire that will guarantee the Assad government’s survival and the final eclipse of Turkey’s not-so-Great Game in the Levant.