The US political elite has long suffered from “Who lost that country?” syndrome. It started with the Truman administration, which failed to prevent the communist takeover of China in 1949. Then President Kennedy was blamed for the victory of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959. The Nixon administration saw the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, and President Carter could not save the Shah from the Iranian revolution. Despite this historical background, many American policymakers—Republicans and Democrats alike—refuse to accept the obvious: Turkey is swinging away from the West. Here are five reasons why.
First, Turkey is changing fast. The Islamization of the country is a bottom-up rather than a top-down process. Anatolian Turks, who tend to be more conservative and religious, have higher birth rates than the westernized Turks of Istanbul and the Aegean coast. Many now view Kemalist secularism as an imposed political and cultural order that ignores the country’s rich Islamic heritage.
Like other populist leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is keenly attuned to public sentiment. His anti-American, anti-European, and sometimes antisemitic rhetoric has made him popular among many religious Turks. After all, the country views itself as the successor of the Ottoman Empire. For five centuries, Istanbul was the seat of the Caliphate and the Ottoman Sultan was viewed as the leader of the Muslim world. Erdoğan’s Turkey wants to play the same role, as can be seen in its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other Islamist groups.
Second, the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War has led to the dramatic revitalization of the Kurdish Question. In November 2013, the establishment of the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava sent shock waves through Ankara. Turkey still suffers traumatic memories of the Treaty of Sèvres, which called for the formation of an independent Kurdistan. The new state would have been carved from the defeated Ottoman Empire.
Erdoğan has often accused the US of supporting Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Turkish sensitivities on the issue, and the country’s media portray the US as a backstabbing and arrogant ally. Ankara also suspects Israel of encouraging the Iraqi Kurds toward statehood. Turkish suspicions will only increase, as the West cannot abandon the Kurds. Being part of the West does not serve Turkish interests in Syria very well.
Read more: Besa Center