For a century European politics was dogged with “the sick man of Europe”: the collapsing Ottoman Empire and its implications for the major powers. That’s not the case now, of course. Multi-ethnic empires are a thing of the past, their death rattle came with the Soviet Union’s implosion. But policies of the Ottomans’ successors, the Turkish Republic, are sucking the Europeans further into the Middle East’s swamp.
The recent downing of a Russian aircraft darting in and out of Turkish territory has dramatized a situation everyone knew but few – most of all the Obama Administration – wanted to face. After a spectacular leap forward with liberalization of its economy, Turkey now faces both external and internal threats including economic stagnation. Ankara’s woes pose additional problems for the European Union, wrestling with obstacles in what was thought to be the inevitable economic and hence political continental integration.
From its outset the Obama Administration had courted Turkish Pres.Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, believing him the model for a modernizing Muslim world. As a popular mayor of cosmopolitan Istambul, he supposedly represented “moderate Islam”. Obama had reached out, apologizing for what he perceived as a history of American foreign misadventure, making him one of his principle foreign contacts.
But oncein national leadership Erdoğan has moved toward authoritarianism, flirted with Islamicists, and in lost control of his southeast border with chaotic Syria. He has looked away as body traffickers have used Turkey as a base for flooding Greece and Europe with destitute migrants, alternately moving recruits to Daesh and other Islamic terrorists, and fed them by permitting black market oil trafficking, some of it apparently close to his family.
With his hold on majority parliamentary power in jeopardy, Erdoğan deliberately created an atmosphere of insecurity. He abandoned peace efforts with his huge Kurdish minority, further complicating the the U.S. and the Persian Gulf Arabs’ efforts to use the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds as their most effective local force against Daesh [ISIS or ISUIL]. The Europeans have just forked over $3.2 billion to finance Turkish refugee camps. But neither party believes this will staunch the migrant flow, much less as promised, be a new beginning for negotiations for Turkey’s European Union membership. The latter seems now increasingly unlikely, not the least with concern growing over Muslim minorities in Europe growing.
Erdoğan has restarted the Turks’ centuries-old feud with Moscow, ignoring a growing and extremely profitable bilateral commerce. As the plane incident proved, the Russian presence in Syria — supporting Erdoğan’s one-time friend but now bitter enemy Damascus’ Basher al-Assad – adds to the threat to peace.
Obama, meanwhile, has new promises that Turkey will close its Syrian border with the help of American forces. That commitment, too, seems less than realistic with Washington only reluctantly dribbling ground forces into the region to support an anemic bombing campaign. If Erdoğan uses his victory in the November 1 election to continue to pursue recent policies, it will add to the deteriorating Mideast situation.
It’s incumbent now for the Obama Administration using Turkey’s NATO alliance membership – seen as it ultimate defense against Russia – to pull up its socks. Ankara’s fulfillment of promises to police its Syrian border are essential to any American effort which Sec. John Kerry has been leading in Vienna talks to find a political solution to the Syrian catastrophe. Cooling the Syrian confrontation, in turn, is essential in avoiding a general breakdown and an even more general war. We can only hope that the Obama Administration will move more quickly out of its posture of “leading from behind” to get a handle on the situation.