A terrorist attack on a peace rally in the heart of Turkey’s capital Ankara left over a hundred dead and hundreds more injured three weeks before national elections. Rather than being a moment for national unity and mourning, it threatens to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back with a full-scale civil war in the offing, pitting Kurdish and Turkish nationalists against each other. Unfortunately, this is not the first attack of its type nor was it unexpected given the spillover from the Syrian conflict, but its scale and location came as a surprise. Previous attacks in Diyarbakir and Suruc led to increased cooperation with America in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but have still not been fully investigated nor their perpetrators prosecuted. All political parties are hungry for justice at the ballot boxes.
Turkey’s deadliest terrorist attack in its history comes at a critical moment in time in which American leadership is being questioned. Middle Eastern allies in Ankara, Jerusalem, Riyadh, and elsewhere are weighing their options. As the G-20 summit host this year, Turkey will be welcoming leaders from the world’s top economies in less than a month in Antalya, only two weeks after national elections scheduled for November 1. In all likelihood there will not be a formal government in place by the summit and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s first popularly elected leader but also its most polarizing, will play host. As the world’s attention turns to this critical NATO ally, European Union aspirant, and Muslim-majority democracy, there is a cloud of doubt and pessimism hanging over Turkey. Dark premonitions of Turkey’s future abound. But this prophecy will only come true if we in the West fulfill it by giving up on this critical nation. Both true friendship and smart geopolitics entail being able to see the longer-term potential that has always been the hallmark of the Turkish Republic.
Everyone is worried about the threat of the Islamic State and the ongoing Syrian civil war due to its spillover effects in the Middle East and the refugee crisis it has created for Europe, but Turkey is not just on the frontlines of this conflict. It is the epicenter. The nature of the proxy conflict in Syria has complicated U.S. interests in the region and frustrated Ankara to no end. Russia’s dramatic intervention in support of Assad and its violations of Turkish airspace have left Ankara feeling vulnerable at a moment in which the domestic situation has never looked bleaker. Concurrently, as the West calls for greater support of the Kurds, who have proven to be the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, Turkey fears the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Syria. This remains the largest stumbling block for enhanced cooperation and coordination in Syria. Ironically, the Kurds have also never felt more isolated but never been more necessary for stability in three countries: Syria, Iraq, and — of course — Turkey.
The lack of a clear Sunni Arab consensus in both Syria and Iraq leaves a power vacuum that would not be filled even if the Islamic State was militarily defeated, although this is still a distant prospect. Further complicating the immediate geostrategic concerns are the millions of refugees residing in Turkey. Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees than anyone else, and the country has become a key transit point to Europe as Turkish hospitality wears out.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the challenges facing Ankara, but Turkey today needs reliable friends that are willing to double down even as the going has gotten much tougher than anyone could have expected. In this regard, Washington must lead the way to work closely with international partners to offer enhanced humanitarian assistance and economic incentives to Syrian refugees in Turkey to create the conditions under which an eventual safe zone along the Turkish border in Syria could be repopulated rather than having displaced refugees migrate onward to Europe where they are already facing difficulties. This is a first step and not a substitute for a proactive strategy on Syria, but it could catalyze transatlantic cooperation in an area of pragmatic mutual interests.
Unconditional and strong support for Turkey’s sovereign airspace through NATO Article V commitments and consultation, although obvious, shouldn’t be discounted. The unfortunate timing of U.S. and German patriot missile withdrawals this summer has played into the nationalist narrative of the fact that, “The only friend of a Turk is a Turk themselves.” More challenging will be convincing Ankara that the Kurds are a necessary ally in the fight against the Islamic State and the closer it works with Erbil and Washington, the more empowered more moderate Kurdish factions will be in Syria. This may seem like a distant prospect, but we saw Ankara shape a positive, transactional relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) when that seemed unlikely. By proactively engaging its domestic Kurdish citizens as part of a broader Kurdish solution, Ankara can help broker and Washington support a viable regional status quo. America’s good offices can go a long way in the necessary mediation efforts between the various Kurdish factions to coalesce around a non-PKK stance.
America has never understood or played domestic Turkish politics particularly well. Therefore rather than trying to start now and pick sides, it should stick by its principles. Free and fair national elections held on dates originally scheduled are in everyone’s long-term interest. Additionally, imposing press bans and limiting civil discourse does not suit a democracy as vibrant as Turkey’s. Even as President Erdogan works to convince his country that a presidential system is a panacea for all Turkey’s ill, his constitutional powers as head of state remain ambiguous compared to the clear role of the prime minister. Continuing America’s engagement with the well-established rules of the game and balancing Turkey’s legitimate security concerns with its democracy will be critical in the coming months as a new government (most likely a coalition) is formed for the first time in 13 years. Regardless of how the elections are affected by the Ankara attack and what the final character of the new government turns out to be, it is important for America to double down on the Turkish state.
Despite the gloomy situation and pessimistic short-term outlook for Turkey and the region, there is room for cautious optimism. The right American approach must be articulated and realized in preparation for the G-20 summit. Otherwise key questions about Turkey will be raised on the global stage, which will distract from the broader importance of supporting a critical U.S. ally during its moment of need.
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (where a shortened blog of this piece appeared as a Transatlantic Take) and a former Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of State who has worked extensively on Turkey.