Is Turkey going through the Sèvres syndrome all over again?

Is Turkey going through the Sèvres syndrome all over again?

Being in Turkey these days feels like permanent déjà vu. And not in a good way. Turks once again have that feeling of being encircled by enemies and threats. They feel insecure. 

That feeling is often referred to as the “Sèvres syndrome,” after the treaty that broke up and partitioned the Ottoman territories among the European powers. Our founding fathers launched a war of independence to tear up that treaty and that is how we are still here. But the anxiety that someone could come at any moment and take it all away never really dissipated. In the last few years it seemed like we might start outgrowing the Sèvres syndrome, but now that Russian jets are buzzing over our heads it may be back in full force.

I was recently looking at the results of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMFUS) latest Turkish Perceptions Survey. Here is one question from the survey: “Some people think Turkey should play an active role in the Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia. Others argue that Turkey should first deal with its internal problems. Which opinion is closer to yours?” 

Seventy percent of more than 1,000 respondents said Turkey should focus first on its internal problems. Ten percent did not have any opinion. That leaves only 20 percent who would like to see a more active Turkey in the neighborhood. So Turks are fed up with foreign policy. They have reverted to their old stance of wanting to be left alone.

Is this the Sèvres syndrome? Not exactly. The Sèvres syndrome was born out of Turkish weakness in the 1920s. It is about the immense pain of an empire crumbling and the determination to build a future. Nobody knew at the time what kind of country they would have to raise their kids in. That feeling of standing at the precipice of chaos mobilized Turks across the board, and eventually made them build something new: A modern state that would prevent anything even remotely similar to Sèvres from ever happening again. The first thing that the state did was to focus on the internal problems of the country. If you ask me, this is where the present-day resemblance starts and ends. Turks are once again fed up with little adventures in the neighborhood; they would like to see their leaders focus on Turkey’s internal problems. 

But we have to be realistic. The internal problems that the GMFUS survey’s respondents would like Turkey to focus on now are definitely not on the scale of the task that our founding fathers faced in the 1920s. Their nation state project has been a success. Islamists have already integrated into the political machine, and now we are experiencing the growing pains of integrating Kurds as well. The transformative power of Ankara is well and operational. Just look at the life story of our latest source of national pride, Professor Aziz Sancar, one of three 2015 Nobel laureates in Chemistry. If anything, Sancar’s life story attests to the transformative power of the Turkish Republic: The seventh child of eight to illiterate parents in a small province of Southeastern Anatolia, Sancar became the first Turkish member of the National Academy of Science in 2005. Now, he is our second Nobel laureate. 

So, let me tell you, there is no reason for the Sèvres syndrome to arise from the dead. As were our founding fathers, I am also a believer in Turkey’s potential to achieve great things. We only have a total lack of leadership compared to the 1920s, which makes all the current tasks harder to deal with. Let’s see what the ballot box has to say about it.