Erdoğan has to face up to reality first

Erdoğan has to face up to reality first

It seems that Turkey is finally getting off the fence with regards to confronting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) head-on now that it has secured the release of its hostages held by the group.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has uttered unequivocal remarks in this regard. He did not just express strong support for the ongoing air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria by the U.S. and five Arab countries, but said there must be no lapse in these operations.

“I think it will be wrong if there is a serious lapse after such a step has been taken. This road map must be followed with determination,” Erdoğan said during a panel discussion organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Sept. 23.

When asked about Turkey’s contribution, Erdoğan - who is in New York to attend the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly – said: “This will cover everything. Military, political, everything…” It remains to be seen now what these words will translate into.

Turkey, of course, has no choice but to act, not just because of Erdoğan’s words, but also because key Arab countries have decided to go after ISIL militarily. This is unique commitment by a group of Islamic countries.

Turkey, a country which boasts of its regional strength, will clearly lose face if it remains reluctant against a brutal group of terrorists, especially after having continually said it is determined to fight terrorism of any kind.

The U.S.-led operation against ISIL in Syria is also a game changer for Turkey, which will have to calibrate its regional policies accordingly. The Arab countries taking part in this operation do not see eye to eye with Ankara on a number of issues, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the new regime in Egypt.

They also are displeased about reports that Turkey may have somehow aided ISIL or groups like al-Nusra against the al-Assad regime. While they also want Bashar al-Assad to account for his crimes, they are more concerned about the immediate threat from groups like ISIL.

Given this backdrop, one has to question the wisdom of Erdoğan’s blasting at Egypt during his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday. That address earned him the expected condemnation from Cairo and is hardly likely to have gone down well among Arab countries who are now Turkey’s potential coalition partners against ISIL.

Erdoğan has made it amply clear to date that he is opposed to the way Egypt’s democratically elected president was toppled. He has also made clear his dislike for that country’s new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His moral indignation over the way the West has come to terms with the coup in Egypt is also correct ethically.

But there is clearly more to it than just that. Realpolitik dictates a more rational approach at a time when the promise for democracy that followed the Arab Spring has gone badly sour due to reasons that are intrinsic to the region.

This is not to say that the Middle East does not deserve democracy or is incapable of attaining it. The region, however, has immediate needs today such as security and stability. This requires overcoming sectarianism and combating radicalism. There is no magic wand that will realize Erdogan’s self-declared dream in one swoop.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan has to also show that his vision is a genuinely democratic one and not one based ultimately on an Islamist vision. Today he appears to the outside world to be no more than a propagandist for the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots like Hamas.

This is not contributing much to Turkey’s ability to positively influence developments in the Middle East. If Erdoğan is concerned about respect for democracy in the Middle East, he has to also show that he is sincere in this.

He could start by confronting the doubts that have emerged in the world and at home with regards to Turkey’s own democracy under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).