Kuwait City - The Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, which will be held in Kuwait on Jan. 15, offers a good excuse to escape for a day or two from the maddening depression of Turkish politics. On the one hand, Turkey is living through the worst corruption scandal of recent times, while on the other a government offensive is seeking to cover it up with what appears to be a concerted demonization campaign against an Islamist fraternity, which was its comrade in arms when coming to power 12 years ago.
In the lobby of a luxurious Jumeirah Hotel overlooking the Gulf, I talked with some colleagues in the middle of the night. Some came from Saudi Arabia, some from Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Some were from India, Pakistan or Indonesia. “Turkey has been an inspiration for us,” said a veteran Arab colleague. “We have been admiring Turkey as a democratic country that managed to accommodate Islam and democracy together. Particularly in the past decade or so, with Islam becoming more visible in your country, we watched Turkey with admiration, believing that you were far ahead of us.”
I, flattered of course, but remembering a similar discussion with some Arab diplomats in Ankara, was curious about what would pour out of the mouth of the veteran colleague. “Yet,” he said, “over the past few years, particularly since last year, I started to think that perhaps you were not as far ahead of us as I believed. Like most Arab countries, you were turning inward, becoming more autocratic and, worse, consolidating power in the hands of a few. Perhaps you are still ahead of us, but we are definitely in the same bus, with you sitting just in front of us.”
Arab diplomatic friends in Ankara were complaining of exactly the same as well. Turkey was no longer the “admired democracy,” but has become almost exactly one of those autocratic Middle Eastern states governed by autocratic leaders, either with a peculiar democratic understanding or no democracy at all.
I remembered the “precious isolation” confession of a top aide of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
What a precious description for a country that wanted but failed to become a regional power, a model of democracy and Islam cohabiting in harmony. Why did Turkey come to this sad point? How did it waste golden opportunities to become a vivid example of democracy and indeed pluralism in the Muslim world, to the extent that the latter would disarm Islamist radicalism, jihadism, as well as the Islamophobia of some Western religious or political sects?
One of the hallmarks of this sad change in Turkey was, of course, unleashed with the “Arab Spring.” Indeed, Tunisian Muhammed Buazzizi did not just set himself ablaze in December 2010. He was not the sole victim of his action. Since then the Arab world has been in flames. While trying to be a role model, Turkey gradually found itself playing for the leadership of a Sunni solidarity block, could not realize its limitations, and in fact itself became one of the elements carrying fuel to a region that was already on fire. Turkey, with its traditional foreign policy perspectives, could have played the role of moderator, facilitator and indeed the bridge builder for a more prosperous and tranquil region.
What could be the meaning of news regarding the “capture” of weapons or ammunition carrying humanitarian aid trucks? Obviously, some “foreign observers” are sending out signals to the Turkish leadership that, irrespective of how loudly they might decry it, the world is and was aware of the great mistakes Ankara has been making regarding the Syria war. Or, was it just a coincidence that all the dirty laundry regarding the Iran gold trade, or the discreet deals to launder Iranian assets and let Iran get around sanctions, were exposed as part of a fight for power between “elected” and “non-elected” Islamists in Turkey?
Turkey is becoming more and more isolated. The problem is so serious that, even in the Middle East, people have started realizing that Turkey may well be ahead of them, but is sitting just a row in front on the same bus. Someone has to ask the prime minister and the foreign minister, is this the Turkey you wanted?