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Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

So much for Erdogan’s policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’

People stood on a tank, holding a Turkish flag after they stopped it in Istanbul, early Saturday. Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP

Terror bombings in Turkey, including the one last month at Istanbul Airport that took more than 40 lives, are blowback from Turkey’s wildly adventurous policy in neighboring Syria. Last week the blowback reached President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. Turkish military commanders launched a failed coup aimed at overthrowing him. It was shocking but not surprising. Social peace in Turkey is another victim of the Syrian war.

Turkish society has become deeply polarized. Part of the reason is Erdogan’s ill-conceived intervention in Syria. For years he supported militant forces there, while waging war against his own country’s Kurdish nationalists. Lately he has been shifting away from the militants. That led ISIS to launch its bombing campaign inside Turkey. Erdogan’s failed policy toward Syria also helped provoke last week’s military coup.


When he was at the peak of his popularity a decade ago, Erdogan proclaimed a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Now he is at odds with nearly every country in the Middle East and beyond. His spectacular misplaying of Turkey’s strong geopolitical hand has brought bloody results.

Soon after the Syrian conflict broke out five years ago, Erdogan gave President Bashar Assad, who he considered a protégé, advice on how to react. When Assad rejected his advice, Erdogan was infuriated and resolved to destroy his former friend. He allowed foreign fighters to cross through Turkey in order to join ISIS and other militant groups. When these jihadi fighters were wounded, they returned to Turkey for treatment. Turkish border guards who tried to stop an illegal shipment of arms to militants in Syria were arrested.

Eager to win votes at home, Erdogan declared that his real enemy was not the militant forces the United States is fighting in Syria, but the region’s Kurdish minority. This produced a bizarre situation. The United States has been supplying weapons to Kurdish forces that Turkey, our supposed ally, attacks. Turkey, meanwhile, supports ISIS and other militantly anti-American forces.


Under intense pressure from Washington, Turkey has recently begun to back away from this policy. It has reduced its support for militants. This has naturally led ISIS to consider Turkey a traitorous new enemy, and seek to punish it with terror attacks.

This escalation was apparently too much for some military officers. Turkey’s military class is trained to consider itself the country’s “emergency brake.” Elections are held regularly and the elected civilians rule. Behind them, though, lurks the military. Several times in the last half-century, senior officers have seized power after deciding that elected officials were running the country off the road.

Over the last few years, Erdogan has systematically repressed civil society and the press. He has effectively made it a crime for anyone to criticize him. His closest associates, including family members, have been implicated in large-scale corruption. Military officers could have swallowed all of that, since neither repression or corruption is new in Turkey. But the spectacular failure of Erdogan’s foreign policy may have been the breaking point.

For a time, Erdogan seemed eager to make a deal with his country’s Kurdish citizens and resolve their grievances once and for all. Then, partly to win votes, he reversed course, adopted the rhetoric of Turkish nationalism, and declared the Kurds his greatest enemy. American officials tried to persuade him to focus instead on ISIS, but until recently he refused to listen. The Obama administration became disgusted with him.


Turks who were horrified at Erdogan’s megalomania may have felt fleeting sympathy for last week’s military rebels. As it turned out, the rebels were disorganized, poorly led, and lacked a coherent plan. This would be a fine moment for the victorious Erdogan to ease restrictions on civil society, resume the Kurdish peace process, and reach out to former friends like the United States. Little in his character suggests he will do so. Erdogan is likely to use this episode to consolidate his power even more fully. Successful coups in Turkey have had bad results. So will this unsuccessful one. By intensifying already deep social, political, religious and cultural divisions, it pushes Turkey toward the abyss of instability.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.