Letter from Istanbul: Why Turkey is Waiting on America’s Election

James Tressler / Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012 @ 5:25 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

The Mediterranean autumn is already on the way here. Looking out from my school down at busy Badgat Avenue, the leaves in the trees up and down the avenue have that dusty, worn-out look, and the first ones are beginning to fall. The swimmers can still be seen out on the public beaches down the road at Caddebostan, but the waters are turning chilly, and the sun striking the surface has lost its July dazzle.

Autumn has always been my season, with the feeling of life picking up urgency, hurtling on toward the end of the year. Here in Istanbul, it’s no different. Ramadan is over (a particularly brutal one this year, since the month of fasting ran smack into the hottest month), everyone is back from vacations on the south Turkish coast, and the children are heading back to school. Here at the school, autumn means a new crop of teachers, freshly arrived from the States, Canada, England, Australia, or else from other expat teaching adventures. Gone is that humid, stagnant, unquiet feeling that late summer engenders; one feels a briskness in the air, in the footsteps of passersby, a renewing of purpose.

Where is all this autumnal itemizing leading? It leads to a crossroads: the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. Here, the Turks await the outcome.

This past week in a CNN interview, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke in regards to the ongoing civil war just over the border in Syria. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, the prime minister suggested that the upcoming U.S. presidential elections are hampering international action in the war-torn country.

“Right now, there are certain things being expected from the United States. The United States has not yet catered to those expectations,” Erdoğan told the BBC,when asked whether he was surprised the United States is not offering anything but “nonlethal support” to the Syrian opposition. “Maybe it’s because of the elections — maybe it’s because of the pre-election situation in the States. (This) might be the root cause of the lacking of initiative.”

Having followed the Republican and Democratic national conventions these past two weeks, it struck me that the Syrian conflict may well be a key issue in the upcoming presidential election. After all, the fate of Syria could carry the fate of the entire so-called Arab Spring – this violent grassroots uprising and call for democracy we’ve seen all over the Middle East the past couple of years. It will be interesting to listen to President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, debate the issue.

As Obama pointed out in Thursday night’s speech at the DNC, Romney is a newcomer to foreign policy, and the president made a point of bringing up Romney’s gaffe at the London Games, “insulting our closest ally.” However, I would urge the president to use caution when ranking friends and foes. In my view, at the moment America’s closest ally, in some respects, could very well be this very country in which I happen to reside.

After all, any international action in Syria, should it occur, is unlikely to be successful without the Turks on board. Ankara has denounced the al-Assad regime, and has even called for a “no-fly” zone. However, as one can expect, it is doubtful that the Turks will participate in any direct military intervention, despite the fact that two Turkish planes have been shot down by Syria in recent weeks.

You have to do a lot of reading between the lines in this part of the world. Direct communication is hard to come by, as keeping face is highly important. Reading between the lines of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Amenpour interview, one has to remember that Erdoğan is the leader of the conservative AK Party. He is also highly regarded throughout much of the Muslim world as the leader of a relatively prosperous, modern democratic country. Erdoğan would very much like to remain so, whatever happens in Syria.

Complicating matters in Syria is the fact that Erdoğan and al-Assad were once close friends. Until the crisis – which has led to some 80,000 Syrian refugees spilling over into Turkish camps – the two Muslim neighboring countries enjoyed strong economic ties. Trade along the border was booming as tariffs and visa requirements were eased.

As you can imagine, the relationship between the two leaders has since gone downhill. Still, you can bet Turkey hopes to keep those markets, especially since in recent years the Turk Tiger economy has grown at a rate that is second only to China. Reading between the lines a bit more, one has to remember that it is the United States and its Western allies that have accrued the majority of resentment in the region ever since the 2003 Iraq invasion. Even last year, when the U.S. took a back seat and let France lead UN efforts to oust Gadhafi in Libya, most hardened skeptics here had no problem convincing themselves that it was the Yank, as always, behind it all, the old Invisible Hand theory at work.

So in this context, one can only speculate on, or intuit, the Turkish prime minister’s long-term motives. He’s all for intervention in Syria. Erdogan has been highly critical of al-Assad, as much as most of the world has. But al-Assad is also a “Muslim brother,” and all the Syrians fellow Muslims. Erdoğan has to think about his neighbors, not to mention the religion that governs the minds of so many in this hot part of the world. If anybody is going to be the bad guy, the one to go in and oust al-Assad, it should be America. We’re already the Bad Guy in the region. What have we got to lose?

The Turk, on the other hand, has a great deal to lose, especially if you subscribe to that most ancient of political philosophies: Don’t shit where you eat. Besides, as a pragmatist who has steadily driven his country toward unprecedented growth over the past decade, Erdoğan is realistic enough to know that intervention in Syria has to be an international effort, and he has repeatedly called for it.

Turks, as a rule, admire strength. Perhaps it’s in the ancestral memory of the great Ottoman Turks ruling the entire Mediterranean. Perhaps Erdoğan feels that not only is a US-led international effort the right thing to do, but in fact the necessary thing to do. Then again, he could just be hedging his bets, or keeping face in the region. The U.S. elections are still two months away. A lot can happen in two months. Thus, the Turks wait. And wait. And wait.

Some time back, I wrote a piece for the Times-Standard, “Boiling Near the Bosphorous.” At the end of that piece, I wrote that while many of Turkey’s neighbors were embroiled in civil uprisings, the waters of the Bosphorous and Marmara Sea remained calm. As I look out at the sea from the window of my school now, it remains so, as the Mediterranean autumn in the great mega-city approaches. What changes it brings remains to be seen.

James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, is the author of several books, including “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and other Istanbul Sketches,” available at Amazon.com and Lulu.com. He is currently living in Istanbul.

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