ISTANBUL — It’s rare that I enjoy being stuck in traffic, but the slow ride from Istanbul’s main international airport to its central business district is a feast for the eyes. New shopping malls, apartment blocks, and office parks seem to stretch out in every direction, up and down the city’s formidable hills. But this week has served as a reminder that Turkey’s prosperity rests on a fragile foundation.
After over a decade in office, many Turks believe that the ruling AK Party has grown arrogant and unaccountable, and its brutal response to recent political protests has laid bare Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unmistakable authoritarian streak. One nevertheless gets the impression that for most Turks, the fact that Erdogan has presided over the longest, most robust economic expansion since the golden age that stretched from 1960 to 1978 is reason enough to support him. From 2002 to 2012, inflation-adjusted GDP per capita increased by 43 percent, or an average of 3.6 percent per year. This is not quite as fast as some other middle-income countries, like Poland. But it has been fast enough to leave a deep imprint on Turkish society, and to give Turks, almost half of whom are under the age of 25, a new sense of what their country can accomplish.
A week from now, on September 7th, the International Olympic Committee will vote to determine which city will host the 2020 Olympics, and Istanbul is, along with Madrid and Tokyo, a finalist. There are a variety of reasons one might prefer Istanbul over its rivals. While Spain and Japan have both hosted the Olympics in recent decades, no city in Turkey, the Near East or a Muslim-majority country has ever done so. Just as the selection of Seoul and Beijing and Rio de Janeiro celebrated the rise of various rising economic powers, the selection of Turkey would send the signal that the country once derided as “the sick man of Europe” had finally arrived.
And so it is poignant that instead of Olympic fever, Turkey is transfixed by talk of an armed intervention by the United States and its allies in Syria. The armed opposition groups, some of them backed by various Arab states, have been fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s Iran- and Hezbollah-backed government for two years now. The United States has appeared disengaged at best and hapless at worst as the death toll in Syria has risen and as refugee outflows have destabilized neighboring countries. In Turkey, the crisis in Syria is much more than an embarrassment. It is a threat to Turkish prosperity, and quite possibly to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Turkey’s border with Syria has historically been porous, and Turkish border towns are absorbing large numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing violence and persecution. One town, Reyhanli, was the site of a terrorist atrocity in May, a vivid indication that the violence in Syria has the potential to spread to Turkish soil.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that Turkey is on roughly the same page as the United States. President Obama seems to have reluctantly concluded that since the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its enemies, the U.S. is obligated to do something about it — something short of a full-scale military campaign designed to end the civil war, but forceful enough to send a message and perhaps to shift the balance of power. Though Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies, they have had an at times tense relationship since at least 2003, when Turkey’s AK Party government refused to allow U.S. ground forces to enter Iraq via Turkish territory. So it comes as something of a relief that Turkey, which has been urging its NATO partners to devote more time and attention to the Syrian crisis, is amenable to the idea of a limited U.S.-led intervention.
The problem, of course, is that a limited U.S. intervention will still leave Turkey with a smoldering Syrian crisis on its southern flank, and little hope that the crisis will be resolved anytime soon. One is reminded of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when Turkey offered firm support to the U.S. military campaign against Iraq. At the time, Turkey’s political leadership expected that this support would yield significant political and economic benefits, to make up for the loss of pipeline fees and lost trade that followed the war. What actually happened is that the U.S. interest in Turkey waned, and Turkey suffered severe economic damage without much in the way of assistance. At the same time, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq emboldened Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The nightmare scenario for Turkey is that a U.S. intervention in Syria escalates rather than stems the violence, and that Turkey will have to deal with the chaos that follows alone.
The shopping malls, apartment blocks and office parks are still rising in and around Istanbul. But it’s hard not to sense that another golden age is drawing to a close.
Reihan Salam is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own