A convergence of challenges are rocking this nation that straddles two continents, with the escalating crisis in neighboring Syria leaving the Islamist leader struggling among foreign allies and within his own electorate to muster support for a more forceful international response.
Many observers still see Turkey as a model for the budding democracies in the Muslim world. But thousands from the secular opposition here faced water cannons and tear gas last week during a protest against what they decry as Erdogan’s increasingly religious and autocratic bent in a nation where the separation of church and state were once a jealously guarded nationalist ideal.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s once-roaring economy is slowing, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party is staging its most audacious attacks since the 1990s.
And though Erdogan’s backers in the ruling Justice and Development Party routinely unfurl banners saying, “welcome, great master” when he lands in town, that same term is being co-opted by his field of critics, who are wielding the words against him with sarcastic derision.
“He is now experiencing the most difficult time of his premiership, with a number of things happening at once,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, head of the Ankara-based think tank Center for Strategic Communication and a former national legislator from Erdogan’s ruling party.
Once imprisoned for reciting an Islamic poem in an institutionally secular nation, Erdogan is now in the midst of his maximum third term as premier after a decade that saw him tame an activist military establishment, including scores of acting and retired soldiers and brass jailed as coup plotters.
Having come to power during the onset of the Iraq war, he is now facing his greatest strategic test because of the 20-month-old conflict in neighboring Syria, particularly in the days since stray Syrian shells crossed the border and killed five Turks last month.
In the immediate aftermath, Erdogan appeared to put this nation on war footing. Turkish forces returned fire and intercepted a Damascus-bound Russian transport plane, seizing its cargo. Parliament has granted Erdogan the authority to deploy troops and stage airstrikes on Syrian soil.
Turkish tanks are still trained on the Syrian frontier, and the military is on standing orders to respond with two rounds of mortar fire for every one Syrian shell that lands on Turkish territory. But the specter of any serious Turkish intervention is ebbing with Erdogan toning down rhetoric and refraining from steps that could morph Syria’s civil war into a full-blown regional conflict.
More tempered response
Political insiders here say Erdogan’s call for more aggressive action to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad down has backfired, in part because of a lack of support from Washington, which is now calling on the Turks to offer a more tempered response.
Turkey maintains it will respond in self-defense if provoked, but Turkish officials say they have never intended a unilateral intervention.
There is recognition that the Turks have not staged a major military operation since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and that even an effort to enforce a no-fly zone in Syrian air space would have required an international coalition to support.
A no-fly zone in Syria “is something for the U.N. Security Council to decide,” Erdogan said last week from Berlin in comments representative of his toned-down posture, according to the Haaretz newspaper. “If the U.N. hasn’t made this decision, we have no authority, no right to declare such a zone in northern Syria.”
Erdogan, senior government officials say, remains fiercely committed to the eventual ouster of Assad, a onetime ally the Turkish leader now sees as too drenched in blood to stay in power. But he has proved unable to leverage diplomatic ties with Arab neighbors to hasten Assad’s departure.
Instead, with a limited range of options, Erdogan is renewing efforts to tap the Iranian government in Tehran — staunch Assad backers — in the search for a negotiated end to the violence.
“Turkey has been basing its Syria policies on the assumption that Assad’s departure was imminent, but it turns out he is still there and Turkey has been left alone by outside players,” said Yasar Yakis, an elder statesmen from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. “So it is only natural that Turkish leaders should look to revise their policy.”
The strife on the border comes as the economy is decelerating after a period of super-heated growth. Although the slowdown is partly by design, and Turkey’s still-robust economy remains envy of its European neighbors, analysts caution that growth here may yet undershoot government targets.
Stung by the euro-zone debt crisis, both foreign direct investment and capital inflows, for instance, have fallen by around 10 percent during the first eight months of the year. Although Turkey’s core industrial zones in the west remain largely untouched by the Syrian conflict, the once-thriving border economy is suffering a heavy blow to tourism and trade.
More urgently, the Turks are alarmed by indications that Syrian Kurdish groups sympathetic to the PKK — against whom the government fought a decades-long war — have reached an measure of agreement with Assad and are now governing pockets of northern Syria. The change has allowed Kurdish separatists to refocus their attentions on Turkey, with bold new attacks and a campaign aimed at kidnappings teachers and burning down schools.
But for Turks such as Melahat Forss — an Ankara teacher draped in the national flag Monday for the commemoration of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s founding of the Turkish republic — a greater concern under Erdogan is what secular critics call a heavy-handed Islamist orientation. “We are losing our country, our individual independence, because of this man,” she said.
The rise of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted party has brought many visible changes to societal norms in Turkey, destigmatizing — some say encouraging — the sight, for instance, of women in head scarves, even on the chic shopping streets of cosmopolitan Istanbul.
But Erdogan’s critics claim that he is using his office to personally promote religion. As an example, they point to legislation backed by Erdogan’s party lowering the legal age for enrollment in Islamic schools as part of an effort to broaden religious education. The government also stands accused of using the legal system to menace journalists, while opposition groups claim that evidence has been manufactured in the effort to root out secular army officials charged with sedition.
Erdogan backers counter that the criticism of secular society stems from the bias wealthy and urbane Turks have against the more devout underclasses. Erdogan, they insist, is merely making space in society for conservative and religious Turks.
“Turkey has become more democratic, not less” under Erdogan, said Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to the prime minister. “Ten years ago, girls in head scarves could not even go to university. Turkey is not becoming more religious, religion is simply becoming more visible.”
Sibel Utku Bila contributed to this report.