Will Turkey's protests undermine its strategic role?

The protests raging on Turkey's main streets have drawn international attention to a country that has always had a special significance in its historic — and volatile — corner of the world.

Strategic location vital for a country at the crossroad between East and West

For much of the past 90 years or so, the world didn't pay all that much attention to Turkey, particularly with what was happening inside its borders.

Sure, there were moments of tension and high drama — likeTurkey's role in the 1962 Cuban missle crisis when its cache of U.S. missiles were used as a bargaining chip to ease Cold War tensions — and it would be hard to ignore news of a coup, which happened more than once.

This week, though, the anti-government protests raging on Turkish streets drew the eyes of the world to a country that has always had a special significance in its historic and volatile corner of the planet.

"Turkey is a country we've been paying attention to for some time now," says Reva Bhalla, vice-president of global analysis for Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence firm.

"Years ago, when Turkey was still very much inward-looking and nobody was really paying much attention to it, we had forecast Turkey would emerge, re-emerge, as a regional power."

Key to that re-emergence is something over which no country has control: its geography, which in the case of Turkey places it at the crossroad between East and West.

"Turkey occupies a very strategic geopolitical piece of real estate, sitting between the Black and Mediterranean seas, in control of the Turkish Straits, between Europe and Asia," says Bhalla. "It can extend its influence in a number of directions."

And it's tried. "Turkey osciallates between a very outward expansionary sort of role and a more inward-looking role, which is what we were used to seeing in Turkey for the past 90-odd years," she adds.

During that time, Turkey became very internally distracted and threatened by a number of regional conflicts on its periphery.

"That's when Turkey became very dependent on the United States and NATO for its security, and had a number of internal issues to sort out as well."

The country on the map today — the Republic of Turkey — was formed in the aftermath of the First World War. It was a complicated birth, completed in 1923 after the old Ottoman Empire was carved up.

Mustafa Kemal was the first president, and under the name given him by the Turkish parliament, Ataturk, he became what Bhalla describes as a "huge iconic symbol."

A protester holds a picture of the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, during a protest in Istanbul's Gezi park on June 5, 2013. (Kostas Tsironis/Associated Press)

Ariel Salzmann, an associate professor of Islamic and world history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says Ataturk created a very tight, secular state in which the military and business classes closely allied.

At the same time, it was "very staunchly anti-Islam in the political realm" because of concern that Islam could become a rallying point for opposition groups.

Ataturk stressed the core secular principles of the state, and, as Bhalla says, he had the "military as the vanguard to protect those principles."

"So over the course of much of Turkey's modern history, the military was a very active player in Turkish politics."

Things changed, though — when the West wasn't really watching, Salzmann argues — and now Turkey's ruling Islamist-based party, known by its Turkish acronymn AKP, has worried many secular-minded citizens who fear a creeping conservative social agenda.

With the rise of the AKP and its predecessors over the past couple of decades, some observers feel the military's influence became gradually eroded. 

Supporters from the more conservative Anatolian interior, who had been sidelined for years, began to gain a larger say in Turkish politics. They found a voice in the AKP, Bhalla says, feeling at home in a party that looked more outward and embraced the idea of being a model for the Islamic world.

"The triumph of these Islamist parties in the face of this military conservatism and this military power has been a symbol for the whole region, because don't forget who was in control of Egypt, Iraq, Syria" — dictators with strong military backing in the mould of the original Ataturk model, says Salzmann.

Then, when the Arab Spring burst on the scene two years ago and strongman leaders like Hosni Murbarak in Egypt were pushed aside, Turkey started to pursue opportunities outside it borders.

"With the fall of Ghadafi, you saw Turkey trying to influence events in Libya, trying to get in on energy deals," says Bhalla.

"In Egypt as well, it thought it could try to influence the Muslim Brotherhood there and get a foothold in Egypt again.

"And then when Syria came into play, that's much closer to Turkey's borders, Turkey thought the same thing, that it could cultivate this moderate Islamist Sunni opposition to overthrow Assad, and then Turkey would regain influence in the Levant region. But that's easier said than done."

No matter how Turkey is viewed in its region, and how that has shaken out in the wake of the Arab Spring, the country's significance extends beyond the political to include everything from its young population and growing economy to its ability — again because of geography — to control the water supply for its neighbours to the south and east.

"Turkey is not just Turkey," says Salzmann. "It also influences that very large Muslim population in the western part of China, the Uighers, who are also Turkic-speaking. You have cultural ties that span all the way to China.

"You have a very powerful, well-disciplined army that [is] on the par of all the NATO armies. You have a growing industrial economy, very young, very dynamic, well-educated population by and large. You have control of the water in the region. It's an important place."

Turn off the tap

Turkey's ability to control water lies in its plans for a major dam project in the southeast, a heavily populated Kurdish region.

"The problem with that is that [it] has the potential to constrict the water supply for other countries in the area, particularly Iraq," says Bhalla.

Anti-government protesters try to protect themselves from a water cannon as riot police disperse them during a protest in Ankara on June 5, 2013. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

"That is definitely another lever where Turkey would be able to extend its influence, especially as water issues are going to become more important in the coming years."

While Turkey may wish to continue to extend its influence outside the country, observers suggest the unrest that's been playing out at home may put a damper on that.

"Now that you have a domestic popular challenge to the AKP that's growing, it's going to be much harder for Turkey to have the focus and the political will and the political coherence and the attention span to pursue some of those more ambitious policies beyond its borders," says Bhalla.


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.