How Safe is Turkey?
The work of a French farmer is nearly identical to the work of a Turkish farmer. However, the work of the Turkish government is vastly different.
By Sam Aslaner
After months of preparing to live in the Turkish countryside, I now found myself sitting atop a trailer filled with bales of hay hitched to an old tractor from the 1960s. We were slowly winding our way up a gravel road to my new home nestled deep in the mountainous Var River valley in southeastern France. After leaving the airport in Paris just three days before, I was miraculously able to find work on a small dairy and vegetable farm in the French Alps about 80 miles north of Nice. The first day I arrived, I was greeted warmly by my host farmer and other French farm workers and directly driven up to the high country meadows to move freshly cut hay from the fields into storage barns. This is a job that farmers do all over the world and was one of the jobs I planned to do in Turkey. During our work breaks I would sit on an old stone wall and gaze out towards the hay bales scattered across the rolling meadows listening to the buzzing of the flies and the rustling of the loose hay in the wind. While observing the farm workers who were leaning against the tractor over by the barn bantering idly in French, I realized that my current situation resembled rural Turkey in an almost uncanny way. I was doing the same job, working with honest hardworking farmers, feeling the same sun on the back of my neck, and cooling off with the same breeze in the evenings. The similarities between France and Turkey caused me to reflect on the seemingly comparable safety of the countries. However, further reflection has led me to believe that there is a lot more than the occurrence of terrorist attacks that defines the relative safety of a country. France and Turkey may seem similar, yet their political situations are vastly different. The real danger of terrorism is not being harmed in an attack but its affects on a larger social and geopolitical scale. Some countries and regions are more capable of preventing attacks and handling the chaos of the aftermath than others, and I feel that in Turkey there is a larger risk of potential political instability than there is in France.
Throughout history, Turks have seemingly always been at odds with every country on its border and every minority within its border. This has mainly been because of geographic location. Turkey is located in one of the world’s largest crossroads of cultures and influences, and as a result, control of the land has always been desirable. After Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul in 1451 he was known to have said that “İstanbul is a magical seal which unites Europe and Asia since the ancient times. Without a doubt, Istanbul is certainly the most beautiful place of the world.” Opposing interests are found on all sides of Turkey, and just as the Ottoman Empire struggled with a position in the region so do the modern Turks today. The modern Republic of Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on democratic and secular ideals, with an attempt to distance itself from the rest of the Muslim world. As a result of Ataturk’s reforms in the 1920s, Turkey has been at the forefront of westernization and modernization in the Middle East, and Islamic fundamentalism has never been a source of intense conflict in Turkey. However in 2003 when Recep Tayyip Erdogan (the current president of Turkey) was elected as Prime Minister the tone of Turkish politics was significantly altered. Erdogan, a representative of the AK Party, an Islamist party, is more religiously oriented than any other president or prime minister in Turkish political history. The rise of Turkish Islamism in the traditionally secular government has come at a very critical time in world history. In the past two decades the rise of fundamental Islam has had an increasingly detrimental effect on the West, and never before has Turkey’s cooperation with the West been more vital. As Erdogan continues to assert his authoritarian power, and embolden Turkish Islamic nationalism, the country is beginning to find its recurring historic position, between a rock and a hard place.
From the Turkish point of view the country’s potential conflicts arise from four main spheres of influence which are all interconnected: The Kurds, the Assad regime, Russia, the West, and most recently the Islamic State. First, in 2011 the Syrian civil war broke out, resulting in tension along the countries’ border and a huge influx of refugees into Turkey. There are 2,733,850 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, currently, and the economic and political distress has made Turkey a big enemy of the Assad regime. Next, in 2015 another peace process dissolved between the Turkish government and the PKK. With hostilities increasing with the Kurds, Turkish military operations in Syria can now be seen as an opportunity to not only dismantle Assad’s forces, but to wage war on Kurdish separatists as well. However, the Turks would need support from the West for more advanced operational capabilities in Iraq and Syria. This is support that the EU and America are not completely willing to give which causes an increasing rift to develop between Turkey and NATO. Turkey has also demonstrated its tenacity in the region with its willingness to shoot down a Russian fighter jet, leading to the deterioration of Russian relations. Russia is an ally of the Assad regime and views Turkey’s involvement in Syria as a threat to its relationship with Assad. Therefore any increased Turkish military involvement at all in Syria could result in extremely tense situations with Russia. Lastly, and most importantly, the rise of the Islamic State must be accounted for. The Islamic State creates more refugees, fights against various Kurdish populations (that include Turkish enemies and allies), and wages war within Turkish borders through terrorism. Perhaps, Turkey is not only between a rock and a hard place but between several rocks and multiple hard places.
I’ve had many discussions with friends and family from Turkey regarding the safety of the region after the Istanbul Airport attacks. Many Turks disagree with each other; some feel it’s wrong to encourage travel to Turkey and some feel that nothing in Turkey has changed. I have a friend from Ankara, who explained the situation very well. She told me, “The climate of our society has been altered. There is mistrust in the government unlike ever before, and as facts become distorted [by the government] so do our perceptions of safety.” Unlike in Western Europe and America, the absence of reliable governmental action and the increase of conservative Islamic views in the supposedly secular government is a major factor in the instability of the country. With so many conflicts on all sides, transparency within the ruling party is critical for not only the Turkish people but for the rest of the world. Turkey’s motives must be clear so that the country can work with others in combating opposition in Iraq and Syria. But unfortunately, Turkey’s motives for political action always seem to be obscured by Erdogan’s authoritarian rhetoric. Therefore, as terrorist attacks become more prevalent, Erdogan’s potential responses become more unpredictable. Because of the lack of trust in the government, the unpredictability of the ruling party in the face of danger, and the nearly insurmountable conflicts raging on and within the borders, travelling to Turkey leads to unnecessary danger. This is a danger that cannot be found while travelling in Europe or America. Even though these countries have migration issues of their own, they are much more reliable to travel in because of their geographic distance from conflict zones, their more transparent democratic processes and their more accountable governmental systems in response to terrorism.
Yet there is reason for optimism. The land of modern day Turkey is known as the cradle of civilization and there has been conflict there since the beginning. But, somehow the region always finds a way to continue progressing and moving forward. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said “All other cities are doomed, but I imagine that as long as people exist, Constantinople will exist.”
Samuel “Sam” Aslaner is a rising sophomore in Calhoun College and Modern Middle Eastern Studies major. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.